The Resurgent Mizrahi Voice

Poet Almog Behar epitomizes the move of some Israelis to embrace their Middle Eastern roots.

Almog Behar 521 (photo credit: SARAH DEMMI LEVIN)
Almog Behar 521
(photo credit: SARAH DEMMI LEVIN)
One evening during the summer’s months of unrest, Almog Behar walks into the protest tent camp in the heart of Jerusalem set up by single mothers. The women greet Behar, a poet, author and teacher, enthusiastically. Pushing a baby stroller with his one-yearold son, Ariel, bundled up well against Jerusalem’s summer night’s chill, Behar sits down comfortably among the women.
This tent camp is among the least popular of the demonstrations. It is here that the truly needy, the dispossessed and disenfranchised, the unemployed and homeless have pitched their tents in the city center, off King George V street. This tent camp doesn’t film as well as the ones set up by the savvy, photogenic, middle-class students.
Behar, 33, a striking figure with his thick black beard and pale skin, is a popular lecturer, who often leads workshops in writing and self-empowerment. But he hasn’t come here as an outsider supporter or as a facilitator; it is clear he sees himself, and that the women see him, as an integral part of the group. Behar, 33, married and a new father, has a comfortable home and is gainfully employed writing, editing and teaching, yet he took an active part in the housing demonstrations.
“As a Mizrahi intellectual, this is where I should be, since most of the demonstrators are Mizrahim,” he contends, referring to Jews who immigrated to Israel from Muslim countries. “I want to paint Israeli society in other colors and, especially, I want to change the view of the demonstrations. The protest by Tel Avivians, students who took to the tents because the rents in the nicest places in the city were too high, isn’t on my radar.”
Several months later, Behar meets with The Jerusalem Report in a small, fashionable Jerusalem coffee shop. He continues to believe that he can change Israeli society with ideas rooted in Judaism and not, he says, from the worldview of the bourgeoisie. “I want justice for everyone, even those who don’t agree with me politically,” he adds, acknowledging that most of the people he worked with over the summer did not support his left-wing views regarding the rights of the Palestinians.
Although his language is richer than that spoken by the protesters in the tent camps, he not only speaks in the same guttural sounding Hebrew, but he clearly shares the same same social ideals. Behar is a prominent spokesman for a new generation of young, Israeli-born intellectuals, who are raising what they refer to as a “Jewish- Mizrahi” voice that merges traditional Jewish themes with social activism.
Their grandparents came to Israel from Islamic countries and they have finally begun to make it in Israeli society – in academia, in art, in culture. And yet despite – or perhaps because of – their success, they have become activists. They are not the children of the Palmach generation, whose blond, windblown hair and strong Ashkenazi features made up the stereotype of the founders of the state. Their grandparents and parents were the forgotten, the immigrants who lived in wretched substandard housing projects.
Their families aren’t portrayed in the novels of Amos Oz. They came from the East, not from Eastern Europe – from Marrakesh, Tunis and Baghdad, and their hearts still ache for the sounds and cadence of Arabic. They have always been foreigners, these immigrants who thought they were coming home to the land of their forefathers, but instead landed in a harsh, inflexible society that refused to accept their culture.
The pain sounds clearly in Behar’s texts. Searching for identity, Behar has replaced Zionism with tradition, root-bound Judaism, renewing customs and rituals from “back there.” The revival of the Mizrahi-style piyyut, or traditional Jewish liturgical song, which has become so popular in Israel over the past few years even among non-religious Ashkenazim, is one example of this trend, and Behar has been a leader in this trend, too.
These young Mizrahim are also highly committed to social struggles. Their models are the “Black Panthers,” a group of young activists from the slum neighborhoods of Jerusalem, who startled the entire state in the 1970s with their forceful protests demanding social change and an end to the oppression and marginalization of the Mizrahim.
Behar, like ma ny of his colleagues, is also active in renewed dialogue with Arabs. “We want to talk to Arabs and Palestinians based on our mutual interests, because we’ve all been screwed. Both sides view themselves as the victims of modern secular Zionism, which is colonialist and arrogant. I’m not anti-Zionist, but I want to put the traditional Jewish voice back in the current discourse. I believe that traditional Judaism can provide better solutions to the problems that Israeli society faces, such as poverty, despair, and exclusion, as well as to the problems of our relationships with our Arab neighbors.”
Behar was born to parents in a mixed marriage and so, he says, his personal story encompasses all of the ingredients that make up his ideology. His mother came to Israel from Iraq when she was six. His grandfather on his father’s side was born in Berlin to parents who had emigrated to Germany from Istanbul. They then fled to Denmark when the Nazis came to power. Although he was fluent in both German and Danish, Behar’s grandfather preferred Spaniolit, the language of the Turkish Jews, until his dying day. Behar’s father came to Israel from Copenhagen, when he was four. Behar was born in 1978 in Netanya, a coastal city, north of Tel Aviv.
The stories about Baghdad and Berlin, the Holocaust, the immigration to Israel and life in a transit camp all combined to create his cultural environment. “I heard all these languages at home, but I knew as a child, that I shouldn’t be speaking these languages on the street,” he says. He remembers his mother’s story – when she was in sixth grade, her teacher made a home visit to demand that her parents stop speaking to her in Arabic. “Of course, her parents didn’t stop speaking Arabic to her, but from that day on, my mother refused to answer them in Arabic. From that day on, she spoke only Hebrew.”
Yet one day, when he was 13 and asked to speak and study one language, his parents suggested that he learn, of all the languages – Danish.
But by the time he was 19, he was studying all of the languages spoken at home – and not speaking even one word of them outside of the home. “In a way, I lived in hiding. Towards the end of her life, my maternal grandmother was demented, and she forgot her Hebrew. And so suddenly, we, her grandchildren who had grown up next to her, could no longer speak with her, because she could only remember Arabic, which we didn’t speak.”
He was troubled, he says, by the distance between grandchildren and grandparents created by languages, “and we reach the absurd situation in which you simply can’t even talk to your grandmother anymore!”
As he grew older, he continued to try to understand, often through language, the society into which he had been born. “I realized that English and Hebrew were seen as the important languages of the future, and that Arabic and German were disappearing and, with them, my family background, with both the Holocaust and the Arabism.Everything was disappearing, and there was only a small place of legitimacy left – for some traditional foods and a bit of traditional music from home.”
Their Jewish traditions were continuing to disappear, too, since Behar and his siblings were sent to secular schools. “We studied the Bible and Bialik, but we didn’t learn any other important texts, and there was a complete disconnect between the customs we observed at home and in the synagogue and what we studied in school. And even in the Bible as we studied it in school – there wasn’t really any God.”
After completing his COM - pulsory military service, Behar began to write and publish his first works. He became increasingly concerned about the relationship – or rather, the lack of relationship – between his writings, the “Israeliness” of his school experiences and the cultural background with which he grew up.
“I read Franz Kafka and Gunter Grass and Paul Celan thanks to my German traditions, but when I asked myself, what I had with me from my Iraqi and Spaniolit backgrounds, I realized that I had nothing.” At age 22, Behar moved to Jerusalem to study at the Hebrew University. He chose to study Spanish as part of his language requirements, because Spanish is the language closest to the Spaniolit that his Turkish-German grandfather had spoken – a remnant of the Spanish expulsion of the Jews in 1492.
One summer, he traveled to the town of Bechar in Spain – the town in which his family originated. His grandfather died not long after he returned, and Behar suddenly realized that the renewed dialogue he had been attempting to create with his family had been cut off forever. “My grandparents, and especially my Iraqi and Sephardi grandparents, had given up their place in the evolution of our cultural identity. They believed that the children, who spoke modern Hebrew, were the future, and, with great sorrow, they gave up on their own cultural place so their children and grandchildren could become Sabras.”
It was in Jerusalem that Behar began his current path – he began to study traditional Jewish texts, especially the Gemara, which led him to piyyutim and from there to his Mizrahiness. In Jerusalem, he also became politically aware as he came to recognize the link between social class and ethnic background.
Behar chose to study Arabic, recognizing that this is, he says, an expression of his attachment to his cultural roots. Within a few years, he began to teach in the Kedma School, established by a group of Mizrahi intellectuals who were at the forefront of social and cultural protests to redress the wrongs that the state has committed against the immigrants from the Arabic-speaking countries. “Gradually, the relationship between culture and social standing became clearer to me, and I realized why the majority of Mizrahim had been sent to the backwater periphery. I understood the paradox: to succeed, I had to hide my Mizrahi culture, while those who didn’t succeed, at least didn’t have to hide their own roots.”
He has also brought the Palestinian-Arab conflict into his understandings. Living in Jerusalem, he says, “It is impossible to ignore the conflict. The connection between my family’s Arabness and the Arabness of the Palestinians, the connection between Mizrahi culture and Arab culture, the possible connections between conflict and oppression – all this has come together in my mind as cultural, economic and political repression, some of it rooted in the racist perception that Israel is a villa in the middle of a jungle, that the Jews came home to a barbaric place that had no culture and we are the representatives of Western enlightenment.”
Like many of his friends and colleagues, Mizrahim in their 20s and 30s, he is an active member of “Tikkun” (Repair), an organization founded by Hebrew University philosopher Meir Buzaglo. “We have developed a language based on Jewish tradition, a return to Jewish values – although not the religious values that limit our lives – reconnecting to the stories from ‘back there,’ including the stories from the Holocaust of European Jewry. We offer these in contrast to Zionism and Israeliness, and especially the Zionism of the settlers, which has thinned out, almost violently, the richness of our lives and prevented us from maintaining a dialogue with our surroundings.”
Prof. Ha viva Padaya, a poet and researcher at Beersheba’s Ben- Gurion University, says that Behar’s identification with the Mizrahi “side” of his family is not surprising. “The third generation of immigrants is usually the generation that becomes aware and wakes up to the memories. This is happening in all sectors of Israeli society – the kibbutzniks, the Holocaust survivors, and the Mizrahim,” she tells The Report in an extended telephone interview.
Focusing on Mizrahi culture, Padaya explains, is no longer considered merely an ethnic component of one’s background; rather, it is a political, class, and social statement. “For many of the young people like Behar, there is a deep and immediate relationship between the need to take part in the struggle for the advancement of Mizrahim and the weaker sectors of society and the discovery of their Mizrahi identity,” she explains. “The extent of the repression and oppression usually determines the strength of the memories, which become a crucial presence in the individual’s identity.”
Over the past two years, Behar has published a collection of short stories, two books of poetry, and one full-length novel. One of his stories, “Ana Min al- Yahud” (“I am from the Jews”), written in Hebrew but with an Arabic title, was awarded first place in the prestigious story competition sponsored by the “Haaretz” daily newspaper in 2006. He has also been awarded the Prime Minister’s Prize for young artists.
He conducts numerous workshops on piyyutim. And as part of his activism, he participated in an initiative to revive the “Black Panthers” as a party running for municipal elections three years ago; the party did not win any seats.
Behar says that he and his friends, who have benefited from education and status, have translated their achievements into social involvement among the weaker classes of society in the poorer neighborhoods and on the periphery. “This is what it means to be a proud Mizrahi,” he concludes. “We don’t whine and we don’t apologize. Our Mizrahiness is filled with our traditions and our heritage, and we promote a social agenda based on justice and equality, in which Arabs are not our enemies but our partners, at least culturally. There is room for all, Ashkenazim, too, although they will no longer wear the mantle of the priesthood of Zionism.”