It goes something like this: “You’re Jewish?” The disbelief – accompanied by furrowed eyebrows – is often aimed at darker-skinned Jews with roots in Iran, Iraq, Yemen, Morocco, Senegal or another country that’s geographically disconnected from Europe. The impression that Europe somehow begat the world’s Jews and their culture is fueled by everything from Woody Allen movies to bagel shops. Israel’s ongoing standoff with Iran, Syria and Hamas – pitting Israel’s Ashkenazi leaders against Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Bashar al-Assad, and Khaled Mashaal – reinforces the idea that Jews are a cultural opposite of Arabs and Muslims, but the truth is much more complicated, as evidenced by the singer Inbar Bakal.
Bakal – born and raised in Israel but now living in Los Angeles – is the daughter of Iraqi and Yemeni Jews. Her new album, “Song of Songs,” takes centuries-old Yemeni Jewish tunes (with words in both Hebrew and Arabic) and turns them into sonic soundscapes that are inescapably Jewish – at least to people who know that Jews lived in Yemen and Iraq for millennia, and that Bakal is merely the latest Jewish artist (others include Ofra Haza, Noa, and Yair Dalal) to mine this cultural heritage.
By some estimates, 50 percent of Jews in Israel are Sephardic and Mizrahi – that is, Jews whose heritage links them to Spain, Portugal, the Arab world, Iran or Central Asia. Sephardic and Mizrahi Jews live in the United States, too, including a comedian by the name of Jerry Seinfeld, who is Syrian and/or Turkish from his mother’s side. (Even Seinfeld isn’t sure, he told the New York Times.) Singer Joshua Nelson, an African American Jew who I profiled for the Jewish culture magazine Nextbook, meets many people who assume he’s a Jewish convert, but Nelson – who speaks fluent Hebrew and lived in Israel for two years – connects his family history to Senegalese Jews. “People,” Nelson said, “have a hard time classifying me.”
Bakal, who served four years in the Israeli Air Force, performs with a Muslim artist, and after a recent performance, “his family came and they loved (our music),” she told a publicist promoting next month’s album release. “They were really touched, which touched me on so many levels. I didn’t know how they would be towards me, since I am Israeli and I served in the army. It was very cool to discover that people can leave politics aside.”
“Cool,” though, could also describe the reception that some Mizrahi and Sephardic Jews get from other Jews, according to a new book by Rachel Shabi, “We Look Like the Enemy.” I’ve read reviews of the book, not the book itself, though the reviews indicate the book mirrors a book I did review, “The Flying Camel: Essays on Identity by Women of North African and Middle Eastern Jewish Heritage.” This book describes the prejudice – and triumphs – overcome by Mizrahi and Sephardic Jews.
These books’ publication – like Bakal’s new album (and, to some extent, Seinfeld’s wildly successful TV series) – open another window into the lives of Jews around the world.