Can a Mizrahi girl fit into Israel’s national story?

I grew up in a place where my first name was nothing more than a word on my identification card. Where the Holocaust was something that didn’t belong to me. Where my story had no place. All because of my ethnicity. 

By Adi Sadaka

Ever since I was a young girl and through my years growing up in Kiryat Tiv’on, I found myself trying my best to conceal my last name. In the small town where I lived in Israel’s north, the heartland of Ashkenazi identity, I felt, without even understanding what I was feeling at the time, that it was better simply not to admit that I was Mizrahi.

The first step in this process was to try not to say my last name out loud. Sometimes this worked. But my last name was almost always revealed, and regardless of where I went, everyone just called me “Sadaka.”

My first name became nothing more than a word on my ID card.

In high school, my brother’s older friends – he was also called “Sadaka” – called me “Little Sadaka.” Even after I left Tiv’on, went to the Garin (a pre-army year course), was drafted into the army and moved to Tel Aviv,  people insisted on calling me by my last name. And I’ve heard it in all of its forms: Sadakush, Sedek, Sidkit, Sudoku.

My first name, Adi, is used only by my family members and maybe two or three friends.

My classmates who grew up with me in Tiv’on will be very upset with me if they hear me claim that even in our small town there is discrimination based on ethnicity. They will surely say that I am searching for racism in places where it does not exist, and that no one in actually Tiv’on cares where you come from. But when you talk about where you are going, well, that’s where you can see the difference.

Tiv’on is clearly divided into two areas. On the lefthand side of Tiv’on Junction there is Kiryat Amal. Kiryat Amal includes the most Zionist streets in town: Alexander Zaïd, Moshe Sharett, Yigal Alon, Yitzhak Rabin and Hannah Senesh. People whose reputation precedes them.

On the righthand side of the junction, one sees the old Kiryat Tiv’on and the relatively new neighborhood of Ramat Tiv’on. These neighborhoods are named after flowers and plants.

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I spent my childhood and teenage years on a small street called Rehov Ha’Vradim (Rose Street) on the top of the hill. The street is part of a neighborhood called Skhunat Ha’Gefen (Vinyard Neighborhood), and most of its residents are Mizrahim. There are a few exceptions, just like there are a few Mizrahi families who live in other parts of Tiv’on. The number of Mizrahi families in Ha’Gefen, however, is far greater.

When people asked me where I’m from, I’d say that I lived near Ramat Tiv’on. I didn’t want to say “Sadaka” nor did I want to tell them what street I lived on. I wanted so badly to be like those Ashkenazi kids from central Tiv’on or Kiryat Amal. Those wonder children who were always the center of attention. I wanted to be just like them. But nothing helped. I remained Sadaka.

Eleventh grade came around, and with it the annual school trip to visit the death camps in Poland. It was clear to me that I was going to go, even though I had no relatives who were in the Holocaust or even ones who escaped just in time. Yes, I have family members, including my father, who were forced to flee Syria in the middle of the night on a dangerous and frightening journey. But I didn’t appreciate this story at the time; I only wanted to see the train tracks at Birkenau. So I spent the entire summer working as a baby-sitter, painting walls and gardening in order to save enough money and be like the others. And I succeeded.

When we arrived in Auschwitz, everyone in my class stood in a ceremonial circle and read aloud the names of their relatives who were killed in the Holocaust. The teacher then pushed a video camera into my hands and said, “Since you don’t have any family members who were murdered in the Holocaust, you need to film the ceremony.” I stood in the middle of the tearful circle and filmed silently. I felt completely disconnected.

Even today, almost 15 years later, I still go back to this incident. I think about where I fit in, from Tiv’on to Auschwitz. I think about the physical places that Mizrahim like myself have been concentrated in. And especially those who live in the nice neighborhoods of Tiv’on or take part of those circles in Auschwitz. I think about the symbolic spaces that we are allowed to occupy with last names such as ours. I think about those who are allowed two names – both first and last – and the kids who prefer to go by their first name. I think about entire families who are reduced to a single last name, and the fact that there is no effort to differentiate between the different people who make up those families.

I think about this and claim my own place. I am Adi Sadaka – Mizrahi wonder child.

This article was first published in Hebrew on Café Gibraltar.

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