Identity struggle on the road from Damascus

Jewish family in Aleppo, circa 1910

The prevailing Ashkenazi culture in the US sidelines the history and culture of Jews from the Middle East. Paula Zadok writes eloquently in the Tablet about her struggle to maintain her Syrian-Jewish traditions and transmit them to her daughter.

“It’s not enough to define myself as not being Ashkenazi; defining oneself against something means, really, being defined by it. The definition must lie in the presence: I am Mizrahi, literally a Jew from the East, a product of Arabic culture, and I must find a way to know and own my story and preserve it for my children.

“Even today, in New York City, some people are shocked when I say I am both Syrian and Jewish. They imagine intermarriage, an illicit love affair, elopement perhaps. I find myself explaining my past and having social conversations that turn into history lessons, especially when I relay all the details: My mother’s grandparents emigrated from Syria in the 1910s. My paternal grandfather escaped to pre-1948 Palestine from Aden, Yemen. There, he met my grandmother, the Iraqi-born daughter of a Turkish mother and a Kurdish father. She and her family had been stuck in Iraq for several years until they could save more money, because the cost of being smuggled into Jerusalem had risen considerably.

“Despite this mixture, I identify most with my Syrian side, a result of my parents’ decisions. When I was 9, my mother enrolled me and my three siblings in a Syrian-Jewish day school, where there were two Ashkenazis in my grade. When I was 12, we moved from the mixed Israeli-Sephardic and American-Ashkenazi neighborhood where we lived into the heart of Syrian Brooklyn.

“To live in the Syrian community is to be immersed in its traditions, to eat its tangy-sweet meats slow-cooked in tamarind sauce, to speak its Arabic-inflected Hebrew, to sing its Middle Eastern melodies, to dance to the music of the oud, to revere family, and to always have a home open to guests. But it is also to marry young and often forgo higher education to start a family. It can be stifling, and as a young, independent, headstrong girl, I left for college thinking I’d never look back. But as a grown woman, living on the Lower East Side with my Ashkenazi husband and our 2-year-old daughter, I wonder if I’ve lost something. How I can infuse my home with what I love about Syrian culture even as we physically reside outside of it?

“If maintaining the heritage is hard, transmitting the history is even harder. At the Syrian-Jewish high school I attended, the Jewish history curriculum—aside from a passage on Maimonides and another on the Damascus Blood Libel—concerned itself with the lives of Jews in Europe, reducing the millennia-old history of my people to a mere footnote. What I know of Sephardic and Mizrahi history is self-taught, the product of months of research while writing a novel. At the same time that I am grateful for all I was able to learn, I’m angry about how far outside the Jewish canon I had to go to find it.

“How have Mizrahi Jews fallen so far into oblivion? Where is the record of millennia of history, of Jews who lived in the Middle East and North Africa since biblical times? The community in Aleppo traces its roots to the time of King David. Documents in the Cairo Geniza prove an unbroken Jewish presence in Egypt for 2,000 years. Until 1948, when Israel was founded, 800,000 Jews lived in Arab countries, and another 200,000 lived in Turkey and Iran. About half later moved to Israel, and the other half were scattered around the world. When the veteran reporter Helen Thomas ended her career by telling Jews to go back to Germany and Poland, I wanted to remind her of the thriving Jewish community that once existed in her beloved Lebanon.

“Mizrahi Jews, like my grandparents, started leaving the Levant well before Israel’s creation, and those who arrived in the United States were often shocked by what they found. Ostracism of non-Yiddish-speaking Jews was so pervasive in the early 20th century that it’s noted in an exhibit at the Lower East Side’s Tenement Museum. In a tour called “Living History,” visitors are invited into the home of the Confinos, a Greek-Sephardic family who lived in the tenements in 1916. There, a costumed interpreter portraying 14-year-old Victoria Confino answers questions about her old life in Greece and her new life in New York. When I ask her how she feels about Jewish life on the Lower East Side, she sighs and shakes her head. “They treat us like we’re not real Jews because we don’t speak Yiddish,” she says. “And their food,” she shudders. “They don’t use any olive oil; they fry everything in chicken fat.”

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One Comment

  • In modern times, I think the attitude of American Ashkenazim less prejudice than simple (though still inexcusable) ignorance.

    A good response to that ignorance is simply to educate them, starting with famous Sephardi-Mizrahi names they recognise: Paula Abdul, Vidal Sassoon, Isaac Mizrahi, Emmanuelle Chriqui, Shiri Maimon, …

    Canadian Ashkenazim are less ignorant, due to the presence of a (proportionately) large, Francophone North-African community.


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