Episode 63: JIMENA: Mizrahi and Sephardi Voices (Transcript)

Episode 63: JIMENA: Mizrahi and Sephardi Voices

[Theme music]

Nahanni Rous: Hey, it’s Nahanni Rous. Welcome back to Can We Talk?, the podcast of the Jewish Women’s Archive, where gender, history, and Jewish culture meet.

[Theme music fades]

Margalit Oved [Archival audio]: My mother. She gave birth to us. She fed us. She washed us. She cleaned our bowel movements. She taught us. She talked to us. She whispered. She cried. She loved. She sang. She told us good and bad. She covered us. She lullabied in Arabic. [singing]

Nahanni: Margalit Oved is a dancer and choreographer from Aden, Yemen. She moved to Israel as a girl in 1949 and became a founding member of the Inbal Dance company. Margalit recorded her oral history for the JIMENA Oral History Project in 2011. JIMENA stands for Jews Indigenous to the Middle East and North Africa, a region that Jewish communities thrived in for over 2,000 years until the 20th century, when a million Mizrachi and Sephardi Jews fled and were forced out of the land of their ancestors. The San Francisco based JIMENA is working to preserve that rich heritage and history. Producer Asal Ehsanipour recently sat down with Sarah Levin, the JIMENA’s Executive Director, to talk about some of the stories in the archive as well as their own family histories. Asal worked with Sarah on the archives many years ago. 

Asal Ehsanipour: Sarah, you and I worked really closely together while I was in college. My very first internship ever was with JIMENA. And working on this Oral History Project, I like to think it’s what really launched my love of storytelling. i wanted to start by asking you, why do you think it’s important to preserve these stories, as told in the words of those who lived it.

Sarah Levin: So I am so happy to be doing this with you Asal. I think that Judaism is grounded in stories like that is the legacy of our people that's the foundation of Halakhah. That's the foundation of what it means to be Jewish is passing on stories, uh, we’re the culmination of thousands of years of stories. And in regards to JIMENA’s oral history project, we collected stories of, uh, communities of people who hadn't been given a platform to share. They hadn't been given a microphone. They hadn't been given an opportunity to talk about what happened to them when they lived and fled countries throughout the Middle East and North Africa, and their stories are an incredibly critical part of contemporary Jewish history and where we are today. With the establishment of the state of Israel in 1948. Post Shoah and post Arab nationalism and uprisings in the Middle East and North Africa, there was a major disruption of over 2000 years of continuous Jewish life in the Middle East and North Africa kind of came to an end. And that is a huge part of the Jewish story. And we have this very unique opportunity to collect the stories from the people who lived through this historical moment in time. And it was an honor to collect these stories and hopefully add them to the record of Jewish life. 

Asal: I’m curious about how you’ve seen women step up to collect these stories. I mean I’m even thinking of how JIMENA’s founder and people in leadership are women.

Sarah: Women are, I think, key. Like we're the glue in our families. We traditionally are the masters of the domestic sphere, where stories unfold every day and life happens at least with the people who we love the most. So yeah, I think Mizrachi women have certainly led the charge towards justice and acknowledgement, and they've done it by, you know, by telling stories. There's no way... they didn't have any other choice. No one knew what happened to them. Historians weren't talking about it. It was really unknown. So the responsibility, the onus was on them to make sure that they got, um, acknowledgement...

Asal: Yeah, and that their stories were told. Sarah, how did you get involved?

Sarah: Well, I know what inspired me personally, which is the fact that I spent all these years in Israel living with Middle Eastern Jewish communities. And I would hear these amazing stories and I didn't really know, you know, I'd never heard them before. And then through that I realized like, I didn't even know my own family stories from the Middle East. When I started working in JIMENA, I heard a lot of people talking about the need to document testimonies of Jews from the Middle East and North Africa. And we knew time was running out, that this population of Jewish people who really lived into their early adult life in the Middle East, North Africa were quickly aging. And that time was of the essence and we needed to do this before it was too late.

Asal: Yeah. For this project you interviewed Jewish people from a range of different Arab countries and Iran, and people are discussing everything from these really sad and scary instances of antisemitism, like the Farhud in Iraq, but also these really beautiful cultural celebrations like Mimouna, which is a North African celebration that happens after Passover. And, you know, I think oftentimes the Middle East is treated as such a monolith, but ultimately these testimonies capture experiences from entirely different cultures.

Sarah: Yeah. I mean I think there’s a tendency in North America to homogenize all of these groups, Jewish and non-Jewish ethnicities and religions and groups of people in the Middle East into just one like Middle Eastern monolithic people. So yeah, there were communities spread from Morocco to Egypt, to Yemen. Iran all the way up to Turkey and all of these countries and all of these communities were very different. 

[Music: "From the Desert to the Sea"]

Asal: Now let’s dip into the archives. So, early on in this project, you interviewed JIMENA's founder, Gina Waldman. Gina was born in Tripoli, Libya in 1948. Briefly introduce us to Gina and her background. 

Sarah: Gina is.. I'm so honored to work with her and to know her. Um, she is a force to be reckoned with. There's few women who are as powerful and determined and smart, and just generally amazing as she is. So Gina was born in Tripoli, Libya, and she was raised in a close religious community. 

Gina Waldman [archival audio]: My family was extremely conservative and traditional, especially in the way that women should be acting in the society. There wasn't. For example, we didn't really learn Torah or learn in Hebrew because it was so hard already to teach the male members of the community just to learn Hebrew.

Sarah: She's told me the stories of very early on in her life, knowing that she wanted to be outside of Libya, that she wanted to pursue something much greater than what was accessible to her in Libya. And she also was born with huge activist tendencies. She's told me stories of going on strike as a little girl in order to make a point to her parents about her desire for education. 

Asal: You know, I'm thinking of this moment when Gina describes knowing she had to leave Libya permanently after spending some time abroad in Switzerland.

Gina Waldman [archival audio]: I realized that I was missing a incredible opportunity of freedom that I could walk around, whether it was in Lausanne, Geneva, or Rome, with the star of David and not be afraid that someone would you know, uh, harass me or hit me or call me dirty Jew. But also freedom as a woman. This was a freedom that was not part of our lifestyle. Women were pretty much definitely, certainly not treated as they were in Muslim society—we were much more westernized—but nonetheless, there were still arranged marriages and, um, Uh, dowry was involved, uh, the, the higher more money you had, the better the catch...

Sarah: Her family was ethnically cleansed from Libya in 1967 along with the remaining community of Jews who were left there, there were about 6,000 Jews left. 

Asal: Right, and this is right around the time of the Six Day War in 1967. In her testimony, Gina talks about people taking to the streets. There was a lot of violence, people burning down Jewish buildings. And so Gina couldn’t go home for a month. There was a British engineer who hid her in his home because it was too dangerous for her to go back to her house. And then eventually, all Jewish families were expelled from Libya. And Gina’s family had to leave. But she talks about the day when they were going to the airport. They were supposedly being taken by these armed soldiers but then the bus driver stopped the bus in the middle of the desert. Gina talks about how she suspected something funny and she left the bus and saw that the driver had poured gasoline all around the bus that her family was inside of, and he was holding a match when Gina and the British engineer who hid her in his home, he came and they intervened. And so Gina and her family eventually did make it to the airport and they left Libya, but not before nearly losing their lives.

Sarah: I remember when I first heard the story, I was much younger. You know, I was young and it was unbelievable to me. It was like her recounting her story sounded like something I would have heard a Jewish woman from Germany or Poland recall in World War Two. It really was very reminiscent of, um, Holocaust stories. Her story was a story for survival. And I remember when I first heard it, like, I almost, I didn't believe it. Like how could this have happened? And no one talks about this, no one knows this. And then you start talking to more people and it's like, this happened to the entire community, the entire Libyan Jewish community. They were stripped of their properties and they were ethnically cleansed. 

Asal: And that’s exactly what happened to Gina. She says that she and her family were only allowed to keep two suitcases when they were expelled from Libya, which up until that point had been their home.

Sarah: She fled to Italy with her family. And they lived as refugees in Italy. She came to the United States. She didn't speak English. She was alone. She arrived in San Francisco with the help of HIAS. She very quickly got involved with advocacy and activism and fighting for human rights of all different communities. Her career was built upon a foundation of advocacy for Soviet Jewry. She was one of the leaders in the movement to free Soviet Jews. And she created JIMENA with Joseph Wahed, right after September 11th, they realized that in all of their years of activism and advocacy, the one group that they never really paid much attention to was their own communities and the oppressions that their own communities had faced and fled and overcame.

[Music]

Asal: Something you mentioned was, you know, the purpose of all of this is for justice, it's for recognition. And also these testimonies managed to paint like a really vivid picture of these really beautiful traditions and customs. And it occurs to me that this is, you know, for the pursuit of social justice, but it's also just preservation of customs, the way people cook, the way they celebrate holidays, um, celebration, some of them that are also really unique to women. 

Gina Waldman [archival audio]: Uh, there were customs such as henna ceremony. It takes place about a week before the wedding. And typically the bride is dressed with very traditional, very colorful costumes and, uh, you know, Arabic Jewish music is played at the party. And, um, the women in this particular tradition of henna, are very much, uh, in charge. This is one area where it's pretty much a woman's party. 

Asal: How did these testimonies inspire JIMENA as an organization to revitalize some of these practices and the programming and through the cultural events that you organize?

Sarah: It’s complicated, right? Because on the one hand, we want to raise awareness to the complexity of Jewish life in the Middle East and North Africa and experiences in the culture. And we don't want to just be valued for the most topical elements of our culture, which is like food and costumes. And that's usually why Jewish organizations will come to JIMENA, you know, give us like a food program and bring some kaftans. And it feels like we’re contributing almost to the erasure of the depth of our heritage. But then at the same time, it's like, but this is really like a big part of who we are and how we lived or how our ancestors lived. Um, so we are at a place right now where we're interested in pushing back a little bit. We're not like a booking agency, a cultural booking agency. You want to learn and you want to engage with Sephardic Jews and Sephardic culture, it needs to be more than just like boureka programs. That's what people within our community refer to them as. 

[Music]

Asal: Sarah, your dad is Turkish, right? 

Sarah: He is of Turkish descent. My family came to the United States from Turkey generations ago.

Asal: Can you tell me a little bit more about how your dad's Sephardic heritage influenced your upbringing and how it inspired you to get into this work? Like, I'm wondering if you could even share a story about your own childhood, any memories that you have of being a kid. 

Sarah: My experiences of being Sephardic are very much rooted in holidays with my dad's family, memories of my great grandmother who taught herself how to read by reading the New York Times when she came to the United States, of being crammed with so many people into teeny apartments in Chicago, of hearing Ladino. I have memories of these people just feeling different and not like I didn't see them reflected back to me anywhere, really. They were like just, it was just my family. I didn't connect them to a larger group of Jews. Um, and that was in stark contrast to my mom's family. My grandfather was a Holocaust survivor and he had, he lost every single person. And my grandmother's family didn't live in Chicago. So my mom's family was just very small, very Ashkenazi, and they were part of North American Jewish life in a way that my dad's family was not. 

Asal: I think I can relate to a lot of that. As you know, I'm an Iranian Jew and I understood from a really, really early age. I went to Jewish day school and no one at my Jewish day school looked like me. They didn't eat the same food as me. They didn't celebrate holidays like I did. They didn't speak the language that we spoke at home. I knew really early on, I couldn't quite put words to it, that we were, you know, different. 

And it really wasn't until I did… I think JIMENA brought in a Mimouna celebration to my high school, which was a Jewish high school in Palo Alto. I don't think it was before that moment that I saw Sephardic or Mizrahi Judaism anywhere outside of my own home and the synagogue that we sometimes went to.

Sarah: I think that's like a very normal experience that you had and that I had. Um, and that's one of the reasons why Sephardic Judaism is going away in the United States. Like it's a miracle for me that I am connected at all. My family has been here for a long time.

[Music: Jeanette Rothstein Yehudayan]

Asal: Let’s turn back to another testimony. You know, as you know, I'm an Iranian Jew. And I appreciate seeing Angela Nazaryan's testimony of her life as a little girl in Tehran, which is where both my parents grew up. Can you introduce Angela and her testimony for us? 

Sarah: Yeah, So Angela is another force to be reckoned with like Gina. She's an entrepreneur, she's a psychologist, she's an author. She's an activist. She's a community organizer. Much of her work is about women's empowerment and holding up the leadership and the accomplishments of visionary women. Her stories and her retelling her childhood memories were heartbreaking. 

Asal: We’re going to play a little bit of this excerpt, where Angela is remembering growing up in Tehran during the Iranian Revolution.

Angela Nazaryan [archival audio]: There was one evening where we were sitting, um, home and I just heard, um, major like gunshots outside of our home. And, uh, we went up, we went up to our rooftop to see what was happening and quite frankly, it was just surreal to see the whole town was set on fire. It was set on fire. And at that moment just having turned eleven or I was still ten, I looked and I thought something has to be wrong. Something has to be wrong. And it was only weeks after that. My father decided that, um, I along with my mom and my pregnant sister, my sister is 15 years older than me. Uh, that we should go for two weeks to visit my two older brothers who were studying in Los Angeles.

Asal: You know, the revolution was a turning point for Iranian Jews and many other religious minorities too, actually, who had been living in Iran up until that point. It's when my parents left, um, my maternal grandparents, as you know, they stayed behind. And I think family separation is something that many immigrant and refugee families are unfortunately so familiar with. And, you know, I'm reminded of that when listening to Angela Nazaryan's testimony. 

Angela Nazaryan [Archival audio]: I didn't get a chance to say goodbye to any family members, any friends. Just packed up a suitcase for two weeks and came here and our mission was to go visit Disneyland and in the evenings we would come and then suddenly we would see the news and see what was going on in Iran. And it was really hard for us to really know what was going to happen. After two weeks my mom and dad had a conversation. Um, my dad, um, felt that this is a time that we had to liquidate some assets and send it over to the US. He asked my mom to come back to help him out. And my mom turned to me and said, uh, you know, “we're asking you if you want to come back to Iran with us, or you want to stay with your siblings.” And at that moment, I didn't even give it a second thought. I said, “I want to stay with my siblings.” And they went back and unfortunately they got stuck for five and a half years. So from age eleven, until sixteen and a half, I didn't see my parents. 

Sarah: The family separations that Jews from the middle East, North Africa had to endure and continue to endure are heartbreaking. It's not just like a disruption of a way of life. It is the destruction of a way of life. 

[Iraqi music]

Asal: There's one testimony that embodies, I think a lot of the pain that Jews from the Middle East and North Africa feel, which is displacement. You interviewed Rachel Wahba, who is the daughter of Iraqi and Egyptian refugees. Rachel was born in India before her dad relocated the family to Japan. And this entire time she didn't have a passport. And that's something that you ask her about in her testimony. We’re going to play a little bit of that interview

Rachel Wahba [archival audio]: What being stateless did for me... one is the emotional part, is the shame. It means nobody wants you, you belong nowhere, right? And then there was always the shame also being Egypt and Iraqi, because that, you know, I would have rather been from Italy and France or Brooklyn, you know, but growing up being stateless was, it was shameful. Yeah, it was just, just uncomfortable, shameful and dangerous because they didn't, they didn't want us. But what it did for me as a Jew was really concretize my sense of being a Jew. I mean, what else was I? Certainly not Iraqi anymore, anyway, even, even if my mother still was an Iraqi, they weren't Iraqis anymore, they weren't Egyptians anymore. They were Jews. And so I was a Jew. My nationality was Jew and my country were my parents.

Asal: Rachel talks in depth about the experience of integrating into a Jewish American culture.

Rachel Wahba [archival audio]: Being in America was so exciting for the first, maybe three months. And then it became so lonely because the American Jews were really not the kind of Jews I knew. My Jews were all refugees. My Jews were displaced people and these Jews were kind of trying to outgrow the Jew part and they were “Jew-ish” and I was “a Jew.” And I was even told that saying “Jew” was rude. That if I said anything at all, it should be “Jewish.” 

Sarah: It's another sad... It's another sad chapter for a lot of Mizrahi Sephardic Jews who came to the United States and they were still otherized. And I think that was like a very common experience that they came here and until they found other Sephardic Jews or a community, they didn't fit. They didn't identify with American society and they didn't identify with the Jewish communities around them. And Rachel's a Mizrahi Jew, and she's also a very dark skinned woman. So she was dealing with racism. She was dealing with xenophobia. She was dealing with multiple issues when she came here. 

Asal: Ultimately, Rachel got married in order to stay legally in the US and she was inspired by the civil rights movement, it helped her reclaim her Mizrahi background and even her identity as a feminist, I think, eventually. You know, Sarah, I feel like I've noticed the shift among younger Jews recently where many of us, myself included, have really started to embrace our cultural identity. Like there's this yearning to understand where our parents and grandparents came from and this reclaiming of Middle Eastern culture. It's just like, it hasn't always been popular. And the way I see it, JIMENA has been educating people on the experience of being a Sephardic or Mizrahi Jew, like before it was cool. You know, like you were leading the charge. And that said, seeing how dominant the Ashkenazi narrative still is, I'm wondering about your experience trying to center stories like these. What has that been like for you both personally and as the executive director of JIMENA?

Sarah: Um, so I think that one of the reasons why I am so addicted to doing this is because it's a fight that we still haven't won. And things are changing for sure, there's definitely a reclamation happening, but I also.. there's still, there's still a lot of work to be done. We can certainly keep advocating and screaming and speaking up and, you know, doing whatever we can do to claim space and have a voice.

[Theme music]

Sarah Levin is the Executive director of JIMENA. Thank you for joining us for Can We Talk?, the podcast of the Jewish Women’s Archive. Special thanks to Asal Ehsanipour for contributing this story. We had help from Carol Zall. Our team also includes Judith Rosenbaum and Becky Long. Our theme music is by Girls in Trouble. You also heard part of a live performance called From the Desert to the Sea, the Tradition of Libyan Jewish Liturgical Poetry, and a clip of traditional Persian Jewish music by Jeanette Rothsten Yehudayan. Look for the complete interviews with Margalit Oved, Gina Waldman, Angela Nazaryan, and Rachel Wahba in JIMENA’s oral history archive at JIMENA.org. And find Can We Talk? online at jwa.org/canwetalk. I’m your host, Nahanni Rous. Until next time.

[Theme music fades]

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Jewish Women's Archive. "Episode 63: JIMENA: Mizrahi and Sephardi Voices (Transcript)." (Viewed on May 24, 2024) <http://jwa.org/podcasts/canwetalk/episode-63-jimena-mizrahi-and-sephardi-voices/transcript>.