SEPTEMBER 6, 2018 – When US forces in Baghdad raided Saddam Hussein’s secret police headquarters in 2003, they came across a basement full of Torah scrolls, prayer books, and boxes of photographs. One of the photos was of a young boy at his birthday party. That boy was Michael Lawee, a congregant at Marblehead’s Temple Sinai.
“I must’ve been maybe 7,” said Lawee, who works as a sleep center administrator. “It’s quite surprising when you think about this old picture of yours in this [basement] collecting mold.”
Lawee, who lived in Baghdad until he was 11 in 1959, is part of the small group of Sephardic (of Spanish origin) and Mizrahi (of Middle East or North African origin) Jews living on the North Shore. Their numbers may pale in comparison to Ashkenazi Jews from Eastern Europe – “You can count us on one hand,” said Mario Makhluf, a retired electrical engineer originally from Libya, and now of Lynn – but their memories and traditions add flavor to the Jewish community.
Max Zafrani of Swampscott, whose last name is Arabic for “saffron,” fondly remembers the food of his native Morocco. “We didn’t have gefilte fish, we had real fish,” said Zafrani, an electrical engineer. Like many Sephardim, he recalls a lost world where Jews and their Arab neighbors peacefully coexisted. For much of history, Sephardic and Mizrahi Jews enjoyed better relationships with their neighbors than their Ashkenazi counterparts.
“I didn’t have any issues in Morocco being Jewish,” he said, recalling a childhood in the 1960s where he played soccer with his Arab friends, and his father was well-respected by his Arab coworkers.
“A cousin of ours was a hairdresser for [the queen of Morocco],” Zafrani recalled. “The king’s doctors were Jewish, also.”
As has often been the case, the Jewish community’s fate rose and fell according to the views of the ruling elite. Zafrani credited the Moroccan royal family’s acceptance for the widespread tolerance the Jewish community once enjoyed. During World War II, when Morocco was under the control of Vichy France, Sultan Mohammed V refused to enact discriminatory laws, and famously said, “There are no Jews in Morocco. There are only Moroccan subjects.”
During the Six-Day War in 1967, relations deteriorated, and have not fully recovered since. Today, the Jewish population in Morocco, once in the hundreds of thousands, hovers around 2,300.
“During the Six-Day War, no Jew left their house,” said Zafrani. “You did hear about some Jews getting beaten by Arabs.”
Other Sephardim recall a similar dynamic: an ancient, well-integrated Jewish community living in relative peace and prosperity until a series of events – often the combination of the founding of Israel, the Six-Day War, and a change in government – caused relations with their Arab neighbors to so thoroughly disintegrate that today hardly any Jews remain.
“Jews lived very well,” Sheyda Saponar, a technical sales engineer from Marblehead, recalled of her childhood in pre-revolutionary Iran, when it was still ruled by the pro-Western Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi. “For the most part, I never experienced any anti-Semitism in 19 years living there.”
Things began to change when Saponar was in college, during the Iranian Revolution of 1978-79 that overthrew the Shah.
“Students protesting made several comments to me that Israel sent guns to armies in Iran,” said Saponar. “It was sad because I love both countries so much. I want to defend Israel to Iranians and Iran to Israelis.”
Once the Shah was deposed, many Jews no longer felt safe. Right before Ayatollah Khomeini took power in early 1979, Saponar and thousands of other young students began leaving the country that had been their home for nearly 3,000 years.
Before every Shabbat, Makhluf’s family sat on a nice carpet in their home in Tripoli, the capital of Libya. Often, especially as violence toward Libyan Jews escalated during the Six-Day War, his mother would say, “I wish this carpet would become a flying carpet and take us to Israel.”
Unfortunately, it stayed on the ground, and Makhluf’s family, like so many Jews who remained in Arab lands at the time, had to find creative ways to make it out. In 1967, Makhluf and his family spent a year in one of the military camps where the government interned Jews to protect them from widespread violence. They then boarded a boat to Italy, where they spent another year in a refugee camp before the local Jewish community helped them get to Israel.
Makhluf was one of an estimated 850,000 Sephardic and Mizrahi Jews who left their home countries between 1948 and 1980, 600,000 of whom went to Israel.
Even though the first Jews to arrive in America were Spanish and Portuguese, Sephardic and Mizrahi Jews now comprise approximately 10 percent of the American Jewish population. On the North Shore, many of those Jews lived in Israel first, and for some, spending significant amounts of time in three countries has led to identity questions.
“I don’t feel Iranian, Israeli, or American,” said Saponar. “I feel Jewish more than anything.”
Some, like Zafrani, came directly to the United States. Others, like Lawee, took a circuitous route: he and his family traveled to Istanbul, Munich, Geneva, and finally spent nine months in Portugal while they waited for their American visas to arrive.
The Sephardim interviewed for this story, none of whom were born in America, settled on the North Shore for different reasons. Talya Paul, a Hebrew school teacher who lives in Lynnfield, grew up in Israel after her grandmother fled Yemen when her mother was an infant. After she completed her service in the Israel army, Paul visited an aunt on the North Shore and met her future husband on the day she arrived here. Yvette Namias of Peabody, who grew up in Greece and survived the Holocaust, was placed here by an American rescue organization. Saponar came here for work. Lawee attended a Vietnam War protest in Boston and decided he preferred it to New York.
In this Ashkenazi enclave with different foods, religious services, and customs, the Sephardim find remnants of their native cultures where they can. For many, that means finding the synagogue that most reminds them of their youth. Some, like Makhluf and Zafrani, prefer traditional Hebrew prayer services in Orthodox shuls.
“I kind of embrace where I am, and that’s why I stayed here,” Zafrani said.