Coming of Age as an Iraqi Jew in California

My name is Loolwa Khazzoom. I was born into an Orthodox Jewish family, with an Iraqi father and an American mother. When I was five, my father taught at Stanford University in Palo Alto. The first priority in my parents’ life was giving my sister and me a solid religious education and Jewish identity. Accordingly, we settled in the closest area with a Jewish day school that both my sister and I could attend. Though living in San Francisco gave my father a two-hour commute each day my parents found the sacrifice worthwhile as a Jewish investment.

My day school, however, was solidly Ashkenazi. My teachers were virulent about equating the word “Jewish” only with traditions that had European roots. I was repeatedly ridiculed on account of my family’s Iraqi customs.

“Why do you pray in that book?” a teacher one day asked me, in front of the class.

“It’s my tradition,” I answered, lowering my eyes, sensing the hostility and feeling both afraid and ashamed. My teacher made a face of complete disgust.

A few weeks later, the rabbi “read” to us from the Bible the following “verse”; “It is against Jewish law to pray from a Sephardic prayer book, and it is against Jewish law to pray by yourself.” All but one student in the class turned to face me and unanimously said, “Shame, shame, shame on you, Loolwa!”

My parents took me out of the school that day. The rest of my formal education was at public school.

From that day on, my primary Jewish education came from home, spending every Shabbat learning Middle Eastern prayers, religious songs, holy day traditions and rabbinical teachings. Of course, I continued learning the Ashkenazi traditions by default: Outside of my home, in every “Jewish” synagogue, camp, community organization and community publication, “Jewish” still meant “Ashkenazi.” By being an involved Jew, I could not help but learn the Ashkenazi way of life as well.

As a pre-teen, I could sing the Shabbat and weekday evening prayers in the traditional Iraqi tunes; I knew dozens of Iraqi Shabbat and holy day songs by heart, and I could sing a good portion of the Haggadah in the Iraqi melodies— both in Hebrew and Judeo-Arabic (the traditional language of many Middle Eastern Jews).

It was rare for a child my age to know all these prayers. It was even more rare that I could sing with the distinct Iraqi pronunciation of every word—something that is difficult even for Iraqi adults to maintain. I loved singing the prayers, and realized the grave significance of carrying on a dying tradition. I felt terribly proud that I was able to lead prayers for my family, and I very much wanted to lead them for the synagogue congregation, too.

My father, sister and I went to the only Sephardic synagogue in San Francisco. With rare exceptions, my sister and I were the only children and two of the very few females who ever showed up. Our dedication was so strong that we walked there three times every Shabbat—three miles there and three miles back—on Friday night, Saturday morning, and Saturday afternoon.

If we were boys, I believe the entire synagogue would have been ecstatic that we were so committed to our heritage. They probably would have encouraged us in every way possible. Because I was a girl, however, I was not allowed to lead any part of the main prayers. After considerable fuss, I was allowed to lead parts of the supplementary prayers, the reason being that those did not “really count.”

I remember my pain when, once in a blue moon, a boy would come into the synagogue. Even if he knew nothing, if he stumbled and sputtered his way through the prayers, he would be instructed to lead instead of me, and I would be shunted to the side. Once, just as I was climbing the steps to the bimah [altar] to lead some prayers, a boy entered the synagogue. One of the congregants came and literally pulled me off the bimah. I tried saying something, but the man only grunted at me as if I did not exist, and he joined the others, panting after the boy. Several men shoved a prayer book in the boy’s hand, and there was a communal sigh of relief. It was a terrible experience for me.

The message, clearly, was that my unique knowledge of and passion for Iraqi Jewish heritage was irrelevant. The fact that I was bursting with the energy to lead, that in my own mind I was planning to resurrect my heritage someday, was treated as meaningless.

My father kept saying it was not fair the way they treated girls, and he comforted me; yet we kept coming to the synagogue. We had no revolution against the system, and we did not walk out on it. Accordingly, I learned that though this treatment was not fair, it was acceptable. And I learned to accept it.

Through the community’s treatment of me, I began internalizing learned powerlessness and a lack of self-worth. I began learning to live from a place just behind my potential. I began learning to fear my intelligence, creativity and new ideas, knowing the danger of expressing them. At best, they would fall on deaf ears. At worst, they would be scorned. Was being a girl so horrible a crime as to deserve this punishment?

The day I turned 12 and a half—bath mouswa age—I was banished to the women’s section. I remember that moment explicitly, one day of my life, one birthday, separating me from active participation in the synagogue, stripping me of what little Jewish freedom I had.

Just as the bar mouswa at 13 is a visible ritual rite of passage for a boy, entering him into his full place in the Jewish community, so too was the act of being confined to the women’s section a physical, visible ritual of a girl’s shrinking place in the community. Coming of age as a woman is not treated as an honor but as a punishment.

Vocally joining in the prayers was my last shred of connection to the congregation; I sat in the front row of the women’s section, hanging as much over the top of the mehisa as possible, heartily singing along.

By this time my sister was off at college, so I was almost always the only female at services, my voice the only female heard. One day, the rabbi decided that I was not to sing audibly, for I was violating the law of kol isha, forbidding a woman’s lone voice from being heard by men.

My father and I left the synagogue that Shabbat, and I spent the next two years going to Ashkenazi synagogues. I neither participated in those services nor cared to, as those traditions meant nothing to me.

When I was 15, I stopped attending services altogether.

Loolwa Khazzoom is a writer, musician, and freelance Jewish multicultural consultant in Berkeley. She is working on a project of alliance-building and partnership with Ashkenazi, Sephardic, Mizrahi, and Ethiopian Jews. Her forthcoming anthology, Arabic/Iranian, Jewish, and Female, explores the fusion of sexism, racism and anti-Semitism in the lives of Middle Eastern Jewish women.