Sephardic and Mizrahi Women Lift Up Their Veils

By Diane Matza

Published April 23, 2004, issue of April 23, 2004.
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The Flying Camel: Essays on Identity by Women of North African and Middle Eastern Jewish Heritage

Edited by Loolwa Khazzoom

Seal Press, 256 pages, $16.95.

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‘Today,” writes Loolwa Khazzoom in the introduction to her new book of essays by Sephardic and Mizrahi women, “North African and Middle Eastern Jewish women continue to live in the shadows of metaphoric veils — sheets of material others throw over us in attempts to shroud our identity and history.”

All over the geographical map of the 20th century, tense jockeying for national, familial, political and social position among individuals and groups has periodically edged people toward flight, conflict, even chaos. This has indeed been a feature of the Sephardic and Mizrahi past, and, as is shown by many of the essays in Khazzoom’s new book, “The Flying Camel, Essays on Identity by Women of North African and Middle Eastern Jewish Heritage,” subsequent efforts to achieve belonging can be fraught with contentiousness.

The broad issues tackled in this anthology will be familiar to many readers. The first is the creation of a personal identity from a cultural heritage rich in its distinctiveness but also harshly oppressive. In the 1960s, fashion defined ethnicity as the most attractive or life-affirming characteristic of a particular cultural group. Contributors Farideh Dayanim Goldin, Bahareh Mobasseri Rinsler and Yael Arami, however, expose the far grimmer reality of ethnic practices that victimize women, inflicting damage that is both psychological and existential. Moreover, when women courageously reject their subjugation, the potential threat to religious continuity can be enormous. Although Goldin’s statement, “I allowed my fear of and disgust with some customs to erase all the others,” refers to ethnic not religious matters, it’s not hard to see how her rebellion could have ended in flight from Judaism itself. Thus, Arami’s persistence in nudging religious institutions toward greater gender inclusiveness is heroic.

A second issue raised by the women featured in this collection is the challenge minority voices bring to mainstream ideas about identity. One lovely piece, Ruth Knafo Setton’s “The Life and Times of Ruth of the Jungle,” examines how individual freedom can be constructed from lessons of the past. Other selections offer stinging critiques of Ashkenazic custodians of Jewish culture who have ignored or derided Sephardic and Mizrahi perspectives.

“The Flying Camel” also addresses politically motivated antisemitism, the result of which has been Jewish persecution and expulsion from lands where the Jewish presence in some cases predates the Arab conquest. These are stories that should be more widely known. Ella Shohat’s statement that “‘Arabness’ referred to a commonly shared language and culture, albeit one with religious differences,” demands our attention.

We need more studies of the intricacies of the Jewish presence in the Arab world, those instances of fruitful collaboration as well as those of tension and division. Such work could help us to understand more completely how multiculturalism contributes to “the good society.”

Diane Matza is a professor of English at Utica College and editor of “Sephardic American Voices: 200 Years of a Literary Legacy.”

Through May 7, the American Sephardi Federation with Sephardic House in New York is featuring an exhibit of illustrations depicting traditional Jewish attire in the Ottoman Empire. The paintings were created by modern artists based on old postcards of Ottoman Jewish clothing. For more information, call 212-294-8350, or visit www.asfonline.org.






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