First published in the Jewish Independent.

East European tradition is religious hallmark.
LOOLWA KHAZZOOM

I entered the study hall of the Iraqi synagogue in Ramat Gan – the synagogue where I’d spent my childhood summers. Some of the women sat on the outskirts of the hall, literally outside, and others sat pressed against the right side wall, huddled together meekly. The men filled up the rest of the room, with their grand physical gestures, booming voices and uninhibited laughter. Disgruntled and disappointed, yet not surprised, I joined the makeshift women’s section.

The rabbi was dressed in standard Ashkenazi garb – black suit, white shirt, black hat – no surprise, considering that the seating arrangements and overall energy smacked of eastern European rigidity. Though he spoke of Yom Kippur customs through the teachings of Hacham Yosef Hayim, the leading religious figure of Iraq, the rabbi did so in a way far removed from traditional Iraqi practice. Each time I asked a question, he put up his hand to the side of his face, as if to block my existence from his reality, while the men clamored in an uproar that a woman had the audacity to speak.

At first, I was not actually sure if the hand went up to hush the men’s clamor or to silence me. The first two times, after all, the rabbi did answer my questions, once people quieted down. He spoke facing straight ahead, however, refusing to look even vaguely in my direction – as if doing so would sully his holiness. The third time, however, when not only the men but also the women completely freaked out about the fact that I was speaking, the hand went up again and the rabbi refused to answer my question. After causing one more commotion by turning to the women to see if they knew the answer (they did), I picked up my belongings and left.


I considered creating a public ruckus – challenging the rabbi and congregants on this clear turn against our heritage – instead of leaving quietly. I also considered approaching the rabbi at another time, to advise him that his behavior had chased out of the synagogue a Jew thirsty for knowledge. But I’d been hurt so much as a girl and young woman in what is supposed to be my community that I just could not handle another confrontation.

I grew up observant and was a flaming Jew pretty much from birth – willing to risk my life for my people and our beliefs. That’s why, weeks after a friend was nearly shot boarding a plane to Israel from Los Angeles, days after a suicide bomber blew up scores of students at the Hebrew University cafeteria in Jerusalem, amidst a wave of terrorist attacks across the Jewish state and with Israel and Iraq on the brink of war, I left my quiet, tree-lined street in Berkeley, Calif., and made aliyah to Israel – settling in Be’ersheva, a small desert city in the south.

Israelis repeatedly expressed their shock and confusion that an American-born and -raised Jew would choose what is considered a boonie town like Be’ersheva – seen by most as the transfer point for a bus to Eilat – instead of the hustle and bustle of Tel-Aviv or Jerusalem. A major part of my draw to Israel, however, was having the chance to connect deeply with Jews of Middle Eastern and African heritage. With Moroccan and Iraqi neighbors directly across from me, Indian, Turkish and Iranian neighbors on the floors below, Ethiopian neighbors across the street and a Tunisian synagogue just at the edge of my balcony (eliminating the need to get out of my pajamas to participate in morning prayers), I was exactly where I wanted to be.

I had stopped attending religious services while living in Berkeley and I had all but completely withdrawn from Jewish community life in the area. The organized Mizrahi/Sephardi community was tiny, a two-hour round trip away, and, for reasons I won’t get into here, not the community I wanted to be part of. In addition, there was only one Ethiopian Jew I knew of in the area. With few exceptions, the only multicultural Jewish experience I had was when I was teaching or otherwise leading a program. I was hungry for the plethora of Mizrahi, Sephardi and Ethiopian community options to choose from in Be’ersheva.

As it turned out, there were many different synagogues to attend, with the chazzanim at each following the liturgy of their respective countries of origin, but every community was otherwise homogenous in its practice. The ultra-Orthodox tenets of central and eastern European shtetls, I discovered, have come to dominate that which is defined as “religious” in Israel.

Traditionally, Middle Eastern and African Jewish communities emphasized the concept of chesed, or compassion, over that of mahmir, or strictness. Judaism was a vehicle for joy and celebration, not an instrument of fear and condemnation. One wall around the Torah was enough. We did not need a wall around a wall around a wall. Today, however, that foundational approach has been buried deep in our past, and religious life is now a contest between who can be the strictest, most intolerant of all – especially when it comes to women.

In traditional Mizrahi and Sephardi synagogues, for example, the women generally sat upstairs in the gallery, where they had full view of the service led below, and where they were welcome to sing at full volume along with the male congregants. I vividly remember the passion of women with white lace head coverings and colorful dresses, praying from the bottoms of their hearts and the depths of their souls, closing their eyes while holding their hands open and in front of them, as if to gather the energy being raised by the congregants, then bringing their hands to their faces and kissing them – as if they were kissing G-d.

Today, in most of the Mizrahi and Sephardi synagogues I have attended in Israel, that image has been replaced by one of resigned women silently crumpled in their chairs – some bored and staring into space, others talking, still others holding out their hands – this time behind an energetic layer of fear and a physical barrier to the space below. Not only are women seated in the gallery today (quite enough to keep us separate from the men, thank you very much), but there is a wall blocking our visual connection to the service – purportedly to keep us way, way out of men’s line of sight. Just in case that wall is not enough, there is also a curtain hanging on top of it, one which must not be moved for all but one part of the service. To top it all off, women’s voices must not, under any circumstances, be audible to the men below.

And so, as I ran open-hearted to the Tunisian, Algerian and Moroccan synagogues peppering my neighborhood in Be’ersheva, eager to fully reclaim my observant Jewish practice and to re-embrace communal Jewish life, I found myself crashing into physical, energetic, spiritual and emotional blockades. Unwilling to accept these barriers – affronts not only to my feminist sensibility but also to thousands of years of Mizrahi and Sephardi Jewish practice – I launched a one-woman rebellion throughout the city and across the country, singing out loud and pushing the curtains to the side wherever I prayed. Synagogue attendance thus came to mean constant battles between myself and, ironically, the women “gatekeepers” of the congregation – whose sole purpose in life seemed to be keeping all the ladies in check.

The experience became so unpleasant that, over time, I stopped going to synagogue and, as the months and years rolled by, even stopped observing traditions at home. A holier-than-thou, suffering-oriented approach to Judaism – ironically steeped in the non-Jewish mindset of Christian Europe – clearly had hijacked religious Jewish practice in Israel, leaving me feeling frustrated, resentful and alone.

While there are a few pockets of practising Jews who refuse to kowtow to this narrow definition of “religious Judaism,” most observant and secular Jews alike, from every ethnic branch, have fallen in step – to the point that people refuse to believe that I am “religious” if I am wearing a pair of jeans. What’s more, the Israeli government enforces this ideology: While at the Kotel, praying wholeheartedly to G-d, I have repeatedly found myself surrounded by soldiers and police officers ordering me to be quiet. Make no mistake: the Western Wall has yet to be liberated.

I wonder why those who promote rigidity, suffering and alienation are willing to stake their claim to our 4,000-year-old heritage, but those who promote flexibility, joy and inclusion are not. The Torah specifically states that it is as wrong to overdo observance as it is to underdo it: “You shall not add unto the word which I command you, neither shall you diminish from it, that you may keep the commandments of the Lord your G-d which I command you.” (Deuteronomy 4:2)

Until we recognize that a black-hatted, three-times-a-day davening, super-extra-deluxe-kosher Jew can be just as much of an apikoros (heretic) as a string-bikini-wearing, Nietzsche-loving, pork-scarfing member of the tribe; until our understanding of “religious” reflects this recognition; and until Mizrahi, Sephardi and Ethiopian Jews refuse to let European shtetl ideology set the tone for our Jewish practice, I will continue to feel that someone has walked off with my religion.

Loolwa Khazzoom has published internationally in such outlets as the Washington Post, BBC News, Cosmopolitan and Marie Claire. She is also the editor of The Flying Camel: Essays on Identity by Women of North African and Middle Eastern Jewish Heritage.