Yvette Deane writes about the Iraqi Jewish punk rock band challenging notions of beauty and Jewish power.
On the fifth night of Hannukah, Loolwa Khazzoom released her latest single, “I Love My Jew Fro.” Khazzoom and her punk rock band, Iraqis in Pajamas, opened the song with a Hebrew poem, Ya Hasel Yona Mehaka, traditionally sung by Iraqi-Jews on the holiday. She incorporates this Mizrahi holiday tune to emphasize the theme of rebellion and match it to her own personal revolt.
“This is my revolt against Jewish body shaming,” said Khazzoom.
Khazzoom’s song strikes a chord where many individuals today are grappling with, what does it mean to be proud of heritage, tradition, and ourselves. In fact, doing so in the tradition of punk rock could not be more fitting. A genre that has a legacy of challenging norms and creating new identities.
The combination of Iraqi Jewish songs and melodies along with English punk rock lyrics and dissonance epitomize Khazoom’s style. Wanting to carry on her Middle Eastern tradition and express herself, Khazzoom started the band five years ago while battling thyroid cancer after she chose not to undergo surgery. She believes with certainty that the nodules shrunk because she returned to her music. When I asked her about her doctors’ responses, she directed me to her endorsement page on her website. There, at least three medical professionals affirm that they believe her change in lifestyle promoted her recovery.
Her confidence is personified in the cacophony of sound that follows the ancient Hebrew lyrics – loud and proud coupled with honest and raw self-love for her stereotypical Jewish characteristics. Khazzoom, 52, has dark brown eyes, light skin, wild brown shoulder-length hair, and what she calls a “JewNose.”
As a child, Khazzoom internalized a lot of messages that she was not pretty because she did not have blond hair, blue eyes, or a ski slope nose. While she was aware that there was something wrong with the messages she was receiving, it took her time to find the language and accept her own beauty.
In the mid-’80s at a Californian public high school, Khazzoom, at the time around 16, enrolled in a debate class to challenge herself and fight her fear of public speaking. When an independent project was assigned, Khazzoom chose to challenge beauty standards. Her argument was that the bombardment of media images define how we conceive beauty. To support her argument, she collected beauty magazines she owned like Glamour and Seventeen and sought to see if there were women with dark eyes and dark hair – women like herself. Out of the magazines she collected, not one depicted a woman with dark hair and the one woman to be depicted with dark eyes was for a coloured contact lens advertisement, with the tag line, “now you too can be beautiful,” said Khazzoom.
Years later, Khazzoom still wondered, “am I allowed to feel beautiful?” Even as she began to understand that there were other definitions of beauty, the world was sending her another message. Khazzoom recalls a Jewish dating site that had an advertisement in the 90s of an Aryan looking woman that said “can you believe she’s Jewish?” Her own community was telling her that we too believe beauty is not for you.
The song is “boldly flaunting the very Jewish features that have been denigrated for centuries if not millennia,” Khazzoom said. While she qualifies that these traits are not uniquely Jewish, embracing the myth can help claim an identity with pride.
Pride is a theme that weaves through Khazzoom’s story as she explains the other impetus for the song. Fast-forwarding to January 20th 2021, Khazzoom is twiddling on her bass and the music flows out of her fingers like a flood. She’d just seen Joe Biden and Kamala Harris inaugurated and excited by Harris’s multi-ethnic background, Khazzoom wondered why no one cared about her husband, Doug Emhoff’s Jewish identity.
That same day, she released a song and video that went viral, for her standards. Generally, Khazzoom’s videos get ten to a hundred likes. But without a promotional campaign, the “Jew in the White House,” video garnered 1,000 views within a short time span. As of Dec 7th 2021, the video had 1,135 views. Khazzoom received two types of responses, people who did not want to publicize a Jew in power and people who dismissed Emhoff as Jewish because he was not Orthodox. Khazzoom believes that this conversation erupted because of people’s issues around seeing Jews in power.
“Why is it such an issue for Jews to have power? And why are we as Jews so terrified to show we have power?” Khazzoom asks. She continued to speak about this question by publishing articles in Jewish outlets. Her latest song is a response to this conversation, where she is stating that she is unapologetically proud of who she is, her body, and her Jewishness, and what could be more of a Hannukah story than that?