“One day, I want to write a book about our family’s story,” I told my mother in my early twenties.
“Inshallah” – god willing – she replied, invoking the Arabic of our ancestors. My mother’s use of this word might make you think that my family is Muslim. But actually, we are Jewish. And for a long time, I was careful not to flaunt my unusual heritage.
Hardly any of Australia’s Jewish population descend from Arabic speakers. Most Australian Jews are Ashkenazi, that is, of European origin. But I’m not: both my parents were born and grew up in Bombay (now Mumbai), and their families came to India from Iraq. After Mum and Dad immigrated to Australia in the 1960s, they found their place in Sydney’s tiny Sephardi Jewish community, alongside co-religionists from countries including India, Iraq, Egypt. But for me, the question of where I belonged in the Jewish community wasn’t so simple.
After Mum and Dad immigrated to Australia in the 1960s, they found their place in Sydney’s tiny Sephardi Jewish community, alongside co-religionists from countries including India, Iraq, Egypt.
My entire education took place in Jewish schools. On the surface, this seemed like a perfect fit: a Jewish school would give me a thorough knowledge of the history, culture and traditions of my people. Except that’s not quite how it turned out.
Sure, my Judaism teachers imparted the religion’s basics, like the Hebrew aleph bet, the existence of one god, the obligation to rest on the seventh day - Shabbat. But at school, we followed the liturgy and customs of the Ashkenazi majority, not my family’s Iraqi-Sephardi ways. Which meant there was deep chasm between my school and my home life.
I spent the Saturday mornings of my childhood at the Sephardi Synagogue, where the prayer tunes were unrecognisable from the melodies I sang in my classroom. As Jewish New Year approached, I learned the Ashkenazi practice of dipping segments of apple into honey, to signify the hope of a sweet year ahead. But at my family’s Rosh Hashana meal, we ate the cardamom-infused apple jam that my mother had boiled for hours until it set. And I was taught that when I one day got married, I would stand under the chuppah, the Jewish wedding canopy, and walk around my groom seven times – even though neither my mother nor my grandmothers did so when they were brides. “It’s not our custom,” my father explained.
While I knew all about the world of Ashkenazi Jews, they knew little about mine.
While I knew all about the world of Ashkenazi Jews, they knew little about mine. I never talked to my friends about the different foods that my family ate and the words we used. Instead, I moved quietly between my two worlds – Sephardi and Ashkenazi – careful not to draw attention to myself. At home, I ate date-filled hamantaschen biscuits on the holiday of Purim, played tawle, and used Hindi words like aloo. Outside the house, my Purim hamantaschen was filled with jam or poppyseeds, I played ‘backgammon’, said ‘potato’, and used Yiddish words like chutzpah and schlep. Like a chameleon, I became an expert at adapting myself and blending in.
But as I got older up, I grew tired of this charade. By the time I was at university, I realised that I hardly knew anything about the stories of my people. I’d finished high school with in-depth knowledge of the history of European Jewry – the Crusades, the blood libel, the horrors of the Holocaust. Yet I’d never even heard of the Farhud, a violent massacre of the Jews of Baghdad in 1941. I knew nothing about the hundreds of thousands of Jews who, until not so long ago, had lived in Egypt, Iraq, Iran and Morocco. And I had no idea that Baghdad had been a flourishing centre of Jewish life during the Middle Ages. My Jewish education, as it turned out, hadn’t been so comprehensive after all. And I no longer wanted to be quiet about it.
I began researching my family’s story, and the history of the Iraqi Jews that immigrated to India.
I began researching my family’s story, and the history of the Iraqi Jews that immigrated to India. Over a ten-year period, I wrote a book (My Mother’s Spice Cupboard: A Journey from Baghdad to Bombay to Bondi). And I’ve come to embrace, rather than resent, my dual citizenship of the Jewish world – of both the Sephardi and Ashkenazi communities – realising that I can use it to broaden our understanding of what it means to be Jewish.
Now, I have enormous pride in my unique culture and heritage. So I’m thrilled that the Sydney Jewish Museum recently launched an exhibition called Jews from Islamic Lands, which shares some of the stories of Sephardi Jewry.
My own journey has taught me that sharing our stories helps us to feel seen, and to make sense of who we are. Sharing our stories also helps other people to understand us. Speaking up is not always easy. It can make us feel scared, exposed and vulnerable. But by being honest about our hopes, our fears, our dreams and our struggles, we connect with others, allowing them to see that we are not so different after all.
Elana Benjamin is a writer with a special interest in social issues, particularly women's roles, education and the pace of modern life.