Scene: Job interview. I’m seated across my interviewer. He taps his pencil on the desk. The air-conditioning hums.
Location: Office in Galilee, Israel
My interviewer, a bald man in his late 40s, pushes his glasses up his sweaty nose, scans my resume once again. I sense he’s uncomfortable. He’s dying to ask me “the question.” It’s an itch he can’t resist. The legs of his chair skid on the floor as he plants his elbows on his desk. He asks in the most casual tone: “Tell me, Maurice, what’s your background?”
He couldn’t resist, the temptation too strong. By “background” he means whether I’m Sephardi (Jews who trace their ancestry to the Iberian Peninsula – Spain and Portugal – as well as all of North Africa to include Egypt, Morocco, Libya, Algeria, Tunisia – as well as the Middle East to include Lebanon, Syria, and as far as Turkey, Greece, Bulgaria) or whether I’m Ashkenazi (Jews who trace their roots to mostly Europe – Germany, England, Poland, Russia, and all the former Soviet Republics as well as all the Jews who’d originally lived in Europe but migrated to Argentina, Mexico and even Australia). France and Italy had both Sephardic and Ashkenazi at different periods while Jews from Yemen, Ethiopia, Iraq, Iran, India are “lumped” with Sephardi.
By “background” he doesn’t want to know whether I come from a family of doctors, fishermen, lumberjacks, bricklayers, people with four ears, three legs, a tail, or a circumcised penis. No, he wants to know where my parents were born. He doesn’t use the no-no word “origin,” (Motzah, in Hebrew). That would be overly direct; that would be a violation of my privacy rights, although employers here routinely cross the line by asking a person’s age, marital status, hometown.
I gaze confidently at my interviewer. The resume in his hands baffles him. He’s trying to figure out the “origin” of my last name: Lavi, in Hebrew. It means Lioness.
Up until the 11th century, there were no Jewish last names to speak of. Jews went by their birth order: “Joseph the son of Moshe,” for example. Then last names began to pop up in Spain, France, Italy and North Africa. They weren’t complex. Heads of families were named after their profession: “Attar” (pharmacist), “Shohet” (ritual slaughterer), or how they were regarded in the community: “Haviv” (favorite), “Katan (small), “Bracha” (blessing), “Yerushalmi (from Jerusalem), in Sephardic countries.
Later, in Europe, for the purpose of taxation and census, Ashkenazi Jews in Poland, Germany adopted last names of their own: “Goldberg” (Gold Mountain), “Tishler” (carpenter), “Shneider” (tailor). Last names that ended in “vich” – the son of – meant the family came from Romania or Poland. Names ending in “Stein,” Man,” “Berg” came from Germany. ”Ski” endings came from Russia, Ukraine.
Could it be that my Lavi forefathers in North Africa were regarded as ferocious, courageous, worthy of the “Lioness” title?
“Lavi” is as genuine Israeli last name as they come. It’s mentioned 7 times in the bible, mostly by prophets. In the Book of Joel, chapter 1, it says: “For a great nation overran my land, immense and countless, its teeth those of lion, its jaws those of lioness.”
Kibbutzim, parks, and office complexes are named after “Lavi”. It was also the name of the much-acclaimed Israeli fighter jet.
It’s no wonder many Jews who’d immigrated to Israel in the last 100 years wanted to shed their “Diaspora-sounding” names and to adopt a strong Hebrew name. Lavi is common enough, but not overused. And it’s “uni-origin” – It’s both Sephardi and Ashkenazi.
And here lies the problem for my interviewer. He can’t tell my “background” from my last name nor from my appearance. I might just slide under the radar as an Ashkenazi. I don’t have bushy eyebrows, my stubble, when not shaved, isn’t thick or dark, my complexion is “medium” — there are European, Ashkenazi Jews who are fair-skinned, and there are some who are quite dark. I’m dressed professionally in slacks and a crisp white shirt, my shoes are polished. That offers him no clues. Nor do I carry an accent or dialect from “home” that might hint of my “country of origin.” If anything, some of the words I use come across as “American-sounding.”
The interviewer scratches his head, taps the pencil again. He wants to know if I’m part of his “team” or if I’m with the “others.” If he can’t go after my last name, why not try the first: Maurice. He pronounces it the same way I did when I first introduced myself, the “French” way. That throws him off course. I could very well be from France (Ashkenazi or Sephardi, remember?), or I, or my family, could be from the former French colony of Morocco, and therefore Sephardi.
Yes, but he’s still unsure because my resume shows my place of birth as England (Ashkenazi?), and educated in Israel and in the U.S. (Martian? extraterrestrial?)
I lean forward slightly and repeat his question word for word: “You want to know my ‘background?’”
He senses he’s overstepped his boundaries and we move to talk about something else.
But why this quest to know the “origin?” We’re all guilty, at one time or another, of wanting to compartmentalize and pigeon-hole things and people. It creates order. And in Israel, a country divided on so many fault lines: Orthodox Jews vs. secular Jews, the right vs. left, Jews vs. Arabs, the Haves vs. Have-nots, it’s only natural that Ashkenazi and Sephardic Jews don’t always agree on things.
But why don’t they get along?
Other than several thousand Sephardi Jews who’d always lived in the Holy Sites: Jerusalem, Tiberias, Sefad, the land of Palestine under the Ottoman Empire was largely inhabited by Arabs, Bedouins, nomads. At the end of the 19th century, at the onset of the Zionist movement, thousands of Ashkenazi Jews flocked to Palestine to escape persecution. They were the first to arrive; they purchased land, established kibbutim, tilled the soil, built Tel Aviv on the sand dunes. They had a head start of about 50 years over the Sephardi Jews who, for the most part, came after Israel’s founding in 1948. The Arab nations, Iraq, Libya, Morocco, Syria, now hostile toward their Jewish population, dispossessed them of their property, their money. They kicked them out with whatever they could carry on their backs.
The Ashkenazi Jews, generally, were better established and better capitalized. Naturally, they did business with their own kind. During Israel’s first decades, they controlled banks, newspapers, TV, entertainment, universities, business, government posts. They still do. They grabbed the lion’s (lioness’?) share. The Sephardic Jews arrived late to the party, were handed out scraps and bones. They were sent off to remote border towns, far from the center of power, of money.
Sephardi Jews have been playing catch-up ever since. They protest against discrimination, prejudice, cronyism. Which is why, even today, each group looks out to help its own “members.” Which is why my interviewer – I never asked him of his origin – wanted so desperately to know the Name of my Club.
I rise from my chair and shake his hand. Whether he’s an Ashkenazi or Sephardi, I could only label him an idiot. He’s still bound by Tell Me Where You’re From rather than Tell Me Where You’re Going.
Outside the office building the air feels good. As Lavi, the lioness, I rush home to rejoin the pride. I need to feed my cubs.
Maurice Labi is an Israeli-American who lived in Los Angeles for many years. In 2011 He returned to Northern Israel (Galilee) with his wife and twin teenage daughters. He is of two lands, of two cultures and he blogs about his experiences in Israel, particularly from Galilee where Jews and Arabs dwelled for centuries.
He has also written three novels: “Jupiter’s Stone,” “Into the Night,” and “American Moth” — available at Amazon.com
or at BN.com