Speaker in S.F. puts disputed 'face' on Israelis' identity

Bulletin Correspondent

The road to Jewish unity hit a few speed bumps during a recent forum.
    Titled "Other Jews, Other Arabs," the Sept. 21 event was co-sponsored by Ivri-Nasawi, which promotes Mizrahi and Sephardi culture, and San Francisco Hillel. And although it was part of a Hillel series called "The Face of Jewish Identity," not all those faces left San Francisco's Jewish Community Federation building smiling. (The evening was also the first in Ivri-NASAWI's new "Conversations on Roots & Identity" series which began in New York and has spread to Los Angeles and the Bay Area.) 
    The evening's speaker, Jordan Elgrably, founder and executive director of the Los Angeles-based Ivri-Nasawi, considered the event a stepping stone to further dialogue. And he offered the 20 or so people in attendance plenty to ponder. "The goal of the evening was to focus the spotlight on the Mediterranean and Middle Eastern Jewry, and to offer a pluralistic version of Jewry, as opposed to the Zionist narrative of the 'super Israeli' with no cultural baggage," Elgrably said after the event. "That blank-slate scenario is extremely unrealistic, and is especially damaging for Middle Eastern Jews, who were perceived as coming from the 'enemy culture,'" he added.
    During the discussion, Elgrably played music by Mizrahi Jews, including Yair Dalal and Emil Zrihan, and offered an abridged history lesson.
    "In the Zionist mythology of old, Arabs, and often Arab Jews, were the desert savages while European [and] American Jews were the civilized people who made the desert bloom," said Elgrably, who is of mixed Ashkenazi-Sephardi descent. "What that means is that the Sephardics in Israel were forced to act as witnesses to the inferiority of their own experiences," he said.
    Elgrably said such an attitude was prevalent in Israeli politicians ranging from David Ben-Gurion to Golda Meir. That statement drew considerable acrimony from one member of the audience, who chose not to be identified. The audience member, who said she was an Israeli Jew of both Spanish and Russian descent, was visibly upset.
    She accused Elgrably of trafficking in generalizations and said the speaker "had absolutely no facts." The audience member interrupted Elgrably on several occasions, and characterized much of his talk as "inaccurate and ridiculous." The woman appeared to be in the minority, however, as many of the audience members felt that the talk broached a subject that was too rarely heard.
    "I think it's exciting that the whole issue of the formation of Israel, and all of its ramifications, could be brought up in any context in the organized Jewish community," said audience member Laurie Polster.
    Polster, who is the co-leader of Berkeley's Shir Hashirim (Song of Songs Minyan) and also sings in the San Francisco Arabic choir Aswat, considered the talk informative and overdue. "Mainstream Jews have always been fed a very narrow slice of reality," Polster said. "It's only through talks like this that we can bridge some of these knowledge gaps, and have any hope for peace in the Middle East."
    Miri Hunter-Haruach, the graduate and young professionals director of San Francisco Hillel, also said the discussion resonated deeply with the audience. Hunter-Haruach, an African-American Jew-by-choice, said that it's important to deal with the concept of "otherness" no matter what the culture in question is.
    Hunter-Haruach was once hesitant to convert to Judaism, even though she flirted with the idea, because of the rifts in the black and Jewish communities. But when Israeli staged the massive airlift of Ethiopian Jews in 1991, it caught her attention and led to her 1994 conversion.
    "Initially, I thought it was a strange thing to be black and Jewish," she said. "But once I realized that there were thousands of kinspeople, there was much less of the sense of otherness. And I think that Arab Jews have to deal with the same issues. The discussion tonight was a way of bringing that situation to light."

# # #

    Information about "Conversations on Roots & Identity" series, Myra Lappin, (415) 338-1706.
    Next event, Oct. 19. Poetry Center, San Francisco State, 7:30 pm, Iraqi Jewish culture, featuring Lital Levy et al.
    Information about "The Face of Jewish Identity" series: San Francisco Hillel, (415) 333-4922.