A Yemenite family travels to a camp set up by the Joint Distribution Committee near Aden, Yemen, Jan. 1949. (Photo/Israeli National Photo Archive)
A Yemenite family travels to a camp set up by the Joint Distribution Committee near Aden, Yemen, Jan. 1949. (Photo/Israeli National Photo Archive)

Did you know November is Mizrachi Heritage Month?

In Israel, Nov. 30 is a national day of remembrance and recognition for the 850,000 Jewish refugees from Arab countries, many of whom escaped violence and persecution on their way to Israel.

The Israeli government passed a law in 2014 that enacted the Day to Mark the Departure and Expulsion of the Jews from Arab Countries and Iran. Ever since, the country has recognized the day with memorials and ceremonies, and a “directive” to the Israeli school system to emphasize, over the course of the month, the history of the expulsion of Mizrachi and Sephardi Jews from their home countries.

A resurgence of Mizrachi and Sephardi culture in Israel, along with pressure from international Sephardi groups, helped to bring about the law. This legislation, along with the Bitton Committee that followed in 2016, show an important shift in Israel: Mizrachi identity is slowly being recognized, despite the long history of discrimination against these communities in Israeli society.

In the United States, meanwhile, some Jewish schools have begun to recognize November as Mizrachi Heritage Month, with ceremonies and activities honoring Mizrachi and Sephardi Culture. The S.F.-based nonprofit JIMENA, which stands for Jewish Indigenous to the Middle East and North Africa, produced a curriculum framework in 2015 authored by Adam Eilath, a teacher and the director of strategic initiatives at the Jewish Community High School of the Bay in San Francisco. (This writer authored the most current JIMENA curriculum framework.)

While it is a great milestone to have this history acknowledged and the Mizrachi experience put in the spotlight, there is so much more to this heritage that must be taught and passed down to our communities. We cannot define the Mizrachi heritage in terms of expulsion or destruction.

The Jewish communities from Islamic countries brought with them an impressive library of wise rabbinic writings that provide us with tools for dealing with difficult issues in our modern world.

These rabbis wrote of coexistence with their Muslim neighbors. For example, the Moroccan tradition of Mimouna, a celebration of inviting in neighbors for sweet flour-heavy treats after the week of Passover, was aimed at showing Muslim neighbors that they were always welcome in Jewish homes, despite the week of not eating bread with their neighbors over the Passover holiday.

There was cultural borrowing that led to the creation of magnificent liturgical poems, piyutim, and amazing artistic production alongside their Arab neighbors. From Yehuda Halevi in Spain to Rabbi Yisrael ben Moses Najara in Safed to the poetry of Rabbi David Bouzaglou in Morocco and Israel, these poems helped communities connect with God and celebrate together, while often using melodies from popular Arab musical artists like Umm Kulthum and other famous Arab singers.

These communities prided themselves on their ability to empathize with those living in poverty. Rabbi Yosef Mesas (1892-1974) of Meknes, Morocco explains this perspective in a commentary on Pirke Avot in which he stresses the need for our homes to be open to those in need.

He tells of an old North African woman living in poverty who would get up every day to heat water and coals for her neighbors because this was all she had to give. When fire struck her town, she and her neighbors were saved because, according to Mesas (and many other Jewish sources), giving tzedakah can protect you. In this community and many others, every person was compelled to give.

There is so much to learn from these Mizrachi and Sephardi Jews. But few in our American Jewish communities know any of this history or realize the light this heritage can bring to our many communities.

As a Jewish educator passionate about issues of identity and inclusion, I am so excited for the opportunity to be part of the shaping of this day, this new tradition. After years working in Israel at Memizrach Shemesh, a beit midrash (study center) for social change inspired by the commentaries and writings of Mizrachi and Sephardic Jews, I want to bring some of this learning to the American Jewish community.

First off, all Jewish educators, rabbis, school principals and community leaders should be culturally competent about the heritages of their community members. This means being open to looking past the stereotypes of these communities. Perhaps you think Mizrachi food is so good. It is, of course. But there is so much more and if we stop at the food, we are missing out on the depth of a community member’s heritage.

We American Jews pride ourselves on the vibrancy of our Jewish social justice movement. Leaving the Sephardic voice out of this discussion is a shanda (a disgrace, shameful). Rabbis from communities from Islamic countries dealt with issues of poverty, education, racism and discrimination in an interesting and inspiring way. They have texts, stories and ideas that we can learn from and use.

Finally, we need to embrace humility. Community leaders must always be searching, looking out for who they are leaving out, because inevitably we are always leaving someone out.

I have been encouraging people to think about Mizrachi Heritage Month in November, but it is also my hope that, in the future, the stories of all members of our communities will have a voice all year around.

Tamar Zaken
Tamar Zaken

Tamar Zaken is a Jewish educator and community worker living in the East Bay. She spent the past decade in Jerusalem directing beit midrash programs at Memizrach Shemesh, the Center for Jewish Social Activism.