Ashkenazi in Amman: Learning to belong in the Middle East

After attending a concert in Amman, Keren Sheffi contemplates the sense of belonging to the Middle East unique to Ashkenazi Jews. To what extent are they aliens or locals here? And who is responsible for their rejection or integration to the Middle East?

By Keren Sheffi

In her beautiful post “I’m an Arab Jew,” Lihi Yona writes – a little hesitantly, slightly afraid of being pushy – about how going to Mashrou3 Leila’s performance in Amman had awakened in her questions and hopes regarding the possibility of feeling a part of the Middle East by developing her Arab-Jewish identity. Lihi observed that while this identity has been “rendered a near impossibility in today’s Israeli socio-political reality, [it] is nevertheless essential to who I am and how I see the world.”

I am a strictly Ashkenazi Jew, my four grandparents were born in Poland, but my experience of that same journey to Amman was pretty similar, in this respect, to the experience described by Lihi. I’m not sure whether this similarity justifies an attempt at writing “the Ashkenazi parallel” to Lihi’s post. But maybe it is possible to write about the similarity without covering up the difference, to write in order to find out where similarity and difference actually begin and end, just in case it is not exactly where we have been told. In a sense, I’m writing this post in order to find out whether writing this post is impossible – or essential.


One of my strongest experiences from the journey to Amman was a sense of easy, natural belonging to this alien space. This sense of belonging was partial and problematic, and accompanied by no less powerful experiences of strangeness and unbelonging. But these I expected, while the sense of belonging surprised me. In retrospect, though, the most surprising thing here seems to be that I was surprised at all,  because all the ingredients of the belonging were ones I could have expected in advance: the landscape and weather, naturally, hadn’t drastically changed during the not-so-long bus trip from Jaffa to Amman, surely not as much as they would have changed after a flight to Europe; the architecture of Amman, which deals with the same landscape and weather, is quite similar to the architecture of the towns in which I have grown up and lived; the Arabic food is, of course, exactly the “Israeli” food for which I long when I’m abroad; the Arabic language is not my language, and not a language I’ve heard spoken at home, but it is so close to my mother tongue that I constantly felt (wrongly, no doubt) that I’m only one step away from understanding it, and that having to use English, that totally alien language, is terribly weird. Lastly, the music of Mashrou3 Leila and Zeid Hamdan, which plays with European and Arabic elements in order to create something new from their synthesis, is much more mine than “purely European” music (whatever this may mean). What this music does is exactly the kind of thing which the Israeli musicians that I find interesting are doing.

My surprise at feeling at home in Amman is surprising, because, damnit, I was born and raised here, in the Middle East. This is my home. It is only natural that the landscape of Jordan would feel to me more familiar than the forests of Poland. But my surprise is also unsurprising, because I haven’t often thought about myself as someone from the Middle East. I grew up thinking only that I’m from Israel. That this is my homeland, the only one I’ve got, and it is floating alone in the sea of white-areas-of-the-maps, where there is absolutely nothing that could be relevant to my life except for one big and abstract threat to our existence.


My second strong experience from the journey to Jordan, which now seems as another side of the same coin, was an experience of being a minority. A Jewish minority in Palestinian surroundings, depending on Palestinian friends as mediators, translators, advocates, hosts. It was a weird experience, because I’m so used to being in a situation when the majority-minority relations are reversed (with the same Palestinian friends in Jewish Tel Aviv). And it was also a stressful, exhausting and difficult experience, because, surprise, surprise, being a minority ain’t easy, even in ultra-comfortable, very-temporary conditions. But it was also a somewhat relaxing experience: for three full days I was a minority among Palestinians and nobody rose upon me to destroy me. Here seemed to be a possibility for thinking about being a minority as something which does not have to immediately provoke an absolute horror and the end of rational thought.

In Amman I realized the incredible extent to which Israelis, including myself, are horrified by the thought that the Palestinians might do to us what we’re doing to the Palestinians if the power relations are ever reversed. It is easy to laugh at Netanyahu’s speech at the UN, to be disgusted by it or angry about it – there are good reasons for each of these three emotions – but between the crocodiles and the waving of the map of Auschwitz, Netanyahu had eloquently talked about the very well founded fear of the vast majority of Jewish Israelis of becoming a minority. This fear does not justify the terrible things that are being done in its name, but by itself it is completely justified. A leftist movement that wants to become relevant to the general Jewish-Israeli public – as the radical Arabic-Jewish left is constantly trying to become – will have to deal with this fear straight-forwardly.

In this explosive context, I want to try and say that next to the very rational, and very pessimistic, part of the Israeli fear of becoming a minority here, I have identified, at least in myself, a part of this fear which is unrealistic and unjustified in its totality; and especially, how the utter fear of “being a minority” is the other side of the coin of “completely not belonging,” and how these two nurture each other. This is so, because in Israel we are the majority, at least for now, at least in our own thinking about ourselves (more than anything else we’re afraid of not being the majority any longer), but in the Middle East we are necessarily, and will always be, a minority. If being a minority is completely unthinkable, then obviously the only solution is to never think of ourselves as part of the Middle East in any way, never and under no condition to allow ourselves to become part of it. This means uprooting from the Arab Jews their Arabness and the Arabness of their culture, but it also means uprooting from Ashkenazi Jews the, well, Arabness of their culture too. My grandparents and their peers wanted very badly for their children to belong here, but the New Jew which they imagined was a completely artificial and utopian thing, a Golem of Prague with a cap, because they couldn’t allow themselves to imagine that their offsprings might simply belong in the place where they are born.

Not that I think that I can, or that I will ever be able to, or even that my children will ever be able to simply belong here. On the other hand, who ever does? Even Mashrou3 Leila surely don’t “simply” belong in the Middle East. And yet, they belong more than I do. Yet again, maybe this difference is not an absolute one.

The hotel in Amman where our organized trip was staying had a sauna and a jacuzzi which were open alternately to men and to women. On the women’s day I went with some friends to sit in the sauna, but one of us felt too hot, and she stayed outside and sat in the jacuzzi with an old Jordanian woman, a Palestinian refugee from ’48, like most of the Jordanians. When we came back from the sauna, our friend told us that the old woman told her (“not angry or anything, very politely”) that us Jews came from Europe and will go back to Europe, we are an alien body in this space, and we will go away just as we first came. This is what she believes and this is how she educates her children.

I believe most Israelis would consider it a problem that this is how she educates her children. The weird thing is, that in a sense this is also how we educate our children. The journey to Amman educated me, a little bit, in the opposite way. I’m happy I went.