Beyond ‘Ashkenormativity’: Sharing the Stories of Jewish Refugees from Arab Lands

Dec. 8, 2020

By ZACHARY ZARNETT-KLEIN

Nov. 29, known by some as Kaf-Tet b’November, is an important day to Jewish communities around the world. It was on that day in 1947 the United Nations General Assembly voted to adopt the plan to partition British Mandate Palestine between Arabs and Jews. David Ben-Gurion, leading the nascent nation, subsequently declared the State of Israel’s independence on May 14, 1948.

Perhaps less well known is that the following day, Nov. 30, serves as a solemn occasion of remembrance and tribute to Jewish refugees from Arab lands, including the Middle East, the Arabian Peninsula, and North Africa. It is known as Yom Plitim (“the Day of Recognition for Jewish Refugees”).

The UN’s support for the establishment of a Jewish state is seen as a turning point in the history of minority Jewish populations across the Arab world, who had lived there for centuries. During the mid-20th century, these Jews, primarily belonging to Sephardi and Mizrahi communities, were persecuted, and subsequently expelled from the places that they had called home for generations. It is estimated that 850,000 Jewish refugees were displaced from Arab and Muslim lands from the mid-1940s to the early 1970s. 

Many found haven in Israel, while others immigrated to countries around the world, including Canada. These communities have continued to preserve and pass down their heritage, while contributing to society as a whole. From flight to perseverance, the stories of Jewish refugees from Arab lands should be treasured. More than that, they should be retold.

Yet, I’m struck by the seeming lack of awareness regarding this important history. Despite growing up in an Ashkenazi household, attending Jewish day school and summer camp, and taking several Jewish studies courses in university, I find myself undereducated on the history of Jewish refugees from Arab lands. This is a startling gap.

I think that Jewish continuity and identity are rooted in education. I hope that curricula for day schools, post-secondary Jewish studies courses, and experiential/informal Jewish education will better integrate the stories of these Jewish refugees.

Part of the problem is that well-meaning Ashkenazi-majority communities have often sought to further their own history while placing the stories of minorities within the Jewish community on the back burner. This problem has been worsened by external factors, such as “traditional” depictions of Jews and what it means to “look Jewish,” which often typify an Ashkenazi stereotype that many have come to internalize.

From my understanding, this has caused Jews from outside the Ashkenazi norm to feel distanced from “the community.” By breaking off into segments, our tent becomes smaller and weaker. Our institutions fail in their stated ideal of being inviting, instead leading to further isolation.

While recognizing these shortcomings, I want to applaud various community organizations that have made significant strides in the right direction. This past summer, I was fortunate to participate in the UJA Genesis Community Leadership Accelerator. This program made a concerted effort to include speakers from a diverse array of Jewish backgrounds.

As a prime example, Erez Zobary, a young educator and musician, shared with us the stories of her Yemenite Jewish heritage. Her paternal grandparents’ determination and resilience to make a better life in Israel, while remaining connected to its roots, rang of a delicate, dynamic balance. It was particularly interesting to hear her experience, having been born in Canada, of fitting into a Jewish community school where most of her friends and teachers were of Ashkenazi heritage.

Additional efforts have been undertaken by Jewish organizations to raise awareness about Jewish refugees from Arab lands. This past Nov. 29, the Consulate General of Israel for Toronto and Western Canada, in conjunction with Sephardi Voices, the Iraqi Jewish Association of Ontario, UJA Federation of Greater Toronto, and a handful of congregations, marked Yom Plitim. They held a virtual event that featured Canada’s Ambassador to the UN, Bob Rae. The keynote speaker, Linda Menuhin Abdul Aziz, herself a Jewish refugee from Iraq, went on to work in the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs, offering an invaluable perspective into Arab culture and geopolitics.

B’nai Brith Canada held a similar event the next day. The organization fittingly described its webinar, in part, as an opportunity “to virtually commemorate this tragic but little-known chapter in Jewish history.” To honour this history, B’nai Brith encouraged participants to contact their MP and urge the government to list Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) as a terrorist entity, based on a motion passed by the previous Parliament. I am glad to see a range of Jewish organizations marking this important epoch.

So what else can we do?

At a time of increasing polarization, we should reach out, challenge our assumptions, and learn something new. We should question why certain stories are retold, while others are overlooked. We should amplify the voices of minorities within our own community. We should harness this moment for inclusion and understanding. Most importantly, we should undertake considerable outreach and strive for all Jews to be reflected in our community at large.


Zachary Zarnett-Klein
Zachary Zarnett-Klein

Zachary Zarnett-Klein is a university student from Toronto. His passions include community involvement, civic engagement, and human rights.

KlezKanada Goes Online for 25th Anniversary Edition

Aug. 11, 2020 – By RUTH SCHWEITZER

KlezKanada is taking its annual summer festival of Yiddish music and culture – its 25th anniversary edition – online this year.

KlezKanada festival 2019. Photo Avia Moore

More than 60 virtual workshops and classes, and several concerts are scheduled for the five-day KlezKanada festival, scheduled for Aug. 24-28.

The organization’s executive director, Sebastian Schulman, said cancelling this year’s festival due to restrictions imposed by the COVID pandemic was out of the question, adding that the culture of eastern European Jewish life teaches about how to persist in difficult times. 

Asya Vaisman Schulman and KlezKanada executive director Sebastian Schulman. Photo Avia Moore

“There’s so many examples of Jews, and Ashkenazi Jews specifically, being able to create in the most dire of circumstances,” he said. 

“Our minds might go most immediately to the war and to the Holocaust. I think there’s (also) a really rich history for centuries of being able to look in the face of fear or catastrophe and to sing, to laugh, to dance.

“And that is a very Jewish way of facing a crisis. The world is in the middle of a crisis right now and our community says, ‘well, let’s put on a festival. Let’s celebrate life as best as we can.’”

Naoki Hishinuma, left, Adam Matlock and Aaron Blacksberg. Photo Avia Moore

While a virtual festival can’t replace KlezKanada’s camp, which has been held at Camp B’nai Brith in Lantier, Que., in the Laurentian mountains for 24 years, the online festival has its advantages.

KlezKanada festival 2019. Photo Avia Moore

For one thing, KlezKanada is expecting registration to be higher than usual this year, with hundreds of attendees from around the world, including many people who have been unable to attend past festivals, Schulman said.

Some workshops, like Transcription Corner, where students will learn how to create sheet music from recordings, will be even more effective online, he said.

Having sheet music helps learning how to play klezmer and Yiddish music, as their sources are old recordings. The instructors will go through the different technologies for transcribing music.

“You could do it in person, but it would be a very dry class in person. If you do it online, you can really get into the nitty-gritty of the technology,” Schulman said.

The festival offers klezmer music instruction ranging from “Klezmer 101” for new players, to a variety of workshops for intermediate and advanced students. The ambitious program also includes Yiddish language courses, lessons in visual arts and Jewish cooking, film screenings, dance classes and children’s activities.

Performers on KlezKanada’s virtual main stage will include the Grammy award-winning band The Klezmatics, and Josh “Socalled” Dolgin, a genre-defying artist who’s known for fusing Jewish music with hip hop. In concert, Socalled will be singing Yiddish songs backed by a string quartet.

Concert Highlights

“Where Have You Been?: 25 Years of KlezKanada in Lantier, Quebec,” based on research into KlezKanada’s camp location in Lantier, combines theatre and music. The piece was created in collaboration with indigenous historians, musician and writer Geoff Berner, and puppeteer Jenny Romaine.

Klezmer trombonist Rachel Lemisch and Jason Rosenblatt perform from their home in Montreal. She comes from a family of klezmorim that goes back generations, and he is one of the world’s leading performers of klezmer on diatonic harmonica.

East Meets West Revisited looks back to the 1980s, a time in contemporary Yiddish culture when artists from eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union reconnected with their counterparts in North America and western Europe. The concert features Michael Alpert (USA/Scotland), Efim Chorny and Suzanna Ghergus (Moldova), Sasha Lurje (Germany/Latvia), and the Strauss Warschauer Duo (USA).

Workshop and Class Highlights

Klezmer 101 Yoni Kaston and Ariane Morin teach the basic klezmer genres and explain modes and harmonies, and students will learn tunes in a play-along session.

Klezmexperimental Ensemble In this experimental music workshop, led by Dan Blacksberg and Frank London, for intermediate and advanced students, participants will explore creating pieces with no set tempo and try out different kinds of musical layerings, while they push the limits of what kind of music they can make live. 

Alternative Voice Techniques for Folk Singing Yiddish singer extraordinaire Sasha Lurje will help vocalists learn how to control their voices and use them as instruments. The class is open to both experienced singers and people searching for their voices.

The Beauty in Ugly Stuffed Vegetables – One thing that nearly every Jewish community – from Romania and Poland to Syria, Morocco and India – has in common is an affection for stuffed vegetables, the culinary technique that transforms a bit of meat or starch into a soulful and seductive centrepiece. Leah Koenig, the author of The Jewish Cookbook and Modern Jewish Cooking, explores the cultural particularities of this universal Jewish food. Recipes will be provided in advance of the class for anyone wanting to cook along.Dancing

Together Apart Avia Moore and Magdalena Hutter will lead participants in exploring Yiddish dance in relationship with the screens that are currently so central to our lives. They will explore concepts such as space, tempo, shape and gesture through Yiddish dance and ScreenDance. They will then send participants out into the world to record their own movement explorations, starting with a zhok (Yiddish dance) step.


For more information, visit http://klezkanada.org