Mizrahim, the Jews of the East

Image: Persian Jews in Iran, 1917. Public Domain, via Wikimedia.

Some of the longest-thriving Jewish communities in history are the Mizrahi communities of the eastern Mediterranean and northern Africa. Their stories have gone largely ignored by Western Jews, which is a real shame.

The first big Mizrahi community goes back to the first diaspora of Jews: the Babylonian captivity. When the Babylonians destroyed Jerusalem and its Temple in 587 BCE, they carried off many of the educated Jews to be clerks in their vast bureaucracy. To this day we hear their grief and pain in Psalm 137:

By the rivers of Babylon we sat and wept when we remembered Zion.
There on the poplars we hung our harps,
for there our captors asked us for songs,
our tormentors demanded songs of joy.
They said, “Sing us one of the songs of Zion!” – Psalm 137:1-3

Seventy years later Cyrus of Persia conquered the Babylonians, and the Jews of Babylon were free to go home. Some headed west to rebuild Jerusalem and its Temple. Others had made a home in Babylon, and they chose to stay. Thus when the Temple was destroyed again and Jewish life in Israel was in disarray, Babylon was set to emerge as a center of Jewish life and learning. Indeed, the scholars of Babylon assembled the great Babylonian Talmud.

The Babylonian academies gave birth to the other centers of Jewish life and learning: Sepharad in Spain, Askhenaz in Europe. Elsewhere around the Mediterranean other Mizrahi communities sprang up: in Egypt, in Morocco, in Syria, and Persia (modern Iran), to name just three of many.

Mizrahi Jews lived under Ottoman rule by 1492, and when the Jews of Spain were expelled in 1492, the Mizrahi communities opened their doors to the refugees. Most of Christian Europe wanted nothing to do with the Sephardic exiles, so for many of them, their best chance was to head east to Muslim lands. In some of those places, the Sephardic rite of liturgy and the language became dominant. That’s why some refer to Mizrahi Jews as Sephardic.

The 20th century brought huge changes to the Mizrahi world. The events of 1948 and the emergence of the new State of Israel as the victor in its War of Independence against Arab armies triggered angry responses in the Muslim nations of the Levant. One after another, the nations which had been home to Mizrahi Jews took up active programs of persecution. 850,000 Jews were kicked out as penniless refugees, stripped of their assets. Most went to Israel. Others emigrated to the United States and Canada.

Today there are large communities of Mizrahim in Israel, in New York, in California, and in Canada. Life has not been easy; most lost everything when they were expelled from the lands that had been home for thousands of years. If you want to learn more about the individual communities, a wonderful organization called JIMENA (Jews Indigenous to the Middle East and North Africa) has their stories, past and present, in more detail on its website and its Instagram account. I recommend you click the links and take a look; my choices for photographs were rather limited for this blog, but the photos on both the JIMENA website and its Instagram account are breathtaking.

It’s all too easy, if you are a synagogue Jew in most of the USA, to think that most Jews are Ashkenazi. That, too, is a trick of history: most of the Jews in the U.S. arrived as refugees from the pogroms in Eastern Europe in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Since 1924, we’ve had quotas that kept out many others. The Mizrahi communities were not seriously stressed until later, so we see fewer Mizrahi Jews in the USA.

The Jewish world is wide and beautiful. It encompasses a variety of people with many skin colors, cultures, and customs. We are all richer when we recognize our cousins for what they are: mishpacha [family.]


A Big Jewish World: Meet JIMENA

Jewish Population in the United States 2013 estimated the US Jewish population at just over 6.72 million, with more than 80% of US Jews are of Ashkenazi descent. That means that their ancestors hail from Eastern Europe and likely spoke some form of Yiddish. When someone talks about a person “looking Jewish” they are referring to this majority group.

However, the remaining 20% (more or less) of the Jewish population is quite diverse. The two next largest groups are the Sephardic and Mizrahi Jews, whose ancestors hail from Spain, North Africa, and the Middle East.

If all you know about American Jewry is Ashkenazim and Fiddler on the Roof, you’re missing out. There’s a wonderful online resource for learning more about Sephardic and Mizrahi Jews: the website of an organization called JIMENA: Jews Indigenous to the Middle East and North Africa. There you can read history, sample video, find recipes, and listen to music. JIMENA also has a speakers bureau and sponsors programming to raise the profile of these often-forgotten communities.

It’s a great big Jewish world out there, and a very diverse one here on our continent. Check out JIMENA and begin to get a taste of it!