The satisfying crunch of a piece of tadig at Friday night Shabbat dinner; the sweet aroma of a freshly brewed cup of cardamom tea; the melodic, flowy notes of a traditional Persian song. These are likely not the sights, smells, and sounds that come to mind when asked about Judaism. However, these elements of Middle Eastern culture have undoubtedly shaped my identity as an Iranian Jew and are prevalent in my hometown of Great Neck, New York, which boasts a large population of Mizrahi Jews. But who exactly are we?
Mizrahim are a subset of Jews who lived across the Middle East and North African region. These communities experienced numerous historical exiles and were part of the Spanish Inquisition, which perpetuated a wide-ranging diaspora. Over the years, Mizrahi Jewish communities developed their own unique culture within larger host countries, while simultaneously longing to return to Jerusalem. Some of the oldest and largest Mizrahi communities were in Babylonia (now Iraq), Persia (now Iran), and Yemen, and Jews lived a rather uncertain and ever-changing life in these nations: We flourished yet we suffered, assimilated yet remained isolated, and positively contributed to society even when we were treated as dhimmis, a term denoting second class citizenship. Overall, though, the Jewish people had real lives in these countries, with families, homes, and jobs.
However, following Israel’s Independence War of 1948, more than 850,000 Jews were banished from the Middle East. As shown through numerous documents, drafted laws, and statements made by delegates, multiple countries adopted repressive measures that discriminated against the Jews in order to push us out. Forced to leave their lives behind, Mizrahi Jews had very few places to relocate to, but the one place we were guaranteed an open-armed welcome was Israel. Still a poor and newly established country on the international stage, Israel had just received an influx of European immigrants after the Holocaust, but its leaders were unphased. Not only were the Mizrahi Jews allowed to return, but Israel encouraged our immigration and even rescued certain Mizrahi populations in covert operations because Israel has always been, and will always be, the homeland of the Jewish people. Nearly 600,000 Mizrahi Jews immigrated to Israel between 1948 and 1972. Ever since, this Mizrahi flare has deeply influenced Israeli culture, whether it be through food, music, or colloquialisms.
Thus, while many of the country’s prime visionaries and founders were Ashkenazi, Israel is quite a vibrant and diverse melting pot – something that became even more apparent upon receiving hundreds of thousands of Mizrahi immigrants and refugees. Nowadays, more than half of Israeli Jews are of Mizrahi heritage and find their roots in countries across the Middle East.
In the wake of the 1979 Iranian Revolution, thousands of Persian Jews, including my own family, similarly had to flee their country amidst increasing antisemitic persecution. My own father left Tehran at the young age of 8 and moved around between the East Coast and the West Coast as a child until finally settling in New York with his brothers and parents. This all occurred just years after his father (my paternal grandfather) had left Esfahan to study and work in Oklahoma in search of opportunities to best support our family. I cannot even wrap my head around what my family members must have felt upon realizing they had to leave the land they had called home for decades. Being lucky enough to live in America and attend Duke, where our Jewish community is so welcoming, vibrant, and prideful, I am beyond fortunate that I can wear my Judaism loudly and proudly on campus without being subject to antisemitism or hostilities because of my identity.
While the rancor and anti-democratic sentiment that built in Iran over the years was devastating and forced many Jews to flee, many found a safe haven in Israel. After college, my father and my uncle went abroad to Technion University in Haifa to obtain their medical degree – they always reflect fondly on their experience, saying that they have never felt more at home. While my immediate family lives in America, I still have many cousins in Israel as a result of the migration from Iran, and I could not be more grateful for the way that Israel accepted us all with open arms. Simultaneously, the Mizrahi community worldwide has proliferated and prospered over the years, including in my town of Great Neck.
I have been blessed to grow up around a strong Persian-Jewish community all my life, but upon arriving at Duke as a freshman in August 2021, I had the eye-opening realization that Mizrahi Jews are far underrepresented on campus. Most college students, Jewish and non-Jewish alike, are unaware of what it means to be Mizrahi and of how people with backgrounds like mine play into the larger tapestry of Judaism. Many college students who see Israel as a “white, settler, colonial project” deliberately ignore my people’s heritage and the contributions we’ve made to Israeli society, while others simply do not yet know our story.
Thus, it seems especially fitting that during Mizrahi Heritage Month, I shed light on this nuanced subset of Judaism that has such a meaningful place in my life and also characterizes millions of Jewish experiences around the world. I hope that all of us – students, cultural organizations on campuses, and administrators – will take the initiative to become more informed of my people’s incredibly rich history. I was proud to share my family’s story as part of CAMERA on Campus’ Mizrahi Stories campaign, which presents opportunities to learn about not often discussed Jewish communities. This makes it easier to connect with others and not only hear their stories but to build authentic relationships. In harnessing my Mizrahi pride, I will educate and empower others as we honor the simultaneous diversity and unity of Jews everywhere.
This article was also published in The Duke Chronicle.