Catherine Fischer is the coordinator of the Center City Kehillah in Philadelphia, Penn. The Center City Kehillah is a community building project of the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia in cooperation with the Jewish Outreach Partnership.
Stories We Haven't Yet Heard: A Review of The Flying Camel
Review of The Flying Camel: Essays on Identity by Women of African and Middle Eastern Jewish Heritage, Edited by Loolwa Khazzoom, Seal Press, An Imprint of Avalon Publishing Group Incorporated, New York, New York.
The Flying Camel is an anthology of memoirs written by seventeen Jewish women of North African and Middle Eastern descent. Their stories are heart warming, heart breaking and vastly important to read as their voices are rarely, if ever, heard here in America or in Israel.
While the stories reflect a hardship beyond what most Jews of European descent have experienced in America, they also exude hope and passion for a Jewish future that will one day reflect the vibrant diversity of Jewish tradition and experience from around the world. Each story is powerful, gripping and unique.
We read about 19-year-old Gina Bublil, who grew up in Libya. When Libya turned against its Jewish citizens, Gina and her family boarded a bus to the airport in a desperate attempt to flee. Unexpectedly the bus driver stopped and poured gasoline around the perimeter of the vehicle, attempting to set it on fire. Gina and her family escaped from the bus, reached the airport and fled the country to safety.
We are given an opportunity to see what life is like for other Arab Jews in Ella Shohat's personal narrative, as when she says:
War is the friend of binarisms, leaving little place for complex identities. The Gulf War intensified a pressure already familiar to the Arab Jewish Diaspora in the wake of the Arab-Israeli conflict: a pressure to choose between being an Arab and being a Jew.
"How The Camel Found Its Wings" is the title of Lital Levy's story, based on a movie that she went to see on her 26 birthday--a movie about a Jewish European-Israeli professor and a Jewish Palestinian sanitation worker, united in a common quest to restore the famous statue of the flying camel, the symbol of the Tel Aviv of pre-State Israel.
The book title The Flying Camel becomes a metaphor for these seventeen Jewish women as they each seek to reassemble the cultural, religious, and economic aspects of their previous lives after they relocate to escape persecution in their original homelands. As they attempt to be accepted by the dominant, in this case Ashkenazi, culture, they become involved in webs of confusion as they sort out what does and does not belong from their previous identities.
Other similarities run throughout the memoirs as well. For one, the second-class status of Mizrahi Jewish women is excruciatingly revealed again and again. Mizrahi Jews (the name for Jews from North Africa and the Middle East) come from patriarchal societies where women are often unexposed to their Jewish heritage. Women do not have access to education and are discouraged from pursuing careers. Many of these women have experienced verbal, physical, and emotional abuse. In some cases, women share their stories of "coming out" as lesbians and must confront another level of discord both within their own family as well as within the larger Jewish community.
The power of this book is clear: these women are ready to tell their stories and will not stop until they are heard. Sweet moments emerge when some seek opportunities to connect with others who share their experience or who will listen and embrace them for who they are. With each telling of their story their voices get stronger, and their determination to seek a place within the larger Jewish community is intensified.
Loolwa Khazzoom's ability to present these stories with such compassion for all perspectives is truly admirable. She encompasses a "heart of many chambers" and understands the importance of giving these individuals a voice so that they can grow stronger in their reclaimed identity. She understands that to move forward means that we have to hear what is in people's hearts. This means hearing the anger, the pain, the fear, and the vulnerabilities, as well as the strength and power of one's remembered Jewish soul.
The lesson to be learned is, of course, much easier said than done. To take the next step toward making the American and Israeli Jewish community inclusive to all Jews will mean listening to and honoring not only these women's stories but the myriad "other" (Sephardim, Oriental, Ethiopian) estranged members of the Jewish community. As Julie Iny, author of one of the essays in the book, states, "Only when white people acknowledge their whiteness, can they begin to critically assess the culture, examine the institutions and communities in their lives, and notice who is missing."
As these women of Jewish-Arab descent have come forward to reclaim their Jewish lives, the larger Jewish community has an opportunity to move forward with them. These women have stepped out of the wilderness to realize their opportunity to teach Jews how to live our tradition more fully, as our tradition is not based on how we look, what color we are, or what spices we use, but rather on how we live and treat one another.
Once these Mizrahi have made their voices heard within our American and Israeli cultures, the next step is integrating them into our synagogues and community. Loolwa Khazzoom offers a place to start in that endeavor. Her website, www.loolwa.com, offers resources and support in the area of Jewish multicultural art and education.