Part memoir, part manifesto, The Wrong Kind of Jew catalogues the Jewish population of the Middle East and North Africa, their history, and the voices who fail to meet the expectations of both the Jewish and non-Jewish world—yet are better for it.
When people ask what I’m passionate about, Judaism, likely, comes first. If you ask where I’m from, the answer is Israel, so usually a dead giveaway. But if you dive into my ethnicity or race, I will tell you that my family comes from North Africa and the Middle East—Tunisia, and Iraq, to be more specific.
So you’re Arab? people often ask. And I respond, no, I’m a Jew.
I’m Mizrahi. The Jews of the Middle East and North Africa are known as Mizrahim. But few people—Jewish and non-Jewish alike—know of us. There are many reasons for that, one of which is that for too many, Mizrahim are “the wrong kind of Jew.” We’re not only unfamiliar, but our culture shatters stereotypes and unspoken rules. We break the expectations many hold about Jews and race, the Middle East and religion, and even politics and oppression.
Because of my Mizrahi heritage, I don’t fit into what many people see as the secular, cultural tenets of Judaism.
I like bagels, but I don’t consider them my cuisine. I don’t have opinions on Katz Deli or whether or not they are better than Langers. What kind of meat is Pastrami? I’m still not sure. My grandma doesn’t make matzo-ball soup when I’m sick or even on the holidays. Instead, she’s making a stew that most of my Jewish friends can’t pronounce.
Yes, my grandparents were in the Holocaust. Can’t get more Jewish than that, right? But their streets were never lined with swastikas or German soldiers. No one scrawled “Jude” on their homes or businesses. They didn’t survive Auschwitz or Dachau or Buchenwald. They were due to be sent to Nazi camps with unknown names. Their neighbors were shot and raped in antisemitic riots, which most people, even most synagogues, don’t commemorate.
For some, I’m not just the wrong kind of Jew; I’m a bad Jew. I’m bad at meeting expectations of what Jewish looks like, sounds like, thinks like, and means.
But I have the audacity to know that I am a bad Jew and feel good about it.