Iraqis in Pajamas: Why the Personal Is No Longer Political

I wanted the cohesion of community
But the price was conformity

3-raw-healing-power“Conformity” is the first song I wrote that fused original English lyrics with ancient Hebrew text, in an ironic punk rock rendition of “Eli eli lama,” an Iraqi song for Simhath Torah. I had just come home from a small, progressive, observant Jewish gathering in someone’s home, where right upon entering, I’d been introduced as an Iraqi Jew. Then, I’d been barraged with rapid-fire questions about where I’d grown up, which Middle Eastern synagogues I’d attended, who my family was, and which Iraqi Jews I knew. I excused myself within 20 minutes, making up something about a heavy work load, and I left with an overwhelming sense of agitation and frustration. Why, I wondered, are observant Jews so obsessed with these kinds of questions, as opposed to being interested in questions about who I am—or, for that matter, just saying hello and letting me enter a space quietly?

Jews, I mused, are tribal by nature, defined not by our individuality, but by our relationship to others in the clan. Jews like to peg each other at the outset in an eager attempt to forge bonds of connection. The impetus is a desire to be welcoming, to cultivate an immediate sense of belonging. The problem is that there are numerous false assumptions inherent in the particular line of Jewish questioning, such as the assumption of the Nice Jewish Family. For those whose lives do not fit this or other pan-Jewish narratives, what is meant to be warm and embracing actually feels intrusive and alienating—to the point of casting Jews out.