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A Look at the Exotic Roots of Everyday Jews

February 8, 2007 By:
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Loolwa Khazzoom
At the beginning of a two-hour presentation Monday at the National Museum of American Jewish History, 37-year-old lecturer and author Loolwa Khazzoom asked her audience where their ancestors derived.

José Zighelboim said he's a Venezuelan Jew. Josef Kardos identified himself as a Jew who's half-Chinese, half-Hungarian. Others noted family from Latvia, Portugal, Iran and Israel. And all of these people are not "exotic": They live right here in the area.

Khazzoom, an Iraqi-American Jew herself, told the crowd that, in her experience, this type of intragroup diversity is typical.

"If I go into a classroom or a synagogue or whatever, and even if it looks like there's a sea of blonde-haired Jews out there, I find out that so-and-so's aunt is Moroccan and someone's cousin has married someone Egyptian," said Khazzoom. "So absolutely, we have a lot of diversity, even when we don't see it physically."

In her talk, titled "Jews Without Borders," Khazzoom challenged certain conventional notions about who -- and what -- is Jewish. By exposing listeners to new Jewish traditions (she taught participants a Bukharan version of "Hallelujah," and to cheer as Iraqi Jews do at weddings and other celebrations), this woman said that she hoped to illustrate "how rich we are."

Her presentation, sponsored by the Taglit-Birthright Israel Alumni Association and the Philadelphia Jewish Graduate Student Network, included a crash course in Jewish world history, in which she began by pointing out that all Jews come from the same place: Mesopotamia.

She said that's where the story of Abraham took place, and where Esther saved the Jewish people from the Haman.

Khazzoom then briefly traced the migration of Jewish peoples to China, Ethiopia, India, Israel and other far-flung locales. She said that Jews arrived at these spots for a variety of reasons, including plying their trades during ancient times and, more recently, through Holocaust dispersion and the pull of Zionism.

"People didn't arrive in one large bulk -- people came for different reasons at different times."

Despite a real dichotomy between Ashkenazim and Sephardim, Khazzoom said that historically the classifications have never been "so impenetrable."

"When Jews were being persecuted in Ashkenazi countries, they fled to countries where Sephardim were living, and vice versa," she said. "Jews were just running all over the place escaping pogroms."

A Step Further

Privately, after the workshop, Khazzoom took the idea of Jewish divisiveness even further -- calling it "Jew-on-Jew racism."

She said that while Sephardic Jews used to be "the lowest in the pecking order" in Israel, now Ethiopian Jews bear the brunt of such status.

Ignoring Jewish multiculturalism, argued Khazzoom, only works as a disadvantage to the Jewish people. It gives solace to anti-Israel proponents, she said, because "their whole little white European soundtrack goes off" in its wake -- "Israel, apartheid, colonialism, imperialist power."

She added that while Jews have pushed for diversity between other groups, they need to accomplish the same at home.

Earlier during the presentation, attendee Yaffa Landis called this contradiction ironic.

"I mean, at one point, we were all walking around the dessert, we were in Egypt, and we were slaves. We were very dark," said the 32-year-old Center City resident. "So for us to all of a sudden look down on people who actually probably look much more authentically Jewish than we do -- with our white skin and having lived in Poland for 400 years -- that's absolutely outrageous."

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