Sephardi Voices

Interview with J. Khalastchi

Lisette Shashoua remembers the terror she felt as a teenager in Baghdad, following Israel’s 1967 victory in the Six-Day War. She and her family were among the city’s persecuted Jewish population of 3,000, remnants of its once-proud and illustrious community of 150,000.

Saddam Hussein’s Baath regime had frozen Jewish bank accounts and confiscated properties, restricted travel to a radius of a few miles, cut off phone lines and forbade employment and education. The Baathists arrested, tortured and hanged Jews on trumped-up charges of spying for Israel. “Every time a car passed by at night, I would wake up, kneel and pray that it would not stop at our house,” recalls Shashoua. “We bought sleeping pills to commit suicide in case they came to arrest us.”

Shashoua escaped Baghdad in 1970 via Kurdistan with just one small suitcase. She marvels that she still uses the curlers she took with her 42 years ago. Her parents stayed behind, hopeful that they would recover their vast property holdings. Shashoua traveled the world as a flight attendant with Air Canada, but she could not see her parents or even speak to them by phone for another 20 years, until they, too, left in the aftermath of the Iran-Iraq War — penniless. (She does not want to say where she lives now.)

For decades, Shashoua kept silent about her experiences. But now, she and other Sephardic Jews from Algeria to Yemen are telling their stories publicly. Many are stories of forced displacement, escape and migration.

Until now, no organizations akin to Spielberg’s Shoah Foundation have been set up specifically to record the memories of the 850,000 Jews who lost their rights, were uprooted from their homes and became refugees in the wake of World War II and the establishment of Israeli statehood. Within half a century, Jews living under Arab rule almost disappeared and number less than 7,000 today. They and their descendants now represent half of Israel’s population, most of the Jewish population of France, and a minority of the Jewish population in the Diaspora — but their voices have been muted.

Sephardi Voices, an independent, international, audio-visual history project, hopes to change that. Its purpose is to create a digital archive to map the shape of Sephardi Jewish memory, to help families ensure the preservation of their Sephardic heritage, and to craft an academic resource for scholars to research Sephardic history and identity as well as broader questions of exile, otherness, migration and marginality. It will have branches in the United States, the United Kingdom, Canada, Israel and France.

The project gives voices to refugees from the Tigris to the Euphrates, from the Mediterranean to the Atlantic Ocean, says Henry Green, Sephardi Voices international director and professor of religious studies at the University of Miami. “For the Sephardi, exile is not temporary. It is the disappearance of landmarks, ethnic culture, ritual, belief, food, music, dance, manner, folklore and language. It is personal and collective.” The subsequent generations, he says, speak a different language and were raised in different cultures. “This is the last chance to document an irretrievable period of Jewish history.”

The memories the project has raised have provoked emotions ranging from pride and wistfulness to sadness and anger. “When I was in Baghdad, we were sure we would just become statistics like the German Jews. We’d die and nobody would know anything about us,” says Shashoua, who mourns the extinction of a community that stretched back in time 2,500 years. In 1950, the Iraqi government announced that Jews could leave the country legally — but only if they renounced their citizenship and left behind everything of value. The Israeli government airlifted almost 100,000 Jews to Israel in 1951. Today there are five Jews left in Iraq. “We need to tell the history because we are the end of the line,” she emphasizes.

“We are disappearing,” agrees Libyan-born Moshe Labi, an 82-year-old retired physician who lives in Scarsdale, New York. During his videotaped interview with Sephardi Voices, “things came out of the bottom of my heart and memory and there were moments of great emotion. There are things hidden in the archives of our memories and if we don’t touch them they never surface.”

Since Libya was an Italian colony, the fate of its Jews plummeted when Italy joined Germany in World War II. Labi’s father was imprisoned in a Libyan concentration camp simply for being a Jew, a trauma that left a permanent scar on Moshe’s nine-year-old psyche. Labi recalls racing past a Christian school as a child, his heart pounding in fear. Decades later, 9/11 catapulted him back to the terror of his youth. The family was ultimately able to escape on a British troop carrier to Egypt, the Sudan and finally to Palestine in 1943, where Labi joined the Haganah and, later, the IDF.

Labi is proud of his Sephardic heritage, which he traces back to 15th-century Spain; his father’s ancestors fled to Morocco following the Expulsion in 1492. Shimon Labi (1480-1580), a poet, rabbi and kabbalist, journeyed from Fez toward the land of Israel, but when he encountered Jews in Tripoli he stayed to teach the Jewish community. The family later moved to Benghazi. Labi’s mother is an Ashkenazi Jew from Rome.

The term ‘Sephardic’ or ‘Sephardi’ signifies one of the two streams of Jewish civilization (the other is Ashkenazi), explains Green. It is not used solely to designate Jews from Spain (“Sepharad” in Hebrew), Portugal and the countries in North Africa and the Middle East they fled to after the Expulsion. Mizrahi Jews (Hebrew for Eastern) have ancient roots in the Middle East. Because Sephardi and Mizrahi Jews share religious traditions, customs and philosophies, the terms are often used interchangeably. (Arab rule, he adds, sometimes differs from Islamic rule. Iran, for instance, is an Islamic country with a population of 15,000 Jews today.)

Jews in Arab countries flourished through good times and bad. Under Islamic law Jews were protected, but they were also second-class citizens with limited religious, professional and business opportunities. Their treatment differed depending on the current caliph, king or sultan. In some cases, their condition improved temporarily with the advance of Western ideas. Still, they were often influential in business, philanthropic and governmental spheres and produced giants of Jewish scholarship and tradition. The Babylonian Talmud was redacted in what is modern-day Iraq in the 6th century; the first siddur (Seder Rav Amram) developed in Iraq; Moroccan Rabbi Yitshak Alfasi was the first to codify Jewish law (Sefer HaHalakot), and Maimonides produced his masterful 14-volume Mishneh Torah in Egypt.

“I want to spread the word for the world to know who we are, because most Jews and non-Jews don’t know what a Sephardi Jew is,” says Juliette Glasser, who fled Egypt with her family in 1956 at age 14. “We are a minority…but our culture is so rich.”

Interestingly, it took two Ashkenazi Jews to propel Sephardi Voices forward. Green, the project’s founder, was raised in Ottowa in a Modern Orthodox family of Polish and Ukrainian ancestry. As a historian and sociologist, he has researched Sephardi communities extensively and is distressed that their experience has been largely overlooked. UK project director Bea Lewkowicz grew up in Germany, the child of Holocaust survivors. A social anthropologist and oral historian, she is an expert on the Jews of Thessaloniki, Greece, which was almost annihilated by the Nazis. She was also an interviewer for the Shoah Foundation.

The project was originally called the Forgotten Exodus — forgotten due to the dominant Ashkenazic narrative, a smaller Sephardi population with a more recent migration than that of Eastern European refugees, and cultural barriers within Sephardic communities. Time is running out, says Green, especially since demographers estimate that over 70 percent of the displaced Jews from Arab lands are no longer alive. It’s urgent, he says, for Jewish schools, community centers, old-age homes and organizations to collect these stories for family continuity as well as to paint an accurate portrait of Jewish civilization. The project focuses on forced migrations, but the stories cover a spectrum of experiences.

Green knew next to nothing about Sephardim as he was growing up. But during his master’s and doctoral studies in Israel, he says he “began to appreciate that there were two Israels.” A grant he wrote for an early childhood home-schooling program geared primarily to the Sephardi at-risk population turned into a book, Research in Action, which investigated programs that integrated Sephardim in Israel in the 1970s. “It was a kind of internship in terms of being connected to the Sephardim at all levels of personal human connection.” (He helped bring that program, now called HIPPY, to the United States.)

Back in the United States, Green worked with the American Sephardi Federation and the Federation of Sephardim of Latin America, which led to his founding of the Jewish Museum of Florida. He brought a Sephardic component to the Jewish Studies program he directed at the University of Miami from 1984 to 2001, and, in 2005, introduced his agenda at the World Congress of Jewish Studies to encourage others to collaborate. Jewish education does not usually include Sephardic history, folklore and culture, he says, and even the story of Israel’s creation neglects Sephardic contributions. Part of the challenge, he notes, is that the Sephardic experience is not monolithic; every country, region and city was different from the other.

Sephardi Voices is not the first organization to focus on Sephardic refugees. But other groups — including San Francisco-based JIMENA (Jews Indigenous to the Middle East and North Africa), the British-based HARIF (Association of Jews from the Middle East and North Africa), and JJAC (Justice for Jews from Arab Countries) — have a political and advocacy agenda in addition to collecting oral histories. Sephardi Jews did not ask for or receive refugee status or privileges, nor have they received any compensation for their losses, say Sephardi activists, who have testified in government forums. They are urging that references to Palestinian refugees be matched by similarly explicit references to Jewish and other refugee populations.

“When the word ‘refugees’ is mentioned in the context of the Middle East, people invariably refer to Palestinian refugees,” reads the JJAC Web site. “Little is heard about these Jewish refugees from Arab countries because they did not remain refugees long.” The site defines a ‘refugee’ as a person seeking refuge because of political oppression or religious persecution in their country of residence.
Green stresses that Sephardi Voices does not have a political agenda and is not linked to any advocacy groups. Yet he also notes that it chronicles important human rights issues. “ ‘Arab Jews’ were in a way the first to be decimated and delegitimized to create a monolithic Muslim population, similar to what other religious groups are experiencing today in the region. There has been little or tepid acknowledgment of their fate.”

To date, the project’s staff of 28 (including volunteers) has interviewed 150 subjects — 60 in the United States, another 60 in the United Kingdom and a handful in France and Canada. It has also gathered 100 oral interviews from other organizations and has identified thousands of interviews from the 1950s and 1960s that are in fragile condition and in need of digitization. Copies of the interviews will be archived either at Israel’s National Library at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, the British Library or the University of Miami.

“The collections will be part of the country’s immigrant story and heritage,” Green explains. Interviews might also be used for the creation of films, exhibitions and other educational materials; two short documentaries have already been made (Sephardi Voices: Seven Stories and Moroccan Diasporas: London, Miami and Montreal). In Israel, the project is being guided by Margalit Bejarano, former director of the Oral History Division at the Institute for Contemporary Jewry at Hebrew University; she is of Sephardi background and has engaged members of Israel Oral History Association (an independent organization that she co-founded) to serve as interviewers.

Comparisons to Holocaust survivors are inevitable — and tricky — even eliciting a sort of apologetic response that as painful as the Sephardic plight was, it in no way matches the genocide and magnitude of the Holocaust. Green points out the Shoah Foundation has 52,000 interviews of which 364 are on Sephardim; of those, less than 100 focus on Jews from North Africa and the Middle East. Many subjects have been overlooked, says Green. Though Sephardi Voices is not focusing on the Holocaust experience, it is part of the story, he says.

Collecting stories about what life was like in their countries of origin provides a snapshot of a heritage that has vanished. In Seven Stories, Eileen Khalasty shares a sweet memory of sleeping on the flat rooftop of her home as was common during the hot Baghdad summers, as palpable as if it were yesterday. “Every morning the maid goes and covers the beds because it’s so sunny, so hot, and in the evening after sunset she goes to the roof and opens them. It’s so beautiful to sleep on the roofs, so cool, so nice, and to look at the stars…I miss sleeping on the roof.”

Cairo-born Ellis Douek shares a lyrical memory of early mornings when his nanny would take him to his grandmother, who would be sitting on the balcony overlooking the Nile. “The servant would make her very strong, sweet Turkish coffee, and she would be smoking ceaselessly these scented Turkish cigarettes, and she would pour some coffee on the saucer and give it to me to lick.” The aromas merge with his vision of the Nile at dawn, when through the mist you could only see the tops of the palm trees.

Many of the stories follow bittersweet timelines — happy childhoods, followed by upheaval and fear, and the difficulty of integrating into new cultures. “By age 17, I had lived in three different continents and cultures,” says Glasser, a tournament bridge player who married an Ashkenazi Jew and now lives in Miami. She recalls a comfortable childhood in Cairo, where she attended a private French Catholic school; spoke French, Arabic and English; had friends of all nationalities; enjoyed Sunday family picnics and summer vacations on the Mediterranean. But in the wake of the 1956 Suez Crisis, most of the Jews of Egypt were given 48 hours to leave and, like the Iraqis, were allowed only one suitcase each and a minimal amount of money.

Glasser’s family migrated to France and then to Atlanta, where her uncle owned a store. She still has her mother’s 21-carat gold bangles and her parents’ wedding bands, which recreate the warm family feeling she remembers. For her son’s engagement, Glasser used the fine embroidered silk paisley her mother had packed in her suitcase 60 years earlier and created a dress that she wore at the henna party. Her mother had bought yards of the expensive material to transport out of the country instead of cash.

Green emphasizes the alienation, discontent and displacement many refugees felt; they were often ill at ease in a borrowed culture and were looked down on in a Eurocentric setting. Telling their stories reaffirms their dignity and fosters self-esteem, he notes, quoting the Sephardi anthropologist Ruth Behar, who says that providing testimony is a crucial therapeutic tool.

For Jacqueline Douek (no relation to Ellis), the transition from Cairo to Brooklyn in 1958 was harrowing. “I saw my parents struggle. My mother cried every day. She’d had servants. My father, who spoke seven languages, worked three jobs and couldn’t make ends meet. My brothers went to work when they were 13. I cleaned the house before I went to school and took my mother to doctors for her high blood pressure. It was the end of my childhood.” Douek says she learned to cope with whatever situation arose. “I never ever panicked.”

Douek’s education languished. She didn’t complete high school because she married at 17. Last year, at age 63, she graduated magna cum laude from Brooklyn College with a degree in Judaic studies and political science. Her 4 children and 13 grandchildren do not know all the details of her life. “I didn’t expose them to that burden. They knew their grandparents, but they didn’t understand that although the older generation was thankful to live in freedom, they also felt regret that they had lost everything.”

“We all came as immigrants and threw ourselves immediately into starting new lives,” says Shashoua. “We were so grateful for the fact that we escaped. We just wanted to build and go on. We didn’t compare stories of how we escaped — though each story could be a thriller on its own.”

More Sephardim are coming forward to give testimony, encouraged by family members or Jewish organizations to ensure a lasting legacy, but others worry about what they say and how public it is, says Lewkowicz. “Some don’t want to be publicly recorded; some request that their testimony be closed for 10 or 20 years. They feel their private history is not for the public domain.” Those who left as teens are more willing to talk, but older people don’t want to remember the difficult times. Some who still have relatives under Islamic rule — Iranians, for instance — don’t want to endanger their families. “It’s very political in a way Holocaust testimony was not,” says Lewkowicz. Green adds that it took Holocaust survivors 50 years to break their silence; similarly, Jews from Arab lands are passing the 50-year-mark and beginning to speak out.

Some interviewees say their ultimate message is cautionary. One Iraqi Jew who does not want her name used says it’s not the past that frightens her but the future. “When we came here we felt Baghdad was another constellation, finished, gone, we’re safe. Now the whole world is not safe and this is terrifying. I’m afraid history will repeat itself — and the second generation is oblivious. The hatred is simply seeping through.”

“When you’re a Jew this could happen anywhere, anytime, in any country,” agrees Douek. “I tell my children that besides having faith in God you must make sure Israel survives and flourishes. You cannot be complacent. You must always be vigilant.”

The story of Jews in Arab lands is similar to the story of American Jewry, says Green, with its immigrant roots and history both of anti-Semitism and of success. “We have to keep an eye on the past because the story of Sephardi Jewry covers millennia — a much longer track record than that of European Jewry. The Sephardi experience will be helpful in how we plan for the future.”