Lady in red: Traditional garb creates stir during U.N. testimony

The delegate from Libya approached the woman in the dazzling dress and asked her where such an outfit could be from.

“North Africa,” she replied. “This is a traditional outfit in the North African Jewish community. This is what we wore.”

“Really? I’ve never seen anything like it.”

The woman in the dazzling dress sighed. “That’s because you don’t have any Jews left.”

It was 33 years ago that San Franciscan Gina Waldman last had worn her zdad, the sari-like outfit Libyan Jewish women wore for the henna ceremony preceding their weddings. It is the same gown worn by Waldman’s mother, grandmother and great-grandmother. God willing, her future daughters-in-law will wear it, too.

It was not quite as joyous an occasion that warranted the zdad’s second trip out of the closet in Waldman’s lifetime. On March 19, she testified in the dress before the U.N. Human Rights Council in Geneva, Switzerland.

“Today I wear my traditional ethnic dress to celebrate my heritage, but also to mourn its destruction,” Waldman told the assembly.

“One million Jews lived in the Middle East at the turn of the [20th] century. Today, less than 5,000 remain [not including Israel]. Their plight has been ignored by the international community. Their story is my story.”

Waldman, the co-chair of Jews Indigenous to the Middle East and North Africa, told the assembly about how her family was forcibly expelled from Libya following Israel’s victory in the Six-Day War of 1967. On several occasions, only the interdiction of kindly neighbors staved off murderous mobs. The bus driver hired to ferry her neighborhood’s Jews to the airport actually attempted to set the bus ablaze with all his passengers trapped within.

“We’ve been totally eclipsed from the narrative of the Mideast conflict,” Waldman told j.

“Every time mention of refugees comes up, everyone thinks of Palestinians and we are never included in this narrative — and it’s a distorted narrative. Yes, there were Palestinian refugees. But there were also Jewish refugees.”

In fact, a resolution is wending its way around the U.S. House of Representatives that would “ask the president to ensure that, in all international forums, when the issue of ‘Middle East refugees’ is discussed, U.S. representatives will ensure that any explicit reference to Palestinian refugees is matched by a similar explicit reference to Jewish and other refugees.”

The resolution, a pet project of recently deceased San Mateo Rep. Tom Lantos, comes up for a full vote in the House on Monday, March 31.

Waldman’s unusual garb attracted the attention of more than just delegates — even the U.N. guards asked her, in French, where her outfit was from.

For Waldman, it was a poignant moment.

“My community and our culture in our native country of Libya is extinct. There are no Jews left,” she said.

“So, in a way, I was feeling as though I brought it back to life.”

Joe Eskenazi

Joe Eskenazi is the managing editor at Mission Local. He is a former editor-at-large at San Francisco magazine, former columnist at SF Weekly and a former J. staff writer.