Back in the day, when a Jewish programmer wanted to represent “diversity,” she or he would call me in a token effort to involve a non-Ashkenazi/non-White Jew. At the time, there was entrenched denial about Jew-on-Jew racism, and there was no shared language for addressing this painful issue. As such, “representing” was an exhausting role: I could not speak from the heart and say what I really thought. I had to be perky and upbeat, so as to engage interest in what I was saying. I had to stay alert and actively decipher each group’s points of reference – determining how to translate the reality of what was going on in such a way that people could listen.
At the same time, Jewish feminist literature and activist groups were ripe with passionate calls to end the invisibility of women in the Jewish community; yet with rare exceptions, they mentioned not one thing about non-White, non-Ashkenazi Jewish women. The hypocrisy and cluelessness were maddening. Despite these frustrations, I recognized that in Jewish women’s groups, as elsewhere, just making the effort to include one non-Ashkenazi/non-White person was a huge step. For this reason, I always accepted the role of representing – however politically tokenizing and personally tiresome it was.
On one occasion, however, I refused: I had received an invitation to participate in the Jewish women’s council of The Way Home – a movie documenting the interplay of race and gender in America. The facilitator of the project told me that eight groups of women would meet for three months in a row, to discuss their struggles as women and as members of their particular ethnic group, and that it would be an opportunity to open up, to dig deep inside ourselves. I immediately asked about the ethnic makeup of the Jewish women’s council, and found out that I would be the only non-Ashkenazi/non-White woman in a group of 12. The facilitator was shocked when I informed her I could not possibly have an authentic experience or feel emotionally safe without more Jewish diversity.
The Jewish women’s council leaders said I could bring in one more Mizrahi woman. I immediately called Rachel Wahba – an Iraqi-Egyptian Jewish feminist hothead like myself. Plotting the revolution, as we do on so many occasions, we decided that I would agree to do the movie if and only if Rachel could participate, and that Rachel would agree to do the movie if and only if her Mizrahi friend Sima and Sephardic friend Sarah could participate. And so we all were invited to join the Jewish women’s council.
During the first month, several Ashkenazi women left the group for various personal reasons, so the group ended up being about half Mizrahi/Sephardi and half Ashkenazi. As such, the discussion groups truly became powerful learning opportunities for all of us. There were still a lot of unaddressed issues, of course – those from working class backgrounds felt unsafe to speak, and there were no Ethiopian Jews or Ashkenazi Jews of color – but overall, the movie was a step in the right direction for representing who Jewish women really are.
Loolwa Khazzoom is an author, musician, artist, and multicultural educator, as well as a feminist activist and women’s self-defense instructor. She pioneered the Jewish Multiculturalism movement in 1990, bringing non-European Jewish history, heritage, and social justice concerns into the mainstream Jewish and non-Jewish communities. She is also the founder and director of the Jewish Multicultural Project, through which she created and implemented the first comprehensive curriculum on Jews around the world. Khazzoom has published internationally, in periodicals including Marie Claire, The Washington Post, Rolling Stone, Seventeen, and The Boston Globe. She is the editor of The Flying Camel: Essays on Identity by Women of North African and Middle Eastern Jewish Heritage and author of Consequence: Beyond Resisting Rape.
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