The Sephardic Way of Life

6 September, 2018
Talat Harb Square, Cairo (Painted by Mohamed Khedr)

An Egyptian Jew who came to the United States as a child, Joyce Zonana has always identified closely with her Arab and African roots. In this personal essay, as American Jews prepare for the September High Holidays (Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur), she reflects on what it means to be Jewish in the context of the Middle East, even as American Jewish identity continues to be defined by a European Ashkenazi hegemony.

Writer Joyce Zonana

Joyce Zonana

When I was growing up in 1950s Bensonhurst, in Brooklyn, NY, my identity as a Jew was often called into question. “You mean you’re Jewish? And you don’t know about gefilte fish?” my best friend’s Eastern European (Ashkenazi) Jewish mother asked, shocked to discover that our family ate stuffed grape leaves rather than stuffed cabbage. “What kind of a Jew are you?” schoolmates challenged. When I answered “Sephardic . . . from Egypt,” they would reply. “But all the Jews left Egypt a long time ago, isn’t that what Passover is about?”  “No,” I would say, having been taught the words by my father. “Some Jews returned to Egypt when they were expelled from Spain.” [Later I would learn that some Jews actually lived in Egypt for millennia, never having left.] “There are no Jews in Egypt,” my little friends would retort. “We never heard of any Jews in Egypt. You can’t be Jewish.”

It was puzzling, I knew, but I could find nothing further to say. Aside from a handful of relatives, I did not know any other Jews from Egypt either. An Egyptian Jew. To my neighbors, it seemed a contradiction in terms, an oxymoron. To myself as well. What was the Egyptian part, what the Jewish? How did they fit together? Maybe I wasn’t really Jewish. Later, when acquaintances continued to wonder about my identity, I was similarly stymied. “You mean you don’t speak Yiddish?” they would ask after I had painstakingly explained that my grandparents spoke Arabic and French.

Until I read Ella Shohat’s groundbreaking 1992 essay, “Dislocated Identities: Reflections of an Arab Jew,” I felt I was an anomaly, even an impossibility. As Shohat writes “Americans are often amazed to discover the existentially nauseating or charmingly exotic possibilities” of the Arab-Jew’s “syncretic identity.” And yet, it is vital that we claim and proclaim the historical and contemporary reality of that identity, to challenge the dominant narrative’s insistence on the incompatibility of Arab and Jew. Shohat and Ammiel Alcalay, whose After Jews and Arabs: Remaking Levantine Culture should be required reading for anyone interested in the Middle East, taught me that the binary opposition of “Jew” and “Arab” is a relatively recent cultural construction, and they gave me a way to name and understand myself.

Koshary: Egyptian Lentil and Rice Recipe

Jews have lived throughout the Middle East for centuries, a fact ironically and tragically obscured by the establishment of Israel. The primarily European Zionists who settled in Palestine had contempt for the indigenous Jews of the region and treated them as second-class citizens when they arrived in Israel. Indeed, as Shohat demonstrates in her new collection, On the Arab-Jew, Palestine, and Other Displacements (Pluto Press, 2017), Ashkenazi Jewish settlers in Palestine, viewed as “Oriental” in a racist Europe, sought to exorcise the oriental within themselves and to create Israel as a thoroughly Western nation-state. The darker-skinned, truly “Oriental” Jews of the Middle East were seen as an embarrassment, and efforts were made to Westernize them, cutting them off from their Arab roots. Shohat, born to a displaced Iraqi family, describes her own experience growing up in Israel/Palestine: “Unknowing targets of mental colonization, we were the children who were expected to delete not merely the past across the border, but also the transplanted Baghdads, Cairos, or Rabats of our homes and neighborhoods. Our bodies, language and thought were regulated to the rhythms of a disciplining, normalizing machine designed to erect us into proud Israelis” (124).

Two months ago I wrote in “Priestess at the Crossroads,” about the need to break down the borders that keep us locked into conflicting national, racial, religious, and gender identities. Arab and Jew are among those purportedly conflicting identities. As Shohat reminds us, “it was precisely the policing of cultural borders” (78) after the partition of Israel/Palestine that dismantled a centuries-old culture of convivencia, the intellectual, artistic and socially fruitful–and largely peaceful–coexistence of Jews, Christians, and Muslims in the Mediterranean Arab world—in areas that are now Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, Libya, Egypt, Turkey, Iraq, Iran, Yemen, Saudi Arabia. Today, as a consequence of both Jewish and Arab nationalism, that culture is forgotten or under attack; hence it is our responsibility to “re-member a world at once culturally Arab and religiously Jewish” (Shohat 2).  Re-membering Arab-Jewish identity also offers a palimpsest and vision for the future, suggesting, as Shohat writes, “potentialities” beyond contemporary “impasses” (375).

What does it mean to be an Arab-Jew in the twenty-first century? For me, it means recognizing and honoring Arab culture: the music, food, language, and customs my parents brought with them when they emigrated from Cairo in 1952; it means feeling a strong bond with other Egyptians, North Africans, and Middle Easterners, refusing efforts in the U.S. and elsewhere to demonize and “other” any of us. It means respecting the claims of displaced Palestinians and protesting Israeli occupation of Palestinian territories. It also means not seeking to equate our displacement with Palestinian displacement, as some Jews from Arab countries have sought to do, in a transparent effort to discredit Palestinian suffering.

I live these days in a vibrant Brooklyn neighborhood, Bay Ridge–not far from where I grew up–that throbs with Muslim and Christian Arab rhythms, redolent with the scents of Middle Eastern spices and foodstuffs. Here, I do not have to explain my taste for ful mudammas and m’ggadarah, nor to feel awkward in my dark skin. Here, I am at home. And here, inshallah, next week, at the start of the Jewish New Year, Rosh Hashanah, I will celebrate as my ancestors did, hosting a seder replete with pomegranate and dates, leeks and green beans, gourds and beets, along with prayers for peace.

May we all be inscribed in the book of lifeL’shanah tovah (Happy New Year).

This essay first appeared in Feminism and Religion and is republished here by arrangement with the author. Joyce Zonana is the author of a memoir, Dream Homes: From Cairo to Katrina, an Exile’s Journey. She recently completed a translation from the French of Egyptian-Jewish writer Tobie Nathan’s Ce pays qui te ressemble [This Land That Is Like You], a novel celebrating Arab-Jewish life in early twentieth-century Cairo, forthcoming from Seagull Books. She served for a time as co-Director of the Ariadne Institute for the Study of Myth and Ritual and has also translated Henri Bosco’s Malicroix, forthcoming from New York Review Books.