Let's Meet the "Mizrahi"/Eastern Jews

Before the 1948 formal founding of Israel nearly a million Jews lived in the countries we now know as the Arab States. Hailing all over the region, from Egypt to Iraq, Syria to Yemen and most places between, many of these Jews had been firmly part of societies in Muslim-majority countries since the days before there were Muslims -- back to the era of the Babylonian exile. Islam and the majority-Muslim states may not have all embraced the Jews who lived among them, but didn't uniformly persecute them. While Jews may have lived on the peripheries of society in most of their Arabic-speaking homelands, sometimes they rose to prominence in business or even in the arts. For example, in the 1920s and '30s a disproportionate number of the musicians performing popular forms of classical Iraqi music in the nightclubs of Baghdad were Jewish. Oud players, percussionists, cellists who played Arabic classical music on Iraq radio...some were graduates of a prominent music school for blind Jewish children, others adopted the profession because being an instrumentalist was, essentially, the family business. While most Iraqi vocalists were, unsurprisingly, Muslims or Christians, many prominent vocalists of the time were Jewish. The most famous Iraqi singer of in the '30s and '40s was the widely adored Salima Pasha, later known as Salima Murad, who often performed with her husband, vocalist, actor (non-Jewish vocalist and actor) Nazim Al-Ghazali. The Iraqi public's loving respect for Salima Pasha was extraordinary because at the time being a female vocalist in Iraq was not the most respected profession--most female Iraqi vocalists originally worked houses of ill-repute. In the 1950s when almost every Iraqi Jewish musician emigrated to Israel, Salima Pasha chose to stay. She continued to sing to adoring crowds and passed away in Iraq in 1974.

More about the contribution of Jews to early 20th century Iraqi music:

Watch Salima Pasha with an extraordinary band, many members of which were graduates of the Jewish school for the blind | Listen to Pasha and Al-Ghazali perform together  | TuningBaghdad.net: preserving the Iraqi Jewish tradition on the web


Soon after the founding of the Jewish State the presence of Greek-influenced music in Israel inspired Arabic-descended "Mizrahi" ("Eastern") Jews to perform their music in public venues. In the '50s and '60s a wave of Mizrahi immigrants flooded Israel and increased the non-European-descended population of the new nation substantially, to about 50%. At the time the nation focused on unity and strongly favored immigrants' assimilation...but primarily assimilation into a consciously European-oriented Israeli society.

Despite the pressure to become more "Israeli," he first generation of Mizrahi to be born in Israel rose in the '70s and '80s and reclaimed their parents' original languages, culture and, most important to us, music. Young Mizrahi musicians embraced Arabic scales and "Oriental" music--Yemanite, Arabic, Farsi, Tukrish and even Greek. Artists like Moroccan-born Jo Amar, who sang in the Andaulusian Spanish style that drew on Jewish-Moroccan traditions, brought elements of Arabic music into the Israeli mainstream. [Watch a young Amar performing live | Watch an older Amar singing at some guy's wedding]

Many of the prominent Israeli/Mizrahi singers in the '70s and '80s were of Yemenite origin, such as Yemenite Israeli Ofra Haza who began as a Muzika mizrahit singer with her 1979 hit "Ani Frecha" ("I'm a Common Girl.") [Watch Haza perform "Ani Frecha"] Vocalists of are of the utmost importance in Yemeni music. Yemeni lyrics emphasize poetry and whatever instruments are present at a performance are there to support the vocals. In the northern highlands, Muslim imams took a hard line on musical instruments, so in those areas the singer became even more key. In Israel, Jewish vocalists of Yemenite ancestry, like Ofra Haza, had no such prohibition. Haza blended Yemenite music with modern instruments and song structures to create a dynamic and wildly popular rootsy pop-folk. In class we sing her version of "Tzur Manoti," an ancient Jewish devotional text that Haza first sings with its traditional Yemeni (minor key) melody, then turns into upbeat, major key, danceable fun. Watch Haza in two different performances of "Tzur Manoti," the first with backing instrumentation, and her head uncovered, and the second, with only percussion to accompany her, wearing a head scarf. Perhaps the former was a performance in Israel and the latter was a concert for a Yemenite Muslim audience...? In both, Haza and her costumed and very animated performers dance the Yemenite step, also known as the Temadi, which is one of the most popular steps in Israeli folk dance. You too can learn the Yemenite step!

Today cultures flow much more freely into one other in Israel, with Israelis of many lands becoming more bold in embracing and publicly asserting the culture of their ancestors. Israeli musicians such as Yemenite Jew Ravid Kahlani's, heart of the extraordinary multinational, multicultural Mizrahi-inspired fusion band, Yemen Blues. draw increasingly on their international origins. Israeli musicians have particularly have come to value the legacy of Arab Jews, fusing Arabic scales and passionate Mizrahi musical sensibilities with European song structures to forge new cross-cultural global musical ground.

By the way, for a long while "Mizrahi" was not a term used widely before the founding of the State of Israel and since then has not always been viewed fondly. Previously to receiving this distinction, Jews from Muslim lands generally considered themselves Sephardic and fell in culturally and religiously in with other non-Azhkenazic Jews, like those from the Iberian Peninsula. Today the designation specifically refers to those with somewhat of a shared Arab/Muslim national past.

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