Karen Skinazi argues that, in the Jewish diaspora, we don’t talk enough or think enough about the Mizrahi experience—but, with writers like Ayelet Tsabari, that’s changing.
I don’t remember hearing the word ‘Mizrahi’ growing up. Almost all the Jewish people in my Jewish day school, and almost all the Jewish people in the stories we learned in that Jewish day school, were Ashkenazi. Food, customs and history were Ashkenazi. In my family, for instance, every Friday night, we started dinner with traditional chicken soup with kneidlach. For dessert, my grandmother made Mandelbrot. Old people I knew were mostly Holocaust survivors. Indeed, my living grandparents were Polish Holocaust survivors, and my mom was born in a DP camp in Germany. The ‘mother tongue’ for our community was Yiddish. My mom spoke it exclusively until she started school. I never spoke it fluently, but importantly, I know how to say most of the parts of my body—and a chicken’s body—in Yiddish. In the ‘Bathurst Bubble’, as I call the very large, but largely homogeneous, Jewish community in which I was raised, Jewish meant Ashkenazi.
But that was only half my story. Here is the other half: In our house, we ate rice and beans on Passover. Also, every so often, someone would visit Israel and return with an old coffee jar my aunt had filled with do’ah, a mysterious and delicious concoction of coriander, cumin, and nuts that would live in our freezer, to be doled out in small quantities, like a precious elixir, over a year or more. On the 30-hour drive down to Florida every winter break, my dad blared Arabic music and chain-smoked with the windows closed while my sister and I wished ourselves dead. When people asked what denomination of Judaism we were (Orthodox? Conservative?), I shrugged. According to my dad, you did what you were supposed to do, or you didn’t. My complexion was darker than that of most of my friends, and my last name was unusual. ‘Skinazi—like Ashkenazi? So, you’re Ashkenazi?’ ‘Well, ironically,’ I explained time and again, ‘It’s usually a sign someone isn’t Ashkenazi. It means we came from Ashkenaz, oh, 1000 years ago to North Africa, and thus were called Ashkenazi.’*
Of course, everyone knew there was that one other main option to Ashkenazi—Sephardi—but I felt like we were the unicorns of unicorns, because we weren’t even Sephardic, though I probably called myself Sephardic as a kid, even as I knew that those were really the Moroccans. A few of them went to our mostly-Ashkenazi school; they had their own small school, as well, and a couple of synagogues. The prettiest of the lot was built after I moved away to New York, and I got married there. My Cairo-born dad, on the other hand, was part of a congregation no one had ever heard of, not even the Moroccans. It comprised Egyptians, Iraqis, Libyans, Syrians. My dad was one of the founders and for many years, the treasurer. It wasn’t much, I suppose, but to my dad, it was a second home, a boys’ club, a place to be who he was—the Jewish he was.
Reading Ayelet Tsabari’s memoir The Art of Leaving (2019) was something of a revelation for me. Every time she described a cute guy as ‘Ashkenazi’ I smiled a little. It’s not the default, get it? The default is brown. White is the other. I know this might seem heavy handed. (I’m reminded of the time I gave my good friend an excerpt from my novel-in-progress to read and give me feedback on; when she got to the part where my Lebanese-born protagonist complains that the Eastern European story is THE STORY of Israel, my bff asked, ‘Can you try to be a bit more subtle??’). I still like it. The margin becomes the centre. It’s good.
If you watch Israeli television, you’ll know that there has been, of late, a serious engagement with anti-Sephardic and -Mizrahi racism. In the show Shababnikim, for instance, Shlomi, a matchmaker—or, as this is high-end, we’ll say a matchmaking consultant, tells the ‘Frenk’ [Ashkenazi derogatory slang for Sephardim] Meir that a Jewish mother can assess a scene or a person in an instant. ‘When you walk into a room, what does the Jewish mother say?’ Meir replies, ‘What an achla [superb] guy.’ Shlomi: ‘No. She says who called the electrician?’
Lehiot Eta, perhaps less spectacular than some of the other recent productions, but wildly popular in the diaspora, is all about Mizrahi stereotypes. Check out the episode where sad Vanessa Maimon, the Moroccan girl of big hair, big chest, big jewellery, big mouth whom the hero dumps for the rich, skinny, cold, classy Ashkenazi model, is sitting and listening to Ofra Haza. It’s over the top. In the second season, however, the show starts to question its perpetuation of stereotypes when the character of the ‘beauty’ is accused of racism. Still, the English name of the show, Beauty and the Baker, transparently playing on Beauty and the Beast, says it all. I find that title seriously ironic when blonde, blue-eyed model Rotem Sela is no less beautiful than magnificent Aviv Alush.
Speaking of Alush, last year’s Matir Agunot, or Unchained, has as a central mystery the female lead’s high-yichus Ashkenazi family’s decision to marry her to a Mizrahi guy. How could that be? What’s really wrong with her? What don’t we know? Obviously, there is some secret….
Alush also reveals the way Mizrahi acts as an open signifier, a vague gesture at otherness. He plays Yemenite in Beauty and Iraqi in Unchained. In The Women’s Balcony, he is a rabbi in the Bukharan community. Unchained pokes fun at such Mizrahi versatility when Alush’s character’s mother-in-law makes him Kurdish meatballs to impress him with a taste of home, and her daughter has to remind her that not all Mizrahim are the same. The actor himself is actually from a Tunisian and Yemenite family.
In the Jewish diaspora, we don’t talk enough or think enough about the Mizrahi experience, which is perhaps why Tsabari’s book, which tells of little-known histories, Yemeni women’s oral traditions, and ‘shadism’ (think ‘colourism’), stands out. I didn’t grow up watching Eurovision, and yet the chapter on the iconic Mizrahi singer, Ofra Haza, is my favourite in the book. One of Haza’s most famous songs was Shir Ha’Freha, or, ‘The Freha Song.’ Freha is an insult—a ditz, a slut, trash. But more than that. A freha, as Tsabari relates, ‘wore dramatic makeup and elaborate accessories…wasn’t very smart…liked to party…was promiscuous…and knew, deep inside, that she would never escape the poor neighborhood she came from’. It’s Vanessa Maimon of Beauty. The term freha, with its Arabic etymology, is an insult often reserved for Mizrahi women.
Was Ofra Haza, the ‘anti-freha,’ as Tsabari calls her (she was conservative, angelic, and the news that she died of AIDS was a shock to the nation), being subversive singing Ani Freha? Tsabari writes that she wanted to believe Haza was reclaiming the term, owning it, but ‘the song was never truly hers. “The Freha Song” was written by Assi Dayan, son of the legendary Israeli defense minister Moshe Dayan and a tortured artist with a penchant for drugs and women—a privileged Ashkenazi man who knew nothing of the freha experience’. Still, Haza went on to inspire and empower future Mizrahi artists like Tsabari…as Tsabari is sure to inspire and empower, as well.
* Years ago, I featured in an article, but to protect my identity, instead of calling me ‘Karen Skinazi,’ the young journalist called me ‘Karen Sephardi.’ Get it?