Bringing Identities into Focus: Race, Gender & Religion [Mizrahi and Sephardic Jews]

Article excerpt

First, a brief history lesson: Approximately 3,000 years ago, the Babylonian Empire conquered ancient Israel, occupied the land and exiled the Israelites as captives into Babylon, the land of current-day Iraq. Most Israelites stayed in Babylon, but a significant number later returned to re-establish Israel. A little over 500 years later, the Roman Empire conquered Israel for the second time, and exiled the Israelites as captives into Rome. From that time on, Israelites dispersed throughout the world, and remained united by their common religion: Judaism.

Mizrahi Jews are indigenous to the Middle East and North Africa. They never left the region; they either remained on the land of Babylon until the middle of the 20th century, or they migrated to neighbouring lands, including those now governed by Iran, Syria, Yemen, Egypt, Libya, Algeria, Tunisia, and Morocco, and lived there for thousands of years.

Sephardi Jews are those who ended up settling in Spain and Portugal, until the Spanish Inquisition of 1492 and the Portuguese Inquisition shortly thereafter. During these times, the Christian governments either burned Jews alive, forcibly converted them to Christianity, or expelled them. Those who fled settled predominantly throughout the Mediterranean regions of the Ottoman (Turkish) Empire, as well as Mexico and South America -- countries include Italy, Greece, Turkey, Morocco, Egypt, Mexico, Brazil, Colombia, and Argentina. Smaller groups of Sephardi Jews settled in countries that border the Middle East and Eastern Europe, such as Uzbekistan and Khazakhstan.

Ashkenazi Jews are those who settled throughout Eastern Europe, as well as in Austria and Germany -- countries include Russia, Poland, Hungary, Ukraine, and Lithuania.

Ethiopian Jews are descendants of the union between Queen Sheba of Ethiopia and King Solomon of Israel. The community is several thousand years old, dating back to this Biblical time.

Indian and Chinese Jews are descendants of Jews who engaged in trade between the Middle East and East Asia several thousand years ago.

There has been a continuous Jewish presence in the land of Israel. This community did not have the strength to re-establish the nation-state of Israel following the routine explosions; for centuries they simply lived as religious individuals on the land of their ancestors. In the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, Jews migrated from all over the world-either forcibly or voluntarily -- to reestablish the modern state of Israel. Others settled in the United States, Canada, Britain or France.

Over the years, Jewish leaders in the West, as well as non-Jewish leaders from countries with Mizrahi, Sephardi, or Ethiopian Jewish communities, have ignored the history and faces of Jews from the Middle East, Africa, South America, Southern Europe and East Asia. As a result, most Jews grow up knowing little or nothing about non-Ashkenazi Jews.

Underneath these layers of invisibility are the voices of the women from these communities, muffled by yet another form of silencing: sexism.

As a Jewish feminist woman of colour from a mixed-class background, I grew up under all these layers and then some. Born into an Orthodox Jewish family, with an Iraqi father and an American mother, I have observed and learned much about the intersections of race, ethnicity, class, gender, age and religion.

By the time I was a pre-teen, I could sing the Shebbath and weekday evening prayers in the traditional Iraqi tunes. It was rare for a child my age to know these prayers. It was even more unusual that I could sing with the distinct Iraqi pronunciation of ever), word -- something that is difficult even for Iraqi adults to maintain. I knew dozens of Iraqi Shebbath and holy day songs by heart, and I could sing a good portion of the Haggadah (Passover story) in the Iraqi melodies -- both in Hebrew and Judeo-Arabic, the traditional language of many Middle Eastern and North African Jews. …