Saturday, November 07, 2015

How I taught Jordanians about Jews

Writing in The Forward Elena Habersky tells how she tried to build bridges between Jews and Arabs by teaching her Jordanian pupils about the Jewish presence in the Middle East. But while her efforts are laudable,  one feels she may not have pushed  her pupils to enquire: why are there no Jews left in the Arab Middle East?

A-wa Yemenite music band: Jews speaking Arabic

Once they worked through basic beliefs and doctrines, I decided to push them further in their quest for applying their new knowledge to their lives. I showed them videos of Jews from Syria, Egypt and Yemen, including parts of “The Jews of Egypt,” a documentary released after the Arab Spring, which fostered much discussion. I played them music influenced by Jewish culture from Iraq and Morocco and even Israel, thanks in part to the all-female family band A-WA, whose roots are of Jewish Yemeni origin, and who are finding a small cult following in the Middle East.
“But, Teacher, how are they speaking in Arabic?” my students asked. “They’re Jewish!”

“Yes, and where did we say Judaism originated in the world? Was it not the Middle East?”

Suddenly, they wanted to listen to more music, they wanted to hear more Jews speaking Arabic, and they wanted to know about a history they never dreamed could have existed. Sadly, conflicts and wars have made such stories of Jewish Middle Eastern culture all but forgotten.

One student did not believe me when I told her there used to be a Jewish community in Iraq. Being of Iraqi origin, she said she never heard of Jews who came from her homeland. I pushed her: I told her to ask her grandparents if they knew of any Jews growing up in Baghdad. Almost as if she was determined to prove me wrong, she told me she would ask both her grandparents later that night.

When she came back, it was as if she was in disbelief at the words she was speaking. “My grandfather told me his best friend while growing up was Jewish and my grandmother said that her classroom had many Jewish students who were also her friends. They both seemed sad while telling me. They said they miss them very much, and the way Iraq was — welcoming to all people.”

As this student told her story, the whole class listened very intently, taking in her words. I wondered if any of their grandparents had stories that they carry but never reveal, still too heartbroken to remember a time when diversity seemed more acceptable.

This history must not be lost, or we will lose the memories that once sustained many people in the region. The Palestinian narrative is important and needs to be told. The Jewish history of the Middle East also needs to be told, to bridge a separation that sometimes seems impossible, especially among the youth. Stories are important in the region, and to tell stories is to tell history.

This is how I decided to teach Judaism in Jordan: more than memorization, it was a bridge between religions, people and cultures. By learning the Jewish history of the Middle East, my students were able to see the similarities between Judaism and their own religious traditions, and will be able to use this foundation to initiate conversations with their friends, parents and families.

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