Friday, July 31, 2015

Goren's Egyptian paradise at variance with Aciman's

Jews in Egypt ( Photo: Nebi Daniel)

"Alexandrian Summer is a return to a mythical past, to a lost paradise that was not really a paradise but that, being lost, has, over the years, acquired all the makings of one." So says Andre Aciman in his introduction to the novel  by Yitzhak Gormezano Goren, reproduced in The Tablet. But his own family's last year in Alexandria was anything but paradisiac:

 One’s childhood is always yearned for, and this is young Yitzhak’s—or Robert, as he is called in the book—paradise.

I still remember our last year in Alexandria. By then, our assets had been frozen and my father’s factory nationalized, and even our cars were no longer ours, though we were allowed to drive them. Our days were numbered, and we knew it.

Or did we? My father claimed that he would have remained in Egypt even without an income. Come to think of it I myself could not even conceive of a life outside Egypt. Our living room and in the end even the round room in the back were packed with suitcases, and still all of us were convinced this was all for show, as if by going through the motions of packing and pretending we were indeed leaving, we were merely placating a hostile deity who would, at the last instant, spare us the final leave taking and tell us it was all a test, just a test. We were never going away.

Ironically, that final year is the one I remember best, because it was the most tumultuous I remember my grandmother and her sister, my great aunt, and I remember the bickering with neighbors and the tussles with my brother and the fights between my parents, and the loud screams when our servants fought with those of our neighbors; everyone’s temper was volcanic that year, because it was clear that things were falling apart and that we were on our last legs and still couldn’t believe that the end was near.

But I remember Saturdays. We weren’t religious, though I recall my great aunt turning on the radio loud on Saturday mornings to hear songs in both Yiddish and Ladino. She preferred the Ashkenazi songs and prayers, and to the sound of these songs I remember she would start preparing for Saturday’s lunch, because there were always guests on Saturdays. And even if we didn’t exaggerate the Sabbath spirit, still there was a festive air about the household, and our cook Abdou, who spoke Ladino, would put on his cleanest outfit and utter those few words in Hebrew that he knew far better than I did. In Gormezano Goren’s own words, “A pleasant breeze blew from the sea. The tumult of bathers sounded from afar: Muslims, Christians, and Jews desecrating the Sabbath. On the street, cars honked hysterically. The entire city rumbled and roared, and nevertheless a Sabbath serenity was felt all around.”

Every Alexandrian remembers this way of life and knows it is forever lost. At the very least, Alexandrian Summer gives us one final, splendid season in this mythical metropolis.

Read article in full 

The Jewish lotus-eaters of Alexandria

Israeli artists create virtual Iranian embassy

A plot of land lies vacant in Tel Aviv: it was intended in the 1970s for the Iranian embassy to Israel - before the Ayatollahs' regime declared that the annihilation of Israel was its strategic goal. Now a group of Israeli artists are trying to make the Iranian embassy into more than a pipe-dream. NPR reports:
Israeli artist Matan Pincus sits in the 'Iranian embassy in Jerusalem' (Photo: Daniel Estrin)

Everything in Baradarian's shop seems to remind him of the world he left behind. Take pistachios: The U.S. bans the import of Iranian pistachios; Israel does, too. So, the pistachios in Baradarian's shop come from California.

He says the California variety is second-rate.

"Now that sanctions on Iran are set to be lifted, maybe Iranian pistachios will eventually make their way back onto the market," he says. Even so, he adds, that would not make the nuclear deal with Iran worth it.

"Pistachios won't solve the problem," he says. "Iran says it wants to destroy us."
There's a paradox here: Iran is hostile to the Jewish state, but it also is home to an ancient Jewish community.

Baradarian keeps in touch with his relatives in Iran on the phone and on the Internet. Jews in Iran can travel discreetly, via a third country, to visit relatives in Israel. Some even pack specialty Iranian tea blends to sell to Baradarian.

Small numbers of Iranian Jews are still moving to Israel each year. In an ideal world, they could be a good bridge between Israel and Iran. But an Israeli government spokesman refused to discuss immigration statistics, so as not to anger the Iranian government and endanger Iran's Jewish community.

Kamal Penhasi, a Jewish immigrant in Israel who runs an online magazine in Farsi, says he has readers back in Iran. But he says Iranian regime-affiliated websites have posted his photo and accused him of being an Israeli spy.

"I am a simple citizen, Iranian-Israeli citizen," Penhasi says. "I love my country, I love this country. I hope to see peace between the two nations. That's all."

Relations between Iran and Israel weren't always this bad. During the rule of the Shah in the 1970s, Iran purchased a plot of land in an upscale Tel Aviv district to build a new embassy. Then came the 1979 Iranian Revolution, and diplomatic ties broke off.

That land still belongs to Iran. Today, there's a small playground and benches, but Israel won't let anything be built — in case Iran ever renews ties with Israel and builds its embassy.

Read article in full

Thursday, July 30, 2015

PBS projects reductive Moroccan history


The transcript of a televised PBS report, this article is an example of  how journalists and Moroccan officials work together to write a sloppy and reductive history of the Jews - a mix of half-truths and cliches -  designed to project 'coexistence' and a positive image of the kingdom. My comments in italics:

For many people, Judaism in the Middle East conjures images of discord. But the Islamic nation of Morocco is an exception — it’s a place where Jews are not just tolerated but embraced in some circles as an important part of the country’s history and culture.

Even before the arrival of Islam in Morocco, Jews called this North African coastal nation their home. About 400 years ago, the Moroccan Jewish community forged a strong connection and alliance with the country’s ruling dynasty, the Alaouites.

A gross oversimplification. The so-called philosemitic Moulay Ismael sent his troops into the Meknes mellah to plunder Jewish possessions in order to finance his disastrous war against the Turks in Algiers (Assaraf, p 18). Jews and Muslims suffered from his sons' wars of succession.  The 19th century saw a major wave of Jewish emigration.The push factors include the precariousness and degradation of 'dhimmi' status and the pressure of forced conversion to Islam.

In the 20th century, persecutions across Europe brought new waves of Jewish immigrants to Morocco seeking safe haven. Their hope was not in vain — in 1940, when the Nazi-controlled French government in Morocco issued anti-Semitic decrees, the Alaouite Sultan Mohammed V rejected the racist laws.

In one oft-repeated story, he refused to ask his Jewish subjects to wear the yellow stars. “There are no Jews in Morocco,” he reportedly said. “There are only subjects.”

'Waves' is an exaggeration. And what about the existence of labour camps on Moroccan soil in which Jewish prisoners were tortured to death? The 'yellow star' story is pure legend. It is simply not true that Mohammed V rejected the racial laws, he signed every Vichy decree.

Today in Morocco, Jews enjoy equal rights and privileges. One of King Mohammed VI’s senior advisers, André Azoulay, is Jewish. Morocco also has state-funded Jewish schools and Jewish religious courts.

Andre Azoulay is the King's chief PR adviser, and is responsible for generating articles like this one.

At the Jewish courts, called Bet Din, civil cases are heard and adjudicated by rabbis. Morocco’s Bet Din is the only such Jewish court system outside Israel, officially recognized as an alternative legal body and housed within the same complex as Muslim courts.

Not true: 'Batei Din' exist wherever there is a Jewish community. 

Despite the tolerant atmosphere, Morocco’s Jewish population is steadily decreasing. Although Moroccan Jews are largely free from the persecution and animosity that they may face in other Muslim nations, there was a series of suicide bombings on May 16, 2003 in Casablanca that targeted sites of Jewish life and killed three Jews.

 The decrease has been not steady but quite dramatic, and preceded the 2003 Casablanca terrorist attacks by about 50 years. 

Moroccan Jews have been flowing to Israel, Europe and the Americas for religious reasons, fear of persecution and to better their economic situation. At its height in the 1940s, Morocco’s Jewish population exceeded 250,000; today, only about 4,000 remain.

The Jewish community has mostly abandoned its formerly vibrant existence in Moroccan cities like Tangier, Fez, Salé and Tetouan. Only the city of Casablanca maintains a significant population and is now the center of Moroccan Jewish life.

Casablanca boasts 17 active synagogues, three Jewish schools, an extensive Jewish museum, and a community center that cares for the sick and elderly. But the mellahs (Jewish quarters) of other Moroccan cities stand empty or repurposed.

A semblance of truth, at last. 

Because of the mass exodus, some in Morocco are racing to preserve the country’s Jewish culture and community. At the Jewish Museum in Casablanca, which is the only one in the Arab world, Muslim curator Zhor Rehihil is passing on the history of Morocco’s Jews to all who visit.

Read article in full

Wednesday, July 29, 2015

The Jewish lotus-eaters of Alexandria

 A novel by Yitzhak Gormezano Goren harks back to the paradise of cosmopolitan Alexandria, where Jews raced horses, gambled and hopped from cafe to cafe. Review by Gerald Sorin in Haaretz (with thanks: Lily):

Stanley Beach, Alexandria
In the late 1970s, when Yitzhak Gormezano Goren was working on “Alexandrian Summer,” his first novel, he was young and daring enough to omit allusions to the Holocaust, Palestine and the kibbutz – themes that suffused the novels of great Israeli writers including A. B. Yehoshua, Amos Oz and Aharon Appelfeld. He did not refuse to engage with these prevailing literary motifs or “Zionist questions,” as he has recently called them; he simply chose to write about the world in which he spent the first 10 years of his life – the opulent and glamorous Egyptian city of Alexandria.

By using alternating points of view Goren delivers an arresting story shaped by the same individual, during two periods in his life, 20 years apart. We see, and, through the author’s narrative magic, almost hear the voice of Robby, a 10-year-old boy growing up in an insular, illusory cocoon of upper-middle class Sephardic Jews, and the reminiscences and reflections of Robby as an adult.
Some critics have incorrectly labeled “Alexandrian Summer” as fictionalized autobiography. The novel is certainly self-referential in that the author, like Robby, grew up in Alexandria in a well-to-do family, which – also like Robby’s – fled Egypt in 1951 to transplant itself in Israel. But there is much more in this story that is the product of the author’s imagination.

Readers will be quickly drawn into a city the author describes in lush, voluptuous terms as a “paradise by the sea” where sensuality is pervasive. One could argue that Alexandria itself – and not a thinly disguised Goren, or Robby – is the essential character of this book. Though a boy of sweetly attractive innocence, Robby is simply not the most important figure in the story. The Sephardic Hamdi-Ali clan, including two sons and a daughter, is for the most part the focus of Goren’s rich invention. They, along with Robby’s parents, Salem, an Arab servant, and several gossipy neighbors provide the narrative and the meaning of “Alexandrian Summer.”

We meet the Hamdi-Ali family in 1951 as new summer tenants in Robby’s parents’ spacious house, walking distance from the beach. Joseph Hamdi-Ali, handsome and patriarchal, is a respected famous former jockey. His name and Turkish background, however, are a matter of both wonder and doubt in the minds of other cosmopolitan Jewish vacationers from Cairo, who converse in French, Italian, Spanish, Greek, English and Ladino. Note the absence of Arabic.
Joseph has never recovered from the death of his horse, which he appears to have loved even more than his wife. His thoroughbred gone, his career as a jockey collapsed, he now counts on his eldest son, David, a good-looking, obsessive and arrogant hotshot jockey, to fulfill his hopes. At the same time, Joseph ignores his 11-year-old-son Victor. Often humiliated and sometimes beaten by his distressingly impatient older brother, Victor, suffering and apparently “disturbed,” seduces Robby and his friends into potentially harmful homosexual activities, while several sets of absent parents are busy playing cards or betting on the ponies.

These Alexandria Jews are cosmopolitan, and while not entirely secular, they are more likely to be found gambling, café-hopping and touring, than attending to their children or in the synagogue, even on the Sabbath.

Read article in full (registration required)

Tuesday, July 28, 2015

'Accept the Jewish state, and persecution ceases'

He's an Arab-Israeli-Christian from Jaffa, working as an Israeli foreign ministry diplomat, who has some profound truths about the Middle East to tell Adi Schwartz in The Tablet. The key to change, says George Deek, is 'connected to our ability as Arabs to accept the legitimacy of others.' Read the entire fascinating interview.

 George Deek: 800, 000 Jews intimidated into leaving Arab world

Why, of all jobs and professions he could pick, did Deek chose to align himself with one part of his identity, which is set in such a conflict with other parts of his identity? A key to the answer lies perhaps in the fact that stories like his can happen only in free and open societies. His decision to fight for Israel and pursue the career of a diplomat is in a way a fight for himself—a multilayered persona, struggling to find his own voice in a double minority situation: Arab in a Jewish state and Christian in a predominantly Muslim Arab world. Israel’s survival guarantees his own survival.

“If there is no place in the Middle East for a Jewish State, than there is no place for anyone who is different,” he said. (My emphasis) “And this is why we see today persecution of Yazidis, Christians, Baha’i, Sunni against Shia and vice versa, and even Sunni against other Sunni who do not follow Islam exactly the same way. The key to change is connected deeply to our ability as Arabs to accept the legitimacy of others. Therefore, the Jewish State is our biggest challenge, because it has a different nationality, religion, and culture. Jews pose a challenge because as a minority they insist on their right to be different. The day we accept the Jewish State as it is, all other persecution in the Middle East will cease.
It is clear to him that the problem with Israel, in the eyes of the Arab world, is not its policies but its identity. If Israel were a Muslim state, he says, nobody would care about its policies; after all, most Muslim states treat their citizens much worse, and no Arab cries foul at other abuses, wars or cases of occupation in the Middle East. “You don’t need to be anti-Israeli to acknowledge the humanitarian disaster of the Palestinians in 1948,” he said. “The fact that I have to Skype with relatives in Canada who don’t speak Arabic, or a cousin in an Arab country that still has no citizenship despite being a third generation there, is a living testimony to the tragic consequences of the war.”

But at the same time, he continued, some 800,000 Jews were intimidated into fleeing the Arab world, leaving it almost empty of Jews. And the list goes on: When India and Pakistan were established, about 15 million people were transferred; following World War II some 12 million Germans were displaced; and only recently, more than 2 million Christians were expelled from Iraq. The chances of any of those groups to return to their homes are non-existent.

Why is it then that the tragedy of the Palestinians is still alive in today’s politics? “It seems to me to be so,” he said, “because the Nakba has been transformed from a humanitarian disaster to a political offensive. The commemoration of the Nakba is no longer about remembering what happened, but about resenting the mere existence of the state of Israel.

“It is demonstrated most clearly in the date chosen to commemorate it, May 15, the day after Israel proclaimed its independence. By that the Palestinian leadership declared that the disaster is not the expulsion, the abandoned villages or the exile. The Nakba in their eyes is the creation of Israel. They are saddened less by the humanitarian catastrophe of the Palestinians, and more by the revival of the Jewish state. In other words: they do not mourn the fact that my cousins are Jordanians, they mourn the fact that I am an Israeli.”

Read article in full 

Forget the past, says Arab refugee's son

Monday, July 27, 2015

Mystery solved: missing Jews were murdered

A year after the Mossad declared that eight Jews attempting to flee Iran in 1994 were murdered on their way to Israel, the agency recently learned that three other Jews who left Iran in 1997 met the same fate. YNet News reports: 

Following this discovery, the Rabbinical Court has decided that their wives can be declared as widows, hence allowing them to remarry.

Abrahim Karamani (L), Cyrus Karamani (C), and Nurallah Ravizada
From left: Abrahim Karamani , Cyrus Karamani , and Nurallah Ravizada

Brothers Cyrus and Abrahim Karamani and Nurallah Ravizada left Tehran in February 1997. They were to meet a smuggler at the Pakistani border but never arrived, and no trace of them was found.

Three years before that, eight Jews left Iran in three groups, intending to reach Israel, and went missing. Their relatives, who arrived in Israel via Turkey, claimed over the years that the government was not doing enough to locate the missing people.

A few years ago, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu ordered Mossad Director Tamir Pardo to intensify the investigation into the disappearances.
In March 2014, the Mossad said it found out what happened to the eight people who disappeared in 1994 – they had been caught while escaping and were killed.

The other three missing Iranians' relatives were recently updated on new information that came to light that the three had been captured and killed as well.

The families have requested to meet with the president and prime minister and be officially informed of the news by them.

Yehuda Kasif, who has represented the families for years, said that "after 18 and a half years of intensive, persistent searching, the mystery of the missing Iranians has been solved and the tragic ending have arrived.

Read article in full 

Missing Iranian Jews were murdered

The Damascus rabbi with a mission

 A rabbi of Syrian descent, now living in Israel, is keeping alive the unique heritage and liturgy of the Jews of Damascus. The prayer books he has published, reviving the Damascus rite, have proved a runaway success with Syrian communities the world over. YNet News reports: (with thanks: Jeremy)

"I have a sacred debt, to pass my forefathers' heritage on to my children and grandchildren," Rabbi Chadid says modestly. "It's not a job, not a profession and not an expertise. It's just the grandparents from Damascus speaking through my throat and reliving their lives." The small apartment has a name: The Shaar Binyamin Institute for the study and restoration of the Damascus Jewry's heritage. 

Rabbi Chadid lives with a mission, and he has also turned down offers from different organizations which would have provided him with a building, research budgets and researchers. 

"The difference between me and historians is that they are pathologists while I am a cardiologist. They open the heart and explain – according to their understanding – how it used to work in the past, while I deal with beating hearts, and even if they have become weak, I know why they haven't stopped beating."
Rabbi Chadid was born in Argentina 52 years ago to parents of Syrian descent, and was raised in the country's Damascus communities. When he arrived in Israel after his marriage, he devoted his energy to theoretical religious studies and was asked to teach his unique method at a yeshiva for advanced Talmud studies.

Rabbi Moshe Chadid with scholar Yaakov Atar, one of last people familiar with the Baqashot collection of songs and prayers (photo courtesy of the Shaar Binyamin Institute)

Rabbi Moshe Chadid with scholar Yaakov Atar, one of last people familiar with the Baqashot collection of songs and prayers (photo courtesy of the Shaar Binyamin Institute)

About a decade ago, he was approached by a Mexican businessman from the Assa family, who had an unusual request: There are tens of thousands of Damascus Jews in Israel and in the United States, in Mexico and Argentina, and they don't have an authentic prayer book with the community members' unique laws and prayer versions. Would the rabbi be willing to revive this tradition which is becoming extinct?

Shortly afterwards, a magnificent prayer book called Shaar Binyamin was published by the Ahavat Shalom Institute. The book became a hit, and tens of thousands of its copies became an elementary commodity in the Damascus communities abroad and in Israel.

The success led to the publication of prayer books for the Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur Selichot. The past two years also saw the publication of a Passover Haggadah and prayer book with hundreds of interpretations from Damascus scholars, edited in a new style adapted especially for the young generation. All the books were published in another edition with phonetics and a full translation into Spanish, which also became a hit.

"For years, the communities used the notes kept by the elderly, which included the community's ancient customs. On Yom Kippur, for example, we commemorate the greatest rabbis who served in the city of Damascus in the past, going back up to 300 years, immediately after the Kol Nidrei prayer. The dozens of rabbis with their specific titles are now printed in our Yom Kippur prayer book."

Read article in full

Sunday, July 26, 2015

'The memory of Jews is everywhere in Iraq'

Iraqis look back with sentimentality at the country's vanished Jews,  Emma Sky tells Elhanan Miller of the Times of Israel. In 2007 she spent time in Iraq 'trying to bring peace to the region', a well-nigh impossible task today: (with thanks: Lily)

During her time in Iraq, Sky was surprised by the level of Iraqi sentimentality for the country’s bygone Jewish population. At the start of the twentieth century, Jews were estimated to comprise 40 percent of Baghdad’s population, she noted.

“The memory of Jews in Iraq is everywhere,” Sky said, remarking that Youtube clips of traditional Iraqi music commonly circulated in the county were often preformed by Jews living in Israel. “Iraqis see that their music heritage and some of their culture has been kept alive by Iraqi Jews.”

Top: Emma Sky (second from left) on her tour of duty in Baghdad. Bottom: Kurdish President Masoud Barazani (photo credit: Helene C. Stikkel/Wikimedia Commons) 

 Once, during a visit with Masoud Barazani, President of the autonomous Kurdistan Region in northern Iraq, Sky was told of an emotional meeting between the Kurdish leader and a congressman’s chief of staff of Kurdish-Jewish descent. “The chief of staff said to Barazani: ‘you may not remember me, but we’ve met before. I was the little boy who you helped escape from Iraq,'” she said. The American staffer as well as Barazani’s translator were in tears, Sky wrote in her book, and Barazani himself “struggled to maintain his composure.” During his meeting with Sky, Barazani proudly noted that former Israeli defense minister Yitzhak Mordechai hailed from the next village over. ‘The memory of Jews in Iraq is everywhere,’ Sky said

Those days, sadly, are long gone. Today, with the Islamic State gaining control over vast tracts of land in northern and western Iraq, it is doubtful whether Iraq even exists as a state today. It is not only the Jews — who composed the Babylonian Talmud in the land between the two rivers 1,500 years ago — who are now extinct from Iraq, but increasingly also Christian and other minorities whose existence can be traced back millennia.

Read article in Full

Pardon me, Ms Sky, but Point of No Return can report that your story has been embroidered and garbled in the telling. The Congressman's chief-of-staff was in fact not a Kurdish Jew, but Edwin Shuker, a Baghdad-born Jew now living in north London, who had offered to act as the congressman's translator. Masoud Barazani was one of the Kurds helping to smuggle Jews out of Iraq at the time. Edwin was 16. See this article:

"Shuker has since made several trips back to Iraq, visiting the sites of the Jewish school, his family’s synagogue, and his family’s former home. In 2006, he accompanied an American congressman on an official tour, acting as his interpreter and meeting with government officials. Shuker addresses the Herzilya Conference of Justice for Jews from Arab Countries in February 2009. As the American delegation met with Masoud Barzani, the then newly-elected president of Iraqi Kurdistan, Shuker mentioned that the two had met before, when Barzani had smuggled Shuker and his family to safety. As Shuker tells it, when the two embraced, even the American officials had tears in their eyes."

Read article in full 

Will the fate of Iraq's Jews soon befall others?

Lamenting the destroyed Jerusalem temple

With thanks: American Sephardi Federation

Rabbi David Edri leads the Ensemble of Payytanim from Ashdod’s Center for Piyyut and Shira in a traditional kinah (lamentation), sung on the night of the 9th of Av, according to the Spanish-Moroccan tradition.

Friday, July 24, 2015

Iranian Jew: " We plan and God laughs"

Moving piece in the Jewish Journal by Afshine Emrani expressing how Jews from Iran are torn between their love of Israel and love of Iran. Nevertheless, the vast majority of Iranian Jews in the US, like Jews in Israel, are opposed to President Obama's nuclear deal with Iran.

Jewish children in Purim costume in pre-revolutionary Iran

My father served the ‪‎Iranian‬ government for over thirty years.

With the majority of his friends and colleagues ‪Muslim‬, few ‪‎Persian‬ Jews know of him now.

He pulled himself out of poverty, away from the misery of losing his own father at a young age. He reached one of the highest positions a ‪‎Jew‬ had achieved in 1979.

All his savings went to buy a beautiful apartment complex in ‪Tehran‬. We lived on the first floor, with a large backyard, a garden and an empty pool. The other four floors above were rented out, as he waited for his four sons to grow up, get married and take one floor each, keeping the ‪‎family‬ nucleus intact, so that he could finally enjoy what he did not have as a child.

As happens in life, we plan and ‪God‬ laughs- but I think God has a full-on belly laugh with Jews.

His adult life was dedicated to strengthening Iran, advancing its mining, engineering, infrastructure. I still hear the sounds of the water canal running next to our home, how we left the door wide open so that the breeze would usher in the smell of the air mixed with the droplets of the roaring water, music to his ears.

He lost it all with the ‪‎revolution‬.

We, Jews of Iran, are ‪‎torn‬ on so many levels, it is hard to explain. We love the people of Iran. We love Israel. We are Jews before we belong to any country. We are American. We hate oppressive regimes. We detest those who wish our destruction. Still every generation rises up to destroy us. We are diverse.

So when an ‪‎American‬ president (for whom the majority of Jews voted twice) pushes a deal that can potentially harm the people of Iran and the people of Israel and the people of ‪America‬- ‪‎wounds‬ open, bleed, sizzle and make ours eyes tear.
I now realize why that pool was left empty.

Read article in full 

US Iranian Jews: we blame ourselves

Tisha' b 'Ab with the Jews of Aden

This is  an  Ashkenazi traveller's account of his visit to  the main synagogue in Aden in the 1950s (courtesy of JJAC) during the 9th of Ab, which falls this Saturday ( but is postponed till Sunday).  This is the saddest festival in the Jewish calendar, mourning the destruction of the two Jewish temples in Jerusalem and other disasters in Jewish history.
Model of the synagogue in Crater, Aden

"At night, a scene right out of the Arabian Nights meets me in the synagogue for the Tisha B'Av services. The men wear red fezzes, are dressed in white, flowing robes, and are followed by their sons and grandsons. Clusters of these families place themselves comfortably in various spots of the synagogue. The grandfather, patriarchally placed in the middle, sits on a carpet, sometimes barefoot, resting against a high cushion or box; next to him his son, also a little on the heavy side, but without the elder's flowing white beard and side curls.

Around the group are children, usually barefoot, of all ages, of whom the youngest will soon fall asleep while the older ones compete with the grownups in chanting the Kinot. With the synagogue built for a community of thousands, only a few hundred are left; the enormous spaciousness of the basilica-type synagogue leaves room for approximately fifty adults and an equal number of children to disappear into their respective corners.

 "For the youngsters, it is like Purim or Simchat Torah. Happy groups of boys in holiday dress, barefoot, with Israeli-made skullcaps on their heads, run back and forth. Then a stern looking young man with a red fez and black beard lets his rod out through the air with a whistling sound, but miraculously misses the children each time he charges into the groups. For a while he gets them to congregate at the foot of the Ark and even gets them to chant a few lines, but soon they are dispersed again in mirth, to the charging of the melamed.

Richly-decorated Torah tik at the Museum of Adeni Jews, Tel Aviv

"Behind the bars along the east wing, women are following the services in a darkened hall. I noticed that their faces are uncovered, although their heads are covered by kerchiefs. Surrounded by Moslems whose married women are literally mummified from head to toe, it must have required enormous strength of character on the part of the Jews not to force their women into adopting similar garb.

 "As the reading of the Lamentations proceeds, I am struck by the peculiar Yemenite pronunciation applied. Each komatz is pronounced as an 'o' and eachcholem is pronounced—similar to the Lithuanian manner—as an 'ay.' (A typical Oriental differentiation between the aleph and ayin, between kof and qof, between the 'hard' and 'soft' sounds, is observed. This mixture of Oriental consonants and 'Lithuanian' vowels creates a rather weird-sounding Hebrew.)

"After the services, as a group of worshippers gathers around me for conversation, I query them about this. They reply that their forefathers have lived in Aden for over two thousand years and that they have no other pronunciation.

When I asked them why their cemetery as well as their synagogue faces north and not east, they shake their heads in wonderment, since they have never heard of another direction other than north for praying and burying their dead. After all, Aden is practically due south of Israel. I am informed about their institutions, their yeshivot for boys up to the age of fifteen, their shechitah. I meet their rabbi, Rav Zecharyahu, a venerable sage with a long white beard and wise, knowing eyes. I hear complaints about the unhappy lot of the approximately one thousand Jews still living in neighboring Yemen, whose king refuses them the right to emigrate."

Tunisian memories of the 9th of Av

Thursday, July 23, 2015

Tunisian memories of the 9th of Ab

On this Sunday falls the saddest day in the Jewish calendar: the 9th of Ab, also known as Yom Ekha. Sephardi and Mizrahi customs differ slightly for this period of mourning for the two destroyed  Jewish temples and other calamities to befall the Jewish people. Only in Tunisia, however, does the 9th of Ab have a special name. Writing in Harissa, Dr Victor Hayoun recalls his childhood memories of how 9th of Ab was marked in Tunis.

In Tunis, the 9th day of Av is Nhar-Ekha, named for the book (of Lamentations  by the prophet Jeremiah,  about the destruction of the First Temple) which  we read on that day in the synagogue.

In Tunisia, and only in Tunisia it seems to me, it is also called Nhar-Eguein. It is not easy to trace the origin of the name and several 'wise men' to whom I posed the question, could not give me a satisfactory answer. The most likely is that the word comes from the Hebrew: Yaguen would be short for "Hashem yaguen a'leinou" (God protect us), in the same way as "shimassilinou"is a distortion of Hashem yatsilénou (God forbid) when one lists the 10 Plagues of Egypt at the Passover seder. Would we be the only Jewish community to wish for protection on that day against all the misfortunes that have befallen the Jewish people?  In English we would say: Never Again.

 My childhood memories of that fateful day were full of violent scenes and the sufferings of our people throughout its history. The holy texts tell us they all took place on the  9th of Av. All the infamous figures, whose cruelty my father described to me, merged into one: from Amalek, through to Nebuchadnezzar, Torquemada, Titus and others. The Shoah had not yet taken up its place in our collective memory.

In my little world it was hard to rank all these wicked sorcerers according to time and place. My space was my small town, and my protagonists were toy soldiers that I placed on the battlefield, ours against the evil ones.

Our Arab neighbors, whose conduct toward us ranged from sincere fraternity to humiliation and even pogroms (Gabes  1941 was still fresh in my young memory), had sharpened my childish feeling that we were tolerated by the 'masters of the place' and they could get so angry as to make my status precarious. My destiny was not in the hands of my father.

Around the 9th of Av, all the villains inhabited my nightmares. I saw the synagogue square on fire, I saw the Romans who tortured Rabbi Akiva and his disciples, while others killed Hannah and her seven sons. Beside them, I saw our Arab neighbors who had murdered my uncle Azzar and his daughter, while others danced with  Torquemada
around a bonfire. Above all, you could hear the cries of the Jews who were fleeing in search of refuge.

These images of desolation were accompanied by the daily routine that preceded that fateful day. For three weeks we did not eat meat, my mother no longer washed the  couscous, it was  coarse and less spicy. The only consolation was the fish which she prepared in different ways.

The meal of the day before the fast was made up of  squash with lentils with a boiled egg. My father symbolically sprinkled a few ashes (a sign of mourning), instead of salt.

Later I accompanied him to  the synagogue. The floor was covered with mats (h'ssira). All were sitting on the floor. Sometimes we heard someone scold children who had dared climb on the benches. In the evening, my father slept on a mat outside his bedroom. He had a stone for a pillow.

The next day we were not allowed to touch any metallic object, especially not a knife, until after 1 pm, the time of "th'alett essaqina".

 All prayers were  lamentations  whispered in a  monotone. I have seen men weeping as they prayed.

I remember that in the synagogue there was a large framed map which included the countries bordering the Mediterranean. My father pointed to me one day, two distant points on the map."On the right", he said, "is Jerusalem, on the top left is Rome whose soldiers  burned the Beit Hamikdash and destroyed our holy city." I will never forget what he then said: "Jerusalem will be rebuilt on the day Rome falls. "

I'm sure he knew that ancient Rome no longer existed and that the Jerusalem of the 1940s was taking back its place in the world, but my dear father repeated what preceding generations had told him. Unfortunately, he died a few months after the declaration of the state of Israel, just two days before the 9th of Av.

Read article in full (French)

Something light for Tisha B'Ab

Wednesday, July 22, 2015

BDS is all about denying Jewish rights

 BDS - the Palestinian movement to ostracise Israel - speaks of rights, but is all about the denial of the Jewish right of self-determination. There's a term for that, Ben Dror Yemini writes in i24 News - 'politicide'.

 Above: BDS founder Omar Barghouti. Right: Ben Dror Yemini
A century ago, my grandmother came from Sana'a in Yemen to Israel. She did not know about "Palestine", because at that time no such entity existed. What did exist then was the Ottoman Empire. My grandmother ran away because she was widowed and had she remained in Yemen, my father, who was a baby at the time, would have been forced to convert to Islam.

I remembered these things when I read the words of Omar Barghouti, one of the leaders of the anti-Israel boycott movement BDS, in an interview with Le Monde, about the Jews in Arab countries. Does he have any idea what he's talking about? Does he really have no idea about the centuries of discrimination and persecution? Does he have no idea about the many pogroms and blood libels by Muslims against Jews, before Zionism and before the establishment of Israel?

The Grand Mufti of Jerusalem, Haj Amin al-Husseini, who was the most prominent leader of the Palestinian Arabs for decades before the establishment of Israel, was a Nazi who collaborated with Hitler. He lived in Berlin during World War II, encouraged the Nazis to kill more and more Jews, and planned to destroy all Jews from Arab countries, if only he would have a chance to fulfill his dream.
Al-Husseini is the man who opposed any compromise with the Jewish community, and led the opposition to the partition plan of the United Nations. He is responsible for the Nakba (as the Palestinians call their defeat in 1948) more than anyone else.

The main demand of the BDS movement is the "right of return" (of Palestinians to Israel). Well, in Europe alone after World War II, more than 20 million people were displaced. Millions of Germans, Czechs, Hungarians, Poles, Romanians and Ukrainians. Does anyone seriously think that the Poles who were deported from Ukraine have a "right of return" to Ukraine? Implementation of the "right of return" would cause chaos. Europe does not need it. Nor does the Middle East.

Towards the end of the Second World War, Winston Churchill made it clear in a speech in parliament: “Expulsion is the method which will be the most satisfactory and lasting. There will be no mixture of populations to cause endless trouble… A clean sweep will be made. I am not alarmed by these transferences.”

This was the norm of those years. Some 52 million people became refugees in the first half of the last century. How many were granted the "right of return"? The answer is zero. So of what right does Barghouti speak? He obviously forgets that hundreds of thousands of Jews were expelled from Arab countries and their property was confiscated. They have no right of return and their property will not be returned, just as the property of ethnic Germans and Poles and Ukrainians and Czechs and Slovaks and Hungarians was not returned. Why should the dynamics in the case of the Palestinians be any different?

Refugees appealed to the European Court of Human Rights. Their claim was rejected, just as the claims of refugees from the 1940s were rejected before. Does Barghouti, who deals with refugees and their return, not recognize these precedents? Strange.

The problem with BDS is that it is the greatest tragedy of the Arab-Israeli conflict in general, and of Palestinians, in particular. BDS speaks of rights, but its main purpose is the denial of the right of Jews to self-determination.
Barghouti wants to abolish the existence of Israel. It's called "politicide". He invites the Jews to live in harmony, as a minority, under Arab or Muslim rule. Is he serious? Given that the Middle East has in recent years turned into a huge bloodbath, in which each tribe, minority or not minority slaughters any slightly different tribe - Barghouti's proposal is a fantasy.

Read article in full 

Why Jewish refugees are the correct response to BDS (JPost blog)

BDS's useful idiots at Haaretz  (YNet News)

Tuesday, July 21, 2015

In the footsteps of the lost Jews of Baghdad

 King Faisal (front, second from left) visiting Jewish dignitaries in Baghdad

The expulsion of the Jews of Iraq has presaged the expulsion of other minorities. The whole fabric of Iraq has since begun to unravel. Voice of Israel 's Judy Lash Balint talks with Middle East analyst Dr. Jonathan Spyer about his recent trip to Iraq. The second half of the broadcast deals with the impact of the Iranian deal will have on the country.

Spyer, senior research fellow at the Rubin Center for Research in International Affairs and a fellow at the Middle East Forum, describes his time in the neighbourhood which formerly held Baghdad’s Jewish community. Poor Shi'as who knew nothing about the former inhabitants have since flooded into the Jewish quarters of Baghdad.

 He tells Judy that the 1950s expulsion of Iraq Jewry was a portent of the tribalism and sectarian hatred that lay ahead. Today, similar forces of chaos are gaining power and tearing the country to pieces. Spyer says that the easing of economic sanctions against Iran is a disastrous step for Iraq and Middle East stability.

Hear broadcast in full

Revisiting the ghosts of Old Baghdad

Monday, July 20, 2015

Israeli melting pot is a success for Mizrahim

Prof. Momi Dahan

Prof. Momi Dahan, pictured in 2012: "I am happy to be the researcher who announces the success of the melting pot on the economic front as well." (Photo : Ofer Vaknin)

The question of ethnic origin keeps popping up in Israel, but divisions have so narrowed between Ashkenazim and Mizrahim that the Israeli economic and social melting pot can be declared a success, says Moroccan-born professor Momi Dahan. The next challenge is for Arabs, the ultra-orthodox and Ethiopian Israelis to integrate as well. Article by Anat Georgi in Haaretz (with thanks: Lily)

Ethnic discrimination isn’t what it used to be, it seems. “In my opinion, the issue of ethnic origin is getting much more attention than its real dimensions warrant,” says Prof. Momi Dahan. “I think I represent a lot of Israelis when I say I see myself first and foremost as Israeli. I have no longing for Morocco, where I was born. Morocco was exile and it’s good that its Jews chose sovereign life in the State of Israel,” the professor said, wrapping up his lecture at the BSc graduation ceremony at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem last month. 

Life in Israel isn’t like life in the Islamic nations from where the Mizrahi Jews came. Nor is it like in the countries where Ashkenazim came from. Nobody in any of those places spoke Hebrew, points out Dahan, who emigrated with his family from the Moroccan city of Beni Mellal in May 1963, when he was 2. The family settled in the northern Israeli town of Migdal Ha’emek. Following are excerpts from his lecture. 

The democratic Jewish state is a new invention, said Dahan, elaborating that neither the Jews coming from eastern Europe over the past 100 years, nor the Jews from Libya, for instance, could have brought democracy with them – their countries of origin didn’t have any. “Jews in Tunisia or Hungary lived in concentrated economies planned from above,” he said, but Israel developed a combination of a market economy with some sort of welfare state. 

“In other words, the special creation known as the State of Israel isn’t Ashkenazi or Mizrahi,” he explained. “The State of Israel is a new entity created in a melting pot. I am happy to be the researcher who announces the success of the melting pot on the economic front as well.” 

Dahan lectures on public policy at the Hebrew University and the Israel Democracy Institute. He researches equality in Israel, most recently focusing on whether or not the “melting pot” succeeded on the economic front. His conclusion may surprise, given the tone of the public debate in Israel: it did, he claims. 

“I have to admit, I approached this research rather hesitantly,” said Dahan. “Ethnic origin is supposed to be a thing of the past. But every time one thinks it’s gone, it keeps popping up.” 

Accusations bandied about in recent elections shows that discrimination, or the perception thereof, remain hot-button issues. 

Economic gaps between Mizrahim and Ashkenazim are a measure of social mobility in Israel, said Dahan: “Studying economic mobility can reveal barriers, if any, that prevent certain population groups from realizing their economic potential.” 

Economic mobility also affects solidarity, the professor added. “If the members of a specific group believe their economic road is blocked off, or partially blocked, they can’t be expected to show empathy for the ones perceived as being responsible for those barriers.” 

A great deal of research has been done on gaps between the ethnic groups in Israel throughout the nation’s existence. After it all, Dahan concluded that “the gap between the two ethnic groups has vanished, or is continuously narrowing, in a lot of areas … One of the main demonstrations of the closing gaps in a noneconomic area is intermarriage between groups. The number of mixed families relative to the population doubled between the 1950s and ’90s.”

In the distant past, households originating from the Islamic states tended to have big families, while the Jews coming from Christian nations had smaller ones, Dahan said. Despite expectations that the difference in the number of children per family would take a very long time to disappear, in reality it did so by the 1970s. Equating family sizes helped reduce economic gaps between Mizrahim and Ashkenazim, too.

“Various studies have also shown a significant reduction in the gap between the political representation of ethnic groups,” added Dahan. “The first Knesset had a negligible percentage of Mizrahi Knesset members. But this proportion grew until the 15th Knesset, elected in 1999, in which the proportion of Mizrahim was about the same as their representation in the population. The gap also decreased in the representation of Mizrahim in senior army ranks,” Dahan added.

As the gap between the two ethnic groups closed in various areas of life, the stagnation on the economic front was even more pronounced, he said. Indeed, it seemed to be the most stubborn disparity of all: “Study after study showed that the large income gaps between Ashkenazim and Mizrahim had not closed, and sometimes even expanded over the years. The first studies, in the 1960s, found large economic disparities between the two ethnic groups among the immigrant generation new to the country. Worse, these studies showed that income disparities between the groups was greater than warranted by educational gaps.”

When Israel was young, people at least took comfort in the thought that the gaps were between new immigrants. But a second wave of studies done in the 1970s and ’80s painted a dismal picture, Dahan told the audience.

“A disturbing finding arose from these research papers: that the economic disparities between Mizrahim and Ashkenazim – this time those born in Israel – not only hadn’t shrunk, it was wider than found in the previous generation,” said Dahan.

Again, the wage differentials were larger differences than differences in education would have called for, “probably because of the discrimination against Mizrahim in the labor market.

“The definition of Ashkenazim and Sephardim in my research is based on continent of birth, as was the case in previous studies,” explained Dahan. “A person is defined as Mizrahi if he or his father were born in Asia or Africa, and a person is defined as Ashkenazi if he or his father were born in Europe or America. Alongside these two ethnic groups, I defined four additional social groups: the third generation born in Israel; Arabs; the ultra-Orthodox; and immigrants who made aliyah to Israel in 1990 and thereafter.”

The definition based on geographical origin is far from perfect, he admitted. “Ostensibly, defining origin based only on the father’s continent of birth could create a bias in estimating the economic gap, because of intermarriage. But the fear of such bias vanishes because the number of Mizrahi men who married Ashkenazi women is about the same as the number of Ashkenazi men who married Mizrahi women. (...)

From the mid-1990s, the economic gap between the groups began to narrow, Dahan noted.

In 2011, the net average income of a household originating in Asia or Africa was 73% of that of a household originating in Europe or the United States, compared with 60% in 1994-1995. The gap remains large (about 25%), but it’s smaller than it used to be.

Mizrahim have also gained greater representation among the wealthy. In the last 10 years – for the first time in Israeli history – their representation in the uppermost 10% is equal to their proportion in the population.

Behind the diminishment of the economic gap lie two developments. The first is that the education of Mizrahim born in Israel improved faster than that of Ashkenazim born in Israel. New colleges, supplementing the universities, also helped Mizrahim climb the wage ladder. The second development was that Mizrahi women began joining the job market and fulfilling a central role in breadwinning.

Since skilled jobs paid so much more than unskilled ones, Mizrahim were motivated to invest in study, Dahan said; the rising “return on education” helped lower the barriers that had kept higher education out of bounds.

“There’s no question that the State of Israel didn’t receive the Jews from the Islamic nations with open arms, yet they managed to climb up the economic and social ladder after their arrival in Israel nonetheless,” said Dahan.

The professor went on to quote an article by Aryeh Gelblum, that appeared in Haaretz in 1949, a year after Israel’s establishment: “This is immigration by a race we hadn’t seen in Israel before. There seem to be differences between people from Tripoli, Morocco, Tunisia and Algeria, though I cannot say I have managed to learn the substance of these differences, if there are any. They say, for instance, that the people of Tripoli and Tunisia are ‘better,’ and the Algerians, Moroccans and Maghrebi Jews are ‘worse.’ But usually the problem is the same … what we have before us is people of record primitivity. Their level of education borders on absolute ignorance, and worse is their lack of skill in taking in anything spiritual.”

Gelblum went on to write that, in contrast to any “bad human material” from Europe, there was no hope for the children of these immigrants, either. Yet Gelblum was no writer from the lunatic fringe: there’s even a street named after him in Tel Aviv.

“My research shows that Gelblum was completely wrong,” Dahan said. “The children of the people from the Islamic nations integrated marvelously well, despite the discrimination against their parents. They not only integrated, but contributed to shaping the present State of Israel.”

The challenge for the next 50 years, concluded Dahan, will be for the Arabs, ultra-Orthodox and Ethiopian Israelis to do the same – integrate into Israel’s social and economic scene.

Read article in full (Registration required)

A dose of Neanderthal realism

Sunday, July 19, 2015

US Iranian Jews: 'we blame ourselves'

In the aftermath of the signing of the nuclear deal with Iran,  Iranian Jews in US blame themselves for not being more vocal about the dangerous politics and goals of the regime, for fear of reprisals against the 10, 000 Jews still in Iran. Karmel Melamed reports in the Jewish Journal:

Detail from the Mullah Jacobs synagogue, Isfahan

Not all Iranian Americans opposed the negotiations at their start, according to Sam Yebri, an attorney and co-founder of 30 Years After, an organization created to engage a younger generation of Jewish Iranian Americans. “Most Iranian Americans welcomed these negotiations at the outset as providing a glimmer of hope that Iran was willing to change its ways as the West was prepared to use its leverage as robustly as possible. Those of us who understand or lived under the Islamic Republic of Iran, we sensed an opportunity, an opening for change,” he said. Yet, “This deal closed the door on any opportunity to transform Iran for the better.”

Yebri added, “The only beneficiaries of this deal will be Iran and its allies Hezbollah and [Syrian President Bashar] Assad and the Russians.”
Many Iranian-Jewish leaders in Los Angeles have long been hesitant to criticize the current Iranian regime for fear of reprisals by the Iranian regime against the nearly 10,000 Jews still living in Iran. Nevertheless, some activists in the local Iranian Jewish community have been very vocal in their efforts to educate Americans about the dangerous nature of the Iranian regime. Some of those expressed concern that the community had not advocated strongly enough against any deal with the Iranians.

“I, for one, blame us, as the Persian-Jewish community, for not being more vocal about these issues of Iran,” Simon Etehad, an Iranian-Jewish attorney and L.A.-area activist, said Tuesday. “We know the politics and goals of the Iranian regime, yet we put our heads in the sand and pretend that everything is fine and dandy — well, it is far from that.”

Frank Nikbakht, a leader of the L.A.-based Committee for Minority Rights in Iran, said the current Iran nuclear deal will embolden the Iranian regime through newfound economic relief in the lifting of sanctions, despite the regime’s heinous human-rights record against the people of Iran.

“Internally, with all the inequalities and atrocities remaining in place, this agreement enhances the regime’s legitimacy, wealth and dictatorial power over a people who will have to deal with an imminent inflationary economy, a higher degree of ruling-class arrogance and a financial corruption surpassing even today’s incredible levels,” Nikbakht said.

David Nahai, an Iranian-American Jewish community member and former L.A. Department of Water and Power chief, said, “If there ever was a deal in history that required robust scrutiny because of the unimaginable consequences of getting things wrong, it is this one. For that reason, I commend the president for seeking congressional approval of this deal … because we can be looking at 100 pages of snakes in the grass here, and we owe it to posterity to have a thorough examination of all the repercussions that are being proposed.

Read article in full

Friday, July 17, 2015

Leading intellectual Raphael Drai dies

 With thanks: Veronique
Professor Raphael Drai

The leading French public intellectual Raphael Drai died today, aged 73. He had been suffering from cancer for some time.

 Born in Constantine, Algeria, Raphael Drai was sent by his father to France in 1961 for fear that he might be conscripted in the OAS (pied noir militia).

 He was a university professor of politics and became dean of the law and politics faculty at the university of Amiens. In 1998 he began teaching in Marseille and Aix-en Provence.

He blended political science with psychoanalysis and was well-versed in Judaism. A disciple of Emmanuel Levinas, Andre Neher and Eliane Amado Levy-Valensi, he was a great believer in interfaith dialogue.

 He was a firm critic of Shlomo Sand, Noam Chomsky and Elie Barnavi, accusing them of undermining Israel's legitimacy.

In 2014, this prolific author launched himself into writing for the theatre. The subject of his play INRI, le procès de Jésus was Jesus.

Raphael Drai is survived by his wife and two children. He is expected to be buried in Israel where his daughter lives.

Memories of Constantine (French)

Claudia Roden, hummus queen of north London

Make hummus, not war! Is Claudia Roden's watchword. The Egyptian-Jewish cookery writer, profiled in The Financial Times,  is responsible for launching exotic ingredients on to the British market. It is a pity she repeats the Palestinian claim that Israel stole their land,  food and cuisine, without also insisting that Jews in the Middle East have been eating hummus for centuries, and that she is a dispossessed refugee from Egypt.

Claudia Roden: 'food opens doors' (photo: The Guardian)

As a young Egyptian Jew in London, Claudia Roden could not have foreseen that she would help kick-start the British nation’s love affair with hummus.

Roden’s family fled to the UK during the 1956 Suez Crisis when the Jews were expelled from Egypt, leaving behind their fortune and their home. After just over a decade of banishment Roden published her opus A Book of Middle Eastern Food.
The doyenne of culinary writing, and mother of three, is credited with introducing such foreign and then unknown delights as tahini and falafel, sumac and tabbouleh, cumin and cardamom to the staid English dining table.
Born in 1936 to an old Syrian-Jewish merchant family, Roden grew up among the leafy streets and 19th-century villas of Zamalek island in central Cairo.
While guttural Arabic was the language of the people, Roden spoke French, Italian and English at home. Her grandmother talked soothingly to her in Ladino, the tongue of the Sephardic Jews driven from Spain in 1492.

We meet on a blustery London day and Roden dishes up an impromptu lunch of warming pumpkin soup, scallops and seared salmon in her Hampstead Garden home. She speaks of the “mosaic” of Cairene Jews: her family hailed from Istanbul and Aleppo, where her great-grandfather Haham Abraham ha Cohen Douek fathered 26 children).
“It was a time of tolerance,” Roden insists. “I remember a time of great happiness and not a cloud. Well, suddenly things go wrong.”
Roden was sent to Paris aged 15 for school and later to London’s St Martin’s School of Art. After her parents were drummed out of their homeland they joined her in the UK. Suddenly destitute, she quit studying to work. Three years later she married Paul Roden, a clothes importer of Russian descent.
“It was traumatic to think we would never go back and we would lose everybody,” she says. “We were a community, a very big extended family. We thought everybody was a relative in Cairo and Alexandria.”
Making matters worse was “the horror of the food!” recoils Rod
en. “Macaroni cheese and fish in a white sauce. Everything looked beige: pale, creamy beige — there was no colour. Hardly any tomatoes, hardly any peppers, no aubergine.”
Friends and family dropped by on the way to new lives scattered across the globe. Cuisine, once prepared by chefs, became central to the banished who exchanged recipes saying: “I’ll give you this cake so you remember me.”
Roden started to jot down dishes. Into her cookbook — lovingly bolstered by folk tales, rituals, and a record of a recipe’s roots — went her grandmother’s pies stuffed with eggplant and spinach and ful medames, a street food of puréed brown beans.
After nine years of research, Roden published A Book of Middle Eastern Food in 1968, just one year after the six-day war. Familiarising a sceptical public with strange ingredients from a conflict-ridden region was no easy task.
“When I wrote aubergine, I explained they were baby marrows. I can’t believe that now!” she exclaims. “I would say pitta bread is ‘bread with a pouch’.”
Now pushing her eighth decade, Roden lives where she has always lived: in Hampstead, north London, close by communities of Orthodox Jews and African and Middle Eastern immigrants. Her home — where she raised her children on her own following her divorce — is a rambling 1906 Arts and Crafts house.
There is a wild unkempt garden and a cosy kitchen decked with Portuguese tiles and a chunky wooden table where, after lunch, she serves Earl Grey tea with biscuits from Marks and Spencer.
Over the years Roden claims many supermarkets have based their recipes — stuffed vine leaves or cheese filo triangles — on Roden’s dozens of cookbooks. In the 1960s “you couldn’t buy filo pastry or couscous”. As her debut work became a bestseller the supermarkets “started asking me what they should stock — gradually they even had harissa”.
Today Roden is not precious about her concoctions, such as her celebrated orange and almond cake, since adapted by chefs such as Nigella Lawson. Roden reasons: “It wasn’t originally mine — it was actually my sister-in-law’s grandma’s. So you can’t appropriate a recipe.”
If anything, Roden chaffs against a “culture demanding creativity and innovation — that every chef has to make his own mark”. By contrast she wants to connect with the past.
“You can follow the route of a dish. I could know where somebody came from, even which town, by their version of a dish,” says Roden, adding, somewhat wistfully: “Or I could. Now everything is mixed up.”
With her almond eyes, tan skin, and whiff of exoticism, people often ask Roden if she feels British. “And they think I should because I’ve been here for more than 55 years. But I am international and so is London. So I belong here better than anywhere else.” Still, Roden “feels Egyptian of the Egypt that was. It’s not the same any more.”
Last year, the writer contributed dishes to London’s inaugural pop-up Conflict Kitchen alongside the Israeli chef Yotam Ottolenghi. Breaking bread together was proffered as a way of breaching cultural divides (it does not always work; last November Pittsburgh’s Conflict Kitchen had to temporarily close after receiving threats).
Roden, though, is adamant about the power of food to appease, appearing in the 2012 documentary Make Hummus Not War. Over the years this seemingly innocuous concoction of mashed chickpeas has had significant bite — and become a symbol for cultural combat in the Middle East. Adopted by the Israelis in the 1950s as a national dish, many Arabic countries counter it as their own.
“The thing is there is now a lot of anger — where Palestinians feel that the Jews have not only stolen their land but their food, their cuisine, their culture,” says Roden. Yet in the Middle East, where Roden still travels, amid Islam’s “culture of hospitality”, “food opens doors”.
She confides: “It’s wonderful to be going into their kitchens: kitchens are a place of intimacy where they open up and tell you things that they wouldn’t in their living room.”
Back in her own kitchen, Roden is extolling the virtues of molokhia, green leaves mixed with chicken, rabbit or duck into a thick soup. The chef admits that molokhia’s glutinous, slippery texture can be off-putting for outsiders.
But it “makes me and all the exiles go aahhh — you know, very, very excited and nostalgic. Oh, I adore it!” she exclaims, raising her hands to the heavens. “I go crazy for it. At the last minute they fry crushed coriander and garlic — and this is the smell of Egypt.”

Thursday, July 16, 2015

Persian Jews moved to Jerusalem in 19th c

It is not generally known that Persian Jews (like Bokharan and Yemenite Jews) arrived in Jerusalem in the 19th century before the first aliyah of Zionist pioneers from Eastern Europe. They were very pious but desperately poor. Fascinating piece by Aviva Bar-Am in the Times of Israel (with thanks: Michelle; Lily):

The first wave of Iranian immigrants to reach Jerusalem arrived in 1886, inspired by the revered Rabbi Aharon HaCohen. Most of them came from the city of Shiraz, and had made the month-long journey to the port at Bushar by foot, on camels and atop donkeys, women and children riding in pack saddles on either sides of the same beast. Once they arrived, they waited for a ship that would take them to their yearned-for destination.

After disembarking in Jaffa, and kissing its “holy” ground with gusto, they traveled to Jerusalem. The city’s two established communities – Yiddish-speaking Ashkenazim from Eastern Europe and Ladino-speaking Sefaradim from Spain and Portugal – had a hard time believing that the newcomers, with their strange language, exotic customs and dark skins, were actually Jewish.

Unfortunately, while Ashkenazis and Sephardis had already set up bustling neighborhoods for other immigrants, they felt no obligation towards these newcomers from the east.

A tin house in Shevet Tzedek (Shmuel Bar-Am)

A tin house in Shevet Tzedek (Shmuel Bar-Am)

Too poor to buy property or to build homes, the Parsim squatted on an empty plot next to Mishkenot Sha’anamim (the first Jewish neighborhood outside the Old City walls). But their shacks and tents created such an eyesore that they were soon evicted and they ended up in a make-shift transit camp. Lacking building materials, penniless, they took enormous, empty tin gasoline cans, separated the sides, smoothed them out and stood them up to form walls. That’s why their earliest neighborhood, officially called Shevet Tzedek, is known far and wide as the Tin Neighborhood.

If you lived in Shevet Tzedek, you walked on dirt floors and slept in beds made of wooden crates pushed together. Your mattress would consist of rags and tattered clothes, which you would also use as bedcovers when it got cold. Yet this was a vibrant, crowded quarter teeming with life – and a characteristic eastern aura.
And, poverty-stricken or not, the Iranians were deeply religious. They needed a synagogue where they could pray in their own special style and hear sermons in Persian. So they erected P’tachiya, the first Iranian synagogue in Jerusalem.

P’tachiya was built in 1894 as a simple hut whose permanent walls were added one by one whenever the destitute residents were able to come up with a donation. There was no money for a floor, and they stood on a layer of dirt – but they did get their hands on a 400-year-old Torah. And after finding a box with a velvet interior and cloth on the outside, they had an ark.

One caretaker (gabai) of this synagogue was Moshe Mizrahi. Known to Jerusalemites as “the legendary Moishele,” he was obsessed with making sure there were always ten men available for morning worship. Moishele regularly woke people up at three or four in the morning; when the police were around, he borrowed their bullhorns to do the job.

The Neve Shalom neighborhood of Jerusalem (Shmuel Bar-Am)
The Neve Shalom neighborhood of Jerusalem (Shmuel Bar-Am)

The first permanent neighborhood, built by Parsim for Parsim, was established in 1900, and called Neve Shalom. Although it consists of only a few streets and a couple of alleys it contains half a dozen different Iranian synagogues – evidence of the new immigrants’ immense spiritual needs.

The Beit Yitzhak Synagogue was named for a rabbi who left Shiraz with his family but never made it to Israel. That’s because, two nights after they set sail, Rabbi Yitzhak Kalifa was killed on the deck of the ship during a terrible storm.

The Beit Yitzhak Synagogue in Neve Shalom (Shmuel Bar-Am)
The Beit Yitzhak Synagogue in Neve Shalom (Shmuel Bar-Am)

Neve Shalom residents were very poor, so everyone had to contribute towards building the Beit Yitzhak synagogue. Indeed, the walls and even the light fixtures are covered with their names and the sums they donated. One of them, Agababa Ben Yitzhak Ben Raful Shemesh, dug a cistern and sold water to the Arabs; for every tin of water he got a chiseled stone in return.

As the 19th century came to an end, more and more Parsim flocked to Jerusalem. And while girls stayed home and learned how to become good housewives, boys ran ragged in the streets, getting into all sorts of trouble. Worried that ignorance would be the downfall of the Iranian community, an organization called Ohavei Zion determined to deal with the problem. In 1906 a combination synagogue, absorption center and school appeared here, with Rabbi Yaakov Melamed – son of Rahamim Melamed, who was the Parsi community’s spiritual head and rabbi of the Shaarei Rahamim Synagogue – in charge of education.

Knowing that each family had only one multi-purpose basin for washing clothes, dishes, teeth and people, Yaakov Melamed added a shower to the school, complete with soap and towels. He provided to fill his pupils’ stomachs and even built a platform for drama classes and performances. It was here, in 1937, that famous entertainer Yossi Banai sang his first solo.

Wednesday, July 15, 2015

Sammy Ghozlan: The cop from Constantine

Rioters in July 2014 attacked synagogues in Paris (photo: Thibault Camus/AP)

He has  now moved to Israel, but cannot disengage from fighting antisemitism in France, which is worse than reported. Marie Brenner in Vanity Fair has this long feature about Algerian-born Sammy Ghozlan, whose career in the French police has put him in the vanguard of protecting Paris's Jews. (with thanks: Michelle) 

When news flashed of the Montrouge shooting, Ghozlan was following the situation from Netanya. He had an instinct and contacted a close friend in another Jewish organization who lived nearby. “This morning attack in Montrouge,” he wrote. “Can you check to see if this was near the [Jewish] school?” The answer came: “You are right. The school is close. There are rumors, but you are wrong. We are there and the school is not the target.” Later reports indicated that a Jewish school in Montrouge may actually have been Coulibaly’s original target. In Netanya, Ghozlan had yet to unpack his furniture, but he was already making plans to get back to Paris.

Moving back permanently was out of the question, but it hasn’t been easy for Ghozlan to disconnect. “I am deeply French,” he told me. “I did my military service in the air force. I love France’s values, its culture, its history, its cuisine, philosophers, and artists. I never imagined that I would someday leave. I led the fight for 15 years and all our warnings made no difference.” In 2014, about 7,000 Jews left France for Israel, and this year the anticipated exodus is between 10,000 and 15,000. The Jewish Agency for Israel recently reported that, in 2014, 50,000 French Jews made inquiries about moving to Israel, an astonishing number. In many of France’s public lycées, Jewish students are insulted, classrooms are vandalized, books are defaced, and fights break out in the classroom with any attempt to teach the Holocaust. After the Charlie Hebdo and Hyper Cacher attacks, there were reports that classes were disrupted when some Muslim students refused to participate in any memorial for the victims. According to Shimon Samuels, about 40 percent of France’s Jewish students are now in Jewish schools and 35 percent in Catholic schools. “This is an unprecedented situation,” Ghozlan tells me. “We are in new territory here.”

Ghozlan’s phone rings. When he hangs up, he tells me of two unidentified Muslim men who have swept into a Jewish school in Paris’s well-heeled 16th Arrondissement. (Earlier that week, there had been an incident at another Jewish school, in the 11th Arrondissement, an area of professionals, politicians, and writers.) “How did these thugs get into the school?” Ghozlan asks. “They walked around as if they were staking it out.” The school in the 16th was evacuated and the bomb squad deployed. None of this will appear in the press, Ghozlan says. There is a fear in the schools that they will lose more students.

Ghozlan’s voice is the first thing that commands attention—his inflection is almost musical. A part of Ghozlan’s celebrity in the banlieues is his reputation as a former bandleader who played three instruments and oversaw orchestras that worked the Jewish-wedding and Bar Mitzvah circuit in Paris, advertising “Groove, Funck, Hassidiques, Israélien … Oriental.” He learned his limited English by lip-synching to Gloria Gaynor’s “I Will Survive.”

Like 70 percent of France’s Jewish population, Ghozlan is Sephardic, part of the group from North Africa called pieds-noirs (“black feet”). He lived in the Algerian city of Constantine until 1962, when, at age 20, he fled the country with his family in the wake of the Algerian war, taking with him just “a sandwich and a suitcase,” a commonly used pied-noir expression. With his wife, Monique, a petite kindergarten teacher he met when they were both in a Jewish youth group in Algeria, he lived in the house in Le Blanc-Mesnil. There were bedrooms for his three daughters and one son, and his mother, who never missed an episode of NYPD Blue. When I first met Ghozlan, he struck me as a Sephardic Columbo. Early in his police career, he managed to negotiate order in a part of the banlieues that was so violent it was nicknamed Chicago. His method was to offer judo classes to the immigrant populations—many of which spoke Arabic, as Ghozlan does. He was assigned to take care of juvenile offenders, who seemed to respond to his direct style and lack of hyperbole, which he had learned, he told me, from his father, a former chief of detectives in Constantine.

Ghozlan made his counterterrorism reputation when the synagogue on the Rue Copernic was bombed in 1980, an attack that killed 4 people and injured more than 40. Ghozlan learned that the perpetrators were Palestinian sympathizers, not the neo-Nazis the police first suspected. He was made special commissioner to investigate the next major anti-Semitic attack, on Chez Jo Goldenberg, a landmark Jewish restaurant in the Marais, where 6 people, including two Americans, were killed, and another 22 wounded, in 1982. Ghozlan’s police career—always running alongside his Bar Mitzvah shows—eventually brought him to head the department in Aulnay-sous-Bois, in Seine-Saint-Denis. He retired in 1998 and in 2000 started the B.N.V.C.A., finding himself almost alone in his fight to protect the Jews of the banlieues.

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