Concrete Boxes: Mizrahi Women on Israel’s Periphery
Wayne State University Press
2018, 636 pp, $64.99
The story of Zionism, as traditionally told, begins with European-born, Ashkenazi men. As we tell it, the main actors in the early chapters of Israel’s creation—from the founder of political Zionism, Theodor Herzl, to the militaristic Ahad Ha’am—all fit that description. Yes, we acknowledge that, with time, many Mizrachim—Jews from North Africa, Yemen, Syria, Iraq, Iran—joined the enterprise. But all too often, Mizrachim have been included as an afterthought in the Zionist narrative, and Mizrachi women escape our attention almost entirely.
We are waking up to the fact that Mizrachim now make up more than half of all Israeli Jews. And not only do Mizrachim come from a different part of the world, but they also continue to view Zionism, Judaism, religion and gender very differently than do Jews of European descent. Without an appreciation of the Mizrachi worldview, therefore, we can have nothing but a myopic view of the country that Israel is quickly becoming.
The relegation of Mizrachim to the periphery of our Israel consciousness has been decades in the making. David Ben-Gurion shoved the Mizrachim aside geographically and tried to segregate them from the Ashkenazi in the Israeli school system. And in the 1950s, when the desperately poor new State of Israel was flooded by some 700,000 Mizrachi immigrants who had been forced out of their North African homes, the government established ma’abarot (transit camps), designed to replace the less habitable tent cities that immigrants had been in and serve as temporary dwelling places until “real” housing was available. Soon, though, conditions in the ma’abarot were just as bad as they had been in the tent cities, and for many immigrants, the ma’abarot became permanent housing. In the years to come, some of the ma’abarot morphed into small cities such as Kiryat Shemona and Beit She’an, and often into Israel’s poorest neighborhoods.
Israeli anthropologist Pnina Motzafi-Haller spent four years living in and studying one of these cities, Yeruham—a poor development town in the Negev. A Mizrachi woman herself, born in another development town, Motzafi-Haller examines the Mizrachim by following the lives of five Mizrachi women. The resulting book, Concrete Boxes: Mizrahi Women on Israel’s Periphery, provides a welcome window into an Israeli world we discuss far too little. From the case of a single mother who raises two children without the help of her drug-addicted partner, to another woman who becomes ever more religious in an attempt to find herself, the book shows how Mizrachi women traverse difficult circumstances to forge strong identities and meaningful lives.
The book uncovers both the power and the dignity of women who are shaping not only the future of their own communities, but that of Israel as well.
Motzafi-Haller tells her story within the larger narrative of Mizrachi Jews. She describes how the Mizrachim began to push to the center of Israeli life in the 1970s and came to create powerful political parties of their own. In 1984, under the leadership of the larger-than-life Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, they formed a political party called Shas. Religiously, Shas had an unabashedly ultra-Orthodox, highly traditional agenda, but Shas also took care of Sephardi and Mizrachi social and educational needs. Even Mizrachim who were not particularly religious were attracted to the party. As a result, the unique religious world of the Mizrachim, which Motzafi-Haller describes well, began to make its way into mainstream Israeli consciousness.
As Concrete Boxes illustrates through engaging interviews with its female subjects, Mizrachi religiosity always manifested itself differently from the doctrinally more rigid Ashkenazi variety. Motzafi-Haller portrays the religious journeys of Mizrachi women, demonstrating effectively that the “religious-secular” divide of which we speak so often does not apply to Mizrachi Jews. Secularism, as such, hardly exists in their community, even among the non-observant. Faith is ubiquitous in the Mizrachi community, even if it does not lead to a punctilious religious lifestyle. Appreciating how Mizrachi religiosity works—Mizrachi Jews admire their rabbis more than their Ashkenazi counterparts do but obey them less—is key to understanding what today’s Israel is becoming. Ironically, as their worldview has become better known, the Mizrachim have made it possible for Ashkenazim to draw closer to Jewish tradition—with attendant sentiments of respect and loyalty—without the fear of becoming “religious,” a label that is still anathema to many Israelis who were raised in the secular world.
One of the great contributions of Concrete Boxes, with its focus on women, is that it tells the stories of a periphery within a periphery, but it does so without pity. Instead, the book uncovers both the power and the dignity of women who are shaping not only the future of their own communities, but that of Israel as well. Motzafi-Haller’s demonstration that it is women who often lead families to greater religious faith—hitchazkut (strengthening), as they call it—is unexpected and fascinating.
Indeed, the image of women as the unspoken power-brokers in many Mizrachi families is the most interesting dimension of Motzafi-Haller’s work. It is women who often provide the family’s self-respect as they struggle (often successfully) to escape poverty’s grip. Mizrachi women hold their mothers in high esteem, she shows, but are also explicit about how they seek to fashion modern Israeli lives that are very different from those of their mothers and the women of a previous generation.
Profound loyalty pervades the lives of the women interviewed by Motzafi-Haller. They are loyal to the families that raised them, to the men in their lives even when those men often disappoint them, and to places like Yerucham, the poverty-ridden town in which many of the book’s subjects live. They are deeply loyal to Israel. They appreciate the projects that Israeli women, such as the politically active Leah Shakdiel, have launched to help these communities, but what emerges is anything but a community locked in dependence. Quite the contrary. The image of Mizrachi women in Concrete Boxes is of powerful, proud and resourceful women, an important aspect of Mizrachi life and Israeli society with which many of us are unfamiliar.
Although Concrete Boxes is not a book you would take to the beach, it affords its readers a powerful window into a dimension of Israeli life few American Jews know. As such, it will leave the reader with an appreciation of the nuances of an important aspect of Israeli life that, far from the headlines, may actually determine the kind of place the Jewish state will be.
Daniel Gordis is the Koret Distinguished Fellow at Shalem College in Jerusalem. His latest book, Israel: A Concise History of a Nation Reborn, received the 2016 National Jewish Book Award for “Book of the Year.”