Month: April 2016

Harking back to the lost roots of Mimouna

Prime minister Netanyahu celebrates Mimouna: a chance for politicians to press the flesh 

As many Israelis prepare to celebrate Mimouna, the traditional Moroccan festival which concludes Passover, Ben Hartman in the Jerusalem Post asks why this nostalgia persists despite the fact that out of a population of over 250,000 Jews in Morocco prior to the founding of Israel in 1948, only some 2,500 remain.

 Everyone’s seen the pictures before – a politician wearing a fez, sitting in front of a pile of mufletot pastries, as well-wishers, perhaps a belly dancer or two, hover around bearing trays of sweets and mint tea in a development town somewhere in Israel.

 The Mimouna, a traditional North African Jewish holiday marking the end of Passover, stopped being a holiday mainly for Maghrebi Jews years ago, becoming a sort of pan-Israeli Jewish occasion for partying and binging on sugary sweets.

Along the way, Israeli politicians seized upon the holiday as a can’t-miss opportunity to press the flesh, and win hearts and minds among traditional Sephardi and Mizrahi voters. To put it differently, on the morning after Mimouna, it’s a safe bet you’re going to see a picture of Shimon Peres in a fez.

 The stereotypes surrounding the Mimouna in Israel today are a stark departure from their North African traditions, according to Dr. Yehuda Maimran, CEO of the Alliance Israélite Universelle and a member of an Education Ministry committee, headed by Israel Prize laureate poet Erez Biton, that intends to strengthen Mizrahi identity in Israeli culture.

“Back in Morocco it was a Jewish holiday that Jews and Arabs would celebrate together. I was too young to remember but my parents would tell me about how everyone would open their houses and their Muslim neighbors would come bearing food and gifts. For us it was a holiday of love and opening your house to everyone.”

 Read article in full

Israeli Iraqis re-visit their heritage

A typical Jewish shop in Baghdad, as reconstructed at the Babylonian Jewry Heritage Centre (photo: Rina Castelnuevo, NYT)

There are almost a quarter of a million Jews of Iraqi descent living in Israel. Many are rediscovering their roots, and 1,300 visitors flock  to the only place where the memory of Jewish life in Iraq is preserved – the Babylonian Jewry Heritage Center. The New York Times reports (with thanks: all those who alerted me to this article):

Ms. Ziluf, whose first name translates roughly to “morning” in Arabic, is one of countless Iraqi Jews taking fresh interest in a heritage once considered unseemly, even shameful. Facebook pages with tens of thousands of followers debate the fine points of Iraqi Jewish dialect, music and cuisine.

Babylonian heritage center near Tel Aviv has drawn daily crowds of more than 1,300 people during Passover, and its number of yearly visitors has increased by more than 50 percent since 2011.

Among those viewing the center’s reconstructions of the shops and crooked alleys of Baghdad’s old Jewish quarter were swarms of children, generations removed from those who experienced Babylon’s allure firsthand. “They are heroes,” Liel Ovadya, 13, said of the Jews of Baghdad, who included his grandmother Oshrat Berko, who immigrated to Israel at 15.

As of 2014, there were 227,900 Jews of Iraqi descent living in Israel, according to government data.

Families with ties to Iraq are among several communities of Israelis from Arabic and North African countries newly embracing their origins after struggling to be accepted by the Ashkenazi Jews of Europe, who founded Israel and for decades dominated its political, military and academic elites. The resurgent interest comes as the number of Jews in Iraq has dwindled to nearly none, and as the Islamic State and other hostile groups are sowing chaos in the streets, shrines and graveyards where Jews lived, died and celebrated their faith for nearly three millenniums.

 In recent interviews, many Israelis pointed to two unlikely cultural icons — Dudu Tassa, a 39-year-old rock star, and Eli Amir, a 78-year-old novelist — as forces that have accelerated Iraqi Jews’ efforts to preserve their past before it vanishes forever.

“The Dove Flyer,” a novel by Mr. Amir, and the 2014 film based on it, culminate in the 1951 Israeli airlift that brought nearly 110,000 Jews to Israel from Iraq with little more than the clothes on their backs. Arriving shortly after the 1948 Arab-Israeli war, the newcomers largely suppressed their culture, Mr. Amir said in an interview, because “their language was the enemy language and their music was the music of the enemy.”

 “This was a kind of a terrible wound that each and every one of us tried to handle differently,” Mr. Amir said. His work, he said, was meant “to put my visiting card on the table of every Ashkenazi to let them know we didn’t come from the desert and caves and trees — that we came from a civilized country.”

Mr. Tassa, who was born in Tel Aviv, began an artistic journey that fused rock and traditional Arab music after discovering that his grandfather Daoud al-Kuwaiti had been one of the most important composers in the Arab world. A 2011 film chronicling that journey had a catchy title: “Iraq ’n’ Roll.”

Read article in full

Mercy mission gets Matzah shipped to Bahrain

Rabbi Leivi Sudak (photo: The Jewish Chronicle)

A Jewish businessman who had been helped by the Lubavitch movement while imprisoned in Iran ‘returned the favour’ when he assisted in getting emergency supplies of Matzah (unleavened bread) to Bahrain in time for the Passover seder. The Jewish Chronicle has the story (with thanks: Andrew, Nancy):

Bahrain’s tiny Jewish community will have matzahs for Pesach after a mercy dash orchestrated by rabbis, a businessman and an MP.

A planned delivery of shmurah matzahs went missing en route to the Gulf state earlier this week.

But after Chabad rabbis in London were alerted to the problem, a last-minute operation ensured the 50 Jews in the country would receive the unleavened goods in time for Seder night.

 Edgware Lubavitch director Rabbi Leivi Sudak said: “We became aware there was a problem with their Pesach delivery, so we got to it. We quickly gathered supplies to send to them.
“We boxed up everything – grape juice, macaroons, tea, you name it.”

 “But when we asked FedEx how much it would cost they wanted £240 per box to send the stuff.

“It was just too much and they couldn’t guarantee us delivery in time.”

 Hampstead Garden Suburb businessman Melvyn Kay used contacts in the freight industry to assist the rabbi in getting the products on to a Gulf Air plane which left London on Wednesday morning bound for the Bahrain capital, Manama.

Read article in full

Mizrahim still lag behind, but trend is changing

Gila Gamliel: changing trends

Mizrahi and Sephardi Jews have still a long way to go before they are able to join Israel’s elite, a research project by Yediot Aharonot has found.

 The project looked at six fields (culture, the academy, security, the economy, politics and law).  (Despite constituting over 50 percent of Jewish Israelis – ed),  Mizrahim  and Sephardim lagged behind Ashkenazim.


 “Inequity here
cries out for, and requires, targeted therapy,”social equality minister Gila

 Gamliel said in an interview
with Ynet studio. “These are hard data. You can not pin the blame on one government or another. There is structural discrimination. I
 don’t believe anyone set out to offend Mizrahim, really not,” said Gamliel, (who is of Libyan parentage).”There is lack of awareness”.

Solutions, she said, lie in education and
investment in the periphery.

“I think that in recent years we have
seen a change in trend,” said the Likud minister. “It is an issue
of connecting the periphery to the center in terms of infrastructure and
transportation, and we must  invest in the education system. The whole
issue of e-learning will also reduce a lot of gaps. Even the health care system
will see changes. “

However, she concluded that “it is
impossible to ignore the facts. We can not ignore the fact that there has never been a Sephardi prime minister of Israel.”

She said, “this consciousness-searing
ultimately creates real harm.”

Read article in full (Hebrew)

Bene Israel have Jewish genetic markers

A new genetic study presents valuable information about the origin of the Indian Bene Israel community, connecting it to other Jewish communities. Haaretz reports:

Bene Israel family. Photo taken in 1961 (Eliyahu Herkovitz)

 The new study, which was published about two weeks ago in the scientific journal PLOS ONE asserts that the community originated in one of the Jewish communities in the Middle East. According to the researchers, they arrived in India 19 to 33 generations ago — 600 to 1,000 years ago — much later than estimates of community members. Over 70,000 members of the Bene Israel community live in Israel today, making it the largest Indian Jewish group in the world.

The researchers scanned the genetic markers of 18 community members and with the use of advanced tools compared them to those of 486 people from 41 different population groups, including Indians, Pakistanis and Jews from many diasporas (Yemen, Iraq, Syria, Iran, Georgia, Turkey, Greece, Italy, Ashkenaz — northern France and western Germany — Libya, Djerba, Tunisia, Morocco and Algeria) along with several samplings from all over the world, including non-Jewish Middle Eastern populations.

The rich representation of Indian populations demonstrated that although genetically there is great similarity between the Bene Israel and other Indian groups, its members have a genetic component not found on the Indian spectrum, hinting a different origin. Other analyses demonstrated that this origin is apparently Jewish.

Read article in full (subscription required)


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