I’ve had only one real epiphany in my life. I was on spring break during high school, reclining in the passenger seat and humming to Idan Raichel’s “Im Tachpetza” as my friends and I drove home from a day at the beach.
I remember it was the song that triggered it in me. The instruments — they represented the nostalgia I felt whenever I heard anything remotely Middle Eastern. They reminded me of my rich Persian heritage and the Mizrahi minyan I attended as a child, but hadn’t been to in nearly a decade.
In that moment, my future suddenly became simple to me: I would leave my intimate, Bay Area Jewish community for the larger Persian Jewish community in Los Angeles. I would go to college there, make Middle Eastern Jewish friends — something I’d never had in the Bay Area — and I would reacquaint myself with my Mizrahi heritage.
I’ve since spent a little over a year in Los Angeles as a student at the University of Southern California, where I’ve made several friends who are Mizrahi (Jews descended from Jewish communities of the Middle East, North Africa and the Caucasus) and Sephardic (Jews descended from Jews who lived on the Iberian Peninsula).
In reflection, I realize that I wanted to reclaim a deeper type of Jewish community — one that was traditional and connected to old-fashioned customs.
I suppose that my expectations got the best of me, which is why I ended my freshman year in the spring of 2011 feeling a bit unfulfilled and craving more.
It was both wonderful and surprisingly ironic that much of the connection I’d hoped to build by moving to L.A. was re-established in the Bay Area over the summer. Through interning at JIMENA: Jews Indigenous to the Middle East and North Africa with the Kohn Summer Intern Program, I learned that bigger is not always better, and that a smaller Jewish community has just as much to offer as a larger one.
My primary job at JIMENA was to help build its Oral History Project archives by transcribing video testimonies of older Sephardic and Mizrahi immigrants.
I watched them tell stories of Jewish life in the Middle East, the richness of it, the tragedy — the same stories I’d expect my grandparents would tell if they weren’t still living in Iran or if communication with them wasn’t so difficult.
Unlike so many of my Persian friends, I have never
even met my grandparents, as they have never left Iran. They are two of approximately 20,000 Jews left in Iran, joined by a shrinking Middle Eastern Jewish population of nearly 20,000 Jews in Turkey, 1,500 Jews in Tunisia, 5,000 in Morocco and 100 in Yemen.
My grandparents are a living example of the continued devotion to Judaism that Jews in the Middle East face under the threat of anti-Semitic governments. I’ve learned that maybe what I’ve been searching for is what many young American Jews take for granted — a normal relationship with my grandparents, which would inevitably connect me to my traditional Jewish culture.
It’s sad to think that I’ve been so disconnected from my Mizrahi heritage. Like many young Sephardic and Mizrahi Jews in North America, I love my rich Mizrahi heritage, but in many ways have been forced to put it aside when growing up and trying to assimilate in a predominantly American Ashkenazi Jewish culture.
This summer, when I returned to the Sephardic minyan after 10 long years away, I found it sad that there were significantly fewer people there than I’d remembered. I was left wondering whether these families had left the synagogue or if, a sadder reality, that the older generation was dying, and their children and grandchildren were forgoing their Mizrahi and Sephardi heritage.
The cultural obstacles many Mizrahi and Sephardic Jews face make the work of organizations like JIMENA, Sephardic and Mizrahi synagogues, and smaller minyans throughout North America that much more important. Together they help preserve Mizrahi and Sephardic heritage, by reminding their respective communities that the fight to preserve a strong Mizrahi or Sephardic Jewish identity still exists, whether in countries like Iran and Yemen, or in thriving Jewish communities of the Bay Area or L.A.
The importance of openly embracing such a rich, vibrant culture extends beyond preserving the past. For fellow Mizrahi and Sephardi Jews, it’s important that we maintain our tradition for the present as well, as our heritage sustains our connection to Judaism and greatly contributes a colorful dimension to the larger Jewish communities we live in. We must ensure that the simple intricacies that make up our culture — from the spicy food to the loud, animated nature of a simple discussion — is never lost.
Asal Ehsanipour of San Mateo worked at JIMENA in the 2011 Kohn Summer Intern Program, run by Jewish Vocational Service. She is a sophomore at the University of Southern California, where she is pursuing degrees in public relations and peace and conflict studies.