Who Are the Jews, and Where Do We Come From?

In the 2003 introduction for my book (available in my store), The Flying Camel: Essays on Identity by Women of North African and Middle Eastern Jewish Heritage – which, as far as I am aware, is the first anthology about Jews of color – I offer a crash course on who Jews are and where we come from. Below is an excerpt from the introduction. The 2022 edition of this book was released on January 14 and is available for book clubs and university curricula, along with companion multimedia programs featuring original music, poetry, readings, and faciltiated conversations on topics directly related to the anthology. The 2022 edition features a comprehensive study guide for Jewish Studies, Middle Eastern Studies, and Gender Studies, along with new features including an interview with celebrity Yemenite-Israeli group A-Wa. For more information, or to book a program, email khazzoom [at] khazzoom [dot] com.

The world has heard little or nothing about Jewish women from North Africa and the Middle East. For starters, few people know our names — Mizrahiot and Sepharadiot. A veil of invisibility obscures our history (herstory) as well.

Mizrahiot are those whose foremothers lived in North Africa and the Middle East since Sarah, the Jewish matriarch, emerged from Mesopotamia (pre-Babylonian Empire) 4,000 years ago, crossing the Euphrates River into the Promised Land to the west. Her Jewish descendants lived on this land, first as the tribal nation of Israel and then as the ancient kingdom of Israel, over a period of about 1,500 years. In 722 BCE, the Assyrians conquered Northern Israel, using tactics that forced the Israelites to flee and scatter throughout the region.

In 586 BCE, the Babylonian Empire (ancient Iraq) conquered Yehuda (Judah), the southern region of ancient Israel. Babylonians occupied the land and exiled the Yehudim (Jews), as captives into Babylon. Some fity years later, the Persian Empire (ancient Iran) conquered the Babylonian Empire and allowed the Jews to return home to the land of Israel.

Though offered freedom under Persian rule, most Jews were daunted by the task of rebuilding a society that lay in ruins, and remained in Babylon. Over the next millennia, they either stayed where they were or migrated to neighboring lands in the region (including the land of Israel, which centuries later the Romans renamed Palestina), or countries in Central and East Asia.

Sepharadiot are women descending from the line of Jews who chose to return and rebuild their homeland after the Persian Empire conquered the Babylonian Empire. About half a millennium later, the Roman Empire conquered ancient Israel for the second time, massacring most of the nation and taking the bulk of the remainder as slaves to Rome. Once the Roman Empire crumbled, descendants of these captives migrated throughout the European continent. Many settled in Spain (Sepharad) and Portugal, where they thrived until the Spanish Inquisition and expulsion of 1492 and the Portuguese Inquisition and expulsion shortly thereater.

During these periods, the Christian governments either burned Jews alive, forcibly converted them to Christianity, or forced them out of the country. Jews who fled settled predominantly throughout the Mediterranean regions of the Ottoman (Turkish) Empire, as well as Central and South America. The Sepharadiot who fled to North African and Middle Eastern lands merged with the Mizrahiot, Jewish women whose families had been living there for thousands of years.

In the early twentieth century, severe violence against Jews forced communities throughout the region to flee once again, arriving as refugees predominantly in Israel, France, the United Kingdom, and the Americas. In Israel, North African and Middle Eastern Jews were the majority of the Jewish population for decades, with numbers as high as 70 percent, until the mass Russian immigration of the 1990s. We are now half of the Jewish population. Throughout the rest of the world, we have a strong presence in metropolitan areas — Paris, Brooklyn, Montreal, London, Mexico City, and Los Angeles.

From these diverse communities across the globe, seventeen courageous Mizrahiot and Sepharadiot have stepped forth from the shadows, daring to speak out. They possess the refreshing viewpoint of those on the edge, insiders and outsiders to many diferent worlds. They refuse to be defined as “other” or “less than” by any of the communities to which they belong. Their vivid, gripping narratives sweep readers into a journey of discovery, unveiling the rich, multicolored texture of identities commonly portrayed as one-dimensional or black and white.

Contact me

Sign up for my newsletter

Contact Me