It was a dry, dusty day a few Augusts ago when I found myself discussing Andrew Lloyd Weber’s contributions to musical theater with Father Giovanni, David, and Faraz. We’d just finished ulpan for the week and were all on the number 17 bus to the center of town in Jerusalem, on our way to my favorite sabich vendor. The sandwich, named after the acronym for the ingredients which constitute it, was brought over to Israel by the Iraqi Jews who ate it exclusively for breakfast (sabah is Arabic for “morning”). For those of us without well-meaning grandmothers worried about our arteries, sabich can be eaten at any time. The name is said to come from the salads (salatim in Hebrew), hard-boiled eggs (beitzim), and fried eggplant (chatzilim) stuffed into the pita. With tahini and pickles, it is glory.
The experience encapsulated the kaleidoscope of cultures and experiences available in Jerusalem. Here I was, an Israeli-born, California-raised twenty-something, discussing performance art with an Italian Catholic, a French Jew, and a Christian Israeli, on our way to meet a Jewish Slovenian Ladino scholar and a Polish Muslim to have a food brought by Iraqi Jews fleeing persecution in their home country in the early 1950s.
Those Iraqis were part of a wave of Aliyah shortly after statehood was declared. In those years after World War II, Israel absorbed over 680,000 Jews, over doubling the fledgling nation’s population. Between independence in 1948 and 1953, close to 340,000 European Jews, mostly from concentration or displaced persons camps, were absorbed. At the same time, an influx of immigrants from Arab and Muslim countries began. Israel launched airlifts to evacuate Jewish populations experiencing discrimination throughout the region. Operation On Wings of Eagles brought 47,000 Jews from Yemen. Operation Ezra and Nehemia airlifted more than 120,000 Iraqis to Israel’s soil. Almost the entirety of Libya’s Jewish community, over 32,000 people, also arrived. Similar numbers came from Turkey, Iran, Tunisia, and Morocco, to name a few. Today, Israel’s population boasts citizens who’ve come from six continents and over 70 countries.
At the beginning of October, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu stood in front of the UN General Assembly and said to the delegates, “The establishment of Israel… has enabled [the Jewish people] to embrace Jews who’ve come from the four corners of the earth to find refuge from persecution. They came from war-torn Europe, from Yemen, Iraq, Morocco, from Ethiopia and the Soviet Union, from a hundred other lands. And today, as a rising tide of anti-Semitism once again sweeps across Europe and elsewhere, many Jews come to Israel to join us in building the Jewish future.” It is that embracing welcome that made my sabich trip possible.
Merav Ceren grew up in Southern California, where she attended UCI and led the re-establishment of Anteaters for Israel.