Kids celebrate history, culture of Jews from 4 corners of world

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"Where do Jews come from?" asked Loolwa Khazzoom, addressing Temple Isaiah's "Jewish Multicultural Extravaganza" on Sunday.

A flurry of hands went up among the audience at the Lafayette synagogue.

"Spain," shouted out one young attendee.

"Very good," said Khazzoom, who coordinated the event. "Who else can tell me where Jews come from?"

"China," chirped another kid. "Russia," shouted others, "and Ethiopia, Poland, Iran and Israel…"

After the names of about 15 countries had been ticked off, Khazzoom quizzed the audience of about 250 one more time. The room fell silent.

Finally, from the back of the room, a barely audible voice offered another possibility.

"Antarctica?"

Although Khazzoom said that there could be Jews in Antarctica, it wasn't among the countries or cultures the fifth-grade class at the Reform temple studied during the school year.

The end result of that process was Sunday's four-hour event, which Khazzoom called the culmination of a dream.

The seeds of the multicultural program were planted two decades ago when Khazzoom attended a Jewish day school in San Francisco. Khazzoom, who prayed from Sephardic texts, was told by the school's rabbi that such praying was "illegal" in Judaism.

"The rabbi shamed me in front of the entire class," recalled Khazzoom, who ran home after school to inform her parents. Subsequently, Khazzoom said, she was pulled from the day school and attended public schools until she graduated from Barnard College.

Initially invited to speak at Temple Isaiah as a lecturer, Khazzoom was hired to institute the project, which she hopes will serve as a model for future programs in synagogues both locally and nationwide.

"A lot of Jewish culture is transmitted through an Ashkenazi lens," said Khazzoom, whose parents came from Iraq and followed Mizrahi, or Middle Eastern, traditions. "And often times, non-European Jewish cultures are viewed as exotic, strange or worse. And when those cultures are referred to, they're often just relegated to food or music — without focusing on the religious or intellectual aspects."

But food, music, and theater — as well as the project's curriculum — were all prominently displayed during Sunday's event. One exhibit featured photographs and the history of a synagogue in Kaifeng, China. Next door, there was a Purim gambling game from Iraq.

And if looking at student-made Mizrahi-Sephardic Torah decorations didn't ring someone's bell, they could nibble on baba ganoush and tabouli, or were free to play the Amharic wheel of fortune — using Ethiopian Jewry's mother tongue.

Four theatrical shows were staged, representing different regions of world Jewry — ranging from Middle Eastern and other Asian communities to European and African cultures.

"The class followed the migration of Jews around the world on a very chronological basis," said Khazzoom. "No one culture was represented as superior, or more important than the others — it's the time-tested story of the Jewish people, just with different landscapes."

In keeping with the cross-cultural theme of the afternoon, 11-year-old Perry Wilson opened a Mizrahi show by bellowing out to the audience, "How y'all doing this afternoon?"

Discussing the event, Wilson said, "I liked all the shows, and all the food. I learned about cultures that I never knew anything about."

When asked if there were any other facets to the project he enjoyed, Wilson laughed and said he enjoyed "dancing the macarena," which, according to Khazzoom, was purely spontaneous and not actually part of the program.

As Wilson demonstrated more of his fancy footwork, Abby Taranow, also 11, said she enjoyed learning about how Jewish religious rituals were celebrated from country to country, and how ancient Jews were often forced to convert to Christianity.

Iraqi-born Joe Shamash, whose daughter Jenney is part of the class, said that the project was a great way for his daughter to reconnect with her roots.

"It's important to hold on to some of our traditions in this culture," said Shamash. "There's a tendency to get rapidly assimilated here in America, whether it's from the music, the media or peer pressure.

"I think there should be a blending of the cultures, not a clash — and that's why a program like this is helpful."

Khazzoom agreed, saying the goals of the program were accomplished during a class two months ago.

"There was a student with blond hair, blue eyes and fair skin, and she was talking about the Ethiopian Jewish community," said Khazzoom.

"And the entire time, she used the pronoun 'we.'"