Wednesday, December 08, 2010

How Israel reaped the rich fruits of exile

Israeli women from Yemen. The tin can was used for percussion because musical instruments in Shi'a Yemen were banned.

Writing in the Hineni journal, Partition, distributed in synagogues around Australia on the 63rd anniversary of the UN’s adoption of the Partition Plan for Palestine, Andrew Harris celebrates the multicultural diversity that makes Israel so unique. Read his piece reprinted in Galus Australis:

"For me, Israel is not about a Jewish monoculture, Ashkenazi, Sephardi, Orthodox, Reform, secular, or otherwise. It’s not about blending together the white robes of the Beta Israel with the black hats of the Hasidim to form a nationalistic grey, or the first generation of sabras forgetting Amharic, Arabic, Ladino or Judeo-Malayalam to speak only Hebrew. In order to form a unified whole, we all have to be ourselves first. The value of the Jewish people as a whole lies more in the sum of its parts. The pain of exile has been separation, excision, but the gift of exile has been diversity, multiculturalism. And one of the miracles of the ingathering is much of what has died out in the Diaspora thrives in Israel.

In Istanbul, you can still find a kosher butcher wedged into the crowded streets of Galata, and he’ll order you some strong, sweet tea to sip at a tiny table by the counter. You can go out on a Saturday night and gorge yourself at a stylish, exceptional kosher restaurant, and eat Turkish-Jewish food at its best. Although many Synagogues are empty week to week, many aren’t. Either way you look at it, shrinking as it might be, the Jewish community in Turkey has a palpable, accessible presence, with a robust Chief Rabbinate, and a highly functional social security infrastructure. Depending on who you speak to, they’re largely staying put. But if they were to move, en masse (and there are only around 20,000 left, it wouldn’t take much to get everyone to Israel), would they be able to take their culture with them? I’d like to think so.

"In Yemen, 150 or so Jews live under constant state protection in Sana’a, following the 2008 murder, by a non-Jewish Yemeni, of a Jewish father of nine. The Yemeni state sentenced the murderer to death by firing squad, and the Jews are still there, but they’re only one plane load; in a puff of jet exhaust, the ancient Jewish community of Yemen would cease to exist. It’s just as well that the Yemenites maintain very distinct cultural practises within the Israeli milieu; schug is a ubiquitous Israeli condiment, and Yemenite traditions continue in moshavim and in private homes and institutions around the country.

"Meanwhile, the Iraqis’ connection to their mother country is largely intangible. Millennia of Jewish presence has been effectively erased from Iraq, where now eight Jews remain. The last eligible Jewish couple married in Amman, with an Israeli Rabbi, was in 2005. They spent their honeymoon in Jordan, and returned to Baghdad for Rosh Hashanah. A few days later, the bridegroom was kidnapped. After years of silence from the kidnappers, he is assumed dead.

"Despite early struggles to maintain their unique identity, the Iraqi Jews have transposed their culture to Israel. These days, the music of Kuwaiti-Jewish brothers Salah and Daoud Al-Kuwaiti is played all over the Arab world, but it’s in a small hall in Ramat Gan where you’ll hear some of Iraq’s finest musicians play their hit Hadri Chai Hadri, many now in their eighties; and, of course, it’s at Machane Yehuda where you’ll find the best kubbe."

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