Reconnecting to Eastern Diasporic Heritage – A Gateway to Future Community Building

Screen capture: Israel Film Center Festival 2016 (NY)

[This essay is from The Peoplehood Papers, volume 26a – “Building the Jewish People – One Community at a Time”- published by the Center for Jewish Peoplehood Education.]

By Tamar Yael Gibli

“This celebration of Eastern heritage opens a gate to an inclusive construction of a Jewish communal future.”

The establishment of the state of Israel coincided with what has been referred to as the Modern Jewish exodus from Muslim lands, which led to the arrival of approx. 600,000 Jews from Muslim countries to Israel. This was considered part of the Zionist ideology of “the ingathering of exiles.” While a sense of peoplehood was nurtured, Khazoom (2008) showcases how within this Zionist aspiration, many diasporic cultures were denied and rejected, with the aim of making the collective-national element the most important component in people’s identity. Since Institutional efforts to build a unified Jewish society[1], were based mainly on Western culture, European Zionism and Ashkenazi Jewish customs, hundreds of thousands of Jews from Muslim and Arab countries, were therefore challenged with the hardships of assimilation, and social discrimination.

Today Israel is witnessing a cultural revival of these diasporic cultures. A social foundation is being built, by young Israelis – third generation to Jews from North Africa and the Middle East – invested in reinvigorating their family heritage. As they dismantle oppressive dichotomous categories, they pave the way for an inclusive polyethnic society. This cultural renaissance includes the establishment of countless new programs where social activists are invested in retrieving and passing on cultural treasures from Eastern Jewish communities. This celebration of Eastern[2] heritage opens a gate to an inclusive construction of a Jewish communal future.

One such program – “Elul Min HaMizrach” (Elul from the east)[3], offers a cultural, intellectual and spiritual Jewish learning experience, bringing forth forgotten Jewish treasures. During a 5-week intensive program for young adults from across the Israeli Jewish spectrum, a new Israeli-Jewish language is cultivated. Deeply rooted between the East and West, progressiveness and traditionalism the program combines educational, spiritual and cultural learning, alongside social responsibility and action-based work. Rooting Israeli society within the context of the Middle East, such programs enable young Israelis to reconnect to their Jewish identity, which I believe is the basis not only for community building, but for building bridges to other communities as well.

The program endorses an intimate, family-like environment that incorporates music and Piyyutim (Jewish liturgical poems), celebrates holidays and learns about the Jewish calendar and traditions in the spirit of Eastern cultures. To better understand these currents in Israeli Jewish life, quotes from thought pieces and poems, written by alumni are presented below[4]. One alumnus shared a particularly illuminating account of the program’s impact:

When our grandparents came to Israel – our parents were embarrassed to speak their exilic language, they listened to the music of the Arab “enemies,” ate their food and shared their customs. Our parents were requested to be “Israelis”… hiding any reminder of their connection to the Arab enemies, so an entire culture was erased and blurred. The cultural awaking that I am part of, is now returning and reviving those roots. Many programs are springing up like mushrooms after the rain …This is not the story of the second or third generation of immigrants from Arab and Eastern countries, this is a cultural package and an outline for identities of an entire generation, Ashkenazim and Mizrahim…. I am proud to be part of the approach that focuses on the cultural treasures that Eastern Judaism has to offer, an approach invested in creating content that connects and brings together Sephardim and Ashkenazim, Westerners and Easterners, all of Israel (p.52)”[5].

While exploring such personal experiences and inner thoughts, certain dominant themes emerge: a revival of their grandparents’ heritage, as a path to their present Jewish identity. A feeling of belonging and community, enabling them to have hope for an inclusive pluralistic-Jewish communal future. Below are several quotes from participant accounts that exemplify these themes:

My longing has met the East. returning me to ancient roots, and my grandfather’s home…” (p. 6). “Remembering where I came from… they hold the roots of who we are…” (p. 14). “I returned to my mother’s home… I was searching for a home, community, a sense of belonging… this was the only program that didn’t force me to “adapt,” but where I needed to return to myself…” (p. 12). “We listened to oriental tunes that got lost along with many other unique traditions, that weren’t able to grow roots during the Israeli “Melting pot” period… (p. 51). “… A tune that offers something else for Israeli society- tradition, community, harmony. …. We noticed a huge hunger for this voice… to return to their grandparents’ home. and speak their language. It’s a product of intergenerational reaction…” “Traditionalism as an alternative zone of plurality… aims to unite rather than divide (p.66).” “When my consciousness matured… my land betrayed me… changing my thoughts. mixing homeland and Exile.” (p.40)

As evident from both Alumni descriptions and the self-proclaimed goals of the program, this is a bottom up movement which is reconstructing a new Jewish communal landscape. While their ancestral Jewish communities were dismantled, such programs are restoring Eastern heritages and providing a gateway of inclusivity and constructive growth that acknowledges, respects and celebrates diversity.

To conclude, I have brought forth a short account of ‘Elul Min Hamizrach’ as an example of a broader cultural phenomenon which is blooming now in Israel. As more and more artists and organizations embrace their heritage, they are co-building a foundation for sustainable communal living, stressing the importance of including treasures from both the East and the West in the Jewish Mosaic. Furthermore, this Jewish renaissance can contribute to the rehabilitation and reframing of Jewish Homeland-Diaspora discourse, in order to revitalize Jewish peoplehood. By reclaiming their own diasporic traditions, they are setting the way for others to do the same. Finally, such developments, can contribute to Jewish renewal, creating more diversity and opportunity to connect and learn through such inclusive collective approaches. Returning to our diasporic roots, rather than denying them, could potentially build bridges within the Jewish world and beyond.

Covid-19 Addendum

As COVID-19 is raising anxiety and confusion regarding what tomorrow might bring, it is also enabling a general reexamination of social structures. While government and mass media discourse continue to discuss petty politics, ignite fear and advance false divisions during these chaotic times, the need for social innovation & entrepreneurism is becoming more urgent as citizens are turning to the streets in protest. Social movements working towards community building are providing a much-needed inclusive base for current and future solidarity and social accountability. Rereading this piece, what jumps out is the importance of considering both the past & the future while answering current challenges. Such a boundless timeline is as relevant to responding to the global pandemic as it is for intellectual and cultural initiatives such as I have discussed – and which showcase a holistic approach juxtaposing social history & future visions. Addressing a new Israeli-Jewish discourse nowadays, must take into consideration its relevance for pressing political and economic questions, and combine both Eastern and European ideas of humanism and justice. In Israel, such a fusion could enrich our commonality and recover our democratic discourse in responding to threats to our collective future.

Tamar Gibli is a PhD student, and a fellow at the research hub ‘Mabatim,’ at the Ben-Gurion Research Institute for the study of Israel and Zionism, Ben-Gurion University of the Negev. Her research focuses on the Jewish American Press coverage of the Israeli Mizrahi protest.

[1] This discussion is limited to Jews in Israel. The important context of Arabs in Israel, as well as world Jewry, are connected in many ways but remain beyond the scope of this paper.

[2] Mizrahi/m is the Hebrew word for ‘easterners,’ while the term has different meanings, in the Israeli context, it refers to the collective social category which includes all Jews whose families originate from Muslim countries.

[3] Elul Min HaMizrach is part of the organization Kulna, established in Yeruham in 2015.

[4] This collection was published and produced by the program organizers, and I have translated the quotes presented.

[5] The writer, Ofir Shamai, is one of the programs’ alumni, who is also a founding partner of“ Yeshiva Mizrahit” in Jerusalem, which was established by program alumni who wished to continue after the program ended.

eJewish Philanthropy is the exclusive digital publisher of the individual Peoplehood Papers essays.

Selective essays from this issue can be found here; the complete PDF containing all the essays is available here.