August 19, 2019

Loud and Proud Mizrachi Voices

"The Flying Camel: Essays on Identity by Women of North African and Middle Eastern Jewish Heritage," edited by Loolwa Khazzoom (Seal Press, $16.95)

On the last night before her family would flee Libya in 1967, Gina Bublil Waldman recalls that she had to choose between taking her only warm sweater or a photo album with the words "Souvenir of Libya" on the cover. Its hand-painted image of a peaceful seascape was in absolute contrast to the political turbulence and danger her family faced. She packed the photos, remnants of a life she wouldn’t know again.

Her essay is included in a compelling collection, "The Flying Camel: Essays on Identity by Women of North African and Middle Eastern Jewish Heritage," edited by Loolwa Khazzoom.

"The Flying Camel" is both a travelogue of exile and longing — revisiting memories, often borrowed, of the Old Country, whether in North Africa or the Middle East — and a book that charts a new course. Among the essays are bold tales of escape, traditional life, "passing" as Ashkenazi, fighting invisibility and defining home. Asserting their identities with newfound confidence, the contributors are writing their stories into the larger story of Jewish history.

The essayists are of Tunisian, Libyan, Moroccan, Iraqi, Iranian, Indian and Yemenite descent; some are refugees from Arab lands, others are the children and grandchildren of exiles. They are of various ages, religious backgrounds, lifestyles, professions; they speak many languages. They share a strong desire to be heard.

As Jews, they were often second-class citizens in the Arab lands they came from. As Mizrachim, the Hebrew word for "Eastern," they felt similarly considered second-class among Ashkenazi Jews. And as women they felt further marginalized.

In her introduction, Khazzoom describes trying on the silk abayah, a full-body veil, that her grandmother wore on the streets of Baghdad. She imagines she would have wanted to tear it off and feel the sun if she had been forced to cover herself in such a garment.

Khazzoom, in New York City on a book tour recently, shows up for an interview wearing jeans and a T-shirt, clearly free of veils, both real and metaphorical. She is outspoken as she describes the book and her family’s history.

About her Judeo-Arabic name, which sounds so unusual to an American ear, she says it’s quite common.

"I’m the Debbie Goldstein of Iraq," Khazzoom says.

Her mother is a Jew by choice. In 1950, her father fled Iraq, where the family had been for more than 2,000 years, going first to Israel and then to America. Her parents met at a Hillel dance when her mother was well-along in the conversion process. The author says it was her mother, who hails from rural Illinois and can trace one side of her family back to the ship that arrived after the Mayflower, who encouraged the emphasis on the Iraqi part of their heritage.

Her father, who had a distressing time in Israel as a Mizrachi immigrant, had grown used to trying to pass as an Ashkenazi, and the Iraqi pieces had to be coaxed out of him. Even though all of their relatives were in Israel, the Khazzoom home became very strongly Iraqi.

"I really embraced it," Khazzoom, 34, explains. "The religion, the history, the culture." She adds, "It’s very much a living part of who I am."

She grew up in Washington, then moved to Montreal. Her father, who now teaches Middle Eastern and North African studies at UCLA, had a sabbatical year in California, so the family moved there. He was very much at home amid the palm trees that reminded him of Baghdad.

From the time Khazzoom was 3, the family made frequent trips to Israel, which had a large influence on her life. They were Orthodox, and for holidays and frequently on Shabbat, they would attend a traditional Iraqi synagogue in Los Angeles.

Khazzoom is a woman of personality and spirit, and it’s easy to picture her as a determined 14-year-old when she tells the story of mobilizing the women behind the mechitza on one Simchat Torah. Their beloved Iraqi rabbi had retired, and a young spiritual leader of Moroccan descent and Ashkenazi style replaced him. From the women’s section she was incensed that the new rabbi was singing Ashkenazi tunes for the dancing with the Torah rather than the traditional Iraqi songs.

Khazzoom had been leaning toward the men’s section, singing the Iraqi songs at the top of her lungs to no avail, when she turned to the women behind her and mobilized them to sing loudly and drown out the rabbi. Many of the men eventually joined them. She walked over to the bimah and didn’t hold back in telling the rabbi what she really thought, and "all hell broke loose." She describes this as her first political act.

The book’s title is drawn from one of the essays, "How the Camel Found Its Wings" by Lital Levy, a doctoral candidate in comparative literature at UC Berkeley whose father was born in Iraq. She writes of a flying camel whose wings are broken, likening the process of healing them to gathering the pieces of her own broken identity and fitting them together anew, blending old and new into an integrated whole.

"For all the women in this collection," Khazzoom writes, "our identities have been shattered and need to be rebuilt."

Many of the essays include unforgettable imagery: a grandfather who built a paradise for himself on his roof in Safi, Morocco, far above the streets where, as a Jew, he had to walk with eyes always lowered; a young woman plucking chickens for her cousin’s wedding in Shiraz, Iran, while her cousin goes through a traditional pre-wedding ceremony in "Hair and Feathers"; elderly aunts transplanted to northern Israel who suffer from intense depression and whose only joy is setting a huge table of traditional foods; a young woman in Libya saving her family from having their vehicle set afire on their way to the airport for their escape to Malta.

Khazzoom actually began this project 11 years ago. When she first had the idea of putting together a collection of essays by Mizrachi feminists, the only possible writers she knew of were herself and her sister. One by one, she heard of other potential contributors, and compiled a book with 16 voices. But publishing it was another challenge. She was turned down repeatedly, with publishers suggesting that she add the voices of Ashkenazi women or non-Jews or men to round out the collection.

Then came Sept. 11. Suddenly, many people seemed interested in her writing, and some of the publishers who had turned down the book proposal came forward with offers.

"A positive outcome of the tragedy is that people have woken up, opened up their eyes," Khazzoom says. "At least now they’re more aware of what’s going on."

She sees the book as particularly important now, as the issue of reparations to Jews from Arab countries is being discussed.

"Personal storytelling is the most poignant way of addressing an issue," she says.

Khazzoom, who says she pioneered the Jewish multicultural movement in 1990, is working toward getting Jewish communities to be attentive to non-European Jewish history and culture.

"I wanted to open people’s eyes to the richness of their heritage," she says.

She uses the past tense to indicate that she’s no longer "the Jewish multicultural marketing machine" she once was — not that she doesn’t still value the work. But Khazzoom has moved on in her own professional life.

Two years ago she made aliyah and is now living in Tel Aviv, where most Loolwas have changed their names to Lily. Living among Jews of many backgrounds, identity is no longer the pressing issue it once was.

"I’ve already done my own healing," she says.

Now Khazzoom works as a free-lance journalist, and her mission is to get the message of Jewish multiculturalism beyond the Jewish community and into the larger world. She is also a professional singer, performing traditional Middle Eastern and North African music.

But she hasn’t quite found her place on the religious map.

"I am like a lost observant Jewish girl," she says. She still likes to sing out loud, as she did as a young child, and finds the Mizrachi synagogues, with the women sitting above and often behind a curtain, uncomfortable. Sometimes she attends a monthly egalitarian Mizrachi minyan in Jerusalem, where she might lead services.

Now Khazzoom is thinking of moving to Ramat Gan, a Tel Aviv suburb, where she could be within walking distance of an Iraqi synagogue that she finds to be very much in the old tradition, with women singing in full voice from above, without a curtain.

Although she stopped being observant in her 20s, she can see herself becoming observant again, saying: "I want to find a place where I can be authentic in my expression of Judaism."