Woman of her words

Poet Adi Keissar articulates the spirit of a new generation reviving Israel’s Mizrahi roots.

Poet Adi Keissar  (photo credit: GENADY SHKOLNIK)
Poet Adi Keissar
(photo credit: GENADY SHKOLNIK)
ADI KEISSAR doesn’t fit the stereotype of a poet and she knows it.
Keissar, who is of Yemenite descent, is part of a new generation of Mizrahim (Jews from Arab and/or Muslim lands) who are challenging Israel’s Western identity, reclaiming their heritage and bringing their once marginalized culture to mainstream Israeli society.
Indeed, in the last five years, Keissar, 37, has become somewhat of a cultural phenomenon in Israel, best known for her selfdescribed poetry haflot (Arabic for parties), poetry readings with a Middle Eastern flair, which she dubbed “Ars Poetica.”
“It’s a play on the Latin phrase ‘Ars Poetica’ [The Art of Poetry],” she explains. “I said to myself, if I’m organizing an evening whose roots are in the Mizrahi world, which in Israel is often a source of negative cultural baggage, then I will reclaim the [Arabic] word ars [a derogatory term for Mizrahi men that means pimp in Arabic].”
When the Mizrahim (Hebrew for “Easterners”) began immigrating to Israel in the 1950s from North Africa, the Middle East and Central Asia, “they found themselves in a country influenced by Zionism and European culture,” explains Janine Tornow- Gaisbauer, a doctoral student at the Center for Jewish Studies at the University of Basel. “While Israel gave them a ‘national home’ as Jews, it rated and rejected these immigrants’ culture and tradition negatively, as primitive and Levantine.”
The proximity of the traditions and culture of the Mizrahim to that of Israel’s enemies, the Arabs, was perceived as a threat to the Western-oriented Zionist enterprise, according to Dr. Ella Shohat, an expert in the field of post-colonialism and representation in the Middle East and a professor of cultural studies and women’s studies at the City University of New York. In response, the Ashkenazi (Jewish-European) establishment sublimated the cultural expressions and identity of Mizrahim by propagating a Western way of life and overrepresenting Ashkenazi cultural achievements and history in the public school curriculum, Shohat writes in her essay “The Invention of the Mizrahim.”
The power imbalance embedded in this narrative had grave consequences for nonhegemonic groups. To this day, the Mizrahi share in Israel’s financial, cultural and sociopolitical holdings is considerably smaller than that of their Ashkenazi counterparts, even as Mizrahim constitute half of the country’s Jewish population.
But in recent years, this has begun to change. Second- and third-generation Mizrahim have begun to assert cultural and political leadership – a development both Keissar and Tornow-Gaisbauer, whose doctoral thesis focuses on this trend, attribute to socioeconomic advancement and a concomitant increased self-confidence over that of their parents’ generation.
“There is a generation of people who for the first time have access to education that their parents did not, and do not feel shame or embarrassment with their cultures as did previous generations; a generation that has more freedom and more tools and more financial resources to express and celebrate their culture,” says Keissar.
“Secondly, I think the development of the Internet has had a democratizing effect on culture; we no longer need the authority of various gatekeepers to transmit information,” she adds.
Culture and Sport Minister Miri Regev, who is of Moroccan and Spanish descent, has launched several initiatives to challenge Ashkenazi cultural hegemony, including the diversion of state spending into Mizrahi cultural projects. In 2016, Education Minister Naftali Bennett established a committee chaired by author Erez Biton, who is of Algerian and Moroccan descent, to improve and expand the representation of Mizrahi culture and history in the education system.
And in 2017, a Jewish-Arab Cultural Studies program was inaugurated at Tel Aviv University and Ben-Gurion University of the Negev.
“I don’t think there is one thing or person these changes can be attributed to; I think it is a collective evolution and awakening,” says Keissar. “We’re getting to a point where we’re saying ‘enough is enough.’ People are sick of being fed lies, of fighting for equality, of being excluded from the narrative.”
Dr. Hadas Shabat-Nadir, a professor of Hebrew literature at Ben-Gurion University and one of the founding faculty members of its Jewish-Arab Cultural Studies program, concurs. “I think there is increasing recognition that there is an entire public whose culture was erased and has not been represented in Israeli society, and this public is asking for a place in the symbolic capital, in the cultural capital.”
LIKE TORNOW-GAISBAUER, Shabat- Nadir differentiates between the status and motives of the first, second and third generation of Mizrahim in Israel when analyzing the evolution of Mizrahi expression.
“This cry [for Mizrahi expression] is being voiced from a place where the people voicing it feel confident – this isn’t the cry of the Black Panthers [a social justice movement to end discrimination against Mizrahim] in the seventies,” explains Shabat-Nadir.
“This is the cry of people who grew up here, feel this is their home and feel they have a legitimate part in the representation of Israeli culture.
“This can be likened to a teenager rebelling against his parents, one who feels that his home is a safe place and his parents will accept him – and not one who feels he doesn’t have a place, that he doesn’t belong to the country.”
This confidence is readily apparent in one of Keissar’s most popular poems, “I am the Mizrahi,” which confronts head-on the prejudices of the ruling Ashkenazi elite. It is one of three of her poems that was integrated into the nationwide curriculum.
Don’t tell me how to be Mizrahi/Even if you’ve read Edward Said/Because I’m the Mizrahi/Who’s not afraid of you/Not in admissions committees/ Not in job interviews/And not in airports/ Even though you ask me/Quite a few questions/With accusing eyes/ Searching me for Arab traces/How long did you come here for/And how much cash have you got/You didn’t come here to work, right?/You didn’t come here to work, right?
Unlike the first and second generations, says Shabat-Nadir, initiatives arising from the third generation of Mizrahim are characterized by more than struggle and protest.
“I think what characterizes Ars Poetica and our program of study is that we’re saying that we are not only interested in talking about Israeli mizrahiut or voicing its cry against inequality and underrepresentation – we want to revisit the culture of Arab Jews, first off to express that this culture exists,” she says.
“There is one thousand years’ worth of culture, literate culture, that nobody is talking about,” she continues.
Keissar agrees. “There is a tragic mindset in which everything associated with culture and knowledge is automatically associated with the West,” she says. “This is a mistake and it generates racism.
“As a person with a cultural heritage from an Arab country, essentially what society is telling me is that I come from a place without culture and knowledge.”
But this cultural erasure has of late been met with a growing momentum of cultural renewal.
“I think that there is a very big thirst by people who felt their culture was erased and treated as illegitimate to revisit and rediscover the roots from whence it came,” says Shabat-Nadir.
This curiosity may be reflected in the reception Ars Poetica has had. “When Egyptian or Lebanese or Turkish music is played at these evenings and it’s so different from the mainstream cultural climate, it reveals something not about me but about this place,” says Keissar.
“It’s strange that we are in the Middle East and seem to be doing a lot to evade Middle Eastern culture. I don’t want to do that. I live here, I like living here and I like the culture.”
Initially intended as a one-off event, the first Ars Poetica reading in January 2013 was so successful that Keissar soon organized another one, and then another. Before long, the poetry haflot had attracted a loyal and enthusiastic following – and the media took notice.
A twist on the often subdued and pretentious recitations at coffee houses and bookstores, Ars Poetica finds its home in bars and clubs, and combines the reading of poetry with live music and DJ sets.
An often-vocal audience dances to the rhythms of spoken words against a backdrop of hip hop, funk, electronic or Middle Eastern tunes. Many of its poets are also Mizrahi and Palestinian, though not exclusively, as one of the initiative’s primary goals is to cultivate an air of inclusiveness – a kind of counternarrative to that traditionally inhabited and dictated by white, European men.
A YEAR later, Keissar released her first book of poetry, “Black on Black,” a crowd-funded publication that in 2015 earned her the Bernstein Prize, an Israeli literary award for writers under 50. And in 2016, her second poetry collection, “Loud Music,” hit the stands. Several of her poems have since been incorporated by the Education Ministry into the nationwide curriculum, and she has regular speaking engagements throughout Israel and around the world.
Keissar’s love of words began at a young age. “I was a curious and mischievous child. When I was in kindergarten, I asked my mother to teach me to read. I really wanted to know what those symbols meant.
So when I started first grade, I already knew how to read. I loved reading. I would borrow books from the library all the time. I loved traveling to imaginary worlds.”
But she only started writing poetry when she was 31.
“I had never really been interested in poetry because it had always seemed elitist and bombastic and old-fashioned, like something that had nothing to do with me,” says Keissar.
That all changed in 2012. “I was living in Tel Aviv near the Carmel Market at the time in an apartment with flatmates. And on the back of the bathroom door were taped a bunch of poems. I liked what I read and started reading more and more poetry on my own,” she recalls.
“It had such a strong influence on me that I started writing myself. I think, too, that at the time I was completing my film studies at Tel Aviv University, and as a short medium, poetry was a welcome respite from the long-winded nature of screenplays.”
Soon enough, she had amassed a considerable amount of material and sought a venue in which to share her poems.
“I started looking around for places where I could recite, but I didn’t find anything I liked. I didn’t feel like I belonged.
The ambience was very cynical and haughty, not conducive to the kind of emotional vulnerability that poetry can expose one to.
I felt uncomfortable,” says Keissar.
“So I decided to organize a poetry reading that I would want to recite at. During that period, I was also DJ’ing at various places – Turkish music, Persian music, Yemenite music, Arab music, Egyptian music. I really like this type of music and I wanted to organize an event that would be like a party. So I decided to do a hafla, where there would be music and belly dancers and dancing in general.
And that’s what I did.”
Keissar never expected the event to go beyond that evening, let alone become a pop-culture sensation. “That first evening was a rousing success. And lots of people came up to me afterward and shared how the poem I had read about my Yemenite grandmother had touched them.”
The poem she read that night, “Black on Black,” went on to become the title work of her first book, which she dedicated to her maternal grandmother, “whose cultural and physical genes live on in me,” she says.
Centered on Keissar’s childhood relationship with her grandmother, the poem addresses the universal challenge of communicating across generations.
My grandmother loved me with a thick accent/And spoke to me Yemenite words/I never understood/And as a child/I remember/How scared I was to stay alone with her/Out of fear that I wouldn’t understand/The tongue in her mouth/In which she kept singing to me with a smile/And I didn’t understand/A word she said/ Her words sounded so far away/Even when she spoke closely.
THE THIRD of four children, Keissar was born and raised in Jerusalem. Her mother worked as a special education teacher and her father as a printer.
“Both of my parents were born in Israel.
My father’s family arrived in Israel in 1882.
They came by foot from Yemen. The story goes that they arrived right before Shabbat to the Nahalat Shiva neighborhood in Jerusalem and looked for a place to stay so they wouldn’t desecrate Shabbat. But people were afraid of them because they thought they were Arab,” Keissar recounts.
“So my great-grandfather, Shalom Kasar, who was a rabbi, took out Torah scrolls and began reading from them to prove they were Jews. He wanted to live in the Shaarei Hesed neighborhood, but at the time, the neighborhoods were divided according to ethnicity and Hasidic courtyards and he was told he couldn’t live there because it was an Ashkenazi neighborhood.
“He didn’t give up and went to Rabbi [Haim] Berlin and returned with a letter of recommendation from him that Rabbi Shalom Kasar is a great rabbi and Ashkenazi, in the full sense of the word. The neighborhood committee accepted him and they were the only Yemenite family in a neighborhood of Ashkenazim. For generations, the family lived there, speaking Yiddish and Yemenite, eating kubana [Yemenite bread] and kugel.
“My mother’s family made aliya from Yemen in the 1950s, after the establishment of the state. They wanted to live in Jerusalem, and they were driven to an empty hill nearby and told that it was Jerusalem. That hill is now known as Moshav Givat Ye’arim, right outside Jerusalem, where my mother was born and raised.”
Growing up, Keissar says she was very proud of her ethnic heritage. “In my family there was and still is a great love for Yemenite music, its customs, language and food. It was and still is a very natural part of our lives.”
That heritage, however, has also brought with it challenges. “From a very young age, I knew that I was born to a skin color that was not good, one at which people point, at best, and insult, at worst,” recalls Keissar.
“When the children at school called me ‘negro,’ I felt offended but could not neutralize the insult as a young girl. I didn’t tell my parents; I was probably embarrassed. I knew that my skin color was directly tied to my Yemenite ethnicity and that of my parents, and that in the place that they were from, everyone looked like me.
“Only later, when I was older, did I have the tools to understand the racism I had experienced as a child, as well as the power mechanisms that enable the socialization of racism that we all experience.”
It wasn’t until Keissar enlisted in the IDF that she understood she was Mizrahi. “I encountered various aspects of Israeli society there, which sharpened both my identity and my understandings about society, culture and mechanisms of power in society,” she says.
In her poem “This is a poem for,” Keissar expresses some of those realizations and the latent dangers they pose for all of humanity: For the one whose parents were born in the right country/And who has the right last name/For the one who has the right skin color/And the right eye color/For the one born in the right city/In the right part of town/Who went to the right school/And the right college/For the one who speaks the right language/With the right accent/ For the one who was born the right sex/The right religion/The right nationality/ The right passport/For the one born at the right time/With the right future/One day/When they will come/To knock on the door/They won’t ask for a cup of sugar/They’ll ask/To rip the door off its hinges/And bring down the house.
AS POPULAR as Keissar has become, her poetry hasn’t been well received by all, with some critics claiming it is more a political manifesto than a work of art.
“This is amusing for me because who decides what is and isn’t poetry,” says Keissar.
“If you like it, you like it; and if you don’t, you don’t. It’s your right.
“I write what I have to say and what I want. I’m not here to please anyone. I’m not a recipe for chocolate cake. I’m not here to rub someone’s back. I’m here to say what I want, and often what I have to say is critical, and criticism isn’t pleasant for people to hear,” she continues.
“I tell students at my speaking engagements, if as a writer you don’t write the truth, then don’t write. I’m not saying my truth is the absolute truth, but it’s my truth.
We’re lied to all the time; we don’t need another person to espouse lies. Things that you might have to say about yourself or society are not pleasant things. But if you try to beautify them, then you’re a politician. And we don’t need politicians, there are enough.”
Although much of Keissar’s fan base is Mizrahi, some of her critics are too – a response she says doesn’t surprise her. “I say that which is on my heart. It might be that you are very similar to me or of the same ethnicity, but feel very differently. And it’s your right. But what I often talk about is how, on the one hand, there’s my personal experience and you may or may not have had similar ones. But on the other hand, there’s matters of hegemony and mechanisms of power. And people can disagree with this, too, but these are facts.
“I always say that I’m not a Knesset member, I don’t represent an entire population,” she adds. “I’m not here to say that I represent the Mizrahi experience in Israel. I never claimed to be a representative sample of every person who looks like me.”
Others, though, have claimed otherwise, referring to Keissar as the “new voice in Mizrahi poetry” – a designation with which she has an ambivalent relationship.
“People say I’m a Mizrahi poet, but what is a Mizrahi poet? If I had written the same poem about my Polish grandmother rather than my Yemenite grandmother, would people say, ‘Here is the new voice in Ashkenazi poetry’? No, because that category doesn’t exist. The concept of a Mizrahi poet was created by Western culture and I don’t accept it,” she says.
“On the other hand,” she continues, “I can identify among poems written by Mizrahim a shared wound, shared protests, a similar immigration experience, just like there was likely a similar immigration experience among those who arrived from Europe, which is natural. But the former is categorized, the latter isn’t. This happens everywhere, always. The localization of East and West is Ashkenazim and Mizrahim in Israel.
So while I understand these concepts, I reject them. I deserve to be known as simply a poet.”
Indeed, though many of her poems are political, many are also personal.
“My first book [‘Black on Black’] was like a shout. It deals a lot with identity and criticism of society. But also the usual stuff that every normal person goes through: loneliness and love and existentialism,” she says.
“The second book [‘Loud Music’] was a kind of continuation of that initial movement of the first book – it’s also political.
But I think it also has something musical about it, a musical rhythm. And the next book [whose launch is expected sometime in March] has something feminine about it, about my experience of pregnancy and motherhood.”
WHEN KEISSAR isn’t working on her next collection, she can be found at a variety of speaking engagements, locally and abroad, or at home with her nine-month-old daughter.
“Because much of what I do revolves around words, I try to speak with people about how language isn’t something natural, like rain. But because we’re so used to it, we often forget that someone decided on its usages, and that that someone was in a position of power,” she says.
“No one is born a racist,” she continues.
“These are ideas we absorbed from society, whether discreetly or indiscreetly. But these are messages that bombard us. If racism is something that is learned, it’s also something that can be unlearned, deprogrammed.
So I’m very present there, in the space that advocates on behalf of positive social change.
“I always say, unfortunately, the things I say are not new. I never claimed to be saying anything new. People have been saying these things for years. And there is something in our culture that isn’t yet in a place to fully recognize them. The discussion about it, though, has no doubt expanded.”