by Naava Mashiah, guest contributor
A man holds a misbaha in the old city of Jerusalem. (photo: Flavio Grynszpan/Flickr, cc by 2.0)
The growing rift between Israel and the Arab world makes it hard to imagine that Jews and Arabs once coexisted across the Middle East. At one point these identities could be found not only in the same neighborhood, but even in the same person.
Is it an oxymoron to be an Arab Jew? An Arab Jew refers either to a Jew living in the Arab world or one whose ancestors came from Arab countries. This term flourished once in the Middle East but is not widely known today. Not long ago there were Jews living in the cities of the Middle East who were integrated into their societies and held influential roles in their communities and economies.
My grandfather, Baba Yona Mashiah, was such a figure in Baghdad. He was, I would say, an Arab Jew. My childhood was sprinkled with stories of his grand personality, power and business acumen. He was a prominent land and real-estate developer and in the 1940s contributed to building “Baghdad el Jedidah,” a chic neighborhood in the Baghdad suburbs. His partners were mostly Muslim and some were prominent government officials.
Over the years I have accumulated stories about Baba Yona like pearls on a string and play with these beads, just as he played with the beads on his misbaha, the traditional Muslim prayer beads. My father recalled how he used to accompany my grandfather, who was also known by the Arabic name Abu Fuad, to meetings in cafés and the respect that people showed him.
Baba Yona was an integrated member of Baghdad society and its business world, yet he was a Jew.
In the 1950s the Jews of Baghdad experienced an exodus from Iraq. A reluctant exodus, I would claim, which was brought about by a combination of increasing Zionism, anti-Semitic propaganda, envy of the privileged life Jews had when Iraq was under British control and the creation of Israel. The displacement of thousands of Palestinians and the humiliating defeat of the Arab armies were the final blow.
Life had become unbearable for the Jews and even those who had wanted to stay were compelled to leave. Jews were assumed to be a fifth column and turned into scapegoats following the defeat of Arab armies by the Israeli Defense Forces. Baba Yona watched his empire crumble. His peer and neighbor, Mr. Addas, another influential Jew, was hung in the square. He himself was imprisoned for three months, accused of having Zionist connections.
At a certain point the Iraqi government offered a deal for Jews, inviting them to escape to Israel if they would renounce their citizenship and relinquish their property. Baba Yona was forced to leave Baghdad with over 100,000 other Jews to the one country that would accept them at the time — Israel. Ironically, the Zionists, whose movement played a part in alienating Muslims from their Jewish compatriots, were there to save them.
So as they were airlifted out of Baghdad, did my nine year-old father know where he was headed? Was it en route to Cyprus and during the eventual landing in Israel that he stopped being an Arab Jew?
In Israel, the younger generations became embarrassed by their Arabic-speaking parents. My father, Sabah, was given a Hebrew name, Shaul, but his brother who had arrived in his late teens, too late for a name change, is called Jamil until this very day.
In fact, my father’s Arab identity was totally effaced in Israel. It was a combination of external pressures and self denial. Thus he became successfully integrated into the dominant culture in Israel of that period.
My interest in my Arab roots began about ten years ago when I established my business, which focuses on economic cooperation between Israel and the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region. Many Israelis asked me why I had chosen to do so. The notion that Israel should forge economic ties with other countries in the MENA region is not self-evident within Israeli society.
Their questions led me to excavate my own identity and connect with my grandfather’s world. I am discovering more and more young Jews like myself who have been able to distance themselves from their parents traumatic experiences and proudly reclaim their Arab roots.
I recall one day when I brought home old records of Abdul Wahab, a famous Egyptian singer, and put them on the phonograph. My father Shaul transformed back to Sabah and sang all the words. He did not understand how I could be interested in this music. My curiosity for the poetry and music is deep-rooted to an extent that baffles him.
Today when I ask my father if my grandfather was an Arab Jew and he proclaims, “No way, there is no such thing,” I beg to differ.
Naava Mashiah is CEO of M.E. Links, focused on the transfer of technology from Israel to the MENA region, Senior Consultant at ISHRA and the editor of MEDABIZ.
A version of this article was published by the Common Ground News Service on January 17, 2012. Copyright permission is granted for publication.Comments
by Susan Leem, associate producer + Trent Gilliss, senior editor
The son of an Israeli nuclear physicist, the artist Hanan Harchol moved to the United States with his family when he was two years old. And it’s his father’s accent that Harchol impersonates and argues with in these two humorous and enlightening animated shorts for the High Holy Days.
But, these illustrated videos mining a deeper understanding of the Jewish concepts of teshuva (repentance) and slicha (forgiveness), Harchol says, weren’t inspired by a personal sense of devotion or religiosity. Just the opposite, in fact. The requirements of the project stipulated that he immerse himself in the texts, and through studying them he reevaluated the essence and spirit of Jewish teachings he had ignored or rejected for many years:
"I spent my life gravitating towards, and making, narrative art that explores the human condition from a psychological, philosophical, and existential perspective. While Judaism offers thousands of years of wisdom on the human condition, I avoided it as a source because of what I perceived to be its preachy, judgmental, and shaming tone.
Then, in 2009, I was commissioned to create a short artistic animation that interpreted the eating of bitter herbs during Passover. As part of the project, I was mandated to participate in a monthly Jewish study group under the leadership of a dynamic and brilliant rabbi named Leon Morris. To my surprise, I discovered that the human themes we were discussing and wrestling with in the study group were precisely the kind I had always been exploring in my personal artmaking. Even the process itself of sitting around a table, debating and wrestling with these human concepts (a process I did regularly with my friends and in my artmaking) proved to be a fundamental part of the Jewish study and learning process.
I became filled with questions about how much my Jewish heritage had influenced how I was raised, how I behaved, how I thought, and even who I was as a person and an artist. What I discovered was a wealth of wisdom. Within the Jewish texts were crucial teachings and lessons that applied as much to our contemporary lives as they did when they were written. By avoiding the Jewish writings because of their religious nature and tone, I was missing out on thousands of years of deep thought and study on the human condition itself. I had thrown the baby out with the bath water.”
by Laura Hegfield, guest contributor
I was watching the gathering clouds and their shifting shadows on those familiar mountains for quite a while. I saw you, but it wasn’t until I turned and took a step that I could truly see you.
With an intake of breath, my heart expanded in awe, recognizing yours, so perfectly formed.
How many others had passed by without noticing? What if I had not turned that afternoon, had not taken a step?
Gratitude awakened, witnessing this mirrored image of sacredness balanced on the mountainside.
You. Me. God.
Standing as One in this single moment of grace.
I love this tree. I love remembering the feeling of awe that filled me when I looked through the viewfinder of my camera and realized that the branches and leaves grew into a perfect heart shape. But I didn’t see it right away; it took a while until I was standing in just the right position to be aware of what was in front of me the whole time.
The form was there, the core essence of holiness was present all along, but I had to orient myself properly in order to recognize it. I think the same can be said for the holy essence that resides within each of us.
During the month of Elul, leading up to the Yomim Noraim, the Jewish High Holy Days of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, it is a Jewish spiritual practice to make t’shuva — to turn, return to our goodness, our godliness, to God.
We turn inward. We look in our hearts and examine closely the mountains of mistakes we have made. We turn towards those we have hurt and ask for forgiveness. We promise to do better — at the very least to try to be kinder and more thoughtful in the year to come. We do what we can to repair what we have broken. We make a conscious shift from where our hearts were positioned when we were intentionally hurtful or simply not paying attention to our words and actions. We return to God awareness, remembering that it is when we forget our own divinity and that of others that we inflict harm.
We choose to change, to grow. Like the micro-movements of alignment a yogini must make to settle into vrkasana (tree pose) with strength, firmly rooted, balanced, open, present, we readjust our inner stance until we can see beyond the misdeeds, harsh words, insincerity, apathy, judgment and wounds to discover our own holy hearts, beautifully formed, strong, rooted, balanced, open and fully present; silhouetted before the jagged background of those mountains. The dark clouds move aside, our holiness shines brilliantly. It was always there. Here. We forgive ourselves; perhaps the hardest step of all. We have returned.
Laura Hegfield is a daughter, sister, wife, mother and lover of life with an artist’s soul. Diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis three years ago, she is no longer able to work outside her home. She stays engaged with the world through photography and shares her journey on her blog.
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