Sephardic and Mizrahi Women Lift Up Their Veils

By Diane Matza

Published April 23, 2004, issue of April 23, 2004.
  • Print
  • Share Share

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.

* * *

‘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.






Find us on Facebook!
  • PHOTOS: Hundreds of protesters marched through lower Manhattan yesterday demanding an end to American support for Israel’s operation in #Gaza.
  • Does #Hamas have to lose for there to be peace? Read the latest analysis by J.J. Goldberg.
  • This is what the rockets over Israel and Gaza look like from space:
  • "Israel should not let captives languish or corpses rot. It should do everything in its power to recover people and bodies. Jewish law places a premium on pidyon shvuyim, “the redemption of captives,” and proper burial. But not when the price will lead to more death and more kidnappings." Do you agree?
  • Slate.com's Allison Benedikt wrote that Taglit-Birthright Israel is partly to blame for the death of American IDF volunteer Max Steinberg. This is why she's wrong:
  • Israeli soldiers want you to buy them socks. And snacks. And backpacks. And underwear. And pizza. So claim dozens of fundraising campaigns launched by American Jewish and Israeli charities since the start of the current wave of crisis and conflict in Israel and Gaza.
  • The sign reads: “Dogs are allowed in this establishment but Zionists are not under any circumstances.”
  • Is Twitter Israel's new worst enemy?
  • More than 50 former Israeli soldiers have refused to serve in the current ground operation in #Gaza.
  • "My wife and I are both half-Jewish. Both of us very much felt and feel American first and Jewish second. We are currently debating whether we should send our daughter to a Jewish pre-K and kindergarten program or to a public one. Pros? Give her a Jewish community and identity that she could build on throughout her life. Cons? Costs a lot of money; She will enter school with the idea that being Jewish makes her different somehow instead of something that you do after or in addition to regular school. Maybe a Shabbat sing-along would be enough?"
  • Undeterred by the conflict, 24 Jews participated in the first ever Jewish National Fund— JDate singles trip to Israel. Translation: Jews age 30 to 45 travelled to Israel to get it on in the sun, with a side of hummus.
  • "It pains and shocks me to say this, but here goes: My father was right all along. He always told me, as I spouted liberal talking points at the Shabbos table and challenged his hawkish views on Israel and the Palestinians to his unending chagrin, that I would one day change my tune." Have you had a similar experience?
  • "'What’s this, mommy?' she asked, while pulling at the purple sleeve to unwrap this mysterious little gift mom keeps hidden in the inside pocket of her bag. Oh boy, how do I answer?"
  • "I fear that we are witnessing the end of politics in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. I see no possibility for resolution right now. I look into the future and see only a void." What do you think?
  • Not a gazillionaire? Take the "poor door."
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.