Confessions of a Sephardi Boy With an Ashkenazi Wannabe Mother

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So I’m a Mizrahi, it seems, and there’s not much to be done about it. The Bulgarian parentage, the name Igal Mashiah, the deep dark complexion. The name Igal was a source of fierce controversy between my mother and father, so my Aunt Haya later told me.

My father wanted to name me Yaakov, for his father, who was still alive at the time, a nearly obligatory gesture of honor among Sephardi Jews.

My mother preferred Igal, to emulate the names of some of the great Ashkenazi figures of the time − Yigal Yadin, Yigael Allon, and later, Minister Yigal Horowitz − imagining it would give a boost to my class standing.

My father officially won this debate, but my mother was the real winner. My birth certificate and identity card say my name is Yaakov, but no one ever knew this.
Everybody − at school, in the neighborhood, in our extended family − followed her lead and called me Igal, a gloriously Ashkenazi name according to my mother’s way of thinking. When I received my B.A. from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, an existential problem arose.

“Now what will happen?” my mother asked. “Your diploma will say Yigal and your identity card will say Yaakov. What will happen if you want to continue studying, or to apply for some important position? It’s confusing.”

“The ID numbers are the same,” I argued, trying to avoid a battle.

“But what do you need all this confusion for? People will say you never finished university.”

And so, at the age of 23, I went to the Interior Ministry branch in Haifa to officially make the change from being Yaakov the Sephardi to Igal the Ashkenazi. So as not to offend the tremendous Mizrahi honor of my paternal grandfather, a compromise was reached. Three names were written on the ID card: Igal Yaakov Mashiah. My mother insisted that the Igal come first. I paid an embarrassing price for this compromise, too. Time after time, whenever I got to passport control on my way to a trip abroad, the police officer behind the counter would give me a silent once-over, get up from his booth and ask me to come with him. After another 10 minutes of checking, and holding up the line, the officer would be reassured that the Igal Yaakov Mashiah seeking to go abroad was not, in fact, the fugitive criminal Yaakov Mashiah whose name appeared on the wanted list.

Thus I went through my youth, pulled between my father Nissim, the very definition of a proud Sephardi, and my Ashkenazi-wannabe mother, a trim and fair-skinned redhead with an inexplicable ethnic inferiority complex.

“The Bulgarians aren’t even Sephardim, you know,” she would declare from time to time.

“The only Bulgarian Ashkenazi woman is you − who won’t even come to the beach with us, because you’re worried you’ll get too suntanned,” my father once retorted.

And if I became too dark, thanks to the August sun, she would say, “Enough with the suntan. Who do you think you are − Lobengulu, King of the Zulus?”

My “Ashkenazi” mother and proud Sephardi father also had bitter arguments over the surname Mashiah. My mother suggested changing it to Meshi, and sometimes, even in my presence, she would introduce herself as Dvora Meshi. I hated that.

My father was a known Don Juan, a veritable Clark Gable of Haifa, racking up conquests of portly blondes willy-nilly, sometimes even with their husbands’ knowledge, to the advantage of all parties. In the evening he would sit on the balcony, bare-chested, slicing watermelon and feta cheese into small pieces, sipping bad Israeli cognac and listening to Aris San. She, his “Ashkenazi” wife, would come out onto the balcony after two minutes of the shrill singing, and ask him to put on a shirt and turn the music down. To which he would reply: “This is not the Philharmonic here. This is how you listen to Aris San.”

My mother had season tickets to the Philharmonic, to the Haifa Symphony Orchestra and to the local theater. On nights when there was a performance, he would play sick and she would invite one of her girlfriends to go in his place.

Tickets cost a fortune during that impoverished era, and her friends made sure to maintain good relations with her.

“How many friends would you have if you didn’t give them tickets?” my father once asked her meanly.

My father’s nickname in Bulgarian was Nori, but my mother called him Noni, which she thought had a less Mizrahi ring to it. She named my sister Eliora, evidently after the heroine of some novella about the suffering of little women at the hands of sex-addicted tyrannical men. Eliora became Orit, just as I became Igal instead of Yaakov.

On rare occasions, my parents cooperated with one another. Despite the tough economic times, they decided to enroll me in Chugim, an expensive private school in Haifa, so I would be with a “good crowd.” Before the first day of school, my mother sat me down for a serious conversation, and told me: “You need to know that we are sending you to a school of Ashkenazim. We are Sephardim, it won’t be easy for you. If anyone calls you a ‘Frank’ [a derogatory term] − tell the principal right away. As far as I’m concerned, you could also give the person a punch in the mouth.”

Whence my mother derived this violent image of her eldest child, I have no idea. I was a cowardly kid who ran away from neighborhood fist-fights. She, meanwhile, had many tales of glory to tell about her days in the pre-state Haganah, as if that well-behaved underground movement was like some Sicilian crime family.

In my first-grade class at Chugim, there was one other Sephardi pupil, who dropped out during that first year, as if to justify the stereotype. I never invited him over to our house, just as I never invited my other friends, the children of the elites of that time: municipal employees working for Mayor Aba Khoushy, people from the Histadrut and “the Party,” from Solel Boneh and the banks.

Decades later, I ran into Moshe, the classmate who dropped out midyear. A solidly built fellow with a large holstered pistol, he was giving me an unsettling stare. At last, he said: “Hey, you’re Igal Mashiah, right? We were in first grade together at Chugim. I’m Moshe − remember?”

“Sure I remember. They sat us next to each other. This is my wife Zehava, and my son Daniel. Are you here with your kids?”

“No, I’m the security guard here at Hamat Gader.”

At Chugim, nobody ever once called me a “Frank,” as my mother had feared.

How afraid I was of that word. Our class was small, compared to the 40 kids or so in the regular public school classes. It was a wonderful childhood. After elementary school, almost all of us went on to the Chugim high school, located on Mount Carmel, as befitting the school’s status. At the time, there were four high schools in Haifa, all private.

Nostalgia is often deceptive, but I also have warm memories of high school.

Nobody called me “Frank” there either. But my mother’s earnest warning to me before she sent me off to first grade among the Ashkenazim was stuck deep inside, and I never ever shook the fear that one day, my friendships would be abruptly upended by some terrible and baseless insult.

“Frank,” intended as in insult, was actually what my mother’s good friends called me. By then, we were living in the central Carmel, the stronghold of the affluent bourgeoisie. Across the street was a couple whom my parents joined for games of canasta and rummy on Friday evenings. Their alluring daughter was strictly forbidden from going out with me.

“That Frank’s no good for you,” the daughter laughingly said once, quoting her father’s stern warning. She and I would meet behind her parents’ back, in the shadows of the Carmel pines, a pair of red-hot lovers. We were 17 that one Friday evening when, after our encounter beneath the trees, we decided to take the deception up a notch − by showing up separately at the old folks’ weekly canasta game, arriving 15 minutes or so apart.

Standing there on the balcony, we acted like strangers. But after just a few minutes of fake aloofness, somebody began to notice a disgusting smell, and soon everyone else did, too. Glancing at the elegant coat of my partner in crime, my heart suddenly sank. The coat was a little smeared with dog poo − and to my horror, I saw that the same was true of my pants as well. The Frank from the balcony across the street had lived up to all his inherent danger.

After my parents left the game, a bit sooner than usual, my partner-in-sin was given several slaps by her father, a hot-tempered Hungarian who owned a fashionable optical shop on Herzl Street one floor below my father’s electrical appliances shop. Her father’s interrogations about the relationship with the Frank from across the street stubbornly persisted, and so, for caution’s sake, we moved our assignations to the shelter of a more distant pine tree.

“So I’m a Frank one has to watch out for,” I gleefully quoted to my mother, enjoying her offended reaction.

“Instead of shooting off his mouth, that Hungarian ought to learn to keep an eye on his daughter,” she retorted with a kind of maternal pride. It wasn’t long before she recovered from her embarrassment and from the neighbors’ gossip and resumed her obsession.

The Franks became an environmental hazard. They perched on the railings in front of the Armon Cinema in Haifa and on the railings in Zion Square in Jerusalem, they bought smuggled brilliantine from the sailors on Ha’atzmaut Street in Haifa, they listened to Farid al-Atrash and to Elvis Presley, and they threatened the Hebrew language with a guttural het and ayin. My sister got hers back, big-time: Without consulting our mother, she chose a Sephardi mate, scion of a family that had been living in this country for at least five generations. After my sister’s wedding, my mother pulled me aside for a heart-to-heart talk, and asked if was really necessary for her new son-in-law to pronounce the het and ayin so emphatically.

My choice of mate, on the other hand, brought her unbridled pleasure: I married Ruthie, niece of the current president, Shimon Peres. One Passover, we were invited to the seder at the Prime Minister’s residence. I took pictures and gave out copies to the family afterward. From that moment on, my mother carried those photos in her purse wherever she went and never missed the slightest opportunity to show them off to people. To her deep and utter dismay, Ruthie and I eventually split up, and then I made things even worse by marrying Zehava, the daughter of Yemenites who came to Israel as part of Operation Magic Carpet.

My mother was beside herself with sorrow over the precipitous fall from Peres to Gamliel. This was the worst possible thing that could happen to her. I took pity on her: “Mom, you can keep showing the seder pictures. It’s okay,” I told her, and her expression brightened a little.

The Israel Defense Forces was apparently out to get her, too. I was drafted into the Golani infantry brigade. “I don’t understand it,” she wrote in her first letter to me. “You’re a high-school graduate. Why Golani?”

Being her son, after all, I wrote back: “They decided to raise the level of Golani in the August draft this year, and took only high-school graduates and kibbutzniks.”
After three months without home leave, she and my father decided to pay a surprise visit to the base, perhaps to make sure that her eldest really wasn’t stranded there like a rose among thorns. One evening, as we neared the end of another pointless and exhausting trek from Rosh Pina up to the base at the top of the hill, I noticed them sitting there on a blanket spread out next to the car, amid pots full of food − a typical occurrence nowadays, but a completely surreal sight at the time.

“Commander, these are my parents!” I shouted. The commander, a Yemenite straight out of Jewish Agency central casting, who loved to bark at us in biblical Hebrew, ordered the company to a halt. “Mashiah, leave the line. You have an hour to visit with your parents, and don’t forget to bring some of what’s in the pots back to the company, too.”

“What a nice bunch,” said my mother. “They all look like kibbutzniks.”

“And what do kibbutzniks look like?” asked my father. “They’re all in the same uniform.”

“You know what I mean,” said my mother.

After I got jaundice, along with most of the other guys in the company, I was transferred, thanks to some pulling of strings, to naval intelligence at Stella Maris opposite the monastery in Haifa. In the mornings, my father would drive me from home to the base, together with some girls from the neighborhood, for my back-breaking military service. Some of these girls, of course, were the daughters of my mother’s friends. In the weekly card games on the balcony, the mothers would talk about pairing up the male intelligence soldiers from the Carmel with the female intelligence soldiers from the Carmel. When they took a break from all this match-making, they sipped tea from the porcelain tea service they got as a wedding gift. The profits from the game went into a collection box for the Anti-Tuberculosis League, which remained in place on the sideboard in our home for another 40 years after tuberculosis was wiped out in the country.

It was actually my friends from university, of whom my mother was very fond, and for whom, without exception, she predicted dazzling careers, who hurt her. Back in those days, a B.A. degree had real value, and the university graduates and their parents gathered on the stage at Jerusalem’s Binyanei Ha’uma for a group picture. But by the time my mother finished fixing her lipstick and came up on stage, the photographer had already taken several pictures without her. My mother was not included in the group photo with her son the university graduate, who stood alongside his university graduate friends and their parents − and this disaster has haunted me ever since. “All the parents are in the picture with their children and their diplomas, except me,” she complained later. “And there you are standing on stage, with no mother or father − like an orphan.”

When my mother became ill with Alzheimer’s, it was my sister who bore most of the burden of caring for her. My sister, who had always so despised our mother’s pursuit of status and its symbols, and the racism that went hand in hand with that, accompanied her with profound compassion in her final moments. I observed them, in the steadily dwindling moments of lucidity, making peace with each other. Once, during one such time, my mother suddenly scolded me: “Why didn’t you wait for me on the stage at Binyanei Ha’uma?”

No one understood. It was horribly painful to watch her deteriorating from one visit to the next, and I asked myself what this terrible combination of a baseless inferiority complex and racism had done to us. I decided that we all seemed to have survived. I married a Yemenite woman.

My closest friend is Yaakov Malka ‏(spelled with an aleph and not a heh at the end‏), a member of the fifth-generation of a big and proud Sephardi family from Tiberias. We met at university at some all-night poker game and have been best friends ever since. I know it sounds like the American cliche − “Some of my best friends are Jews.” I’ve never ever heard Yaakov whine about oppression or discrimination or a lack of fair opportunity. When we were students, he got a job at the Transportation Ministry to help pay his way. He subsequently worked his way up to a top position and then became the ministry’s representative in Ecuador, serving as an advisor to the government there on public transportation issues.

When he left the ministry, he founded his own thriving consulting firm. There’s no place for Malka in Amnon Levy’s controversial television series on Israel’s ethnic divide. He just worked very hard. Being a Mizrahi did not stop him, nor is he the exception that proves the rule. I could cite dozens more such examples that could change the misleading picture resulting from partial descriptions and the deliberate confusion between statistics and reality.

And here’s another bizarre anecdote, dedicated to Amnon Levy, who, like the Moliere hero that discovered after many years that he’d been speaking prose his entire life, suddenly discovered his Mizrahi-ness. We were sitting at Tel Aviv’s Gordon pool one Saturday and talking about the TV show. We were also talking, I swear, about the connection between social failures and a lack of higher education. And then this young man who was sitting near us and overheard, interjected: “Mizrahim don’t need to study. They’ll do fine without studying. They’re Mizrahim. Believe me.”

“And what do you do, if I may ask?” I dared to inquire.

“I’m a roofer,” the man replied.

“That’s quite hard work,” I commented. “Especially in the 40-degree heat in August on an open roof.”

“It’s not so bad,” he said.

“And is this what you plan to do your whole life? What will you do 20 years from now? Haven’t you ever thought about going to school so you could switch to an easier profession, maybe one in an air-conditioned office?”

“Mizrahim don’t need to study, everything will just work out for them,” he answered.

“Because they’re Mizrahim?”

“Yes,” insisted the 20-something fellow.

Anyone who − quite understandably − suspects that I fabricated this whole encounter and conversation for the sake of this article, can just go ask the others who were present − my friends Batya, Meira, Gabi and Yisrael, successful Ashkenazim one and all. But don’t go asking my wife Zehava. She’s a Mizrahi, you know, and she might suddenly come out with some sort of display of ethnic pride and solidarity.

Mashiah’s parents together.

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