A Mizrachi Jew, from Memphis to Hillel
“Ima, why am I not white like Zahava?”
When I was still young enough to ask this in earnest, as if it were a question that had a simple answer, like What are we having for dinner? or Why do we light candles Friday night?, I prodded my Ima with it constantly. Talya, always the expert at receiving difficult questions and responding, assuredly, to entirely different ones, told me, “You’re beautiful the way you are, Racheli.”
I was never young enough to be satisfied with that answer.
Racheli (or do you go by Rachel now?): with a father who had limited English and would pronounce things in the strangest ways, like baklawa instead of bak-lava, te-hina instead of tehini, ideal instead of idea; my face is dark enough not to be white but light enough for people to brag at me about the summer they vacationed for so long that their tan matched the exact shade of my skin; my Saba has the accented English and brown skin of a man who might always be randomly selected at the airport if he could ever afford to fly.
Nothing about me or my family ever felt distinctly Jewish. At least not in the way I was conditioned to think of American Jews. (Except that we were pretty ‘stingy’ with money, I suppose, but that was less a shtick and more a result of raising a family off a teacher’s salary).
Our last name didn’t help—we couldn’t even look Jewish on paper. What is Tsuna? Did it matter that it was originally pronounced Chuna before it was transliterated into English? Nobody racked their brains to think if they ever went to Hebrew school with a Tsuna (or a Chuna for that matter).
We were the exceptions, the brown blips on an otherwise spotless canvas. People were so fond of my mother, a teacher at the Jewish day school (well, never pleased enough to promote her—the idea of a woman as principal is bad enough, but a brown woman? Forget about it— but always generous with their compliments when introducing her to their friends at fundraising functions) that they didn’t even realize—didn’t even think about the fact that—we were different. We were just like them: basically Ashkenazi. Them, but with a hint of, “Talya, look how grown up Racheli is getting. So beautiful, so exotic!”
I wasn’t bullied for my skin color, like my oldest brother, or white enough to pass, like my middle brother. I’ve heard of other brown girls who were told by their mothers to avoid the sun and try to stay as pale as possible: I did the opposite. Maybe because nobody ever told me I was a brown girl, and I wanted so badly for the sun to turn me just a shade darker. I wanted to be a color that would make it obvious that I was not just an Ashkenazi girl who tanned well and vacationed often. Not a girl who was like us, but different.
While proudly assessing the table filled with homemade laffa, matbucha, chatzilim, and chummus, my father likes to comment how our Shabbat table is “not like those Ashkenazim, with their kugels and gefilte fish (ichsa).” This used to infuriate me—why couldn’t he be nicer about Ashkenazim? They were our neighbors, our friends. If he spoke too loudly, they might hear, and they would realize that we weren’t just discolored versions of themselves. I never thought about how my Abba’s childhood was tainted by Ashkenazim seeing his family as Kurdish and discriminating against them, not allowing them space to live together; I didn’t realize that my childhood was marked by the opposite: by the complete erasure of my mizrachi identity.
But, then again, if it’s never written, how can it be erased? In ways that we couldn’t help, we were mizrahim: we had darker pigmentation (the dead tell), ate different foods (that have since become trendy), spoke with Hebrew or Kurdish, not Yiddish, slangs. We said blessings to a different tune (less Klezmer, more Ovadia) and practiced customs in our own way (eating rice on passover, blessing different fruit at the Rosh Hashanah seder). But we didn’t talk about it. I would have been as surprised as the next day-school kid to learn about the Jews in Yemen, despite my Saba’s parents being born there.
When I got to college, I decided it was best for me to avoid Jewish spaces as a general rule. Not just the orthodox ones, but all of em. Still, there were certain special occasions during which, against my better judgment, I found myself in the Hillel House. Without fail, every time I entered that building I was asked, tersely, What are you doing here? or Who are you here with? The speakers’ confused and accusatory expressions suggested a deeper question: are you sure you meant to come here? You can’t be Jewish if you’re not white. Regardless of the denomination, ‘Jewish spaces’ are almost certainly ‘Ashkenazi spaces.’
I never feel comfortable in those places.
Conversely, if people accept that you are, indeed, Jewish (expedite this with a quick game of Jewish Geography: Do you know the Goldbergs? We used to go to day-school together before they left to Cleveland. Who knew there were Jews in Cleveland, right!), you’ve won. You’re white now! Enjoy : ). My brother, who looks more like Hasan Minhaj than Jason Schwartzman, has been shut down from identifying as nonwhite from his Jewish friends (who don’t see him any differently than us—so progressive) and his non-Jewish friends (“If you’re Jewish, you’re white”). Can you blame him for checking ‘white’ on his job applications?
I felt at peace with the shape of my eyes, the texture of my hair, and the color of my skin at a religious function in the United States only once. It was at an Eid event on campus. Nobody asked me who I was there with, even though I was really only there to accompany my friend Aisha; though everything I was seeing was new to me, nobody asked me if I was lost. The first time I would have been at a loss of words if someone asked me to justify my presence, I was not questioned: I could just be.
I don’t think this feeling is possible in Jewish spaces in the US right now for Mizrachi Jews (or any non-white Jews, for that matter).
The views and opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect those of Lilith Magazine.