New anthology brings Mizrachi womens voices to the forefront

Loolwa Khazzoom has long thought about compiling an anthology of feminist women who are of North African or Middle Eastern descent, like herself.

There was just one snag. “I thought, which Jewish Mizrachi feminists do I know? Me and my sister, and that’s it.”

The only other Mizrachi women she knew “were in the Orthodox synagogue, and women in the Orthodox system pretty much accepted their role.”

Not so for Khazzoom.

Though she makes her home in Israel now, the San Francisco native was back in Berkeley recently to promote “The Flying Camel: Essays on Identity by Women of North American and Middle Eastern Heritage,” which features quite a few contributors from the Bay Area, including: Gina Bublil Waldman, Julie Iny, Lital Levy, Rachel Wahba and Kyla Wazana Tompkins. Khazzoom and some of her contributors will be appearing together to discuss the book in a number of Bay Area venues this week.

The daughter of an Iraqi Jew, Khazzoom has always been intrigued by her own story and that of others like herself, meaning Jews with roots in North African and Middle Eastern countries. (She is careful to make the distinction between Mizrachi Jews, which means “Eastern” in Hebrew, and Sephardim, those descended from the Jews of Spain.)

As her identity developed, though, Khazzoom became aware of her own double oppression: The Jewish experience taught in America was Ashkenazi, or Eastern European. Simultaneously, in her beloved Mizrachi tradition — which also happens to be Orthodox — she wasn’t allowed to lead services as a woman.

For many of the years she lived here, Khazzoom — whose Web site is — was known around the Bay Area for her workshops on diversity within the Jewish community.

“When I started doing Jewish multicultural education, there was no one else doing it,” she said.

In one way or another, she repeatedly felt that the Ashkenazi establishment did not make room to hear Mizrachi voices. Yet when she thought to put a book together, she had a hard time.

Even when she did find contributors, she didn’t have an easy time with publishers. One told her she should include men. Another told her she should include Ashkenazi women. Yet another told her she had to make their experiences relevant to non-Jewish women of color.

“The bottom line of what all these messages were was that ‘your story is not enough,'” said Khazzoom, 34, who stuck it out anyway.

9/11 changed everything, including the world’s interest in all things Middle Eastern. And in putting the book together, she found there were others who went through some of the same things she did.

Take Lital Levy, a Ph.D. student in comparative literature at U.C. Berkeley. The 31-year-old Berkeley resident writes that growing up in Los Angeles, she was hardly conscious that her Jewish education was the Ashkenazi influence of her mother’s side of the family.

As an undergraduate at Columbia University, when Levy wanted to pursue a senior’s thesis comparing the work of two poets who wrote in both Arabic and Hebrew, she was accused of favoring Arabic because it was zar (Hebrew for “strange” or “exotic”). The professor knew full well that Levy’s father’s side of the family were Iraqi Jews and all spoke Arabic.

Like Levy, Julie Iny of Oakland also grew up in Los Angeles, and is also the product of a “mixed marriage,” an Ashkenazi mother and Mizrachi father. Though Iny’s father was born in India, his family emigrated from Basra, Iraq.

Though Iny writes that she can “pass” as white, she considers herself a Jew of color, a community that is largely invisible.

Kyla Wazana Tompkins, 35, doesn’t see her mixed heritage — her mother is Moroccan Jewish, and her father’s father was a fundamentalist Baptist preacher — as a conflict. “It was a mix I was absolutely home in, ” said the Ph.D. student in modern thought and literature at Stanford University.

Khazzoom, who moved to Israel a year ago and is a freelance journalist in Tel Aviv, is proud of the work she’s done in the field. But she’s ready to pass the torch. “This chapter is closed.”

The Flying Camel: Essays on Identity by Women of North African and Middle Eastern Jewish Heritage” by Loolwa Khazzoom (256 pages, Seal Press, $16.95).

Loolwa Khazzoom will be reading with some of her contributors at 8 p.m. Monday, Feb. 23, at Congregation Beth Am, 26790 Arastradero Road, Los Altos Hills, (650) 494-3464; at 7:30 p.m. Thursday, Feb. 26, at Black Oak Books, 1491 Shattuck Ave., Berkeley, (510) 486-0698; and noon on Friday, March 5, Osher Marin Jewish Community Center, 200 N. San Pedro Road, San Rafael, (415) 444-8000.

Alix Wall
Alix Wall

Alix Wall is a contributing editor to J. She is also the founder of the Illuminoshi: The Not-So-Secret Society of Bay Area Jewish Food Professionals and is writer/producer of a documentary-in-progress called "The Lonely Child."