Jews of the Middle East
Upon examining the history and heritage of the Jewish
people, we find that Judaism is
deeply connected to the Middle East and North Africa: Sarah and Abraham came from
Mesopotamia, the land that is today Iraq — the same land where the first yeshivas and the Babylonian
Talmud were developed. The festival Purim celebrates the liberation of ancient Iranian (Persian) Jews, and Passover tells the story of ancient Egyptian
Jews. Hebrew developed alongside other Semitic languages in the
Middle East and North Africa and Jewish prayers and holiday cycles reflect
the weather patterns of that region. (It was not, for example, meant
to snow in the Sukkah.)
Regardless of where Jews lived most recently, therefore,
all Jews have roots in the Middle East and North Africa. Some communities,
of course, have more recent ties to this region: Mizrahim and Sephardim,
two distinct communities that are often confused with one another.
The Beginnings of
the Jewish People
Mizrahim are Jews who never left the Middle East and
North Africa since the beginnings of the Jewish people 4,000 years ago.
In 586 B.C.E., the Babylonian
Empire (ancient Iraq) conquered Yehudah (Judah), the southern region
of ancient Israel.
Babylonians occupied the Land of Israel and exiled
the Yehudim (Judeans, or Jews), as captives into Babylon. Some 50 years
later, the Persian Empire (ancient Iran) conquered the Babylonian Empire and allowed the Jews
to return home to the land of Israel.
But, offered freedom under Persian rule and daunted by the task of rebuilding
a society that lay in ruins, most Jews remained in Babylon. Over the
next millennia, some Jews remained in today's Iraq and Iran, and some migrated
to neighboring lands in the region (including today's Syria, Yemen, and Egypt),
or emigrated to lands in Central and East Asia (including India, China, and Afghanistan).
Sephardim are among the descendants of the line of Jews who chose to return and
rebuild Israel after the Persian
Empire conquered the Babylonian
Empire. About half a millennium later, the Roman
Empire conquered ancient Israel for the second time, massacring
most of the nation and taking the bulk of the remainder as slaves to
Rome. Once the Roman Empire crumbled, descendants of these captives
migrated throughout the European continent. Many settled in Spain (Sepharad) and Portugal,
where they thrived until the Spanish
Inquisition and Expulsion
of 1492 and the Portuguese Inquisition and Expulsion shortly thereafter.
During these periods, Jews living in Christian countries
faced discrimination and hardship. Some Jews who fled persecution in
Europe settled throughout the Mediterranean regions of the Ottoman
(Turkish) Empire, as well as Central and South America. Sephardim
who fled to Ottoman-ruled Middle Eastern and North African countries
merged with the Mizrahim, whose families had been living in the region
for thousands of years.
In the early 20th century, severe violence against
Jews forced communities throughout the Middle Eastern region to flee
once again, arriving as refugees predominantly in Israel, France, the United
Kingdom, and the Americas. In Israel, Middle Eastern and North African
Jews were the majority of the Jewish population for decades, with numbers
as high as 70 percent of the Jewish population, until the mass Russian
immigration of the 1990s. Mizrahi Jews are now half of the Jewish
population in Israel.
Mizrahi Jews Around
Throughout the rest of the world, Mizrahi Jews have
a strong presence in metropolitan areas — Paris, London, Montreal,
Los Angeles, Brooklyn, and Mexico City. Mizrahim and Sephardim share more than common history from the
past five centuries. Mizrahi and Sephardic religious leaders traditionally
have stressed hesed (compassion) over humra (severity, or strictness),
following a more lenient interpretation of Jewish law.
Despite such baseline commonalities, Middle Eastern
and North African Mizrahim and Sephardim do retain distinct cultural
traditions. Though Mizrahi and Sephardic prayer books are close in form
and content, for example, they are not identical. Mizrahi prayers are usually sung in quarter tones, whereas Sephardic prayers have more
of a Southern European feel. Traditionally, moreover, Sephardic prayers
are often accompanied by a Western-style choir in the synagogue.
Mizrahim traditionally spoke Judeo-Arabic — a
language blending Hebrew and a local Arabic dialect. While a number of Sephardim in the Middle
East and North Africa learned and spoke this language, they also spoke Ladino--a blend of Hebrew
and Spanish. Having had no history in Spain or Portugal, Mizrahim generally
did not speak Ladino.
In certain areas, where the Sephardic immigration was
weak, Sephardim assimilated into the predominantly Mizrahi communities,
taking on all Mizrahi traditions and retaining just a hint of Sephardic
heritage — such as Spanish-sounding names. In countries such as Morocco, however, Spanish
and Portuguese Jews came in droves, and the Sephardic community set
up its own synagogues and schools, remaining separate from the Mizrahi
Even within the Mizrahi and Sephardi communities, there
were cultural differences from country to country. On Purim, Iraqi Jews had strolling musicians
going from house to house and entertaining families (comparable to Christmas
caroling), whereas Egyptian Jews closed off the Jewish quarter for a full-day festival (comparable to
Mardi Gras). On Shabbat, Moroccan Jews prepared hamin
(spicy meat stew), whereas Yemenite Jews prepared showeah (spicy roasted
meat), among other foods.
As Mizrahi and Sephardi Jews are a minority of Jews
in North America, their heritage
remains foreign to many North American Jews of Central and Eastern European
heritage (known as Ashkenazim).
Yet just as the world begins to embrace multi-culturalism, so too has
the Jewish community begun to acknowledge and celebrate the wonderful
cultural diversity that exists among its own people.
Loolwa Khazzoom (http://www.loolwa.com)
is the director of the Jewish MultiCultural Project (http://www.jmcponline.org)
and editor of The Flying Camel: and Other Stories of Identity by Women
of North African and MiddleEastern Jewish Heritage (Seal Press, Fall
2003). She has published Jewish multicultural articles in numerous periodicals,
including The Washington Post, Rolling Stone, Marie Claire, and Jewish