Mizrachi culture shaking up Israeli style and soul

tel aviv | Most of Avigail Klein’s students are Ashkenazi — Jews of European background. She performs for Ashkenazi audiences, at kibbutzim and moshavim, and at parties in Savyon and Herzliya Pituah. She’s performed for a Jewish students’ group in Miami, invited there by two ex-Israelis who told her that they wanted to give their pals “an authentic taste of contemporary Israel.” Half-Ashkenazi herself — her father is Hungarian, her mother Bukharan — Avigail Klein is a practitioner of that most Levantine of arts: belly dancing.

In a gift shop on Tel Aviv’s Sheinkin Street, the clerk says her boss, also an Ashkenazi, brought in a spiritual counselor to tell her the best places to hang up a hamsa, the hand-shaped Mizrachi (North African or Asian) Jewish symbol meant to ward off the evil eye.

“You see people walking up and down the street, Ashkenazim, and they’ve got hamsas hanging over their baby carriages. Some people believe in it, some buy them just for the beauty,” says the clerk, Galia Mochtar. “A lot of people buy hamsas to send as gifts abroad, because it’s representative of Israel.”

Once people sent Jaffa oranges and kova tembels (pointed hats once worn by farmers) as authentic Israeli gifts; now they send hamsas and belly dancers. Once Arik Einstein and Chava Alberstein were Israel’s most popular singers; now it’s Eyal Golan and Sarit Haddad. Taverna, a rousing Israeli pop-music show featuring Mizrachi singers plus a few token Ashkenazim who try to sound Mizrachi — has been popular on prime-time TV.

Ashkenazim are flocking to Mizrachi spiritual healers and learning Kabbalah.

Wedged in between the cappuccino bars on Sheinkin is Jahnounia, specializing in Yemenite jahnoun (a baked dish of pastry, margarine and honey), served up by Mizrachi waitresses.

Up a couple of flights on south Tel Aviv’s Aliya Street is a place called Ahlama, where kabbalist Rabbi Eliahu Ozrad says he has exorcised dybbuks, gotten rid of the evil eye and healed the illnesses of thousands of people over the last eight years. He works his supposed wonders by blowing the shofar, writing amulets on deerskin and visualizing holy names — as well as by employing techniques such as aromatherapy, reflexology, bioenergetics and shiatsu massage.

“In the beginning most of the people who came to me were Mizrachim. Now most are Ashkenazim. And not just the ones who got back from India, not just the artists. We get doctors, lawyers, contractors, and they all take off their shoes and sit on the floor,” he says.

Mizrachi culture used to be considered low-class, primitive, folkloristic, not to be taken seriously by educated, middle-class Israelis — most of whom were, and, to a diminishing extent still are, Ashkenazim. The food, the music, the style of religion were generally confined to the poor Mizrachi quarters of the big cities and to the Mizrachi-dominated development towns. Hummus and falafel made it into the mainstream, but that was about it.

Today, Mizrachi culture is no longer second class, but is even the cutting edge. It has changed the style of Israel — probably loosened it up some, given it more soul.

Oz Almog, a sociologist at the Jezreel Valley Academic College, sees the growing popularity of Mizrachi culture in Israel as part of a worldwide trend, especially noticeable in the United States, of cultural pluralism, of recognizing the value of non-Western, Third World cultures.

But it isn’t just tolerance and all those other good things that are powering this trend, Almog notes; it’s also increased competition for customers and audiences, known in Israel as the “culture of rating.”

“When state-owned radio and TV were all that existed, they didn’t have to worry about pleasing diverse audiences. Now there are all sorts of different TV and radio stations competing with each other and they have to try to attract different publics to bring up their ratings,” he points out.

The turn toward things Mizrachi is also a reaction to the intensifying competition of Israeli life, a pressure release valve in the stiff, super-rational world of modern, capitalist Israel, Almog continues.

“In this world you have to wear a mask. You have to wear a mask for your boss, for your clients, even, in a way, for your family,” he says. “Plus you have the recent Western influence of psychologizing and psychoanalyzing, and everybody is so self-conscious that people are fed up. They want to behave simply, honestly.

“They want to ‘cut the bull—-.’ Mizrachi culture fills this need very well. It’s a culture where you behave like you feel. In the end, Israelis have relatively little tolerance for artificial behavior. They may eat sushi because it’s considered cool, but what they really want is to wipe up a plate of hummus. Mizrachi culture allows Israelis to relax, to be Mediterranean, to be natural.”

In Avigail Klein’s Tel Aviv living room, one of her students, Zehava Schwartz, explains how belly dancing for the last seven years has “opened [her] up to the Mizrachi mentality.”

Schwartz, in her 50s, says she was brought up in a strictly Polish Jewish Tel Aviv home.

“For my parents, the Mizrachim were frenkim [an early pejorative for Moroccan Jewish immigrants], and ‘Yemenite woman’ meant ‘housecleaner.’ This was bred into me; it was almost in my DNA, and you have to fight hard to get rid of it.”

For the last year she’s been studying kabbalah with Moroccan-born Ozrad.

“For me to study with a Moroccan rabbi? This would have been unheard of.”

But on a recent evening at Ahlama, Ozrad began singing a Yemenite religious song and Schwartz spontaneously began undulating in dance.

“There’s no more division in me between body, soul and mind,” she says.

Her CD collection is now dominated by Arab music, which she plays in her apartment as she dances. The only people in her building who understand her, she says, are the Arab maintenance men, who bring her Arab CDs and tapes.

Some of her neighbors have asked her not to play the music on Shabbat, a request she’s complied with, she says, because while learning Kabbalah has not made her observant, it has “allowed [me] to make peace with religion.”

Married with two grown children and a bachelor’s degree in political science from the Hebrew University, Schwartz now dances professionally at parties under the name Zohara. Her husband — a pharmacist whom Schwartz describes as “more Polish than I am; a Polish Jew born in Poland!” — is her DJ and biggest fan. Her children, however, are rather embarrassed by their mother’s belly dancing, and her mother is simply appalled.

Quoting her mother, Schwartz says, “In my house there will be no belly dancing!”

Asked what qualities the terms “Ashkenazi” and “Mizrachi” bring to mind, Schwartz replies, “Ashkenazi means practicality, always thinking ‘What’s in it for me?’ Being achievement-oriented, wanting success. Mizrachi means accepting people without conditions, looking less at their accomplishments. Mizrachi means warmth, humor, a flowing quality. Mizrachi means the door is always open, while to an Ashkenazi, ‘My home is my castle.'”

Israel’s turn to the East seems to be driven by two forces: One is the natural “mainstreaming” of Mizrachi culture that comes from living in this country for generations, climbing the ladder into positions of influence — especially in politics — making up roughly 50 percent of the population, and simply sticking around so long that Ashkenazim, after a while, grow familiar with their ways.

Mizrachi music may sound alien to Ashkenazi ears at first, but after a while the rhythms and melodies make sense, until Eyal Golan and Sarit Haddad can modernize their arrangements a bit and come up with shlaggers, or huge hits.

Menashe Sa’ad, who has been a broadcaster on Radio Yerushalayim, and, before that, on Army Radio, for the last seven years, says the mainstreaming of Mizrachi music “didn’t happen overnight.” He notes that it took a great leap forward about a decade ago with Ethnix, a band that gradually became more and more Mizrachi, cutting a disc a few years ago with Mizrachi star Zehava Ben.

But as with Mizrachi music, it took a long time for all sorts of other previously “exclusive” Mizrachi items to become acceptable to Ashkenazim.

Eyal Guy, who opened Jahnounia in 1995, says the only Ashkenazi neighborhood where such a restaurant could have succeeded at that time was Sheinkin.

“On Sheinkin, anything alternative or exotic will catch on,” he notes. But since Jahnounia’s success, other restaurants specializing in the dish have opened in Ramat Gan, Givatayim and other areas with large Ashkenazi populations.

As hummus and falafel started off as “exotic” Middle Eastern fare until Ashkenazim became used to them and ate them simply for their good taste and low price, so jahnoun owes its popularity mainly to its value for money. Until jahnoun goes completely mainstream, Guy is bolstering its appeal with a little exotica: Besides showing a preference for Mizrachi waitresses, he’s hung a finjan and a painting of the Yemenite capital, Sana, on Jahnounia’s walls.

A paleface Ashkenazi, Guy says he keeps watch on the restaurant from outside “so the atmosphere inside will be as Mizrachi as possible.”

The “mainstreaming” of Mizrachi culture is also tied in with the general turn to religion, to Jewish roots, to traditional family values, which are identified with Mizrachim more so than with Ashkenazim.

A related part of the new appeal of Mizrachi culture is the impression, hard to avoid, that it is more “authentically” Israeli, certainly more Middle Eastern, than Ashkenazi European culture, which seems, after all this time, to be more and more an artificial implant.

Things Mizrachi have “ethnic” and “roots” appeal. They’re easily adapted to the mainstream, easily commercialized. The hamsa, besides being a religious symbol, is also a beautiful ornament. An Ashkenazi can hang a few hamsas in his apartment and it doesn’t mean he’s religious, it just means that he’s got a warm, spiritual side, he’s ethnic, he’s got exotic taste, he’s not afraid to try different things. As for bringing good luck or chasing away the evil eye, well, it can’t hurt.

Yet the rise in Mizrachi stock comes from one other important source: the well-entrenched Israeli fascination with the Far East. It is now a national coming-of-age rite for young people — mainly middle-class Ashkenazim — to travel to Nepal, India, Sri Lanka and other Asian spots after the army.

Ozrad, the son and grandson of kabbalistic rabbis, a former IDF combat medic who studied Kabbalah for 10 years at a Jerusalem yeshiva before studying alternative medicine for 15 years in the Bay Area, says that because of their exposure to the Far East, Israelis are making a natural progression toward Mizrachi ways.

“The warmth, the spiritual attitude, the religious symbols of the Far East — all this brings to mind Mizrachi Jewish culture,” he says.

“Now there’s the folklore — for instance, the hamsa and the music — before you’d hear Mizrachi music on maybe one program a day; now you hear it all day,” says Ozrad.

Israel in the Ballpark