Iraqi Jewish Musician Yoni Avi Battat Explores the ‘Fragments’ of His Identity

The multi-instrumentalist spoke with Hey Alma to discuss his new album and finding sensory connections to his Mizrahi ancestry.

For most of his life, musician Yoni Avi Battat has felt like an outsider in his own Iraqi-Jewish culture.

While his ancestors lived in Baghdad for centuries, spoke Iraqi Judeo-Arabic (and eventually the Iraqi dialect of Arabic) and were fully immersed in one of the oldest Jewish communities in the world, Yoni’s connections to his heritage were more tenuous.

Around 1951, Yoni’s paternal grandparents Violet and Avraham left their homeland for Israel, seeking safety during a time of intense persecution of Jews in Iraq. Via Jerusalem, they finally settled in the United States, where, years later, Yoni was born and raised.

To be sure, his life in the U.S. has been a successful one. At 4 years old, Yoni started playing violin; now he’s a multi-instrumentalist, vocalist and composer with degrees from Brandeis University and Boston University. He’s the core violinist of mixed chamber group VSNY; he’s performed with the Israel Klezmer Orchestra, developed his own Yiddish jazz band, Two Shekel Swing, and studied with and studied with Layth Sidiq, an Iraqi-Jordanian violinist and pedagogue of Arabic music. He was also a member of the touring cast of the Broadway musical “The Band’s Visit.

Even so, in Ashkenormative Jewish American culture, with English as his mother tongue and never having stepped foot in Iraq to this day, Yoni lacks the kinds of heirlooms and ancestral knowledge that American immigrant families often have.

So Yoni decided to make his own.

Debuting today on Bandcamp, Yoni’s first album “Fragments” explores just that: his fragmented Arab-Jewish identity.

The album features lyrics in Arabic, Hebrew, English and even a little Yiddish, derived from ancient and contemporary poetic sources, Hebrew liturgy, his own writing and the writing of his family. Yoni  employs maqam, the modal system found in Arabic music, and the resulting work is an exquisite and necessary addition to the canon of Jewish music.

Songs like “Vapor,” Yoni’s current favorite, unravel the barrier between Jewish languages while capturing, in his words, an “almost stream of consciousness unraveling of melody.” At the same time, there are also more traditional pieces, like an interpretation of Iraqi piyyut “El Eliyahu,” that brings together the voices of Yoni and Razi Battat, Yoni’s uncle and a beloved pillar of his Iraqi Jewish ancestry. Though each song could stand by itself, in total, “Fragments” is both a remembrance of bygone Mizrahi generations and a celebration of Yoni’s journey to understand himself.

“As you experience these original and traditional pieces, I invite you to approach memory in a new way — not through exact facts, dates, and photos, but through your senses, through your imagination,” Yoni writes beautifully in the liner notes. “Allow these smells, textures, tastes, and sounds to transport you to a place and time you have never been. When we cannot access the specific details of our families’ stories, our imagination can still bring us a real and intimate connection with where we come from.”

Yoni recently spoke with Hey Alma to discuss “Fragments” and finding sensory connections to his Iraqi-Jewish ancestry.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

First, could you just tell me a bit about your Iraqi Jewish background and identity? 

I grew up in Connecticut, where I felt a strong Iraqi identity at home. My grandparents spoke Arabic, I ate Iraqi foods and I even heard some Mizrahi pop music from Israel. But I didn’t have much of a community around that identity outside of my house. So there was this dissonance between my home identity and my outside identity — especially when it came to music, which, from a young age, was really important to me. But if I wanted to have outlets in Jewish music, it was always klezmer, Ashkenazi music and Yiddish music. Which I loved, and that became a really important part of my musical identity. But there wasn’t an outlet for the Mizrahi part of my identity in my music, as part of my Jewish expression. And growing up, I never learned Arabic.

The journey of finding content around my Iraqi-Jewish identity started at 16 when I got my first oud, which my grandfather bought for me on a trip in Israel. I would fiddle around with it not really knowing what I was doing. Then in college I started having more outlets for immersing [myself] in Arabic language and Arab music. And over the last 10 years, I’ve been making a conscious effort to really uncover the melodies, piyyutim, traditions and Arabic language of my Iraqi identity. But all of that I’ve been coming into as an outsider. I know I’m not actually an outsider, but that’s how it feels — because I’m learning Arabic as someone who didn’t hear it a lot growing up, and I’m learning these melodies from a kind of intellectual perspective because I’m a musician and nerdy in that way.

That’s sort of how the album came about. I wanted to make sense of my experience, coming to this music and this culture and these memories and trying to connect with my past and my ancestors, and doing all that from what felt like the position of an outsider even though… I mean, it’s all relative. But that’s how I felt. Even though I might have some knowledge and content around my Iraqi identity, it’s still less than I want it to be, it still feels like not enough.

Yoni Avi Battat
Photo by Richard Ijeh

So in these past 10 years, what has the research, writing and recording process for the album been like?

More generally, I started studying Arabic music in college. I had a really awesome opportunity with an Arabic music ensemble at my school. I started learning Arabic maqam, which is microtonal and uses pitches that don’t exist in Western music at all. Later, I spent a year living in Jerusalem, which was really formative for that part of my identity. There’s an amazing scene of Arab music happening in Jerusalem, and Arab-Jewish music specifically. I was able to study at a Middle Eastern music school in the Musrara neighborhood of Jerusalem, and I made amazing contacts and amazing friends and began playing in an Arab orchestra.

I also studied Modern Standard Arabic in college. But one year of Modern Standard didn’t do much for me, and it’s not the Arabic that people use to communicate day-to-day. It’s this formal Arabic which is standard across the Arab world. It’s not a perfect parallel to Shakespearean English, but it’s similar in that no one really speaks that way, so it wasn’t a way that I could communicate. When I was living in Jerusalem 2017-2018, I took a colloquial Arabic class which was really good for me. Still, this was Palestinian Arabic and not Iraqi Arabic. There are different dialects and meaningful differences, and I’ll get there eventually. And I do know a few Iraqi phrases. But it felt like Palestinian Arabic was useful to me because I can actually use that dialect to speak with a lot of people I know.

“Fragments” was created in the context of the Community Creative Fellowship, which was a new initiative in Boston by the Jewish Arts Collaborative and CJP. In 2020, they gave me the opportunity to create art in dialogue with the community and lead Zoom workshops around my work.

My Arabic is not very good. It’s getting better, I’m working hard on it. And, so it was really important to me to have Arabic texts on the album and Arabic singing. But I didn’t have the skills to just open a book of Arabic poetry and choose something out, and I still don’t have a sense of the breadth of the Arabic poetry canon. So I had to rely on translation and help from friends, which are already imperfect in their own ways. But it was actually interesting and felt like a discovery and a scavenger hunt, and because it was within the fellowship, there was a time pressure.

It’s such an example of the fragmentation that I’m talking about. Like, here I am as an English speaker who doesn’t have a lot of Arabic, but really wants to reach towards my Arab ancestry, and I’m doing it through these fragmented layers of how I can access it. And so that became part of the story.

I felt self-conscious at the beginning of the process — like, wow, who am I, as someone who doesn’t know much about this, to actually make a statement and present this culture to the broader community? What qualifies me to do that as someone who was so removed? And then I went through a process of noticing that the fragmentation is so deeply embedded in my experience, and that fragmentation is not something to be ashamed of. Once I was able to bring that into the project, it was really liberating to be able to feel that I have ownership over it.

What is your relationship to the Hebrew and Yiddish on the album?

Hebrew is the language of my ancestry. My family in Iraq was Jewish, and Hebrew is a Jewish language, and it connects me to them. That’s the language they use for prayer. And then on top of that, Jerusalem and Israel were a big part of my family’s story in recent memory. Modern Hebrew is something that I grew up with. It’s a language that feels comfortable to me; I speak fluently. And so for both of those reasons, that language is important.

There are a few lines of Yiddish in the song “Vapor.” That was important to me because I wanted to bring together languages that aren’t paired together very often to see what that would bring up in me. My collaborator for that song, Anthony Mordechai Tzvi Russell, was really inspiring. We had a Google Doc of several Arabic poems and several ideas for Jewish texts, and we took that big jumble and sorted through it and figured out how to tell a story with different lines from the different languages.

Yiddish, for me, is a reminder of my early experiences of klezmer and Ashkenazi music, which provided the opportunity for me to express myself as a young Jewish musician. And also the text is so beautiful. The Yiddish lyrics are a poem from the 1960s, I believe, from Arn Zeitlin. It’s about fleeting memory and about how we are so small and no one needs us. In one sense it’s very depressing, but in another sense, it’s this really expansive idea of what our place in the world is. I found that to be compelling.

Do you ever wish that you had more than the fragments?

On different levels, I do and don’t. On one level, I wish that I’d grown up with the Iraqi community. I wish that I’d experienced prayer and Jewish community in Jewish spaces with these melodies, with the pronunciation of Hebrew, even. I yearn to be close with that. So that feels like a loss, that feels like something that I’ve missed out on.

And also, I don’t know… I am who I am. I’m a product of my experiences and my upbringing. I wouldn’t trade that for anything. The process of discovering my ancestry, reconnecting and approaching it even as an outsider, has been really healing for me, personally. And it’s also been a part of my growth as a musician and an artist, of course. So I feel like I’ve only gotten stronger internally through the process. I don’t necessarily wish my experiences were different.

I think my favorite track on the album is “El Eliyahu,” where you sing with your Uncle Razi. His voice is so beautiful. What did it mean to you to sing with him?

That was really special. For me, his voice is a big part of the DNA of what it means to be Iraqi, because I didn’t have any experience in the U.S. around my Iraqi identity. When I go to Jerusalem to visit, he’s always singing. His voice is a part of what I think of when I think of the sound of Iraqi Jewry. And he’s someone who I love very much. He’s sort of the last living connection to the generation of my family and of Iraqi Jews that were born in Baghdad. And so I knew I wanted to have his voice on the album because, on a more conceptual level, the timbre and sound of someone’s voice is one of those sensory links that can help connect us to our ancestry and to memory, even when like the details of it are a little bit fuzzy.

I don’t necessarily know what camp my ancestors came to from Iraq when they came to Israel. I don’t have pictures or any of these specific details, but when I hear his voice, it doesn’t matter.

Has your Uncle Razi heard the album, or at least the song?

Yes, he was beside himself. It was really cute. I’ll also say that I got to perform it live with him in May. I had never really played any of these pieces live, so I had an album preview concert as an experiment to see what it would be like to perform with an ensemble, and he happened to be in town. So it was perfect. He came and he sang and it was a really special moment. He just brings so much energy and joy for singing; it was really a special moment. I hope to do more of it with him.

Yoni Avi Battat
Photo by Leah Carnow

Like you said, fragmentation is relatable to all people, not just Mizrahi Jews and not even just Jews. But I’m curious if your hope for American Ashkenazi Jewish listeners is that this album might encourage them to do some unlearning of Ashkenormativity?

I haven’t thought about that. I don’t know if this answers your question, but I’ll share this. As I mentioned, I did Zoom workshops throughout the fellowship about fragmentation. Some were specifically for Jews of color, Mizrahi and Sephardic Jews. Some of them were just open to the community. When I had groups of Mizrahi Jews, I said, “Here’s our topic for today: fragmentation, fragmented identity, imperfect transmission of memory, access to our ancestors.” Everyone got it. I didn’t have to say anything else. They had so many things to say, and so many stories to tell. And my experience when I led groups that included mostly Ashkenazi Jews and white Jews was that they also had that fragmentation, but we had to work a little bit harder to help them realize where it was. Something I noticed in the process is that Ashkenazi Jews, sometimes, but not always, have more access to details about their family, and so it’s a different framework.

There are a lot of resources in our country around Yiddish language, klezmer music, Yiddish music, Ashkenazi culture — there are festivals devoted to it. There’s this huge network — which I’ve been a part of also, by the way, and really benefited from. I’m really grateful for those things. What I’d love Ashkenazi Jews to recognize is how lucky they are to have those resources. If I want to learn Iraqi-Judeo-Arabic, the language of my ancestors, I don’t have some institution in the US that I can turn to. And for me, to learn Arabic or to even pray in a community that uses these melodies, the opportunities are few and far between.

So I guess on some level that’s unlearning. But I think it’s mostly just an awareness of what’s missing. What’s missing from the American Jewish landscape? How can we bring Mizrahi Jews more into our communities? I think there’s a lot of value to centering those voices, not just to balance the scale, but also to help people feel like they belong. That’s what I’m trying to do in my life, and one of my goals is to be able to bring more of this culture and more of these melodies into Jewish community in the U.S. And we need everyone to be on board for that to happen. And this is where it becomes maybe a little bit prickly, but not just as an exotic or tokenizing thing, but as something that’s meaningful to everyone in our collective Jewish culture. Even if it’s not your specific expression of Jewishness, let’s feel the fullness of what Jewish expression is, has been and can be.

Do you have any hopes for what Iraqi Jews would take away from your album?

I hope they’ll feel seen and they can relate to some of the experiences that I talked about. I feel like there’s a lot of layers to this album, and so I think it’s best enjoyed with the lyrics and translations and explanation for each piece. I mean, it’s music and you can listen to music any way you want. But to really understand the meaning of it, it takes a little bit of reading the liner notes. So I hope that all people, and Mizrahi Jews, will listen in that way. Again, it’s OK if they don’t. I feel like it’s beautiful music and I want them to enjoy the beauty of it on that level alone.

And also on deeper levels, I think that Mizrahi Jews will find a lot of resonance. I hope that they’ll feel like their fragmentation is OK, too. That’s really my goal. This process was a healing thing for me and I feel that it can be healing for other people to recognize that not having access to certain languages or melodies or communities is sad — but also that fragmentation is a beautiful and valid part of who you are and how you are in the world.

Now that I’ve addressed that and I’m releasing this album, it almost frees me and allows me to say, “If you have any questions about that, we refer to the first album.” I don’t have to feel hindered by this impostor syndrome. I feel like I can now just be an artist and express myself. My hope is that this might also help open a pathway for healing for other people — and especially for Mizrahi Jews.

Read More