From Babylon To Beersheva, By Way of Berkeley

By Loolwa Khazzoom

Published January 03, 2003, issue of January 03, 2003.
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Weeks after a friend was nearly shot boarding a plane to Israel from Los Angeles last July, days after a suicide bomber blew up scores of students at the Hebrew University cafeteria in Jerusalem, amidst a wave of terrorist attacks across the Jewish state and with Israel and Iraq on the brink of war, I left my quiet, tree-lined street in Berkeley, Calif., and boarded a plane to Israel.

I made this difficult decision the same way I always make difficult decisions: I actively imagined each option before me and paid attention to how I physically responded to the possibilities. Whereas I was full of mixed sensations when I envisioned going to Israel, I only experienced a sense of nothingness when I pictured not going. I repeated the exercise several times, surprised at the consistent result. I expressed my surprise to a friend, sharing how I had expected to have a sense of relief at the prospect of not going. “Your spirit already knows you are supposed to be there,” he replied. “Only your mind is still questioning that decision, because of fear.”

But not until the shores of Tel Aviv appeared on the horizon, outside the window of the British Airways jet, did I know I had made the right choice. I burst into tears, and my whole body shook with emotion. When I stepped outside Ben-Gurion International Airport into the hot desert sun, a deep sense of knowing flooded my body: After visiting Israel so many times that I had lost count, I decided this time I was going to stay.

Within two months, I had returned to Berkeley, packed up my life into 37 cardboard boxes and was on my way to Beersheva — an urban pit in the middle of the Negev Desert in southern Israel. People here think I am nuts to have given up the golden land of California for a dump like this. Indeed, what am I doing here?

My reason for moving to Beersheva can be traced back a few thousand years. It is rooted in the Babylonian empire’s conquest and destruction of the Kingdom of Judah — the southern region of ancient Israel — in 586 BCE. After demolishing the kingdom and leaving it in ruins, the Babylonians took the people of Israel as captives, to the land that is today Iraq. “On the rivers of Babylon we sat and wept for Zion,” reads the first Jewish prayer known to have been written. My family remained on the banks of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers for the next 2,500 years until 1950, when the modern Iraqi government forced the Jews to flee as refugees. Ironically, my family was absorbed by the modern State of Israel.

Although I myself grew up in the United States, America largely remains a place of life experience and nostalgia for me — my home, but not a place of my core identity. I do not see myself reflected in American images, holidays, rituals or history. I guess it comes down to the fact that my primary identity is that of a Jew, and for me being a Jew is inextricably intertwined with Iraq and Israel. Despite having it shoved down my throat for three decades, I just don’t relate to the bagels and cream cheese, neurotic New Yorker, oy gevalt brand of Judaism, and there isn’t enough of a critical mass of non-European Jews to make me feel at home.

Here in Beersheva, on the contrary, I am surrounded by Jews indigenous to Africa and the Middle East — from countries including Morocco, Ethiopia and Iran. Not only is there a synagogue directly across from my apartment building, but it is Tunisian. Whereas I had to search far and wide for a Mizrahi, or Middle Eastern-North African, synagogue in the Bay Area, here I do not even have to leave my apartment to attend services on Saturday morning. I just shuffle onto the balcony in my pajamas and shout, “Amen!”

It is such a relief to see the core of my identity, cultural values and historical narrative reflected in the people around me. Amid the ugly, dilapidated buildings and piles of trash, I find more energy, warmth, closeness and belonging than I found anywhere I lived in the United States.

Here in Beersheva, I am rooted in the dynamic multicultural Jewish story — always vibrant, always unfolding into something new.

Loolwa Khazzoom is director of the Jewish MultiCultural Project and editor of the forthcoming “Behind the Veil of Silence: North African and Middle Eastern Jewish Women Speak Out” (Seal Press, 2003).

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