Mizrachi Jews Are Finally Getting the Recognition They Deserve As an Integral Part of Israel’s Narrative, Culture, and History

Margol, Kobi Oz, Eli Luzon; screen capture Ministry of Culture and Sports video

By Yifat Mukades

It’s Saturday morning in Los Angeles (April 21st, 2018), and I am watching the official closing ceremony celebrating Israel’s 70th year of independence, on Israeli TV. As has happened to me many times during the past 10 days of remembrance, I’m all choked up with tears and a sense of pride: Proud to be an Israeli, a Mizrachi, an Iraqi Jew. The ceremony is named ”Israel Sound track” and, for the first time in many, many years, I felt my heritage being represented and validated in Israel’s history and the story it tells.

As I watch, every song brings tears to my eyes and takes me back to my childhood – to my soundtrack. For many American Jews, the names of the Israeli Mizrachi musicians like Yishai Levi, Eli Luzon, Daklon, and Margol might not mean anything, but they were a big part of the soundtrack of my life growing up in Israel during the eighties and nineties.

I am a Tzabarit – I was born in Israel and grew up there until my late twenties. I am Israeli, and my parents immigrated from Iraq in “Operation Ezra & Nechamia” in the early 1950s. My dad would listen to Arabic music like Abdel Wuhab, Halim Hafez, Um Kul Thum and Farid El-Atrash. Ask any Israeli Mizrahi Jew from Iraq, Iran, Egypt and even Morocco, and they will tell you they (or their parents) listened to those artists. Why am I bringing this up? Because, halfway through the event, Nasrin Kadri, who is an Arab Israeli Muslim singer, sang Farid El-Atrash’s – Ya Uzhal Falfelu in Arabic. Yes! At the celebration of Israel’s 70th year of independence, telling Israel’s story through music to the nation and the world!

It took me back to Shabbat mornings when my father would wake up early and listen to Arabic music while chopping a huge mountain of small Israeli salad for our family of seven as we prepared our traditional Shabbat morning meal called “sabich.” You may be familiar with it: boiled eggs, potato, and the signature item – fried eggplant. You can buy it in any Falafel stand in Israel these days. But growing up, none of my Ashkenazi friends knew this weird food, or other Iraqi delicacies that my mom made, like kuba or sambusak, to name a few.

As the second generation of immigrants, I didn’t like it when my parents spoke Arabic at home, or worse, at my school or around my friends. I hate to admit it, but I was a bit embarrassed at times. Though my brothers embraced our parent’s upbringing and culture by listening to Israeli Mizrachi music like Zohar Argov, Haim Moshe & Eli Luzon, I was more interested in European pop music, and Western culture in general. When I got the chance in high school to select my second foreign language (which was mandatory English and Arabic in elementary school), I choose French. I know it made my father very sad, since it was the only subject he was able to help me with, as native Arabic speaker. But I wanted nothing to do with Arabic language or culture. Maybe that’s why I liked to travel, and dreamed about America.

After serving in the Army, I went to Capital Camps as one of the Israeli shlicha. Later, I entered the US Green Card Lottery, and got it. I finished college in Israel and officially left for the States in 2003. I became naturalized in 2009. It was one of those moments that shape your life forever. I am finally American. No longer Israeli, Mizrachi or Iraqi. Just American.

As I was part of a diaspora, away from my family and friends, I embraced my new identity to the fullest. I had no Israeli friends and worked with Americans only. I even married one. But something changed and shifted in me once I started my own family. Suddenly, I yearned for the giant family gatherings, with Iraqi food, and Arabic and Israeli Mizrachi Music that I had growing up. Suddenly, I wanted my kids to know their heritage and where our family is from. Where I am from. I realized that I ran away from something I now seek. I discovered that I couldn’t take Israel out of me, nor my Iraqi Mizrachi heritage and tradition.

Growing up in Israel, when Arik Ainstein or Chava Alberstein (famous Israeli singers) would come on TV, my father would say something rude in Arabic and turn off the TV. This culture was not his, and, though the government and the media tried to create new Israeli music and culture, they forgot to include the heritage of those who came from different places, listen to different songs, eat different kinds of food, and speak and pray in very different Sfaradi melodies. My father’s act of shutting off the TV was an act of rebellion against a government that excluded him, told him (by that omission) that he was not in any way, part of Israel’s narrative.

It was very similar to the narrative Israel embraced that the holocaust only happened in Europe, and that Arab Jews did not suffer from Nazi actions and propaganda. Try telling that to my older aunts who remember the “Farhood,” the Arab lynchings of Jews in Bagdad on that Shavuot Eve in 1941, which killed many of their Jewish neighbors. The same Arabs they lived next to in peace for generations. My aunts still cry every time they retell the horrors of that night. Shutting off the TV meant so much more than I realized, back then.

Back to the ceremony: Kobi Oz, Eli Luzon, and Margol sang “What a Great Country” and “The Old Station,” which refers to Tel Aviv’s old bus station where one could find all the ‘Mizrachi singers’ cassette-tapes to buy because they weren’t carried in any mainstream record store. They were banished to the old bus station, even though the songs were hugely successful among Sfaradi Mizrachi Israelis. Those artists used to perform at weddings and Bar Mitzvahs “earning” the name of Wedding Singers because they simply couldn’t perform anywhere else.

So, Eyal Golan singing Zohar Argov, Sarit Hadad singing Ofrah Chaza, Nasrin Kadri singing Farid El Atrash in Arabic, and mostly giving the honor of the closing act to Daklon with his hit “A big celebration tonight” alongside Zahava Ben and Itai Levi at Israel’s 70th celebration was an historic gesture aimed at repairing Israel’s narrative. That narrative, for many decades tried to hide the disparity, whether intentional, as when Mizrachi Jews were put in Ma’abarot (absorption camps) and Ayarot Pituach (new immigrant towns), or unintentional, with pop culture and the media.

The program included a tribute to Arik Ainstein, as well as Israeli Rock performed by Tislam’s Dani Basan along side Dana Berger. Gigi Gov and Yoni Rechter were there, as well as Dani Sanderson. Lilit Nagar, who’s most identified by her work at Channel One Arabic news desk, sang her famous song “In the shadow of Tamar light and moonlight” from the 50s. This song which had numerous covers by many artists, is famously known to most by the one done by Zohar Argov. There was even a tribute to Sfaradi melodies of Jewish prayers like Adon Ha-Slichot & El Norah, recognizing years of Jewish heritage in Babylon.

It seems that, in the last couple years, Israel has been working hard on mending its narrative. The effects of the Nazis on Jewish life in Arab countries are now included in history books and being taught in schools. My old aunts have found some comfort in their later years, as they are now being recognized by the Israeli government as being affected by the Nazis. They receive a small yearly sum, and assistance with free medicine. It might not be much, but the fact that the state of Israel is officially recognizing their suffering is a big shift in how Israel tells her story. As Jews, we tell stories – it is our duty, and the act of telling is part of the story itself. The state of Israel, on its 70th birthday decided to retell her story through music.

It’s hard to put into words how watching the “Israel Soundtrack” closing ceremony made me feel. I wished my parents were alive to see this transformation. I don’t think my father would have cursed and shut off the TV if he was alive today. I think he would have appreciated being recognized, I think he would have felt equal among his own people in the country he literally, helped to build. I sense my tears were for my parents, and for the fact that Israel finally, after 70 years, changed her narrative to include, integrate and honor my people. It took me a while, but I am proud to be an Israeli, Iraqi, Mizrachi, Sfaradi Jew. And American too, but that’s another story.

Yifat Mukades is the Assistant Director of Valley Beth Shalom Etz Chaim Learning Center and manages their Technology Academy. Yifat is an alumni of AJU Graduate Center for Jewish Education and is an Israel education fellow with The iCenter. Her capstone presentation was titled “Experiential education Through Virtual and Augmented Reality” and she is constantly looking for ways to integrate emerging technologies in Jewish and Israel education. She’s an experiential educator at heart and love spending her summers at camp. Her family lives in Israel and she misses them dearly.