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“The Missing Mizrahi is my attempt to spotlight and remember the Jews who are invisible, the Jews who are slowly dying out.”
Oh, East is East, and West is West, and always the twain shall meet.
(after Rudyard Kipling)

Where are you from? It’s a question best not to bring up. I have been asked this since my secondary school days, been bullied because I was not born in England, been called the P-word despite it being incorrect, geographically and in so many other ways. My green eyes and brown hair, now turning a shiny shade of silver, and my olive skin, were all reasons that everyone always wanted to know, ‘Where are you from, Shelley? France? Spain? South America?’ The conversations go something like this –

Where are you from, Shelley?
But where are you REALLY from?
Golders Green.
I shake my head.
So where are you from? (This is asked with great urgency, as if I am now teasing them).
I was born in Kolkata. India.

The questioner’s face melts. Their assumption has been confirmed. I am other. But other than that? When I tell them I was born into a small Jewish community in India, they are confused. Our conversation travels across continents while I explain my heritage. My grandparents’ and family’s birth places add up to a delicious mix, from Amara in Iraq to Penang in Malaysia to Aleppo in Syria, Shanghai in China and Rangoon in Burma. My aunt’s heritage is Greek and Egyptian. My cousin’s heritage is Moroccan. On the day I was born there was a cow in the road.

I have explained so many times to so many curious people that there are Jews from elsewhere than Europe, from the Middle East and North Africa. The Bene Israel Jews in India kept their Jewish traditions while being very much part of the caste system. We are called ‘wandering’ for a reason. We are not only Ashkenazi Jews from Eastern Europe. We are the forgotten Jews, the afterthought Jews. I am reminded of Edward Said’s Orientalism and the sense of superiority the West had towards the East, the Orient, the other. This sense of other was apparent in the way European Ashkenazi Jews viewed Sephardi, Mizrahi and Bene Israel communities.

I have in the past called myself Sephardi; in reality, I am a Mizrahi Jew, Mizrahi being a translation of the Hebrew for Eastern. Sephardi Jews originate from Spain and Portugal. For many years I offered Sephardi as my identity, as an alternative to Ashkenazi, because Sephardi, while not a well-known division of Jews, is more familiar than Mizrahi. (Even my spell check knows the word Sephardi, and it definitely knows Ashkenazi.)

In my parents’ generation, if an Ashkenazi married a Sephardi or Mizrahi, it was seen as ‘marrying out,’ marrying someone who was ‘other’ to you, less than. Imagine that. I still joke about it on occasion. Conversely, when a Sephardi or Mizrahi Jew marries an Ashkenazi, mostly it’s about how our food is so much more flavoursome. Buy any of Claudia Roden’s Middle Eastern cookery books and a wealth of culture, history and food will overwhelm and tantalise you.

Regarding the othering of Jews, I was out with members of my family one evening when someone who was sitting with us commented, ‘You’re all very exotic.’ My family found this insulting. Their dark skin and dark eyes and beards were seen as other, despite all of them being born in the UK. It made them and me feel othered.

In future I suggest we ask people about their heritage, not where they are from. To exoticise me is to other me. I am not other, I am just different, we are all different. American culture incorporates Jews as part of the norm. In the UK we don’t as much but we are getting better. However, whenever Jews are portrayed on British TV, or in film or theatre, they are almost always Ashkenazi. I’d like to see Sephardis and Mizrahis portrayed, because we form part of the wider Jewish communities of Britain, even if we are almost as invisible to Ashkenazi Jews as we are to non-Jews. I’d like to see our history taught alongside Ashkenazi history in the school curriculum.

My heritage is vast and exciting. Where am I from? London. Who am I from? So many.

Shelley Silas

Shelley’s stage plays include Eating Ice Cream on Gaza Beach (NYT/Soho Theatre), Falling (The Bush), Calcutta Kosher (Southwark Playhouse, Theatre Royal Stratford East), Mercy Fine (Clean Break). Plays for Radio Four include: United Kingdoms, The Trial of the Well of Loneliness, Dead Weight and Dead Cert (in Val McDermid’s comedy crime DEAD series), I am Emma Humphreys (winner 2010 Clarion Award), The Sound of Silence and Comfort Girl. Adaptations for radio include Ruth Prawer Jhabvala’s novel Heat and Dust and Paul Scott’s Raj Quartet (with John Harvey). She compiled, edited and contributed to the anthology, Twelve Days (Virago). Her VR short The Turning Forest, directed by Oscar Raby, was selected for international film festivals, including London, Melbourne, Sydney, Toronto & Tribeca, as well as for Raindance, Pi Centre Montreal, Edinburgh Digital Film Festival, and I Love Transmedia Festival, Paris. named it among its favourite pieces at Tribeca and it won the 2016 TVB Europe Award for Best Achievement in Sound (beating the Proms among others). Shelley has worked as development producer for Brazen Productions on ‘Ewan’, a TV series, based on The Hidden Case of Ewan Forbes: The Transgender Trial that Threatened to Upend the British Establishment. Current work includes a new play for Rifco Theatre.

© Shelley Silas