Absence in Jewish, Women’s, and Middle Eastern Studies Courses
With rare exception, indigenous MIddle Eastern Jewish history, heritage, and socio-political concerns are glaringly absent in Jewish, women’s, and MIddle Eastern Studies courses – this despite the growing consciousness about intersectionality, and despite the fact that indigenous Middle Eastern Jews are a critical mass of Jewish communities in metropolitan areas worldwide, as well as half the Jewish population in Israel.
Erasure in Jewish Theological Schools and Divinity Programs
Across the spectrum of Jewish denominations, students are exclusively taught the history and heritage of Jews from Central and Eastern Europe, with rare exception. At best, indigenous Middle Eastern Jewish heritage is treated as a token, optional, and extracurricular diversion from “real” or “normal” Judaism, despite these facts:
- Judaism originated in the Middle East.
- The Hebrew language and central Jewish texts all hail from the Middle East.
- Jewish holidays revolve around a Middle Eastern consciousness and rhythm.
- Middle Eastern Jewish communities predate Central and Eastern European Jewish communities by as much as 3,500 years.
Prohibition of Women’s Enrollment
The first woman rabbi worldwide was Asenath Barzani from Kurdistan, in the 1600s. Today, however, the only way for prospective rabbis and cantors to learn the traditions of indigenous Middle Eastern Jews is to enroll in the segregated Jewish learning institutes of those communities – which, without exception, are orthodox and prohibit the enrollment of women.
For this reason, the new wave of women rabbis from Middle Eastern heritage have been forced to attend seminaries where Middle Eastern traditions and tropes are absent in the curriculum – leaving these women whitewashed of their ancestral heritage, only able to lead in the Central and Eastern European Jewish tradition. See this Haddassah magazine cover story, Letter from Bima, for a more detailed discussion of this matter.
Ignorance of Authentic Hebrew
With rare exception, the Middle Eastern pronunciation of Hebrew has been lost since the mass Jewish exile from throughout the Middle East in 1950. This pronunciation has been subsumed by the Central and Eastern European pronunciation – despite these facts:
- Hebrew is a Semitic language, which originated in the Middle East.
- Middle Eastern pronunciation of Hebrew reflects the original sounds of the Hebrew language.
- Middle Eastern Jews were able to continue praying in Hebrew with the original sounds, even when they did not speak the language on a daily basis, because they spoke Semitic languages in their day-to-day lives – with pronunciations that were compatible with the original pronunciation of Hebrew.
- Central and Eastern European Jews spoke Slavic and Germanic languages on a daily basis, whose sounds were incompatible with numerous Semitic sounds. As a result, over the generations, this Jewish community lost the ability to pronounce nine distinct sounds – such as the ayin, qouf, and sadiq.
- What actually is a deficit has been taught as an asset: In Jewish schools worldwide, Central and Eastern European pronunciation of Hebrew has been taught as the “correct” way to pronounce Hebrew. Teachers routinely advise students that there are “double letters” in the language, which is an inaccurate assertion. Those letters are simply lost pronunciations.
- There have been numerous academic and socio-political consequences of this ignorance:
- Jewish students unnecessarily have struggled with proper Hebrew spelling, because it’s impossible to distinguish between letters like alef and ayin, when educators fail to teach the distinct pronunciations.
- For decades in Israel, Middle Eastern Jews who preserved the correct pronunciation of Hebrew were treated as uneducated. Among the chain reaction of consequences, they faced discrimination when applying for jobs – effectively punished for preserving the authentic pronunciation of the country’s official language.
- Eurocentric thinking, about the Jewish language and otherwise, whitewashed the Middle Eastern origins of the Jewish people. In doing so, it erased the history of persecution that led Jews to Central and Eastern Europe, where the community endured numerous losses that ultimately led to a schizophrenic relationship with the Middle Eastern origins, sounds, and rhythms of the Jewish people.
Register for Iraqi High Holiday Hits
Learn the classic Iraqi prayers for Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur, in the authentic Iraqi pronunciation. The event is led by a woman (me!), in an egalitarian and all-inclusive environment. No musical talent or knowledge of Hebrew, Judaism, or Middle East culture is needed to participate fully, and people of all religious and ethnic backgrounds, as well as sexual and gender identities, are welcome. Register here.
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