The Mizrahi Feminist Who Stopped Asking for Permission From Ashkenazi Jews

Loolwa Khazzoom has devoted her life to telling the story of Jews with roots in the wider Middle East and Africa. The seminal 2003 anthology of essays she edited, ‘The Flying Camel,’ is back in a revised edition

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The cover of the revised edition of "The Flying Camel."
The cover of the revised edition of "The Flying Camel."
Linda Dayan
Linda Dayan

In the early 1990s, long before identity politics permeated the non-academic mainstream, before intersectionality raced to the forefront of every cause and the Middle East became trendy, Loolwa Khazzoom was trying to get people to notice that she – and others like her – existed.

The daughter of an Iraqi-Jewish father and a Jew-by-choice mother from Illinois who fully embraced her husband’s culture, Khazzoom’s heritage remains “part of the fabric of who I am,” she told Haaretz by phone from her home in Seattle. But growing up in Montreal and California, the basic elements of her identity kept her from finding a true home outside the home.

“I felt like a pinball in a pinball machine,“ Khazzoom says. She was taunted by classmates and staff alike at her Jewish day school in California for her Middle Eastern background and liturgical traditions. At her Orthodox Sephardi synagogue, she was silenced and shunted aside as a woman; her passion for the religion and its traditions and her willingness to sing aloud were met with apathy and annoyance. And in public school, she was the target of antisemitic abuse.

A pivotal moment occurred in 1990, during her senior year at Barnard College, when the school’s Jewish organization held a “kvetching session” on problems in the institution’s Jewish life. Khazzoom didn’t hold back.

Everything from the name of the “kvetching” event to the college’s Shabbat and holiday services “was super Ashkenazi,” she recalls. She suggested doing at least one Shabbat prayer in the tradition of Jews from the Middle East and North Africa – and was silenced once again.

Loolwa Khazzoom. “If you raise your voice and ask a question, then you make yourself visible.”

“I was verbally attacked,” she says. “I left that meeting saying that I would never, ever again ask permission from Ashkenazi Jews to pretty please include us.”

Knowing she couldn’t be the only one who felt that way – proud of her rich traditions and religion, outspokenly feminist, unapologetically Mizrahi – she launched a career as a multicultural Jewish educator. One result was an anthology of writing by women like her for women like her – no permission-seeking required. In 2003, after a decade of rejection by publishers, this English-language niche content edited by her was finally released: “The Flying Camel: Essays on Identity by Women of North African and Middle Eastern Jewish Heritage.”

Two decades later, Khazzoom, now 52, was awash in new material she had written and decided to give the anthology new life. It was republished this month with an updated introduction, a study guide and an appendix of her own poems that synchronize with the themes of the collection’s stories.

The majority of Jews outside of Israel are Ashkenazi; most of their ancestors reached Central and Eastern Europe hundreds of years after the fall of the Second Temple in 70 C.E. This is the Judaism shown on TV: tables laden with gefilte fish and matzo ball soup, bubbes and zaydes shouting Yiddish proverbs at their grandchildren, klezmer music and “Fiddler on the Roof.” Of course, this isn’t a universal Ashkenazi experience, but in the global imagination – including the Jewish imagination – this isn’t just the stereotype, it’s the archetype.

To grow up a Jew of Middle Eastern or North African descent, most often described as Mizrahim in Israel or Sephardim (descended from Jews from pre-Inquisition Spain and Portugal) in the Diaspora means living a Jewish life that doesn’t fit the mold. To grow up in the Ashkenazi-dominated societies of the Diaspora and Israel means to find yourself denigrated for your difference, while to grow up in the Middle East or North Africa means to face hostility for being Jewish. To grow up a woman in these societies means to shoulder all the burdens of women in the West while meeting the expectations of a relentlessly patriarchal way of life.

At first, Khazzoom says, she struggled to find contributors to her anthology. She approached New York University’s Ella Shohat, an Israeli scholar whose work is a staple in Israel and Mizrahi-studies curricula. She contacted Rachel Wahba after the California-based therapist had written a scathing letter to the editor about how the Jewish newspaper in question had never published a non-Ashkenazi writer.

“If you raise your voice and ask a question, then you make yourself visible,” Khazzoom says. “You start to serve as a magnet.” The project gained pace as women from all over the world who had heard about the anthology project clamored to tell their stories. “There came a point where I had to turn women away,” she says.

Iranian Jewish students at a Jewish school in Tehran a decade ago, some of the country's 20,000-strong Jewish community.

Contrasting perspectives

The women featured in the anthology have vastly different experiences, upbringings and backgrounds – they were born in California, Israel, India, Tunisia, Iran. They were raised in American homes, the expat community of Japan, provincial France, Petah Tikva. Some learned about a faraway hearth through the warm, romantic memories of parents and grandparents; others fled what had been their families’ homes for millennia amid violence and hate.

Some feel like perpetual outsiders, the only ones they know with a family like theirs. Others are coping with communities that have preserved their choke hold on the lives of women and girls. This includes a broad range of political leanings, from fierce Zionists to the co-founder of Jewish Voice for Peace.

Bahareh Mobasseri Rinsler’s “Vashti,” for instance, explores the Madonna-whore dichotomy enacted on Persian Jewish women – through the lens of the women of the Book of Esther. Rachel Wahba’s “Benign Ignorance or Persistent Resistance?” addresses the politics of belonging – in Japan, the United States, Egypt, Iraq, her own family – as well as the difficulty of being pigeonholed in the modern racial paradigm.

The Israeli writers often offer a contrasting perspective. Shohat’s condemnation of the pain wrought on Mizrahi Jews by the Zionist establishment is stark. But her passive-voice description of the “dispossession” of the Middle East and North African Jewish population (described by her as “refugees or mass immigrants, depending on one’s political perspective”) is a harsh contrast to the harrowing account pages earlier. There we read about Gina Bublil Waldman’s narrow escape from Libya, barely dodging a planned attempt to burn her family to death.

A 1974 demonstration by the Black Panthers movement in Israel, protesting the state's treatment of the country's Mizrahi community.

Henriette Dahan Kalev’s tales of trying to shed her Moroccan skin and silencing her own mother in order to keep appearances is a foil to Farideh Dayanim Goldin’s “Feathers and Hair,” in which the Iranian writer tells about mothers enacting the painful, humiliating customs they themselves inflicted on their own daughters for the sake of keeping their tradition fully intact.

I had the privilege of growing up in a Middle Eastern Jewish community: the Syrian Sephardi community of New Jersey. This meant that I was taught my own culture’s prayer melodies at school, that my family had its choice of synagogues that follow our own liturgy, that I grew up surrounded by children whose first names were like mine – awkwardly old-fashioned or slightly French – with a Hebrew or Arabic last name.

While I had a wealth of pride for where I came from, it was accompanied by welling anger for how it boxed me in. On Passover, as the family’s oldest unmarried girl, I had to stand in the kitchen with the seder plate while my cousins sang the Four Questions. When my grandmother died, I wasn’t allowed to speak at her funeral or arayat, the ceremony marking the end of the shivah period. My father stood up and read the eulogy I wrote on my behalf.

But in my senior year of high school, a real estate mogul from my community named Solomon Dwek pleaded guilty to bank fraud and misconduct by a corporate official. He had defrauded investors and banks out of millions of dollars, and had become an FBI informant, implicating dozens of people including respected rabbis.

This opened the floodgates, and the Ashkenazim and gentiles around me took it as an excuse to say out loud what they had perhaps always thought. Journalists descended on our sleepy seaside towns, labeling us “medieval minds in Armani designs” – as The Forward once described this outlook – depicting us as tribal and backward. People who find out where I’m from tell me with a smile that I don’t “act Syrian,” a dark compliment, and then express wonder at how educated, worldly and “articulate” I am.

Poems with power

Thus for me the women’s accounts in “The Flying Camel” are achingly poignant and eye-openingly familiar. They give voice to a lifetime’s worth of pent-up thoughts. For a reader who has never delved into these worlds, the accounts are a far more trustworthy than the decades of patronizing and racist scholarship conducted on us from the outside. The anthology also includes a list of books, many written by the contributors, that further explore these experiences and histories without prejudices.

Khazzoom’s 2022 introduction gives context for the republishing of the book and touches on fascinating and crucial themes. It leaps from music to health, from the silencing of women to the suffocation of community, from liberation to domestic violence, from the stagnation of Jewish tradition to an interview with the groundbreaking Yemenite-Jewish music group A-WA. It doesn’t always do so deftly, though, and many of the issues addressed warrant deeper explanation, if not entire essays of their own.

The poems in the appendix read more as song lyrics – Khazzoom is a punk rock musician – but add a layer of accusation, politics and no-holds-barred anger. The essays are mostly (but not entirely) gentle first-person narratives, as if told by a friend or grandmother. But where most of these pieces tuck away the reproach of society between the lines or speak it in calm tones, Khazzoom’s poems scream.

Much has happened since the publication of the first edition, particularly in Israel: A Mizrahi revolution of sorts has occurred, both politically and culturally in the past two decades. Israeli pop culture has embraced Middle Eastern melodies, food and aesthetics; celebrities like Static and Ben El, Sarit Hadad, Omer Adam and Noa Kirel are building on the foundations that Zohar Argov, Ofra Haza, Rita and so many others laid down.

The legendary Mizrahi singer Ofra Haza attending a birthday celebration for fellow musician Kobi Oshrat in the 1980s.

The Mizrahim have begun to celebrate their roots – plus we’ve seen a Mizrahi finance minister for the first time since early in the century, a few Mizrahi defense ministers and army chiefs, and two successive Mizrahi leaders of the historically Ashkenazi Labor Party.

Despite persisting gaps between Mizrahim and Ashkenazim in education, jobs, the allocation of resources and much more, the rise to near equals has been so meteoric that some commentators, including Eitan Leshem in Haaretz, view it as a threat to Ashkenazim, as if a few potshots to the still-extant Ashkenazi hegemony has turned their criticism into an epithet.

The anthology could benefit from updates reflecting these shifts. It’s also sorely missing the younger generation’s voice, like the young Moroccan-Polish-Iraqi-Russian Jew trying to find a culture of one’s own as a second- or third-generation mixed Israeli. Or the Yemenite in the country’s outskirts watching the Mizrahi ascent while their family remains neglected by the state. Or the startup mogul whose parents broke barriers in academia and whose grandparents grew up in tent camps.

But having grown up in a Mizrahi community in the Diaspora, I can say that the book’s 30-year-old accounts of growing up in the West are still, from an American perspective, grievously relevant. I, too, was brushed off by my college’s rabbi when I tried to introduce a single Sephardi tune to entirely-Ashkenazi prayer services in the early 2010s, about two decades since Khazzoom tried and failed to do the same.

There has been some progress; there were mentions of Mizrahi and Sephardi Jews at my summer camp and at the Reform synagogue where I taught Sunday school as a college student. But they were always brought up as “extracurriculars,” to borrow Khazzoom’s word – part of lessons on the diversity of Israel rather than an intrinsic part of the global Jewish experience.

The Israeli band A-WA, whose music is a fusion of Yemenite traditional sounds, hip-hop and electronic music.

“The Flying Camel” was compiled to tell Mizrahi women that they’re not experiencing the intricacies of their lives alone. They aren’t the first to want to unshackle themselves from sexist traditions while loving their histories with their whole hearts. They aren’t alone in wanting to embrace their Arab cultural roots while calling out the countries and societies that forced them into exile in the first place.

They’re not the only ones who are told that their skin is too dark for them to be truly Jewish, or too light for them to be truly Middle Eastern. The book tells them that it’s okay to confront Western racism, the Ashkenazi hegemony, Arab antisemitism and our own families’ sexism and say that we’re “allowed” and no longer have to ask for permission or a seat at the table.

In the 2003 introduction, Khazzoom wrote: “I want to stop hearing my community being referred to as barbaric, primitive, uneducated, dirty, and violent or as different, unusual, mysterious, fascinating, and exotic.” In the margin, I wrote: “This is everything I have wanted to shout since I was 16.”

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