Both Mizrahi and Ashkenazi, I’ve Never Known Quite Where I Fit

It’s still a work in progress to be my 100% authentic half-this-half-that self.

Everything started when my parents met during their army service.

They are both first generation Israelis. My mother’s parents were Ashkenazi Jews who came from Poland and Germany back in the 1950s and my father’s parents were Mizrahi Jews who came from Iran back in the 1950s as well.

When they met in the ‘90s, it wasn’t that strange to date someone from another ethnicity, but they still faced plenty of stereotypes and cultural differences, even though they were both Jewish. My mother didn’t understand why the Persian food my father liked had such strange flavors. My maternal great-grandmother was also extremely concerned. She thought my father wouldn’t be a good match for her granddaughter just because of the country from which his family fled.

By the time I came along, having parents from two different ethnicities felt like having the best of both worlds. For me, it meant going to Sephardic synagogue and eating matzah ball soup on Passover. Using Yiddish slang here and the Farsi phrase for “Dear God” (which is pretty much my most used phrase recently). But it took me some time to understand the depth and the real meaning and complexities that come with being a “half this, half that” in Israel.

I recall being asked about my ethnicity in the fourth grade. When I mentioned being half Persian, a few kids were like, “Ew, Persian?” Back then, being Persian was associated with the Iranian nuclear threat. Because I didn’t really know anything else about being Persian, at that moment, I understood it would be better not to mention it anymore.

But why didn’t I know much about being Persian? As I see it, the Israeli education system leans very Ashkenazi. In our history classes, the majority of the curriculum concentrates on the Jews of Europe and the Holocaust — not to mention the school trip to the death camps in Poland during senior year. Of course, the Holocaust is incredibly important to learn about, and I was grateful to better understand my Ashkenazi family’s history. It helped me connect to my roots back in Poland and to strengthen my Ashkenazi identity.

But we never really got to learn about Jews of Mizrahi and Sephardic ethnicities, which means I never really got to learn about that part of my family’s history.

What I did know about Mizrahi Jews came from what I witnessed at home, and unfortunately, that was some very old-fashioned — and quite frankly, sexist — behavior. The women were expected to cook and clean; the men were not. At every Shabbat meal in my grandfather’s house, I was the only grandchild helping around. Not because I was the only one, but because I was the only girl. As a progressive and independent woman, I really wasn’t okay with that. It didn’t feel right to be a part of a community that preserved those outdated patterns of behavior.

And so, overtime, I leaned towards my Ashkenazi side and neglected my Persian/Mizrahi side. I felt embarrassed to listen to Mizrahi music and tried to hide any sign of my Mizrahi heritage.

Eventually, things started to change when I decided to take it upon myself to learn more about this other half of my identity. Instead of choosing to read novels only with Ashkenazi characters, I started to read more books with characters from a Mizrahi background. I watched the musical Kazablan, essentially the Israeli version of Romeo and Juliet featuring star-crossed lovers from Ashkenazi and Mizrahi descent (highly recommended, just saying).

And I learned more about how my Persian family wound up in Israel in the first place. The Persian aliyah to Israel came in two major two waves. The first one came to Israel in the 1950s. Those days it was expected from all of the olim (people who made aliyah) to replace their ethnic identity with an Israeli one. My grandparents from both families changed their surnames to sound more Israeli. The second wave of Persian aliyah came to Israel around the Iranian revolution in 1978 and afterwards. By the time they came to Israel, there wasn’t the same expectation from them to replace their identity.

My father’s family belongs to the first wave. He and his uncles do not speak Farsi (beyond a few words), yet they still grew up on Persian cuisine, songs, and traditions.

Some of these traditions were passed down to me: My father cooks gondi (Persian Jewish meatballs) and Persian-style rice is a must-have at Shabbat dinners. We also practice some classic Persian superstitions — for example, always making sure that a shoe sole will never face the ceiling, or flipping a cup over if you can’t find something (It works!). We have our Passover seder traditions as well, like hitting each other during “Dayenu.” And of course, a slight obsession with mint tea.

By the time I did my own army service, being around other soldiers from Persian families left me feeling barely Persian myself. When I mention my Persian half, I’d receive comments like, “What? You don’t even look that Persian” (or the most interesting comment : “You don’t have Persian eyebrows”). I’m dark-skinned like my father, but I don’t have the facial features commonly associated with Persian people — but I don’t look stereotypically Ashkenazi either.

This feeling of inadequacy bothered me for some time, but once I got past my own feelings of insecurity, I realized they showed me one very important thing: It seemed really cool to be Persian.

From there, I dove in. I followed Persian memes pages, and while at first, I didn’t get any of the jokes, as I kept going, I learned more about the culture, the traditions, and the history. I found a few songs in Farsi that I liked and started blasting them in my car. I expanded my Farsi vocabulary (and am still wondering why you can’t learn Farsi on Duolingo).

It’s still a work in progress, and I am aware of the fact that I cannot turn myself into a 100% authentic Persian woman overnight. But in truth, I don’t want to be one, because my Ashkenazi side is just as important to me, too. And the more I can explore and understand both of these cultures, the more I can be my 100% authentic half-this-half-that self.

Maya Davidi

Maya Davidi (she/her) is living in Israel as an ex-soldier fresh out of the IDF. Hoping to start a Bachelor degree in Communicative Disorders next year, when not studying, Maya is passionate about her pets, iced coffee, baking homemade granola (and many more baked goods), and trivia games.

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