Dear patrons, woweezowee, it’s been a super intense month! I just finished production for The Flying Camel, and am now sharing with you the final verison of the introduction, which features an interview with celebrity band A-Wa. 

Interviewing the band’s founder, Tair Haim, was profound – so much more than I anticipated when I requested an interview! It helped catalyze a whole lot of self-reflection, which went into the development of the introduction. I’d love to get your thoughts! 

Now that I’m done with the book, I’ll be able to finish up the monthly goodies on the poetry and music front for Patreon. Meanwhile I thank you, once more, for being so kind and supportive, even when I’m going in 12 directions at once and struggling with churning out content on time. 

Love you guys!
Loolwa

Introduction 2022

My mother told me that when I was three months old, she was driving us somewhere, when she suddenly heard me singing one of the sh’bahothi, Iraqi Jewish songs of praise. Shocked, she looked in the rear view mirror and nearly had an accident – watching me bopping to and fro, in the car seat behind her, singing this ancient melody. By “singing,” I assume she meant humming, but by the time I thought to ask for clarification, it was too late.

Regardless, these sacred songs have been with me, and dear to me, forever.

I clearly remember when I was four years old and feeling inconsolable about something, howling in soul-searing agony. As soon as one of my parents began singing to me one of the sh’bahoth, called, “Yom Yom Odeh,” I felt awash in a sense of peace and wellbeing. Unbeknownst to me at the time, that moment foreshadowed the power of music to heal me from cancer, four decades later.

While I was musically gifted throughout my life, and while I played shy of 10 instruments over the course of my childhood, it took me 30 adult years, and a cancer diagnosis, to allow myself to become a professional musician, for a myriad of reasons: In Iraq, being a professional musician was on par with being a prostitute. In my childhood home, lined with books, people became academics, not artists. Add to the mix a whole lot of being called “too” as a girl – too loud, too strong, too smart, too outspoken, too too too…And I didn’t feel allowed to shine, which is exactly what happens when I create and play music.

In addition, I felt called to throw the weight of my knowledge, creativity, intelligence, skill, and talent into one single, and urgent, mission: preserving and passing on 4,000 years of global Jewish heritage, before it was too late. How could I bother with that music internship in North Hollywood, which I got after college, when meanwhile Jews were being kidnapped and tortured in Syria and Yemen, as the American Jewish community stood by and did nothing? How could I have fun creating and performing music, which were as easy to me as breathing air, when the vibrant heritage of Jews worldwide – from Africa, the Middle East, Central, East, and South Asia, Southern Europe, and Central and South America – was on the verge of extinction?

In 1990, when I was 20 years old, I threw myself into trailblazing the field of Jewish multicultural education and radically transforming the paradigms of Jewish history, heritage, and religious practice – including through the creation of this book. My work not only had a direct impact on Jewish thinking and living, but also had a ripple effect whose waves carry on today. By 2010, other Jewish multicultural leaders had arisen and were fighting the good fight, so I did not need to be the one doing it anymore. For that and a host of other reasons, I hung up my Jewish multicultural hat and turned my attention elsewhere.

That Summer, I had just launched Dancing with Pain© – a company teaching people how to heal from chronic pain through dance, as I had done myself – when I sustained a debilitating auditory injury that unraveled my life, forced me to move, and ground to a screeching halt the growth of my company. Three months later, still crippled from the injury, with my life unraveled to the point that I was on the verge of homelessness, I was diagnosed with thyroid cancer.

Deep soul searching, intensive research and outreach, and a serendipitous event led me to choose to reject the conventional option of surgery, and instead, approach cancer as an opportunity for healing and transformation on every level of my life. Among other considerations, the prescribed thyroidectomy not only would lop out my entire thyroid, the central regulating mechanism of all my hormones, which seemed like a really bad idea, but also might injure or destroy my vocal chords, and with them, my voice.

For, like, ever.

Fortunately, I had just met a young man at a vegan gathering, who had eliminated a benign tumor by going on a raw food diet. With that encounter fresh on my mind, I threw myself into learning about and implementing a whole-foods, plant-based diet – all organic, vegan, with no soy, gluten, fried foods, or sweeteners of any kind. Those changes alone cold-stopped the growth of the nodules, which remained stable for the next five years. It was only in the wake of a vision where I was called back to my music, however – ultimately leading me to move to Seattle and start my band, Iraqis in Pajamas – that the nodules started shrinking.

While I was drawn to the riot grrrl music roots of Seattle, as well as to a few other features of the city – rainy weather, activist culture, and ample bike lanes everywhere – I actually chose to move to the city for one reason only: the Sephardiiicommunity, which was one of the largest in the United States. In June 2014, however, on the first sh’bathiii after driving my U-Haul up the coast from Northern California, I was appalled by a sermon so sexist – where women were equated with “meat” – that I walked out of the Sephardisynagogue, just 15 minutes after arriving.

I did come back around – heck, I had just moved out of state for the community – but I kept feeling uncomfortable, in particular, from the stink eye that men gave me when I sang prayers audibly. I’d been able to lead Iraqi Jewish prayers, with our distinct melodies and pronunciations, from the time I was eight years old. Despite hardly anyone from my generation knowing the prayers, however, I repeatedly had been shut out of or shut down in the Mizrahiivand Sephardicommunities, because I was female. I had fought back for decades – had gone so far as to lead a full-on uprising in the women’s section of one of the synagogues, when I was 14 – but was tired of fighting and was just looking for a place to pray in peace.

During the high holy day period, I decided to try something new: I went to the open mic at Columbia City Theater – which had become my favorite place to perform on vocals and bass (awkward as that was initially), while searching for band mates. “The Middle Eastern synagogues don’t want me to sing the prayers out loud because I’m a woman,” I announced after taking the mic that night, “so I’m going to sing them here.” With that, I gave a brief description of the slihothv I was about to sing, then began belting them out a cappella,in the Iraqi tradition.

For someone who had grown up orthodox, singing slihoth in a bar exceeded an act of insurgence and bordered on one of blasphemy. Devout as I was, though no longer orthodox, I felt uncomfortable doing it; but I did it anyway.

And I could hear a pin drop as I did.

Characteristically, the open mic was rowdy, with people talking through musical performances – mine and those of everyone else. But when I sang the slihoth, despite nary a Jew in the audience, never mind an Iraqi Jew, the audience was transfixed. And I knew, immediately, that I was onto something.

Over the next year, after repeated attempts to make it work, I gave up on the Sephardicommunity altogether and moved from the south part of town, where the orthodox synagogues were, to the north part, where the hipsters and progressive Jews were. Shortly after moving, I managed to assemble a band, and we quickly knocked out nearly an album full of songs. While themes of Iraqi Jewish identity and family were common in my lyrics at the time – simply because they were part of my life experience – those themes were not apparent without me spelling out the back story. In addition, I did not draw from Iraqi Jewish language, sacred text, or melody in any of my original music.

Then one day in 2015, immediately upon walking into a gathering of a North Seattle progressive congregation, I was greeted with, “Oh, this is Loolwa, she’s an Iraqi Jew,” and promptly bombarded with rapid-fire questions from multiple people I had never met – about where I grew up, where I went to synagogue, who I knew, who my family was or knew…It felt like an interrogation, the kind I had experienced routinely in South Seattle’s orthodox circles – on one occasion, leading me to run to the bathroom and hide, sobbing, never to return to that synagogue again.

I felt connected with the leadership of the gathering and very much had looked forward to the evening’s program. But within 20 minutes, I made up some excuse about why I had to leave, and promptly bolted. Sitting on my couch at home, shaking, I wondered why religious Jews felt compelled to energetically assault people like that. Why couldn’t they just get to know me slowly and organically – emphasis on getting to know me, who I am, as I define myself – instead of pumping me for information on how to identify me, through formulaic and external constructs, demanding to know my social network, academic background, and entire biological lineage, Torahvi style: so-and-so begat so-and-so begat so-and-so…

It must be a tribal thing, I mused.

The upside of being an orthodox Jew is that no matter where you travel, you have somewhere to go for sh’bath, and most likely, a place to crash for a day or two, if not longer. Orthodox Jews are like an extended family, spanning the globe – as in, you are never alone. Which, in a world filled with loneliness and despair, is pretty cool.

Well, sort of.

If you follow the tidy Jewish narrative that goes along with it all. If you fit into the boxes they prescribe for you. If you play by the rules someone else made up. If you do, it’s all fantastic, of course. Jews who bombard me with questions as soon as they meet me, I contemplated, may be looking for their one connecting thread to me, thinking that when they find it, I will feel embraced, welcome, home, that – ironically – all social distance and awkwardness between us will vanish.

In Israel many years ago, I met a man who asked where I was from. When I said the US, he began to ask if I knew this friend of his from the US. I cut him off, laughing. “Dude, the United States is huge!” He gave me the classic Israeli hand gesture of rega (wait a minute, be patient), and said, “Just see.” “OK,” I humored him. Turned out this friend was also a good friend of my family. “You see?” the man smiled.

The Jewish world, the religious Jewish world in particular – never mind the Mizrahiand SephardiJewish enclaves – is small. That can be comforting and grounding for someone who is in alignment with it all.

And alienating as f*** for someone who is not.

Healing from domestic violence, against the backdrop of a community that presumed all families were close and “nice Jewish families;” sporting a distinctive Judeo-Arabicvii name amidst a sea of Goldsteins and Blumenfelds, thereby making anonymity impossible; and facing an unrelenting barrage of invasive questions from Jews, left me forced to choose between 1) going along with the “nice Jewish family” front, while feeling highly triggered and screaming inside, 2) outing people who, yes, harmed me, but who I also loved, and did not wish to publicly shame or hurt, 3) discreetly setting boundaries that Jews seemed to neither understand nor honor – often leading to a cascade of even more invasive questions, or 4) leaving Jewish communities altogether, to avoid the whole damn spectacle.

For four years prior to moving to Seattle, I had chosen the latter option – even when I was newly-diagnosed with cancer, on the verge of homelessness, alone and terrified, and desperately in need of community. Geographically too close to home at the time, the first thing anyone asked me was, “Oh are you related to ____?” Participating in Jewish life therefore caused extreme anxiety and required me to strategically dodge encounters not only with certain people, but also with their shadows.

As many as a quarter of Jewish women have experienced domestic violence, yet the Jewish community overall persists in the idea that domestic violence does not exist in Jewish homes. Even when there is recognition of its existence, the response to it may be as or more harmful than ignoring it altogether – I speak from experience. It’s no wonder that neither I nor a number of other women in this anthology addressed the topic at all in our essays, despite having experienced domestic violence first- or second-hand.

The Jewish community has a long way to go in ensuring that we feel safe speaking up about the matter, and that when we do speak up, we and our families are met with love, compassion, and support in the lifelong journey of recovery. Leaders need to recognize the signs of domestic violence, proactively intervene in it, protect those who have been hurt, and hold accountable those who have been violent – in a way that is neither shaming nor ostracizing, but rather, that is rehabilitative and that enacts the principle of tshubaviii, guiding the family through steps for healing, transformation, and a restoration of wholeness.

Imagine if the Jewish community approached the violence in our midst as an opportunity – for introspection, contemplation, discussion, and connection, on the individual and collective levels. Imagine if each incident were treated as a sacred possibility for identifying, understanding, and weeding out the roots of violence, with each of us doing our part in fostering a loving and nurturing Jewish space.

What happens when it is not, when in fact, it is the opposite? What is the domino effect on people’s lives, Jewish observance, mental health, and by extension, physical health?

As I contemplated these various matters, I picked up my bass and wrote a song encapsulating my feelings, in what became “Conformity,” the last song on my band’s debut album, Iraqis in Pajamas. Being that I was writing about expressly Jewish issues, and that they were intertwined with being an Iraqi Jew, I felt called to draw from the Iraqi sh’bahoth as a way of transmitting my feelings on a deep level. I chose the song “Eli Eli Lama” because of its significance in my Jewish multicultural work:

Back in the early 1990s, Jewish community leaders resisted incorporating anything not Ashkenazi, for a few generic reasons: First, they assumed that everyone in their midst was Ashkenazi. Second, they presumed that anyone Ashkenazicould not possibly be interested in anything not Ashkenazi. Third, in recursive fashion, they were anxious about introducing a tradition that people did not already know, thinking it would fail to engage community participation.

Or as I used to put it, they needed a workshop to understand why they needed a workshop, and I needed to be the one not only to supply the demand, but to first create the demand, then supply it.

In addition to my go-to replies for each theme of resistance, I had in my arsenal the tool of Iraqi sh’bahoth, in particular, the songs for Simhath Torahix which people could not help but feel compelled to jump up and dance to, or at the very least, enthusiastically clap to. I often leveraged these songs as a gateway for the hard-hitting programs I offered – which challenged Jewish leaders and laypeople alike to radically rethink Jewish identity, practice, and education. Once people’s hearts were flung open through music, the audience was primed to dig in and go deep, through facilitated discussion.

Iraqi Simhath Torah songs not only were catchy and energizing, but – when I strategically flipped the call-and-response roles – also were easy, for both the Western ear and those who did not speak Hebrew. The songs had been created for the men carrying the heavy silver, gold, and wood torothx, as they circled around the tebaxi during the haqafothxii. Given the challenge of looking at a songbook on top of that, the “call” was always simple – like “Yismahu,” “Yisrael,” or in the case of the song I frequentlychose,“Eli Eli Lama.” By giving the easy “call” part to the audience, I was able to teach the song in two minutes flat. To take the energy over the top, I then taught the audience how to ululate, instructed them on how to join me as the rhythm section, through clapping, then picked up my dimbukxiii and led them in a spirited rendition of the song.

“Eli Eli Lama” was so popular when I taught it, that on one occasion – at a Kallah conference in the 1990s – a throng of conference attendees followed me around campus like the pied piper, as I played a dimbuk and sang the verse, with the crowd joining in on the chorus.

Given my personal history with this song, it grabbed me as being perfect for “Conformity.” I wrote it with the English refrain, I wanted the cohesion of community/But the price was conformity, followed by a punk rock rendition of “Eli Eli Lama”– which, come to think of it now, has a perfect Hebrew chorus for the song, with the English translation of, “My G-d, My G-d, why?”

Writing the song turned out to be pivotal.

After a lifetime of bouncing around from Jewish community to Jewish community, never finding my place, I no longer had to. Instantaneously, my band was transformed into a mobile synagogue and burgeoning community – a place where I could create the Jewish world I so desperately longed for. After decades of transmitting Iraqi Jewish heritage exactly as it had been transmitted to me by my father, who had received it from his father, and on through the generations back, I was putting my own unique, and decidedly female, stamp on the tradition.

From then on, I began fusing original alternative and punk rock, with lyrics about healing from personal and collective trauma, with the Iraqi sh’bahoth whose themes were on topic. “Cancer Is My Engine,” for example, tells my story of healing from cancer through music and incorporates my favorite Iraqi High Holy Day prayer, which affirms the ultimate healing power of G-d; “I Love My JewFro” is a Jewish body-positive revolt that incorporates the Iraqi song for the Hanukkah uprising; and “The Mighty 12” rails against the insidious nature of the sex industry, while belting out a Judeo-Arabic passage about slavery, from the Iraqi Passover h’gadahxiv.

A few years later, I additionally launched Shaddai Chants – a vocals and piano duo with a New Age take on Iraqi Jewish sacred music, for use in meditation, yoga, massage, sacred dance practice, and sleep. The debut album, SHADDAI, includes songs that instantaneously soothed me when I was a little girl.

At first, it felt uncomfortable to create my own blends, in particular, with Iraqis in Pajamas – given the punk rock genre and radical lyrics. Was I allowed, did I have permission? Growing up as, and devoted to being, a religious Jew, my orientation was to find precedent somewhere in our 4,000 year old tradition. “But what if I am the precedent?” I wondered decades ago, as I grappled with the inconsistencies and hypocrisies I experienced growing up, and as I envisioned new paradigms and practices for observing my ancient traditions.

At some point, also decades ago, I became willing not only to “sing a new song” (phrase from Iraqi Purim sh’bahoth) within the parameters of traditional Judaism, but also to step outside those parameters entirely. I was not, however, comfortable with that stance. I wanted Judaism – in particular, Iraqi Jewish life and lore – to shape-shift with me, harmoniously and in concert, just as I wanted my family to heal, grow, and blossom with me. I was not a rebel, and I had no intention of leaving anyone or anything. Boldly following the threads of my soul’s freedom, truth, authenticity, purity, integrity, and wholeness, however, led me to a place of spiritual and cultural homelessness, as well as alienation from my family and community, while simultaneously leading me to a glorious awakening and to the manifestation of my deepest essence.

I referred to the phenomenon as “crashing waves.”

At a Passover sederxv a decade ago, the hosting rabbi asked everyone at the table how we conceptualized freedom. “There are two layers for me,” I replied. “There is the freedom where we allow ourselves to act in accordance with our beliefs, and there is the freedom where we stop judging ourselves by the paradigms that we have rejected, so as to act in accordance with our beliefs.”

It has taken me decades to step into the second layer of freedom.

Na’aseh we’nishmaxvi we will do, then we will listen – is one of the core tenets of Judaism. Jews do not wait to feel spiritual before praying. We pray, and that act of praying opens the gates to our spirituality. Similarly, I did not wait until I felt ready – or more to the point, worthy – to become a professional musician, to blend Iraqi Jewish prayers with original punk rock, or to sing openly about topics that fester in the darkness of our community, behind closed doors. I made a decision to become a musician and put this unique stamp on my heritage, despite my fear and discomfort. And through this act, I have been stepping into my skin – not only as an artist, boldly expressing my soul, but as an active co-creator of Iraqi Jewish history and heritage, thought and practice.

And that, I came to realize somewhere along the process of doing it, is ironically about as Jewish as it gets.

I encapsulated this realization in a poem, “The One who Wrestles with G-d,” after a few experiences that put the finishing touches on my mind finally catching up with my soul and heart. After decades of agitation and struggle, I felt peace and alignment, no longer desperate to fling myself at the walls of the orthodox Jewish world, Mizrahiand otherwise, tryingtryingtryingtrying to make it work somehow – the proverbial square peg attempting to fit in the round hole. I finally experienced a sense of deep acceptance, fully embracing and embodying who I am, who G-d made me to be.

You construct

The tenets of your religion

In such a way

That the women

Are but empty vessels

Channels for carrying out

Your will and vision

Which you package

As being integral

To our own spiritual mission

So that we succumb submit

Embody and enforce

Your war of attrition

Against us

On every level

In this dimension

An empty vessel

Is de facto

And by definition

The blueprint of rape

Which I have come to understand

Lies at the bedrock

Of your ideas belief systems and laws

In the creation of which

We were glaringly absent

Meaning that there is no reconciliation

Between the purity integrity wholeness and harmony

Of my soul heart mind and Body

And your system of authority

To which I used to bow willingly

With devoted fervency

Because it was presented to me

In the marketing language of Love

And the greatest spiritual beauty

That exists

I have come to understand

That I am once again

The captain of my own ship

In these turbulent waters

The most competent and capable

The only one in fact

Who can steer through

Yet I am plagued with

Nagging self-doubt

The glaring question

WHO AM I

To stand here

Never mind steer

Because I was raised in seeped in

A system

Where I was inherently and perpetually

Uncomfortable in my own skin

So that feeling right

Was always wrong

And so I am confused

These turbulent waters

Raging inside my head

Who am I who am I who am I

Yet who are you

Self-appointed manager

Of my relationship with G-d

Self-selected interceptor

By definition

Of this religion

A Blasphemer

Because the purest Jewish essence

Is that there is no interference

In my direct connection

With the Divine

And I find furthermore

That it is in all this struggling

And wading

Through self-recrimination

And still being willing

To challenge and question

And walk steadfastly through

The ocean of discomfort

That I am in fact

Neither a heretic nor a failure

But rather

The daughter of my ancestor

Yisra-El

The one who wrestles with G-d

I feel a flow now, like a river that has been set free, permitting myself to connect with the many other Jews in this place and on this path – to stop dismissing as “less valid” the circles that are not orthodox, while simultaneously rejecting orthodoxy and yet clamoring to be part of orthodox life.

“Your band serves as a beacon for others,” my boyfriend said a while back. But programming runs deep, and it has taken a tremendous amount of intensive spiritual work to allow myself to Be that Light.

My mother once said that if we still had the SanHedrinxviithe Jewish court, which reviewed contemporary cases through the lens of ancient law, much like the Supreme Court reviews modern disputes through the lens of the Constitution – religious Judaism would look much different today. Case in point: Many generations ago, when their father died, two sisters challenged the inheritance law, by which money and property were only handed down to sons. The young women took their dispute to the SanHedrin and won – not only receiving their father’s inheritance, but setting precedent.

During my teen years, I contemplated how the oral Torah was supposed to be just that: oral. We were not allowed to study the written Torah on its own, without the insight and understanding of the companion oral guide. Perhaps, I mused, G-d knew that humans would only have a certain capacity of understanding each generation, meaning that we needed the fluidity of oral law, so that Judaism could evolve with our consciousness.

Years later, I discovered that Maimonides – Judaism’s premier scholar of all time – had said the same thing. Case closed. As a result of unrelenting persecution worldwide, however, the oral Torah was written down, and the SanHedrin disbanded. And so Judaism became stagnant. Stuck. So perhaps the struggle is not so much that of me being out of alignment with traditional Judaism, as much as it is that of traditional Judaism being out of alignment with itself.

Regardless, and ironically, after decades of contemplating and grappling finally led to a sense of ease and peace, I discovered – through interviewing A-Wa for this book – that what I am doing is perhaps not all that radical, after all: “Jewish women in Yemen had a cultural and spiritual world of their own, as they were not allowed to attend the religious ceremonies of the men at the synagogue,” said Tair Haim, the band’s founder. “They were also illiterate, so they created the folklore, secular folk songs and folk tales, in the local Yemeni Arabic language, and passed it down as an oral tradition from generation to generation.

“It is a very flexible material that allows every woman an outlet for her feelings towards men and society,” Haim continued. “Over the years, each woman changed some of the melodies and added new verses, according to her time and personal story, and so the folklore was created, changed and rolled over the years, until the Yemenite Jews immigrated to Israel in the late 1940s and began the process of recording and preserving these materials.”

Wow. Just…wow.

My songs are my living prayers. When I belt them out, I come into total alignment – not only with my soul, heart, body, and mind, but also with my lineage and with the Divine. No wonder the nodules started shrinking when I returned to my music. My voice is the vibration that heals my wounds, and for all I know, on the metaphysical plane, heals the wounds of those who came before me, through my conscious intention. From where I stand now, I realize that my songs not only incorporate sh’bahoth, but are in themselves sh’bahoth – my prayers, torn from the pages of my journal, belted from the depths of my heart. Not only my supplications, but my invocations.

Perhaps, I have mused since my interview with Haim, my songs are not just my personal prayers, but are also communal prayers in development. Perhaps, like the Jewish women in Yemen, what I have been doing all along is creating new liturgy, which – just like the liturgy passed down through the men in my family – can be passed down through the generations after me. Perhaps the reason I have felt uncomfortable, irreverent, even teetering on blasphemy, is because I am not a man, yet amidst a man’s religion, so nobody handed me the baton and said, “Here, do this.”

But, as I asked in the question I whispered to myself so long ago: What if I am the precedent? What if I am a co-creator in a living, breathing Judaism? Is that not the opposite of profane? Is that not downright holy?

As I further chewed on Haim’s insights, I recalled that back in my days as a Jewish multicultural educator, I collaborated with Galia Hacco, an Indian-Israeli woman who taught me about the body of Jewish songs unique to the women of Kerala. I remember being surprised to discover that there was a distinct Jewish women’s body of sacred music. Somehow, in the two decades since, I forgot. Regardless, I still may not have connected the dots to the music I was creating with my band, because rather than singing songs as they were passed down for generations, I was putting my own unique stamp on them – similar to what it seems Jewish women were doing in Yemen, over the generations.

I also was well aware of international sensation Ofra Haza, the trailblazing Yemenite-Israeli musician who combined traditional Jewish prayers from Yemen with global electronica music and original lyrics. I actually tried connecting with her for years, well before the internet, and ultimately dive-bombed a stage during intermission at one of her performances, as security pounded down the aisle, in hot pursuit. I got to meet her then, backstage, and talk to her about my Jewish multicultural work – which was one of the biggest thrills of my life, being that she was my first role model.

Still, my music felt different than hers. She wrote love songs. I howled about gender violence and the ravages of mental illness. My music was edgy, uppity, calling everything into question, yelling, demanding, making people cry, making people think, and yes making people laugh, but also making people feel distinctly uncomfortable.

In retrospect, I understand those exact qualities about my music are what make it so very Jewish – in theory, at least. Within the body of traditional Jewish questioning and challenging, there is a dogma, a way of doing things and not doing things. And as a devoted daughter of this tradition, as much of an independent thinker as I am, I struggled with allowing myself to ask questions about why we only ask certain questions – which put me squarely outside the box of being Jewishly legitimate or acceptable, especially as a female.

With this tension in mind, I asked Haim how her original musical composition and public performance either continues, or challenges, the woman’s role – in her family and community, both historically and today. “By performing Yemenite folk songs and updating them according to our time, we are continuing this beautiful tradition in our own way,” she responded. “In A-WA, we also write original music in the spirit of Yemenite women’s poetry: we use the original dialect spoken by our grandparents; we use traditional Yemenite rhythms; and we write very feminine and poetic lyrics and melodies that deal with social matters and protest and daily life issues, like love, hope and disappointment.”

Where else have Jewish women created, and are Jewish women creating, our own unique body of sacred Jewish music – perhaps also integrating commentary on our lives or the world around us? How has the collective devaluation of global Jewish history, heritage, and religious practice – from Africa, the Middle East, Central, East, and South Asia, Southern Europe, and Central and South America – cheated us of knowledge with the potential to radically transform our understanding and practice of Jewish life, for women in particular, both today and throughout history (herstory)?

When I began compiling this anthology back in 1992, all the women I knew from North African and Middle Eastern Jewish heritage – with the exception of my sister – were those who followed the prescribed women’s role with impunity. They were perfectly content being relegated to the back of the synagogue, behind a wall, routinely uneducated and silenced when it came to liturgical leadership, among other matters. If I was more or less the only female who had a problem with the way things were done, did I have the right to challenge that way, to demand another way?

It was through the defiant act of compiling this anthology, despite that self-doubt, searching for women like me – a mighty task, in those pre-internet days – that I discovered yes, there were other women like me out there. We simply were neither assembled nor organized, plus we were flung clear across the globe. This anthology became a locus, a watering hole, for Mizrahiand Sephardiwomen challenging the status quo – not abandoning ship, not throwing out the baby with the bathwater, but redefining our place, and asserting a new one, in our 4,000-year-old heritage.

I was 22 years old when I started the process of compiling this book. I have more than doubled that lifetime in between, and in those years, have come to understand how the world is rife with contradiction and paradox. Stepping into my music has been a process of allowing myself to fully heed the calling of my soul. And yet, at the same time, I have been heeding that call since I was a little girl – questioning, challenging, defying, and demanding, no matter the circumstance, no matter the risk.

The pivotal scene in the “Cancer Is My Engine” music video is where I leap off a cliff, with no safety net underneath – a move I have done over and over again, both literally and metaphorically, throughout my life. And yet, as I look back, I recognize a theme of not feeling allowed to do anything I was doing, and as a result, feeling perpetually haunted by anything from self-doubt to self-hatred, while doing that thing anyhow.

My boyfriend recently told me that one of the things he loves about me is how I walk boldly into realms I am afraid to walk into. “That’s the definition of courage,” he said. “It’s not the absence of fear. It’s being afraid and doing it anyhow.”

Na’aseh we’nishma: Through doing, we become.

Growing up as a child in San Francisco, the task assigned to me, whether explicitly or implicitly, was to single-handedly resurrect traditional Iraqi Jewish life – clearly, an impossibility. Enthusiastic, determined, and a straight-A student by nature, as well as fierce in my love for my family, community, and heritage, I nonetheless set about completing the assignment to perfection.

The thing is – I realize, looking back – even as I went about preserving and transmitting my heritage exactly as it had been passed down through the generations, I was changing it, leaving my mark on it, through that very process:

First, I was a woman, and a very young one at that. Not only was I operating in the public sphere, which was not the traditional woman’s place, and not only was I moreover in a position of leadership in that sphere, which was not the traditional woman’s role, but I was a pioneer in that sphere – leading the leaders and educating the educators, including powerful men. Similarly, every service I ever led in the Mizrahi/Sephardiheritage – despite it being a by-the-book traditional service – was de facto egalitarian, and therefore, also something that had never been done before, even if there was nothing otherwise revolutionary about it.

Second, I was not simply handing my own tradition down to the next generation, as countless adults had done to countless children throughout the ages. Instead, I was coalescing sidelined Jewish traditions from around the world, connecting the dots between them, strategically communicating about them in new language that resonated with Western audiences, and both designing and implementing a methodical action plan for overhauling the paradigm of American Jewish life – in the interest of making it reflective and inclusive of global Jewry. Through this process, I realize looking back, I changed the traditions even as I preserved them. A simple example is the hybrid Passover sederI designed and facilitated for kids, drawing from the most playful elements of sedersfrom African and Middle Eastern countries. That sedernever existed before.

So what is different now, and why has it felt so not-allowed for me to do?

Before, the shape-shifting was in the name of preserving what was – even as I stepped out of the female role to facilitate that preservation, and even as I created innovative delivery mechanisms. I was a conduit for transmission, but even in the process of creation, I was neither the creator nor the owner. I was, instead, the mouthpiece, the spokesperson, the community liaison, the ambassador, the public relations manager. I was repackaging and repurposing a well-established body of tradition. I was still – even while in positions of leadership, even while doing revolutionary work – the good little girl and the obedient Jew.

As an artist, however, I am fully in charge. The music is mine, and by virtue of how I draw elements of my heritage into my music as I see fit, my heritage also is mine, now, in a way it never was before. I own it. I define it. I get to pull from it, wrap myself in it, kick against it, tear it into shreds, reshape it, and re-envision it entirely. Moreover, I get to say whatever the f*** I want, about any topic that is on my mind. I get to vocalize my Truth in spades, without permission and without apology.

As the singer, songwriter, bass player, and band leader for Iraqis in Pajamas, in other words, I am the all-powerful Creator, the single and solitary Authority on all matters. And that is some kind of freedom and power. It is the kind that, in Judaism, has been reserved for Man and G-d, the latter of whom, in turn, traditionally has been envisioned as male. Which more or less explains my struggle with feelings of profanity or outright blasphemy: Who am I, a girl, a woman, to create like this?

“As women, we have a history of oppression in society,” Haim contemplated in our interview, “I hope that [A-Wa’s] music will help more and more women wake up to their true power and express their honest feelings and creations unapologetically, and let their unique voice be heard in every opportunity.”

Word.

Last year, when I was asked to present at Limmud – a national conference where Jewish leaders facilitate programs based on their bodies of work – I signed up to offer a program on healing, transformation, and wholeness through music, prayer, and storytelling. Initially, I conceptualized the program in a very personal way – about how, for me, these three forms of self-expression have been a tool of alchemy and portal to wellness. Being that I was presenting at a Jewish conference, however, I reflected on the connections between my own experience and that of the Jewish people. In doing so, I once again was struck by how very Jewish I am, even as I go off-script and forge my own path – or perhaps, more to the point, because of the way I go off-script and forge my own path.

My music incorporates ancient prayer and personal storytelling, boldly confronts personal and collective trauma, and explores how to cultivate joy, beauty, intimacy, and resilience from the brokenness of our lives and our world. What are the Jewish holiday celebrations, if not just that?

Millennia ago in Persia, for example, a prince named Haman attempted to enforce genocide against the Jewish people throughout the Persian Empire – which, back then, was a sizable chunk of the world, meaning that masses of Jews were in danger of perishing. Similarly, millennia ago in Egypt, Jews were subject to a host of traumas during a compact period of time: slavery, poverty, murder of firstborn sons, national exile, and a generation of homelessness. Today around the world, however, Jews not only recount these and other collective traumatic events – already a far cry from sweeping them under the rug and pretending they never happened – but we downright rejoice in them. Music, prayer, and storytelling (augmented by special foods and rituals) effectively have enabled the Jewish people to recycle the very energy of trauma into a powerful force for restoring ourselves to wholeness.

If we as a people are so open about the dark side of life; and if we have millennia of wisdom teaching us that through the act of shining light on that darkness, we transmute the harm into the healing, the illness into the medicine, the profane into the holy…why does the Jewish community expect us as individuals to stay silent about the darkness we encounter within the Jewish world? Why do Jewish communities routinely sidestep issues of discrimination, violence, or illness – effectively allowing those issues to fester, and in doing so, amplifying their destructive impact? Why are the truth-seekers and truth-speakers often treated as disruptive or divisive problem-causers, instead of hallowed agents of sacred change?

I still remember an exchange with one of my family members, when I was a child. I had just expressed the way this person’s behavior hurt me. Theyxviii responded by saying, “You may not love me, but you have to respect me.” Huh? I was utterly baffled. Mustering the courage to say what hurt me was, in fact, a deep expression of love and respect – for them, for myself, and for our relationship. It was specifically because I cared, and because I assumed they cared, that I risked sharing from my heart.

When I have loved fiercely, devotedly – be it an individual, like a family member, or a collective whole, like the Jewish community – I have dived into the fray. I have made the effort, done the work, to clean things up. I willingly have grappled, struggled, allowed things to get messy and highly uncomfortable. I have done whatever it took, even gone 100% of the way – to compensate for the weaknesses and limitations of an individual or system – with the invocation that through the contribution of my efforts, they would receive the clarity, encouragement, strength, and resources they needed to rise up. I have not remained silent. I have not let things fester. I have not just walked away and let the person or people I love face the fallout of the wreckage they created.

Hinenixix.

Here I am – present, willing, ready. This is love. This is faith. And this is my music.

While Iraqis in Pajamas musicmay be more radical and in-your-face than that of A-Wa, I feel a deep resonance with A-Wa’s creative process and positioning, which have helped reflect back my own: “I see myself as a storyteller and as someone who brings people together, and I love spreading hope and love through powerful messages,” Haim shared during our interview. “When I create music, I’m as a tool that’s connected to the divine creation and G-d. All the melodies and lyrics are coming from a higher place through me and express my unique voice. In a way, they also [express] the voices of my ancestors.

“The style has always a Yemenite flavor, inspired by my Yemenite heritage,” she continued, “but it also incorporates elements of Western music I grew up on, such as hip hop beats, jazz harmonies and more. That’s how our music in A-WA creates a bridge between generations, between the old and the new, and connects the Eastern and Western cultures.”

I recently watched a show where a character reveals that she finds out what she has to say, through the process of writing. I, too, discover who I am, what I think, and why, through the process of writing. It is, to me, a powerful form of medicine, just like my music – with an instantaneous and transformational impact. True to form, it has been through the process of interviewing Haim and writing this introduction, that I have crystalized and synthesized the themes with which I have grappled throughout my life, in particular, in the thirty years since compiling, and twenty years since publishing, the first edition of this anthology.

My key transformation, I realize, can be summarized using the camel imagery from Lital Levy’s essay, “How the Camel Found Its Wings,” which also inspired the title for this book: As a Jewish multicultural educator, I was busy attempting to reassemble the traditional camel – a mission that kept me locked in constant struggle, no matter how powerful my strides and exceptional my accomplishments. As a musician, however, I am allowing the camel to evolve into something new – a living, breathing, and glorious Being with wings.

Not only that, but I am saddling up and mounting my camel now, setting my sights toward the stars, and taking flight.

Loolwa Khazzoom
Seattle, WA
24 T’beth 5782
xx

i Sh’bahoth: Iraqi Jewish songs of praise, sung on sh’bath, the Jewish sabbath (Friday sundown to Saturday sunset) and on Jewish holy days throughout the year.

ii Sephardi: Descended from the Spanish-Portuguese Jewish community, which was expelled from Spain in 1492. The traditions of this community share numerous commonalities with the traditions of the Mizrahi community (Jews indigenous to the Middle East and North Africa). The Seattle Sephardi community is predominantly from Turkey and Greece, two of the countries where Sephardi Jews had a strong presence. See 2003 introduction for details on the Sephardi community’s history.

iii Sh’bath: Jewish sabbath, from Friday sundown to Saturday sunset.

iv Mizrahi: indigenous Middle Eastern and North African Jewish. See 2003 introduction for details on the Mizrahi community’s history.

v Slihoth: Prayers of repentance and supplication, chanted during the High Holy Days, which fall sometime around September or October, on the Christian calendar.

vi Torah: The Jewish Bible

vii Judeo-Arabic: Language combining Hebrew and Arabic, spoken by Jews indigenous to the Middle East and North Africa, with a unique dialect for each community, incorporating the local Arabic of that region. My name is in the Iraqi dialect of Judeo-Arabic.

viii Tshuba: Literally means “return,” and refers to the practice of repenting, healing, and transforming through directly facing and repairing a transgression, by doing the opposite action when faced with the same situation.

ix Simhath Torah: Holy day celebrating when the people of Israel received the Jewish Bible – which tradition teaches happened while wandering in the Sinai desert, following a period of slavery in Egypt.

x Toroth: Plural for Torah, the Jewish Bible

xi Teba: Platform in the center of the men’s section in a traditional Middle Eastern and North African synagogue, where the rabbi and cantor lead the congregation

xii Haqafoth: Practice of circling around the teba with toroth on Simhath Torah, singing traditional songs for the holy day, prior to mounting the teba, scrolling each Torah back to the beginning, and reading from it

xiiiDimbuk: Traditional Middle Eastern drum, also known as dumbek and darbouka

xiv H‘gadah: Sacred text read each Passover, recounting the story of Exodus

xv Seder: The ritual accompanying the retelling of Exodus, including special foods and practices

xvi Na’aseh we’nishma: Judaism teaches that G-d went to all the nations, asking if they wanted the Torah, and that each nation wanted to know what was in it, before deciding whether to take it on – prompting G-d to move on to the next nation. When G-d came to the nation of Israel, they replied, “We will do, then we will listen,” which is why G-d chose the nation of Israel to receive the Torah, and which is why the nation of Israel became known as “the chosen people.”

xvii SanHedrin: Supreme council and tribunal, with 71 members, headed by a High Priest and having religious, civil, and criminal jurisdiction

xviii In this instance, “they” is a gesture of protecting anonymity, not a reflection of gender identification.

xix Hineni: “Here I am,” in the spiritual sense: present and ready. The word refers to what Abraham responds, when G-d calls on him.

xx T’beth: 10th month on the Jewish calendar, counting from the month of Nisan. As I am writing this at the turn of the Christian new year (December 28, 2021), it is on my mind to note that the Christian calendar dominates the world, and all peoples follow it in order to be able to function. However, there are numerous calendars and new years. Why are they all qualified – Jewish new year, Persian new year, Chinese new year – but the Christian new year is simply known as “New Years”?