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A Prayer in the Beginning

By Ilona Gerbakher


Ilona visiting the Hassan II mosque in Casablanca, Morocco

Ilona visiting the Hassan II mosque in Casablanca, Morocco

Last week I was in a Moroccan restaurant in Seattle and had a unique experience: The very nice Palestinian man who ran the restaurant started speaking to me in his Shammi (Eastern) Arabic, and I responded in my good Moroccan Darija over mint tea and cookies. He was shocked to hear a non-Arab speak Arabic in a proper dialect, and when I told him I was Russian he said “No, no it can’t be! Arab blood runs in your veins!”

What an interesting moment, to have a Palestinian man tell me, a Jewish woman, that Arab blood runs in my veins. From a purely genetic standpoint, he’s probably wrong – I’m pretty sure I’m as Ashkenazi as they come (German roots, family settled in Odessa about 150 years ago). But, if my blood could choose an ethnic home, it would be Arab blood, and certainly Arabic is the language of my heart.

All of which is to say that I am battling intensely mixed feelings in the week before I leave LA to move to Jerusalem for a year – fighting wars of blood, identity and language – but fighting them in secret.

Every post I’ve ever written has been about what it might mean to have a dual Jewish/Arab heritage. But in a way the question is a lie, it’s a false presumption on my part. No matter how many years I’ve studied Arabic, or how much time I spend in the Middle East, the truth is I’m not an Arab. I have all the extraordinary privileges of being a white Jewish American woman, while at the same time experiencing the privilege of being able to “blend” in the Middle East because of my olive skin and my gift at linguistic mimicry.

A group of Sephardic Jews in Fez, Morocco, c. 1900 – Photo: Wikipedia

A group of Sephardic Jews in Fez, Morocco, c. 1900 – Photo: Wikipedia

I’m a Jew, I’m a Jew, I’m a Jew, I know this to be true but what can I say to my wandering soul, who found a home in Morocco unlike any she’d ever known? More than that, I found my Judaism in Morocco, among the Sephardic Jews of Fez, with whom I worshipped and worked for several months.

And now I’m going to Israel. Complicated place, beautiful world built by “my” people out of sweat and blood and tears and suffering. Almost home-land; the only reason my parents didn’t immigrate to Israel rather than America was that our relatives in Israel didn’t have space to host us in their apartment, but our relatives in Los Angeles did.

But Israel scares me. Earlier I had packed up my bags to go to Morocco with incandescent, unmixed joy. Finally, all my studies of a region and a religion would come to fruition. Finally, I would live the places I read, walk the roads of Ibn Batuta, watch the sunsets of Maimonides. And I was received in Morocco with the same unmixed enthusiasm: An American who speaks “our” Darija? Mashallah! A Jew who knows the Qur’an? Mashallah! (although of course, the inevitable conversion attempt follows quickly after the Mashallah…) In Morocco I was the perfect mix of the foreign – American, Jewish, a Harvard grad, and the familiar – olive skinned, small and dark, Francophone and chatty.

In Israel, what will I be?

But in Israel, what will I be? Yes, these are my people – by blood I’m probably the distant cousin of 20 percent of Israel’s Ashkenazi-Soviet population. I have friends in Israel, lifelong friends, who made Aliya, moving to Jerusalem, just a few years ago. My childhood rabbi is the Rosh Yeshiva of Israel’s most important Yeshiva, and I have family in Jerusalem, Tel-Aviv, Ashkelon, Haifa. I’m hooked up, in Israel.

There is that privilege again, that Jewish privilege: I have a second country I could call home if I wanted to. There is a place in the world, outside of America, that would accept me with open arms, where I immediately fit because of my blood and my face and my shared history of suffering. I have a right of return to a place I’ve never left. Israel is giving me privileges that I don’t care about, the same privileges that Palestinian men and women die for and will never receive.

The different dialects of Arabic – Graphic: Wikipedia

The different dialects of Arabic – Graphic: Wikipedia

At the same time, many Israelis hate and fear the people and language that I love. When I told a visiting Israeli relative that I had spent the last year living in Morocco and Qatar, and that I spoke fluent Arabic, she told me “All Arabs are animals. Why learn the language of your enemy?” My heart dropped. I left the restaurant and sat on a bench, catching my breath.

The worst thing of all was that this woman herself was an Arab Jew, from the primarily north African and west Asian Sephardic tradition. Her father was from Yemen, and she was born in Egypt. Her son is married to a Moroccan Israeli. What kind of self hatred do you have to internalize, to say that the blood that runs through your veins is the blood of animals? What kind of pain must that be to live with, the pain of self-war and self-abnegation, the pain that Sephardim in Israel must face almost daily?

Still. Who am I to tell her that I know better? Who am I to teach her the “truth” of tolerance or interfaith blah blah blah or whatever white people are calling it these days? Her experience of Arabs in Israel has probably been fraught with pain and tension, particularly on the heels of the latest crisis. Her media probably tells her daily of every Arab crime perpetrated on the body of Israel. In school she was taught to reject the language of her parents, and in the streets she was taught to hate the Arab blood that hooked her nose and darkened her skin. I can’t speak to the pain of that experience, and I can’t change her mind.

As I pack my suitcases this time around, my emotions veer from joy to disquiet. Here I go, off on another great adventure. Woohoo! To perhaps the most important country in the world for a scholar of religion! Woohooo! But I go to a place where my habit of saying inshallah after every sentence will get me odd looks, where my perfectly-accented Fusha will mark me a traitor, where my Star of David makes me a colonizer. I go to a place where the privilege of my name and my blood allow me entrance. I will watch daily as Palestinians bleed for the rights that are granted to me so casually. I will watch daily as Israelis ignore or condone or condemn this suffering. And I will watch in silence, thoughtful and empathic silence. Because I can’t speak to the pain of their mutual hatreds, my twin peoples who I love so much, who have done each other so much evil.

I don’t know how to conclude; this post is only the beginning. So I’ll end my beginning with a prayer:

Bereishit Berah Elohim. Bismillah Al-Rahman al-Rahim. God of both my peoples, guide your small, lost, and loving child. Guide me in your holy land. Make me an instrument of goodness, of kindness, of compassion. El, Allah, whatever name you like to call yourself, give me the strength of heart to nourish love wherever it blooms, to be an instrument of your light in this world. Ya Rabbi, let there be peace.