This Simhath Torah, Let’s Lift Our Voices with the Women of the Middle East

When I was 12, the men of my Middle Eastern synagogue ordered me to sit behind the wall in the back and to be silent. Women were inherently sexual and seductive, we were taught, and therefore had to be shut out and shut up – you know, so that all those holy men in the front could focus on their prayers. A decade later, I became the first woman in history (herstory) to lead egalitarian Middle Eastern Jewish prayer services. So much for keeping quiet.

I was focused on praying to the Divine, so I figured that if the men’s minds were elsewhere, they could sit in the back and wear earplugs. I was not the problem. They were.

Connecting the Dots to Jina Mahsa Amini

A week ago in Iran, the so-called Modesty Police brutally beat to death a 22 year old Kurdish woman – Jina Mahsa Amini – because they decided that her hijab, the full-body covering, was not properly positioned over her head, presumably leaving some stray hairs showing. And because beating a woman to death is apparently far more modest and holy than exposing stray hairs.

Throughout the MIddle East, over the millenia, the patriarchal paradigm has taught that women’s hair, voice, and clothing must be kept under control at all times. This paradigm has played out elsewhere in the world, of course, in different ways and to different degrees. The central belief throughout has been that something is inherently wrong with women, who are not human beings in our own right, but rather, foils to men, in the screenplay of life. Women’s freedom, independence, ability, power, curiosity, dreams, wellness, happiness…all have been seen as inconveniences at best, something that can – and should – be sacrificed in deference to men, at any time, for any reason, at the altar of the patriarchal order.

Willingness to Risk and Change

I have observed in life that it often takes a major crisis to lead to a profound shift. It’s like people need to be pushed to the breaking point, before the risk and sacrifice of change are worth it. As the brave women of Iran, supported by the brave men of Iran, have risen up and put their lives on the line to shout, “Enough!” they have been applauded by women and men worldwide, who yearn for a new paradigm, where we are all safe, free, and supported in reaching our full potential in life.

Against this backdrop, over 30 years since I led those first egalitarian Middle Eastern Jewish prayers, there are still scant few options for learning from or praying with Middle Eastern Jewish women. Progressive individiuals from the Middle Eastern Jewish community routinely do a schitzophrenic dance – forced to choose between a) hearing the prayers of our ancestors, in an environment where women are invisible and mute, and may therefore feel suffocated, or b) immersing ourselves in a progressive Jewish environment where, yes, the women are visible and audible, but Middle Eastern Jewish existence, never mind traditions, are not.

Creating Option C

Neither of these options are acceptable, and at the end of the day, neither option serves either community. For these reasons, I have created option C: online programs where I, an Iraqi-American woman, teach indigenous Middle Eastern Jewish heritage, and where people from all backgrounds are welcome – no matter what your religion, ethnicity, nationality, sexual orientation, gender identity, political leanings, or exposure to Judaism, Hebrew, or Middle East culture.

To ensure inclusivity and full participation, I offer background information and context, create customized prayer books with transliterated texts, and methodically break down the Eastern chants in a way that is accessible to Western ears and to those who are not musically talented. I additionally offer these events as an auxiliary to the Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion work being done in the Jewish community and beyond – offering expert programming without the effort or expenses of program development.

Don’t Drop the Torah!

My upcoming event, “Don’t Drop the Torah!” is a lively two-hour program that teaches Middle Eastern drumming and ululating, along with the energetic Simhath Torah songs from Iraq – which are shared by numerous African, Asian (including West), Latin American, and Southern European Jewish communities. Register by October 2, to receive the Early Bird discount of 40% off. And if you are part of an organization, become a program affiliate, and get a special registration link – offering your organization 20% of ticket sales from that link (a great fundraising opportunity!) or, alternately, giving your members 20% off the ticket price.

Support the Iranian Uprising!

Through the end of September, pay what you want for the digital copy of my book, The Flying Camel: Essays on Identity by Women of North African and Middle Eastern Jewish Heritage, and 100% of the sales will go to United For Iran – which supports activists and journalists, and advocates for women, children, and civil rights, in Iran.

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