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View from the bookshelf: We must stop ignoring Israel’s Mizrahi writers

There is more than one Israeli story, says Ben Judah

    Poet Erez Bitton (Picture: Poetry Foundation)
    Poet Erez Bitton (Picture: Poetry Foundation)

    British Jews have long navigated Israel by way of novelists. Amos Oz taking them into the kibbutzim and the cramped kitchens of the Holocaust survivors. Etgar Keret introducing them to delusional bus drivers and dropouts in Tel Aviv. David Grossman taking them into the arms of the IDF at the moment you hand over your son to them. 

    Israeli novelists have become rabbi-like: connecting British Jews to the triumphs and tragedies they were not present at, but somewhere in Ilford or Edgware, as in 1967. Esteemed novelists are practically revered: a visit by Amos Oz, a pronouncement by David Grossman, now has more sitting on the floor at JW3 — and, it seems to me, often carries more moral weight for the secular — than anything coming out of a British yeshiva.

    But, in 2018, I think we should try to read a little less Amos Oz.

    Not because his Jerusalem alleyways and his snatches of Yiddish in My Michael are any less movingly strung. And certainly not because his tales in Touch The Water, Touch The Wind of a fumbling Polish professor who survives the Holocaust only to find himself herding sheep in the rocky Galilee is not a worthy story.

    It is just that these are not the only Israeli stories.

    As a secular new year resolution, British Jews should stop ignoring Israel’s Mizrahi writers. Just ask yourself this question: how many British Jews, the same ones with stacks of Oz, Grossman and sometimes even Bialik at home, can name a single Mizrahi novelist or Mizrahi poet?

    This chronic neglect is not just the fault of Jews as readers, but of Jews as educators. This leaves half of Israeli Jews outside of our Jewish imagination. You would never work it out just reading Amos Oz but the family stories of most Israelis are not Ashkenazi-Yiddish epics like A Tale of Love And Darkness.

    The exact percentage point is blurred by intermarriage but today just about half of Israeli Jews have Mizrahi roots. These are Israeli stories beginning in Baghdad and Rabat and not just Berlin and Warsaw.

    If they really want to feel Israel, British Jews need to start reading more Erez Bitton. The blind poet from Lod, who won the prestigious Israel Prize in 2015, is the Algerian-born master who can take them into the Israel they need to understand. The Israel of the North African aliyah, disorientated and discriminated against in run-down development towns; families who were sprayed with DDT as they reached the promised land.

    His poems, like that about Zohra El Fassia, who was “a singer at the court of Muhammad the Fifth in Rabat, Morocco,” can connect us to the other Mizrahi world, of loss.

    “It was said that when she sang, soldiers drew knives, to push through the crowds, and touch the hem of her dress,” sighs Bitton. But now, he finds her, “In the poor section of Aktiot C, near the welfare office, the odour of leftover sardine-tins on a wobbly three-legged table, splendid kingly rugs stacked on a Jewish Agency Bed” — imagining herself talking to Muhammad the Fifth in the mirror.

    His poems, full of Mizrahi disorientation, can connect British Jews to the feeling of my Baghdadi Jewish grandfather in 1947, that  this strange, socialist — “too Ashkenazi” —country was built for somebody else.

    I remember my grandfather whenever I read Bitton’s A Purchase On Dizengov. Bitton imagines himself opening a little shop “to strike roots, to purchase roots,” on that Tel Aviv street that for him, and so many Mizrahim like him who made the jump from the Middle East, summed up not only an Ashkenazi but an elite, often incomprehensible Israel.

    Staring into the Roval, an Ashkenazi patisserie, Bitton asks: “Who are these people in the Roval? What’s so special about these people in Roval?” Before, too nervous to approach them, lost in their Yiddish wisecracks, and to use his latest, “most-up-to-date Hebrew,” he packs up his things at dusk, “to go back to the outskirts, to the other Hebrew.” A Mizrahi Hebrew with no Yiddish singsong but full of Arabic sound. 

    Ben Judah is the author of This is London

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