Almog Behar, a Jewish Israeli-born writer of Iraqi, Turkish, and German descent, is one of the leading voices in contemporary Mizrahi culture in Israel. (For an explanation of the terms “Sephardi,” “Mizrahi,” and “Arab-Jew(ish),” please see note below.) Behar's lyrical, surreal, and politically groundbreaking story “Ana min al-yahud” (“I am one of the Jews“) sets the issue of contemporary Arab-Jewish identity against Zionism’s rejection of diasporic identities and diasporic languages such as the Jewish dialects of Arabic once spoken by many Mizrahi Jews from Arabic-speaking countries. In so doing, it also touches on the history of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Written in Hebrew but bearing an Arabic title, the story is narrated by the first victim of a mysterious “language plague” that causes young, native, Hebrew-speaking Israeli Jews to revert to their grandparents’ diasporic accents: the Yiddish-inflected accents of many Ashkenazic Jews, the Arabic accents of those who hailed from Arabic-speaking countries such as Iraq and Yemen, and the Ladino-tinged accents of those with roots in places like Salonica and Istanbul. For the narrator, this predicament serves as a powerful indictment of his parents' generation, which, in seeking full assimilation into mainstream Israeli society, had rejected its Arabic (or otherwise non-Israeli) heritage. It also represents the rehabilitation of his Iraqi-Jewish grandfather, who was one of the generation of Arabic Jewish immigrants considered unassimilable by the nascent Israeli state.
The winner of Haaretz’s annual short story contest in 2005, when Behar was an unknown student, “Ana min al-yahud” launched the author's literary career. It was reprinted in 2008 in his first short story collection, where it appeared bilingually in Hebrew and in Arabic translation. The story dramatizes issues related to the reappearance of the past in the present, as well as issues related to cultural memory and the possibility of there being more than one modern Hebrew. It particularly explores the at-times politically fraught relationship between Jews, Mizrahi identity, and Arabic. This kit offers resources to help students contextualize and interpret this stylistically challenging, conceptually complex, and politically provocative text.
“Mizrahi,” Hebrew for “eastern” (plural “Mizrahim”) refers to those Jews whose family roots are in Asia and Africa, including India, Iran, Central Asia, and the Arabic-speaking regions of North Africa, the Levant, and the Arabian Gulf. There is some overlap between the terms “Mizrahi,” a category of identity created in 20th century Israel, and the more traditional term “Sephardi,” but nowadays “Sephardi” (plural “Sephardim”) is typically used to denote Jews who can trace their ancestry back to Spain and whose ancestors spoke the Judeo-Spanish language of Ladino. Today, of course, many Mizrahi Jews, like Behar himself, may be of mixed heritage, with a combination of Mizrahi, Ashkenazic, and/or Sephardi ancestry. “Arab Jew” (sometimes hyphenated as “Arab-Jew”) is a term that has become more widespread since the 1990s following efforts by Israeli intellectuals such as Behar to reclaim and affirm the cultural and linguistic affinities of Jews from Arab countries (and their descendants) and to contest the idea that “Arab” and “Jew” are mutually exclusive identity categories.
Cover image: A piece of embroidery reading, in Arabic, “Ana yahudi” (“I am Jewish”), created by Israeli artist Haim Maor, 1990.