On Not Eating Gefilte Fish by Joyce Zonana

jz-headshotWhen I was growing up in 1950s Bensonhurst, in Brooklyn, NY, my identity as a Jew was often called into question. “You mean you’re Jewish? And you don’t know about gefilte fish?” my best friend’s Eastern European (Ashkenazi) Jewish mother asked, shocked to discover that our family ate stuffed grape leaves rather than stuffed cabbage. “What kind of a Jew are you?” schoolmates challenged. When I answered “Sephardic . . . from Egypt,” they would reply. “But all the Jews left Egypt a long time ago, isn’t that what Passover is about?”  “No,” I would say, having been taught the words by my father. “Some Jews returned to Egypt when they were expelled from Spain.” [Later I would learn that some Jews actually lived in Egypt for millennia, never having left.] “There are no Jews in Egypt,” my little friends would retort. “We never heard of any Jews in Egypt. You can’t be Jewish.”

It was puzzling, I knew, but I could find nothing further to say. Aside from a handful of relatives, I did not know any other Jews from Egypt either. An Egyptian Jew. To my neighbors, it seemed a contradiction in terms, an oxymoron. To myself as well. What was the Egyptian part, what the Jewish? How did they fit together? Maybe I wasn’t really Jewish. Later, when acquaintances continued to wonder about my identity, I was similarly stymied. “You mean you don’t speak Yiddish?” they would ask after I had painstakingly explained that my grandparents spoke Arabic and French.

Until I read Ella Shohat’s groundbreaking 1992 essay, “Dislocated Identities: Reflections of an Arab Jew,” I felt I was an anomaly, even an impossibility. As Shohat writes “Americans are often amazed to discover the existentially nauseating or charmingly exotic possibilities” of the Arab-Jew’s “syncretic identity.” And yet, it is vital that we claim and proclaim the historical and contemporary reality of that identity, to challenge the dominant narrative’s insistence on the incompatibility of Arab and Jew. Shohat and Ammiel Alcalay, whose After Jews and Arabs: Remaking Levantine Culture should be required reading for anyone interested in the Middle East, taught me that the binary opposition of “Jew” and “Arab” is a relatively recent cultural construction, and they gave me a way to name and understand myself.


Cairo’s Chief Rabbi, Haim Nahum Effendi, with President Muhammad Naguib, 1953

Jews have lived throughout the Middle East for centuries, a fact ironically and tragically obscured by the establishment of Israel. The primarily European Zionists who settled in Palestine had contempt for the indigenous Jews of the region and treated them as second-class citizens when they arrived in Israel. Indeed, as Shohat demonstrates in her new collection, On the Arab-Jew, Palestine, and Other Displacements (Pluto Press, 2017), Ashkenazi Jewish settlers in Palestine, viewed as “Oriental” in a racist Europe, sought to exorcise the oriental within themselves and to create Israel as a thoroughly Western nation-state. The darker-skinned, truly “Oriental” Jews of the Middle East were seen as an embarrassment, and efforts were made to Westernize them, cutting them off from their Arab roots. Shohat, born to a displaced Iraqi family, describes her own experience growing up in Israel/Palestine: “Unknowing targets of mental colonization, we were the children who were expected to delete not merely the past across the border, but also the transplanted Baghdads, Cairos, or Rabats of our homes and neighborhoods. Our bodies, language and thought were regulated to the rhythms of a disciplining, normalizing machine designed to erect us into proud Israelis” (124).

Two months ago I wrote here in “Priestess at the Crossroads,” about the need to break down the borders that keep us locked into conflicting national, racial, religious, and gender identities. Arab and Jew are among those purportedly conflicting identities. As Shohat reminds us, “it was precisely the policing of cultural borders” (78) after the partition of Israel/Palestine that dismantled a centuries-old culture of convivencia, the intellectual, artistic and socially fruitful–and largely peaceful–coexistence of Jews, Christians, and Muslims in the Mediterranean Arab world—in areas that are now Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, Libya, Egypt, Turkey, Iraq, Iran, Yemen, Saudi Arabia. Today, as a consequence of both Jewish and Arab nationalism, that culture is forgotten or under attack; hence it is our responsibility to “re-member a world at once culturally Arab and religiously Jewish” (Shohat 2).  Re-membering Arab-Jewish identity also offers a palimpsest and vision for the future, suggesting, as Shohat writes, “potentialities” beyond contemporary “impasses” (375).

What does it mean to be an Arab-Jew in the twenty-first century? For me, it means recognizing and honoring Arab culture: the music, food, language, and customs my parents brought with them when they emigrated from Cairo in 1952; it means feeling a strong bond with other Egyptians, North Africans, and Middle Easterners, refusing efforts in the U.S. and elsewhere to demonize and “other” any of us. It means respecting the claims of displaced Palestinians and protesting Israeli occupation of Palestinian territories. It also means not seeking to equate our displacement with Palestinian displacement, as some Jews from Arab countries have sought to do, in a transparent effort to discredit Palestinian suffering.pomegranate

I live these days in a vibrant Brooklyn neighborhood, Bay Ridge–not far from where I grew up–that throbs with Muslim and Christian Arab rhythms, redolent with the scents of Middle Eastern spices and foodstuffs. Here, I do not have to explain my taste for ful mudammas and m’ggadarah, nor to feel awkward in my dark skin. Here, I am at home. And here, inshallah, next week, at the start of the Jewish New Year, Rosh Hashanah, I will celebrate as my ancestors did, hosting a seder replete with pomegranate and dates, leeks and green beans, gourds and beets, along with prayers for peace.

May we all be inscribed in the book of lifeL’shanah tovah.

Joyce Zonana is the author of a memoir, Dream Homes: From Cairo to Katrina, an Exile’s Journey. She recently completed a translation from the French of Egyptian-Jewish writer Tobie Nathan’s Ce pays qui te ressemble [This Land That Is Like You], a novel celebrating Arab-Jewish life in early twentieth-century Cairo, forthcoming from Seagull Books. She served for a time as co-Director of the Ariadne Institute for the Study of Myth and Ritual and has also translated Henri Bosco’s Malicroix, forthcoming from New York Review Books.

Categories: General, Islam, Judaism, Race and Ethnicity, Race and Religion

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27 replies

  1. Reblogged this on Thesseli.


  2. I so love the idea of “convivencia.” Many times while in Fez, Morocco, I heard Moroccans say, “we wish the Jews would return.” Most left in 1948 to help with the settlement of Israel. Schools, cemeteries and synagogues are preserved like shrines in Fez.


    • Actually, about a million Jews were forced out of their homes in Arab lands, most of whom had lived in them far longer than the palestinian Arabs that settled in Israel. Curiously, no one ever mentions them.


  3. Thank you Linda. Yes, “convivencia” was a real thing, and the Jews were an important part of so many communities in North Africa and the Middle East. I believe that in time we will return.


  4. I’m glad you’re home. I suspect home can be many places. yes?


  5. I have a friend through an internet gathering place who lives in Israel, is Orthodox Christian, and is woke up each morning by the Muslim call to prayer. When she moved there, her Christian community, Muslim and Jewish neighbours, all brought her welcome gifts.
    Sadly, we deprive ourselves of so much when we follow a path of exclusion. I was so fortunate to live my early years in a multi-racial neighbourhood. I know what Gefilte fish is!


  6. Lovely comment. Thank you Barbara!


  7. Thanks, Joyce, for this wonderful post. It’s good to know that “the binary opposition of ‘Jew’ and ‘Arab’ is a relatively recent cultural construction,” one that should turn the clock back on. Then we would have “convivencia” again, something we should introduce in many parts of the world. New Yorkers seem to do a pretty good job of it. My daughter lives in Brooklyn (Bedford-Stuyvesant), and I visit there frequently, now that I have a grandson. I would love to experience your neighborhood. Maybe we could get together some time.


    • Thanks for your comment, Nancy. Yes, New York–and especially Brooklyn–is a good example of “convivencia.” Let me know next time you are here and perhaps we can indeed get together.


  8. I truly enjoyed your great post, it should be an eye opener for so many people who are a bit uninformed ( I am saying this nicely now) about how Jewish and Arab people can live peacefully next to each other. Is there any particularly experience as a woman believer you could share? Just wondering about that. Have a blessed rest of the week.


    • Thank you for your comment, Cornelia. I’m not entirely sure what you are asking, but let me say that it was with a Muslim Egyptian woman friend that I went back to Cairo for the first time, and she helped me find my way to the synagogue where my mother went (along with women of all faiths) for healing.


  9. Such important truth, thanks Joyce. Living as I do in Greece, I have come to understand that though the Ottoman concept of tolerance for Christians and Jews was not perfect (it was after all the Ottoman EMPIRE), conditions were a lot better for Christians and Jews in the Ottoman Empire than conditions were for Jews and Muslims in Christian Europe. This is a part of history that Europeans also need to know more about. The BBC documentary “The Ottomans:Europe’s Muslim Emperors” can be found on Youtube. It is a good place to start.


    • Thank you Carol! Yes, life in the Ottoman Empire was not perfect for anyone, but the Jews fared far better than they did in Christian Europe. This fact needs to be much more widely known. Thanks for the reference to the documentary. And it’s worth knowing that in some Arab Muslim countries today, there is an effort, largely among younger people, to remember and regret the loss of the Jews who once lived there.


      • I definitely experienced that loss and regret while I was in Morocco, and this was 16 years ago! I think that convivencia was the spirit alive in Spain- until 1492, yes THAT date, when Jews and Muslims were expelled from Spain by the Catholic Church.


    • Went and added this to my “watch later” list Carol. I know nothing about this period of history! Thanks.


  10. Thanks for your comment, Linda. Yes, the Moroccans are especially sorrowful about the loss of the Jews . . . but it’s also happening in Egypt and elsewhere. 1492, indeed!


  11. A very well-written piece, Joyce. As a student of history – part time – I’ve been fascinated by the history of the Middle East. It is often not what it is assumed to be. A recent history of Israel/Palestine written by Martin Gilbert points out that Palestine prior to World War I was a multicultural society of Muslim Arabs, Christian Arabs, Sephardic and Ashkenazi Jews, Maronites, Greeks, Druze, Armenians, and Turks. Under the Ottoman Millet system, these cultures thrived side by side. One result of World War I was to scatter and eliminate many of these cultures from the region, and the land is less for it.

    Liked by 1 person

  12. I read your post with happiness because it validated what I believe.

    As the daughter of an Ashkanazi Jew whose father had escaped the pogroms in Ukraine, I was inculcated with my father’s Zionism. I didn’t realize that Arabs are people too until my teens.

    Since then I have looked at the world situation and thought about it a great deal. I have come to the place where I believe all in this world are worthy of being here and deserve a place.

    It is painful to read about what happened to Palestinians when Israel was established, and now to read about the Arab Jews. That there are Arab Jews makes perfect sense to me. That they have always been in the Middle East also fills in gaps in my wondering about the Jewish diaspora.

    I have long believed that the Israel situation is extremely problematic and that there needs to be big changes. It bothers me so much that people who were deeply hurt and wounded then inflicted that wounding and hurt onto others, in the name of restitution. There is much healing needed for all.

    Thank you for this enlightening post. I am glad you are who you are!


    • Thank you Iris for your generous and heartfelt comment. I especially appreciate it because, just today, I was told it was not okay to express these views. It is certainly true that Jews suffered terribly in Europe and also in some Arab countries at times; but surely we can do better than to continue inflicting pain on others! May we all move forward in peace and acceptance of one another, everywhere.


  13. I took a course in the era of Convivencia. So glad you brought this into your beautifully articulated memoir plus scholarly explication. Well integrated.


  14. A Jewish friend and I founded a women’s choir here in Black Mountain, NC called “Sahara Peace Choir,” (Sahara being a blend of Sarah and Hagar’s lineages) founded especially to bring together the music of Jewish, Christian and Muslim origins to promote peace and understanding. Considering my experiences in Morocco and also in the US, with a lifelong love of convivencia, this thread has meant a whole lot to me.


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