Culture, Global, Identity, Religion

Rebuilding, Reshaping, and Reclaiming Our Identity after It’s Been Smashed to Bits

by Loolwa Khazzoom
Those of us with chronic pain or other chronic illness may find ourselves wandering through life feeling dumfounded: How did I get here? This is not who I am or who I was supposed to be or where I was heading. Who am I now? How do I integrate these different pieces of my identity? What is authentically me? How do I accept and incorporate my condition without letting it define me? On the occasion of tsha b’ab, a Jewish memorial day, I approach these questions through telling the story of a national, religious, cultural, historic, and ultimately, personal journey.
Two thousand, five hundred, and ninety five years ago to this day, Babylonian armies destroyed the holy temple in Jerusalem, ransacked the ancient Kingdom of Judah, murdered scores of people throughout the kingdom (known as “Jews” – ie, the people of Judah), and hauled off scores more as captives, to the land of Babylon.
Seven years ago, around this very day, I stood on the edge of the land that once was a small city in that ancient Kingdom of Judah – on the exact spot where the city guard looked from his tower into the distance and saw flames of light extinguishing in surrounding towns. The ensuing darkness signaled that the Babylonians were approaching and the end was near.
A chill went through my spine.
While the rest of the people on the tour continued walking around the ancient city ruins, I stayed glued to that spot, feeling the warm breeze on my face, looking out into the expansive distance, imagining the terror that must have shot through the city people as they awaited their fates.
Their end was my beginning: The beginning of an exiled people in Babylon, who over the millennia transformed into a thriving, vibrant community — writing the authoritative Babylonian Talmud, launching the first ever Jewish learning institutions (yeshivas), and otherwise developing a rich and unique culture full of stories, music, language, spiritual teachings, architecture, prayers, dance, scholarly works, art, and religious rituals.
After nearly three millennia, my ancestors were sent packing once again: In 1950, my grandparents and father were among the 100,000 Jewish refugees from Baghdad alone – forced to flee after a surge of anti-Jewish violence throughout the Middle East and North Africa. Most of these refugees, including my family, were absorbed by the modern state of Israel. As in hokey-pokey style: One foot in, one foot out.
While my grandparents, six aunts and one surviving uncle remained in Israel, my father continued his migration to Massachusetts, where he chose to go to graduate school. There he met my mother, who had been on her way to New York from Colorado. When she’d gotten to the Massachusetts/New York fork in the interstate, however, she spontaneously decided to go north instead.
Together, they raised my sister and me as headstrong Iraqi Jews in Canada and California — teaching us the songs, prayers, religious rituals, food, personal and communal stories, Hebrew pronunciation, and a little of the language of Iraqi Jews. (I can say the important things in Judeo- Arabic – you know, like, “watermelon,” “barefoot,” “hammer,” and “my stomach hurts.”)
I went on to disseminate this knowledge across the world — pioneering the Jewish Multiculturalism movement in the United States, performing Middle Eastern and North African Jewish music in cities throughout North America, Europe, and Israel, compiling and editing the first anthology about Middle Eastern and North African Jewish women’s identity, and on and on and on.
Still, I could not and cannot re-create Jewish life in Baghdad. I am unable to undo the violence and destruction that my community faced. I am unable to bring back everything that was lost in the upheaval and uprooting. I am unable, in short, to resurrect the Iraqi Jewish community — to bring it back to life as it once was, in bold Technicolor.
What’s worse, everyone who was there is now dying. And what’s worse than that, I am isolated from so many of these people. I am an exile within a family and community of exiles. So where does that leave me? Who am I? And who will I be when the older generation passes, and I step into their place?
Today is called thsa b’ab. Throughout the Jewish community around the world, it is a memorial day — a day of fasting, prayer, and commemoration. It is a dark day, when people read paradoxically depressing yet triumphant stories about Jews who chose death over forced conversation, even when they had to watch their own children be killed before them. Today is also considered a day of terrible luck, replete with trembling fear, because the temple was destroyed not once, but twice on this day (the second time by the Romans, exactly 656 years later).
I’ve always struggled with what exactly to do on this day. We are guided to actively induce a sense of grief and despair, so as to honor those before us and to remember being cast from freedom in our own land to captivity in someone else’s. But how, I wondered as a 14 year old in San Francisco, was I to do that, and what use was it anyhow? Actively feeling miserable and scared of moving all day long, because lordy knows what might go wrong next?
Several years ago, I read an article by someone who suggested that this day actually should be one of celebration and honor: Yes, the temple was destroyed. Yes the kingdom was ransacked. Yes the people were hauled off as exiles. But look what’s come of it: Vibrant Jewish life around the world – the first exile reaching the far corners of the Middle East, North Africa, and Central, East, and South Asia and the second exile stretching across all of Europe and the Americas.
As a Jewish multicultural educator, that spin resonated with me. Plus it was just so positive, so full of life and the pulsing rhythm of eternal change and transformation. It celebrated Jewish resilience and creativity and adaptation as a people, always surviving, always thriving, always pushing forward into new horizons.
And so it is with me. Iraqi Jewish life is now gone, as Judean Jewish life once was gone as well. What stands in its place, in my shoes, is a vibrant, creative, pulsating mix of East and West, old school and punk rock, religious and secular, traditional and feminist. I am a living, breathing, invigorating 21st century incarnation of all who came before me.
Just like my ancestors, I am the beginning of something new. And it is something brilliant.
xp to Dancing With Pain
Loolwa Khazzoom is a freelance journalist who has published in mainstream periodicals including Rolling Stone, The Washington Post, and Marie Claire, and the author of two books, Consequence: Beyond Resisting Rape and The Flying Camel: Essays on Identity by Women of North African and Middle Eastern Jewish Heritage.
She is also the director of Tapestry — a Jewish multicultural consulting and education company

16 thoughts on “Rebuilding, Reshaping, and Reclaiming Our Identity after It’s Been Smashed to Bits

  1. Thanks for posting this essay — what an awesome reminder of how multifaceted and multicultural the Jewish community is, and how long that’s been true — arguably since that first exile into Babylon all those centuries ago…

  2. I get what you’re saying, but I don’t think you can so quickly dismiss the sheer tragedy of what happened on Tisha B’av by saying “Yes, the temple was destroyed. Yes the kingdom was ransacked. Yes the people were hauled off as exiles. But look what’s come of it”.

  3. Really, chillul Who? I’m rather thankful that the Temple was destroyed, that many Jew were forced into exile, because it led to rabbinic Judaism. I’d rather be a descendant of yeshivas and learning Diaspora than sacrifices at the bbq (I mean, Temple) every day.

  4. At the risk of invoking Godwin, isn’t that like saying “I’m thankful for the Holocaust because then the UN approved the creation of the State of Israel”?
    Or.. “I’m thankful for the September 11th attacks because that whole area in Lower Manhattan was badly urban-planned anyway”?
    Or.. “I’m thankful for Hurricane Katrina because it showed more people how incompetent the Bush administration was”?
    Or.. “I’m thankful Matthew Shepherd was beaten to death because it generated more sympathy for LGBT rights”?
    Or.. “I’m thankful Amadou Diallo was raped with a broom handle because the NYPD went under increased scrutiny”?
    It sounds really callous to say “I’m glad the Temple was destroyed and the people were exiled” when these things didn’t happen poof like glittery Care Bear magic. The Temple was destroyed and the Jews were exiled as side effects of two Empires slaughtering millions of innocent people, carting most of the rest off to life-long slavery, and tearing apart by violence an entire society (not to mention many of the individual people who made up that society).
    Plus, the transition to rabbinic Judaism was already far along by the time the Romans showed up to murder proportionally more Judeans than Hitler and subject the rest to abuse, famine, and/or enslavement in faraway lands. The destruction of the Temple made one of the main alternatives to rabbinic Judaism no longer viable, but it didn’t spark, start, or inspire it. It was just violence and torture for the sake of imperialism.

  5. Two other minor points:
    1. There was already a thriving Dispora during Second Temple times anyway. The destruction of Jerusalem and Judea in 70CE didn’t start it.
    2. There was no development of non-Temple-based Judaism during the first Exile. That’s one reason why the 10 Lost Tribes became lost. Without the Return to Zion (and the *rebuilding* of the Temple) under Ezra and Nechemya in under a century, the same fate may have happened to the Southern Tribes as well.

  6. Thanks for this piece – It was well-written and thought-provoking even if I don’t agree with all of the assertions about Tisha B’Av. I appreciate the reminder to check out your blog, I connected with your writings on there a good year or two ago. I, too, am a long-time chronic pain and chronic illness sufferer.
    PS Well said, Chillul Who

  7. There was no development of non-Temple-based Judaism during the first Exile.
    What about the Judaism described in Ezekiel, Daniel, Esther, etc.?

  8. I’m with CW?. Destruction and creation are pretty linked. but it doesn’t make the destruction any less real, and tisha b’av is a day set aside for recognizing it. And at least for me, for taking down the walls that I often keep up around those topics and letting it affect me.

  9. ChillulWHo,
    Loolwa Khazzoom is evoking a state of mind that is deeper than you are willing to go.
    I am glad to hear it.

  10. I’d love to know some more about Middle Eastern Jews ~60 years ago. Any suggestions on where I should start?

  11. Curious – The David Project put together a film a couple of years ago called “The Forgotten Refugees” that is a little scattered (and has that charming David Project right-wing slant) but isn’t a terrible place to start.

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