Life & Culture

I want ALL British Jews to feel pride

Chazak UK CEO Rabbi Yitsy David explains why his Sephadic upbringing shaped his drive to improve education on Jewish diversity


Often overlooked: Iraqi Jews going to Israel in 1950

For Rabbi Yitsy David, growing up in a Sephardic home in Hendon was atypical of the north-west London experience. His Indian-born mother and Burmese father both descended from Iraqi Jews and moved to London in the 1970s. They spoke Hindi at home, and between them brought a rich culture, history and palate that reflected their roots.

Every Shabbat, his family home was “the place to be”. Friends would fight over his mother’s slow-cooked chicken dishes or spice-laden curries. “They were eating flavours they had never tried in their life, they loved it,” he says.

Still, Rabbi David felt “foreign” to mainstream British Jewry, more than 90 per cent of whom are Ashkenazi.

Many did not know that Jews living in the UK could hail from countries like India, or Iraq, Iran, Egypt, Syria, Libya, Morocco, or Tunisia. Some had heard of established Sephardi Jews who originated in Spain or Portugal, but he often had to explain that Mizrahi Jews had fled persecution from Arab and north African countries after the establishment of Israel in 1948.

“If I told kids at school that my mum was from India, they looked at me like I came from the moon,” he says. “We were dark-skinned, our parents spoke with an accent and sometimes we were called racist names because of that.”

Now, as the chief executive of Chazak UK, an organisation set up in 2010 to promote the Sephardi and Mizrahi community, Rabbi David has joined a rally of voices calling for more education on its history, tradition and culture at UK Jewish schools.

“So much between Sephardi and Ashkenazi Jews is the same,” says Rabbi David, who says the term “Sephardi” is sometimes collectively used to describe Jews from south-west Europe to the Middle East and North Africa. “Probably 95 per cent is the same if you look at the prayers; but the other 5 per cent, like prayer tunes and the food, can make it feel completely different.”

Today, Chazak UK reaches more than 4,000 students across 15 Jewish London secondary schools through informal education. “We have 2,000 years of history resting on our shoulders, we want to keep Sephardi and Mizrahi heritage alive. If the next generation drops it, if they don’t pray in the tunes or know the customs, then that’s it, it’ll go. We want to educate Sephardim and Ashkenazim about who we are, as well as wanting Sephardis to feel pride in their identity and culture.”

And he’s calling for support from communal organisations, as well as UK Jewish schools.

“While education on the Holocaust is covered in UK Jewish schools, there were many persecutions and pogroms of the Jewish people across the world, from Spain to Iraq, that people know nothing about,” he says. “We are now in a situation where Sephardi children do not realise how different their history is, so it really needs to be factored into the curriculum.”

He adds: “In Israel and even in America, there is a pride and celebration attached to being Sephardi. Our job is to help the British generation get there; we need to do more, get in there earlier and we need help from Jewish schools to do so.”

For author Lyn Julius – who set up Harif, which represents Jews from North Africa and the Middle East – formal education at Jewish schools is key, especially when it comes to understanding Israel and its society, 50 per cent of whom are of Sephardi and Mizrahi descent.

“Jewish schools need to teach Jewish history in its entirety, not just Eurocentric history. Teaching about the Holocaust is very important, but so is the story of Sephardim and Mizrahim; in fact, it’s essential to understand what is going on in the Middle East. You can’t understand the current war with Hamas without understanding the rise of Islamist extremism and antisemitism across the Arab world and its persecution of its Jewish communities, even before the state of Israel was established.” She adds: “It clearly challenges the myth and accusation that Israel is a ‘white colonial state’. It is vital to know what Muslim countries did to their own Jewish communities; there were massacres and pogroms, and the position of Jews was always insecure, precarious and at the mercy of the ruler of the day.”

She adds: “This history should really be taught everywhere, but I know that for now that’s a tall order. At least, more needs to be done in UK Jewish schools, starting with the educators.”

Nevertheless, at the Naima Jewish Preparatory School in north-west London, where 60 per cent of students are of Sephardi or Mizrahi descent, effort is made to teach children about the history of Jews from the Middle East, as well as Europe.

Founded by the late Rabbi Abraham Levy, who was the spiritual leader of the Spanish and Portuguese community, the school has a distinctly “Sephardi feel to it,” says its vice-principal Zvi Amroussi.

Tefillah, birkat hamazon and chumash are taught in the Sephardic tradition. When it comes to Jewish history, the role of figures leading Sephardic figures such as Maimonides and Portuguese philosopher Abarbanel are taught to students ahead of school trips to Spain and Gibraltar.

“We would encourage schools to invite speakers to address these areas and perhaps a special day ought to be designated to remembering the Mizrahi experience,” he adds.

At least informally, the stories are starting to be told through the ‘Sephardic Stories’ initiative led by children’s books Jewish charity PJ Library. Delivering books to more than 8,000 children across the UK each month – 680,000 children globally – the charity has now launched a collection of picture-filled books with Jewish characters who hail from Iraq, Iran and Spain. Whether it’s Shoham’s Bangle, which recounts the Iraqi Jewish migration, or The Persian Princess Purim Story, the characters’ names are reflective of their background, and the illustrations celebrate the clothing, interiors, food and jewellery of the community it depicts.

Catriella Freedman, who set up the initiative last September, says Jewish education is predominantly “Ashkenormative. Our schools cover the Holocaust and eastern European pogroms, but the expulsion from Spain or persecution in Arab lands is much less known,” adding: “You cannot understand the Jewish community, without understanding that it varies with people from all over the world.

“We are starting by educating Jews themselves; we should be a mirror of the people reading our books, but also a window into a part of Jewish culture or community that you might not have known before.”

Responding to the call for more education of Sephardi and Mizrahi history at UK Jewish schools, Rabbi David Meyer, the chief executive of Jewish education group PaJes, says: “There is no question that this is an important area, and one that schools are endeavouring to address. One of the strengths of Jewish schools is the varied background of its students, and it is important that they are educated about their past.”

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