A “digital roundtable” held Nov. 14 is the latest example of how 21st century technology is breaking down international borders and transforming Cornell’s campus in the humanities as well as the sciences.
“New Mizrahi Writing in Israel: Digital Roundtable,” held in a Martha Van Rensselaer Hall videoconferencing facility, brought together writers on three continents to discuss the contemporary Israeli literary scene for an on-campus audience of students and faculty. The writers were chosen, said organizer Deborah Starr, because their work grapples with the cultural and linguistic heritage of their families who immigrated to Israel from Arab or Muslim countries (termed “Mizrahi Jews”).
“The webcast panel offered students in Ithaca a glimpse into the vibrant Israeli literary scene,” said Starr, professor of modern Hebrew and Arabic literature in the Department of Near Eastern Studies. “And it gave the writers a chance to get to know each other. It was a pretty lively discussion, as they had very different points of view”.
Michal Held, poet and scholar of Ladino, participated from Jerusalem, and began the event by reading a poem in Hebrew and English that she called a “manifesto” against not being categorized “Mizrahi”.
Her manifesto was echoed by Sami Berdugo, participating from Berlin, who read a poem in Hebrew, Arabic and English that reflected his ambivalence toward Hebrew and his Israeli identity. “I feel I have no community in Israel, religious, Mizrahi, sexual or other,” he said, adding “no category applies to me.
Poet Anat Zecharia, calling in from Tel Aviv, said she agreed with Berdugo. When someone reads her poems “as a manifesto of feminism or as an Israeli poet or as a Mizrahi poet, it makes him see maybe the end of the poem, but he never gets down deep to what I mean or think”.
But Almog Behar, award-winning author and poet and a visiting scholar at Cornell, said, “For me, you can be Mizrahi and Israeli and Jewish and Arabic and so on and they don’t contradict each other.” He noted that in the previous generation, “calling people ‘Mizrahi writers’ was a limiting title that was meant to place them in a narrow place in Israeli culture which would be marginalized within Israeli literature … but as a self-definition it also has the power to broaden Israeli literature. It allows us to connect with parts of our literature that were hidden from us”
Poet and playwright Mati Shemoelof, participating from Tel Aviv, said he has begun writing in prose “to find a new place in the culture so the categories focused on my writing will be different. In my prose I am less aware of the categories and try to write less politically and more freely than before.” Still, he added, “I’m proud that my work until now has been Mizrahi work. I’m proud of my ethnicity.
The roundtable was sponsored by the Department of Near Eastern Studies, the Jewish Studies Program and the Society for the Humanities, with support from the Hope and Eli Hurowitz Fund. Behar’s visiting scholar appointment is funded by the Shusterman Foundation.
Linda B. Glaser is staff writer for the College of Arts and Sciences
Although the racism and hatred between Israel and its neighbors seems as entrenched as ever, many Mizrahi artists are connecting to their Arab roots. Does this trend portend a brighter future for the Middle East?
In an interview with Al Arabiya several years ago, popular Israeli singer Zehava Ben stated that she was interested in performing throughout the Arab world, and especially in Beirut and Gaza. Israel’s security system forbade her entrance into the Strip, due to the fact that Hamas rules the territory. In a later interview, she said that her dream is to perform in Cairo’s Opera House, where her favorite singer,Umm Kulthum, once regularly performed. Ben’s words express the natural desires of many Mizrahi Jews in Israel to connect to the roots of the Arab culture in which their parents lived for generations. Mizrahi music represents the longing of almost half of the state’s citizens for the elements of Arab culture that they know so well. But beyond the question of origin, history and biography, it is a question of Israel’s place in the Middle East, which affects every citizen, Mizrahi or not.
When Israeli music begins exporting Arabic culture to its neighbors, both near and far, it will be able to grow its popularity and double or even triple its sales. Mizrahi-Mediterranean culture can jump over that barrier and draw new audiences. Today, we know that many people in neighboring countries, and certainly in the occupied territories, know and love songs by Eyal Golan and are well-versed in new Mizrahi-Israeli music. It will be easier to sell Mizrahi music in the Mashriq (the geographical region between Iran and Egypt) and the Maghreb (from Egypt to Morocco) in parallel to cultural exports to the U.S. and Europe. It’s important to mention that more than a few Israeli success stories in Europe maintained their Arabic sound, such as Ofra Haza.
Maor Adri covers Syrian singer Wafik Habib’s 2012 hit “Yalla Yalla”:
Music and culture have an additional role. Should we be able to export Mizrahi culture to Arab countries, it is likely to reduce the tension and hatred against Israel. The Arab bloc will no longer see Israel as a vestige of European colonialism that came to settle on Palestinian land. They will understand that over a million Jews arrived in Israel from Arab countries, and maintained their Arab identity, which is expressed in music and culture.
Israeli society today cannot see its place between Beirut, Amman and Cairo. But anyone who listens to the many versions by some of Israel’s best singers (Sarit Hadad, Omer Adam, Maor Adri and many others) will discover that they regularly release covers of Arabic songs in Hebrew. There exists today a contemporary Israeli culture that is effectively in dialogue with a contemporary Arab culture, but no one speaks about it openly. There is a conspiracy of silence around the issue. Zehava Ben was brave enough to openly say that her dream is to perform in the same auditorium as Umm Kulthum in Cairo. But Ben is not speaking out of nostalgia – she is up to date and wants, like other artists, to update her work and create new art that corresponds, influences and is influenced by its surroundings. This is the reason that Ben’s album of Umm Kulthum songs made it to the Arab world (despite the boycott), along with albums in Arabic by Ofer Levi, Sarit Hadad and Sharif. Even albums by singers such as Yasmin Levy, who is very successful in Turkey, or Rita with her album in Persian, which made it to Iran (among other countries), or the Moroccan-Israeli singers, who transcend musical horizons within Israel and outside of it.
Omer Adam performs “Wai Li,” a song by Lebanese artist Fares Karam which was originally released in 2009:
The awaited change won’t only come from the Jewish side. It was an important event when Lina Makhoul, a Christian Palestinian from the city of Acre, won first place on Israel’s The Voice television show. Professor Yossi Yonah sees her victory as indicative of Palestinian citizens’ desire to integrate into Israeli culture. Nasreen Kadri’s victory on the second season of Eyal Golan is Calling You, which Israeli educator and activist Shira Ohayon called “a revolution on live television,” was a big step in that direction. Our shared lives here are not only full of negativity, racism and loathing – they also portend a new-old cultural development despite years of political and cultural deadlock that has been forced on us from above. Israel will find its place in the Middle East with the development of Jewish-Arab (as exemplified by Zehava Ben), and Arab-Jewish culture (as exemplified by Lina Makhoul and Nasreen Kadri). The success of these mixed cultures will only bring prosperity.
Nasreen Kadri and Ofer Nissim perform “Sawah” by Egypt’s Abdel Halim Hafez:
In a letter titled, “Ruh Jedida: A New Spirit for 2011,” young Jewish descendants of the Arab and Islamic world living in Israel write to their peers in the Middle East and North Africa We, as the descendents of the Jewish communities of the Arab and Muslim world, the Middle East and the Maghreb, and as the second and third generation of Mizrahi Jews in Israel, are watching with great excitement and curiosity the major role that the men and women of our generation are playing so courageously in the demonstrations for freedom and change across the Arab world. We identify with you and are extremely hopeful for the future of the revolutions that have already succeeded in Tunisia and Egypt. We are equally pained and worried at the great loss of life in Libya, Bahrain, Yemen, Syria, and many other places in the region. Our generation’s protest against repression and oppressive and abusive regimes, and its call for change, freedom, and the establishment of democratic governments that foster citizen participation in the political process, marks a dramatic moment in the history of the Middle East and North Africa, a region which has for generations been torn between various forces, internal and external, and whose leaders have often trampled the political, economic, and cultural rights of its citizens. We are Israelis, the children and grandchildren of Jews who lived in the Middle East and North Africa for hundreds and thousands of years. Read More…