Jews of the Middle East

Regardless of where Jews have lived most recently, all Jews have roots in the Middle East.

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In the early 20th century, severe violence against Jews forced communities throughout the Middle Eastern region to flee once again, arriving as refugees predominantly in Israel, France, the United Kingdom, and the Americas. In Israel, Middle Eastern and North African Jews were the majority of the Jewish population for decades, with numbers as high as 70 percent of the Jewish population, until the mass Russian immigration of the 1990s. Mizrahi Jews are now half of the Jewish population in Israel.

Mizrahi Jews Around the World

Throughout the rest of the world, Mizrahi Jews have a strong presence in metropolitan areas--Paris, London, Montreal, Los Angeles, Brooklyn, and Mexico City. Mizrahim and Sephardim share more than common history from the past five centuries. Mizrahi and Sephardic religious leaders traditionally have stressed hesed (compassion) over humra (severity, or strictness), following a more lenient interpretation of Jewish law. 

Despite such baseline commonalities, Middle Eastern and North African Mizrahim and Sephardim do retain distinct cultural traditions. Though Mizrahi and Sephardic prayer books are close in form and content, for example, they are not identical. Mizrahi prayers are usually sung in quarter tones, whereas Sephardic prayers have more of a Southern European feel. Traditionally, moreover, Sephardic prayers are often accompanied by a Western-style choir in the synagogue.

Mizrahim traditionally spoke Judeo-Arabic--a language blending Hebrew and a local Arabic dialect. While a number of Sephardim in the Middle East and North Africa learned and spoke this language, they also spoke Ladino--a blend of Hebrew and Spanish. Having had no history in Spain or Portugal, Mizrahim generally did not speak Ladino.

In certain areas, where the Sephardic immigration was weak, Sephardim assimilated into the predominantly Mizrahi communities, taking on all Mizrahi traditions and retaining just a hint of Sephardic heritage--such as Spanish-sounding names. In countries such as Morocco, however, Spanish and Portuguese Jews came in droves, and the Sephardic community set up its own synagogues and schools, remaining separate from the Mizrahi community.

Diversity Within the Communities

Even within the Mizrahi and Sephardi communities, there were cultural differences from country to country. On Purim, Iraqi Jews had strolling musicians going from house to house and entertaining families (comparable to Christmas caroling), whereas Egyptian Jews closed off the Jewish quarter for a full-day festival (comparable to Mardi Gras). On Shabbat, Moroccan Jews prepared hamin (spicy meat stew), whereas Yemenite Jews prepared showeah (spicy roasted meat), among other foods.

As Mizrahi and Sephardi Jews are a minority of Jews in North America, their heritage remains foreign to many North American Jews of Central and Eastern European heritage (known as Ashkenazim). Yet just as the world begins to embrace multi-culturalism, so too has the Jewish community begun to acknowledge and celebrate the wonderful cultural diversity that exists among its own people.

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Loolwa Khazzoom

Loolwa Khazzoom writes about Jewish multiculturalism and the cultural traditions and modern struggles of Sephardi, Mizrahi, Yemenite and Ethiopian Jews. She is involved in the Jewish Multicultural Project and in the organization Jews Indigenous to the Middle East and North Africa (JIMENA).