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Neglecting My Mizrachi Heritage

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I wasn’t always proud to be a Moroccan Jew. It took me well into my senior year of high school to receive my first Sfaradi and Edot HaMizrach (alternate styles of prayer) siddur, dedicated to my then recently deceased Safta (grandmother) Chana, Zchuta Yagen Alenu (her merit should protect us). When I opened the brown faux leather cover, revealing the names of my Saba (grandfather) Yaakov and Safta Chana printed on the first page, I fell in love.
Growing up in the middle class suburbs of San Diego, California, I only ever experienced a connection to my Mizrachi heritage during the summer, when my family would travel to Israel to visit the family - my six sets of aunts and uncles (that’s right - 12 total) and their countless children, running tirelessly through the one grassy park in Atlit, chasing a soccer ball.
My brothers and I showed them the secrets of online gaming in an attempt to excuse ourselves from the sport; thanks to our Ashkenazi (Eastern European) genes from our Dad’s side, we all had asthma and weren’t necessarily the active type. And with us coming for our semi-annual summer pilgrimage from the glamorous West Coast - AMERICA - we weren’t the ones feeling like we had to prove our worth.
The week would essentially go the way of a week back home in San Diego, but with significantly more restaurant meals. We’d ride around Israel with our crew of brown boys, standing out with our Bar Mitzvah souvenir kippot clipped on as we attempted to graciously decline the invitations to participate in wrestling matches, soccer tournaments, and national park visits alike. As long as our Game Boys were flipped open, we had the ultimate escape, and we never had to wrestle with the questions – “Who are these people? How are we related to them? What do we truly have in common?”
Everything would change on Friday night, when the family gathered in the family village (Atlit) for a Shabbat dinner, preempted by a visit to the local Beit Knesset (synagogue). The synagogue (trigger warning: Ashkenormative language) was nostalgic for my generally secular Bitton family, as my grandfather, Zchuto Yagen Aleinu (his merit should protect us), had committed himself as the chazzan and lay leader there shortly upon arriving on the ship from Morocco in the early 1960s. The sense of belonging I had in that Beit Knesset always felt conditional. I felt that if my assertive, reassuring family weren’t surrounding me on all sides, I would disappear within myself completely.
Once the singing started, my discomfort would reach new heights as I struggled and failed to keep up with the frustratingly simple, intoxicatingly repetitive rhythms of the Moroccans. My brothers and I were known to the community as “Denise’s sons” – these effeminate, “religious” boys who wore kippot everywhere and put on tefillin every morning but couldn’t keep up with the most chiloni (secular) cousins in shul. When we stepped into that Beit Knesset, all bets were off. Our extensive Chabad day school education was rendered meaningless in the flood of foreign tunes and traditions.
When I had my Bar Mitzvah in that Beit Knesset, I read the entire Torah portion – with Chabad trope (notes). What are t’amim (musical notes for Torah reading)? Not Czech Ashkenazi like my father, not Moroccan Mizrachi like my mother – the Chabad tune. In spite of learning the importance of preserving it from Russian rabbis every day, the sad fact was that I didn’t even know my own heritage.
It took my grandmother’s passing away for me to start taking ownership of my Mizrachi identity. It took the dissolution of the eldest flesh and blood bond I had to Morocco for me to feel the aching desire to reconnect to it, to know in whatever way I could that land of deserts, poppy seed desserts and dwellings deserted during the dead of night.
Kamti b’ashmoret levakesh al avonai- I have awoken during the (night’s) watch to ask (forgiveness) for my sins.
These introductory words to Sfaradi Selichot (Jewish penitential prayers), words still foreign to me, couldn’t have served as a better introduction to my quest for knowledge of what I would have been, had my family stayed in their home.
Oh, what I would be, if I was the next chazzan in my “Israeli” family, rather than the eldest of “Denise’s sons” – foreign boys rooted to a culture only tentatively their own, maneuvering characters as they ran across the screen and not interested in doing the running ourselves?
I awoke during the night’s watch, during that increasingly foggy night that my mother fled to Israel in a desperate attempt to see Safta before she died. I awoke and I realized that despite receiving the Ben Torah award at my Yeshiva high school, I literally didn’t know the half of it.
And I asked forgiveness for my sins. I dedicated myself to exploring this vast heritage that had been overlooked during my American ba’al teshuva family upbringing and to recovering the only key to the last accessible chest of my family traditions – the chest whose lock hadn’t melted in the heat of the crematorium.
For a while, I felt guilt at leaving Ashkenazi (read: Chabad) customs, tunes and nusach (style of prayer) behind in my quest to meet my Moroccan grandfather. I knew that conventional Jewish knowledge dictated that I follow the customs of my father - Minhagei Ashkenaz (the customs of Jews from Eastern Europe).
But, despite his immense commitment to Jewish life, my paternal grandfather’s experiences in Auschwitz and Buchenwald had robbed him of a true connection with the customs of his own father, who was murdered in the gas chambers along with his wife, Zchutam Yagen Aleinu (their merit should protect us). And something in the way he used to dote on my Safta Chana made me realize that he saw new hope for his grandkids in her culture, hope where his hope had been fragmented and scattered like the falling shards of stained glass.
Today I take pride in trumpeting my Moroccan kriah (Torah reading) in supportive Chabad synagogues across California. Before resigning myself to a hearty bowl of cholent (a stew served on Shabbat and associated with Ashkenazi culture), I make sure I remember the home I never knew.
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