In short, I considered myself to be somewhat of a history buff. No one could stump me. Until I enlisted in the army, that is.
It all began rather innocuously. One of the base clerks, who suspected that I may be Druze or, God forbid, Arab, asked me about the origin of my last name. I rushed to assure her that she could relax. My family’s roots go back to Iran, which may be a radical Islamic state but at least it’s not an Arab one.
“Don’t worry,” I soothed the earnest pencil warrior. “My mother wore a veil as a child, but she didn’t speak Arabic – only Farsi. Oh, and she makes the world’s best gundi.”
But the clerk persisted. “If your origins are Persian,” she queried, “why do you have an Arabic name? Where does the name come from?”
Busted! The clerk’s innocent question revealed my ignorance, and I had nothing to say in response. The more I thought about it, the more I realized that I knew nothing about my roots.
Who am I?
Where did my parents come from? What was the origin of their last name? How did their families get to Iran? These and other questions troubled me. It turned out that while I had been busy learning about the history of Zionism, I had completely ignored my own private history.
But something was still missing. History, after all, is first studied in school, and I wondered why I had learned neither about Iranian Jewry nor about the Jews of the other Moslem countries.
As if to emphasize the point, during that same period, I happened to catch an exhibit entitled “Nine out of Four Hundred,” which included a 400-page high school history textbook. Nine of the pages were clipped together, separated and isolated from the rest. These nine pages were the only ones that discussed the Mizrachi (Oriental) Jews who came from Muslim countries.
Thus, no one taught me about the Crypto-Jews of Mashhad, Iran, who, in 1839, were coerced to choose between conversion to Islam and death.
Mashhad’s ruler had ordered his men to enter the Jewish homes. With knives held to their throats, the Jewish patriarchs were forced to vocally proclaim their allegiance to Mohammed’s religion.
The Jews then began living a double life. On the outside, they acted as Muslims; their clothes, names, and lifestyles resembled those of their Iranian neighbors. At home, however, they secretly taught their children to read Hebrew, lit candles, and welcomed the Shabbat.
And so, my ancestors had to accept a new last name, which came down through the generations to me. I am proud to carry this name, as testimony to the horrible pogrom in Mashhad.
But, as I noted, I didn’t know any of this. How could I have? The Israeli education system emphasized that immigrants of the Fourth Aliyah tended their gardens in Jerusalem’s Rehavia neighborhood and introduced me to the sages of Lublin. But no mention was made about Iranian Jewry, considered to be the most ancient Jewish community in the world.
Providentially, over the years, I’ve managed to fill in the gaps in my knowledge on my own. Nevertheless, it still rankles that Mizrachi culture and history are considerably marginalized in Israel.
Except for two or three token poems by Ibn Gabirol, no works by Mizrachi writers are included in the school literature curriculum. Four years ago, then Education Ministry General-Manager Ronit Tirosh suggested that a third of the curriculum be comprised of Mizrachi works. She was promptly and loudly slammed for being a populist.
Yet, the most convincing argument was offered by several bleeding hearts, who decreed that the curriculum should be determined by quality and not quantity. The fact that one can easily identify numerous quality Mizrachi literary works did not concern these pundits.
Even more surprising was the fervor with which these same compassionate liberals strove to add poems by Palestinian writers, such as Mahmoud Darwish, to the curriculum. As always, the leftist Ashkenazim prostrate themselves before the Palestinians, while recoiling in horror from Mizrachi culture, which may – Heaven forbid! – linger on their clothes like the scent of some exotic Mizrachi spice.
My detractors will dismiss all this as mere nonsensical paranoia. They’ll note that these days, “everyone” listens to Sarit Hadad on the radio and eats hummus in restaurants.
Because, of course, Sarit Hadad’s music and hummus are the epitome of Mizrachi culture. Since both figure prominently at modern weddings, Mizrachi culture is clearly well-represented in Israel.
I once asked a Yad Vashem director to explain why no one talks about the fates of Libyan, Tunisian and Greek Jewry when discussing the Holocaust. After hemming and hawing, he reminded me that the public does know a thing or two about Greek Jewry (thanks to Yehuda Poliker).
Interesting criterion, no? From now on, history books should only record cases where at least half a million people were killed. Casualties of other incidents are welcome to create their own alternative history books.
Yaniv Halily is New York correspondent of Yedioth Ahronoth.