Mizrachi in Memphis

I grew up in a small, tightly knit modern-Orthodox Jewish community in Memphis, Tennessee. My mother is half-Yemeni, half-Hungarian, and my dad is Kurdish (Iraqi Kurds). Aside from a few other people who came and went during my childhood, my parents, siblings and I were the only Mizrachim in our otherwise Ashkenazi community. In my 14 years of Jewish day-school education, I never once heard a Jewish educator utter the word Mizrachi. Still, from a young age, it was obvious to me that I was different.

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.

Instead, 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. For Mizrachi Jews (or any non-white Jews), I don’t think this feeling is possible in Jewish spaces in the U.S. right now.

RACHEL TSUNA, “A Mizrachi Jew in Memphis,” The Lilith Blog, November 29, 2018.

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