Tag: Judeo-Arab culture

Palestinians ‘appropriated Jewish kubbeh’

The food wars rage on. Hanin Majadli has accused chef Naama Shefi and Ashkenazi Zionists in general of “cultural and culinary appropriation” (“Israel’s guide to foodwashing Palestinian culture,” July 23). Writing in Haaretz, Mor Altshuler takes issue with the narrative that Jews appropriated ‘Palestinian’ food culture. In fact, she says, it is the reverse (with thanks: Lily):

Albondigas, or Greek-Jewish meatballs, prepared for Shabbat

Her (Hanin’s) claim about North African cuisine is apparently about couscous, a dish Ashkenazi Zionists have come to love. Couscous is made of cooked semolina – a kind of flour known as solet in Hebrew – that is mixed with oil.

But couscous was known thousands of years ago as the “grain offering” that was sacrificed in the Temple in Jerusalem: “And when anyone brings a grain offering to the Lord, his offering shall be of fine flour [solet]; and he shall pour oil upon it, and put frankincense thereon” (Leviticus 2:1). Incidentally, frankincense was added to the recipe’s spices.

As for Palestinian freekeh (toasted green wheat), wheat and roast barley, they were all mentioned among the courtship customs of the Biblical Boaz, who gave roasted grain to Ruth the Moabite in the fields of Bethlehem. It was from their relationship that the House of David arose.

Nor is there any need to go back as far as the Bible. In southeastern Turkey, kubbeh, the glory of the Palestinian kitchen, is called “Jewish kofta” – that is, Jewish meatballs.

Jews invented kubbeh because it was their custom to eat meat on Shabbat, but it is religiously prohibited for them to slaughter animals or cook on that day. Before the refrigerator was invented, the solution was to wrap ground meat in dough and fry or bake it on Friday, so it wouldn’t spoil over Shabbat.

Similarly, eggplant and hummus, also ostensibly from the Palestinian kitchen, are mentioned in the records of the Spanish Inquisition as characteristic Jewish foods that could be used to identify people who formally converted to Christianity but secretly remained Jews.

Tunisians serve up Merguez with everything before 9th Av

Tonight begins the longest fast of the Jewish year, Tisha b’Ab (9th of Av), in memory of the destruction of the two Jewish Temples in Jerusalem. Writing in Harissa, Victor Hayoun reminisces about the customs specific to Tunisian Jewry. To make up for the ban on eating meat in the run-up to the 9th of Av, Jews ate a surfeit of Merguez, the spicy sausage typical of North Africa.

Detail from the Arch of Titus showing the Romans carrying off booty from the Temple in Jerusalem in 70 AD

We commonly called this period, in Tunisian Judeo-Arabic, “Agein”  or “Ayamet-El-Tkal” [literally: “heavy days”], these were the expressions used by our parents to talk about it. These days were heavy with fear and prohibitions.

We knew it was in memory of a serious event, even of mourning, since we did not eat meat. These are austere days, full of restraint, no festivities, no excess of joy, no cutting your hair, no buying new clothes or anything else new, no undertaking new projects or signing new contracts, no starting to new approaches. In fact, we stopped making progress, we treaded water. It was our way of mourning the destruction of the two Temples in Jerusalem.

That was not all, there were also the dietary restrictions. We did not eat meat or chicken, except on Shabbat. We were entitled to fish in all its forms: fresh, canned: tuna / sardines / anchovies, dried fish (Bou-Zmeimar) and boutargue (for wealthy people who could pay the price). It was fried in whole fish, cooked in a spicy sauce: H’raiimé, or cooked in a vegetable broth: fish couscous accompanied by fish balls, fried and cooked. We had a great choice. A whole series of possibilities of consumption of fish to “fill” the absence of meat and chicken.

But the Tunisian Jew is all the same a pleasure-lover. He does everything to have fun in all circumstances and also and especially at the table. No prohibition can resist him. If he has found a way to consume rice on Passover, ‘it is really nothing for him to consume meat, or any derivative, during the days leading up to the fast of Ninth of Av, becomes a heavy consumer of Merguez (spicy sausage)during these first eight days of the month of Av (not Shabbat of course). In our childhood, our mother, peace be on her soul, prepared us Merguez before the month of Av, she dried them on a clothesline and then she prepared us Shakshouka with Merguez, Mloukhia with Merguez, beans “Bsal-ou-Loubia” with Merguez and many other dishes cooked with Merguez.

To these dishes of fish and dried meat, We added”Falsou” dishes.”Falso” in Italian which means “false”. These are in fact the “fake” dishes that we called so because the “real” ones were with meat, chicken or fish. In fact, these dishes which did not contain any, were equally delicious dishes such as pasta, cooked vegetables, couscous, or more rarely rice.

Read article in full (French)  »

More about Tisha b’Ab  »

Why Kobi Oz is the new voice of Israel

Who is the most important Israeli musician of the last generation? Not the most gifted or popular, but the most influential, one without whom the country’s sound wouldn’t be the same? Matti Friedman’s vote goes to Kobi Oz, who is best know internationally for a provocative entry in the Eurovision Song Contest. Domestically Oz and his Teapacks band broke through into the Israeli scene with a distinctive brand of Mizrahi-Moroccan music. Feature in Tablet magazine (with thanks: Michelle)

My vote goes to Kobi Oz—the mix-track trickster, the spoonful of sugar that helps the medicine go down, the Tunisian from a town of Moroccans who brought the South to Tel Aviv and changed what we mean by Israeli pop. Of course, more than one person is responsible for the rise of the once-disdained sound known by the generalization “Mizrahi,” or “Eastern,” which has become Israel’s spiritual equivalent of American country and western music, though the two genres sound absolutely nothing alike. If we must choose one musician responsible for the mainstreaming of the Israeli Eastern sound, it might be Oz.

Listening to Oz’s work over the past 30 years, you get a portrait of a changing country—one constantly in crisis but also one with an irrepressible life, a place that has given up on being someplace else and has come to terms with itself. Because Oz and his band broke through in the ’90s, the age of the music video, it’s actually possible to witness the crucial moments in their rise on YouTube, like the release of “In Newsprint” in 1993. The odds were stacked against the song, which has prickly lyrics about Israelis—describing them as people diverted by jokes, journalism, and self-delusion—and a complicated melody that changes rhythm abruptly in the middle and moves into explicitly Moroccan territory. The song was unlike anything people had heard before. It wasn’t immediately clear if the band was earnestly channeling the North African sound or laughing at it, as was common in those days, when Mizrahi culture was still mocked by the wardens of popular taste.

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More by Matti Friedman

Shooting of Algerian-Jewish musician marked turning point

Sixty years ago this month, the murder of Raymond Leyris, a famous Jewish musician in Constantine, Algeria (Enrico Macias’s father-in-law) marked a turning point in the fortunes of the Algerian-Jewish community. A year later, almost all of them had fled. We re-post an article by Martin Evans in History Today:

Raymond Leyris, master of malouf music. Examples on Youtube.
On Wednesday June 22nd, 1961 the 48-year-old Jewish musician Raymond Leiris was shopping with his daughter in the crowded market of his home town, Constantine, in eastern Algeria. Suddenly, without warning, a young Muslim gunman surged forward to shoot him in the back of the neck. The defenceless Leiris was killed instantly, another victim of a round of shootings in Constantine that day, which left one Algerian woman dead and two other people seriously wounded.
 It was a shocking incident even if, after nearly seven years of war between the Algerian National Liberation Front (FLN) and France, the colonial power, there was no shortage of horrific events to record. By no stretch of the imagination was Leiris a military target. Popularly known as Cheikh Raymond, he was one of the great figures of the Andalusian musical tradition, a gifted oud player, blessed with an astonishing voice.
 Studying under the greats of Algerian music – Cheikh Chakleb and Cheikh Bestandji – his Cheikh Raymond Orchestra encapsulated the style known as malouf. He was a living symbol of a shared Jewish-Muslim culture. We still do not know why he was murdered. Neither the FLN, nor the Secret Army Organisation (OAS), the hard-line pro-French Algeria terrorist group formed in January 1961, ever claimed responsibility for his murder.
 The killing threw into sharp relief the dilemmas of Algeria’s Jewish community in 1961. Numbering 130,000, as opposed to nine million Arab-Berber Algerians and just under one million European settlers, this minority was faced with three choices: either they could accept independence, which by this point seemed inevitable given that the French government and the FLN had entered into negotiations; fight a last-ditch stand to defend colonial Algeria; or leave.
 With names like Derrida, Nouischi and Stora, Jews had lived in North Africa for over 2,000 years. Some had arrived with the Phoenicians between 1100 and 146 bc. Others sought refuge after their expulsion, along with the Muslim population, following the fall of Granada, the last bastion of Islamic Spain, in the Reconquista completed in 1492. As such the Jewish population was derived from a complex mosaic of Judeo-Berber, Judeo-Arab, Portuguese and Spanish roots, in which each locality had its own customs.
Under Islamic law Jews were accorded a protected status as the ‘people of the book’*. In return for a tax they were allowed to practice Judaism.

Of ‘Jewish Arabists’ and ‘Arab’ Jews

Khaled Diab is an Egyptian journalist who has always had an interest in Jews from Arab countries. In fact he was one of the first to write about them and celebrate their contribution to Arab societies. But as this New Lines Magazine article demonstrates, he sees them as ‘Arab’ Jews ‘in love ‘ with Arab culture and in some cases Islam. (Even Disraeil is a ‘Mosaic Arab’). Here he writes about Sasson Somekh,  who called himself the last Arab Jew. But Somekh also saw himself as an Israeli patriot and repudiated those young Mizrahim who claimed a political ‘Arab’ identity without having themselves been immersed  in Arab culture and language.

The late professor Sasson Somekh

Despite the hatred and animosity created by the Arab-Israeli conflict, and the rampant scapegoating of local Jews that occurred across the Arab world, some Arab Jews continued to feel and express pride in their heritage and act as unofficial ambassadors between two worlds at war.

One such figure was the late Sasson Somekh, the Iraqi Israeli poet, writer, academic, and translator. Somekh had been a promising teen poet and leftist political activist in Baghdad, frequenting the city’s vibrant cultural cafes. “I recall the Tigris river where we used to go swimming in the summer. When the water level fell, small islands, which were known as jazra, would appear,” Somekh told me when I visited him at Tel Aviv University, where he was still allowed to keep an office despite having officially retired.

“We would take a boat, load it up with fish and a grill, and go out to one of those small islands and have a good time — those were the most enjoyable days of my life.” The Baghdad that Somekh recalls from his youth was in some ways a very Jewish city.

“When you walked down the main street, al-Rashid, which went from one end of Baghdad to the other,” he recounted, “half the names on the shops and offices, such as lawyers’ practices, were Jewish.” But a mix of popular anger at the Zionist project in Palestine, which was deftly exploited by Nazi propaganda during the war to spread a virile brand of antisemitism, made life progressively untenable for Iraq’s Jews.

This forced Somekh’s family, along with the vast majority of Iraq’s Jewish minority, to depart the country in 1951, stripped of everything but the clothes on their backs. After a life of comfort in Iraq, the Somekhs found themselves, like the Palestinians who were forced to flee during the 1948 war, stuck in impoverished refugee camps.

Caught between the racism and persecution they had experienced in their homelands and the racism and marginalization they experienced from Ashkenazi, or “European,” Jews in Israel, many Arab Jews quickly jettisoned their Arab identities in a bid to integrate in their new homes.

Somekh, who passed away in 2019, was among the minority who resisted this zero-sum identity game. He continued to identify as Arab as well as Israeli, write in Arabic, and dedicate his life to the study of Arabic literature.


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