National Arab American Heritage Month

With Rabbi Reuven Firestone, Ph.D.

April 11, 2024

Rabbi Reuven Firestone Ph.D. headshot
Astrolabe with Judeo-Arabic inscriptions, meaning Arabic language written in Hebrew letters by Jews for Jewish use.

Astrolabe with Judeo-Arabic inscriptions, meaning Arabic language written in Hebrew letters by Jews for Jewish use.

When the famous Rabbi Shlomo Yitzhaqi (Rashi) wrote his esteemed Bible commentary in 11th century France/Germany, most of the world’s Jews lived in the Arabic-speaking world. Just like everyone else living there, the Jews spoke Arabic, wrote in Arabic, and contributed their share to the larger, shared Arab culture of their home environments. They were Arab Jews – or one could say, Jewish Arabs. While Rashi in northern Europe is often thought of as the first to write a Bible commentary on the entire Bible, a Jew named Yefet ben Eli and born in Basra, Iraq, had already accomplished that a century before. Yefet wrote in the Jewish lingua franca of his day: Arabic. His commentary is insightful, original, and often brilliant. Jewish Arabs contributed more than their share to the sciences of the day in mathematics, optics, astronomy, medicine, linguistics, philosophy, poetics, literature, and more. Some familiar names among them are Saadia Gaon (aka Sa`adya ibn Yūsuf al-Fayūmī), Maimonides (aka Mūsā ibn Maymūn), and Abraham ibn Ezra (aka Ibrāhīm al-Mājid ibn Ezra).

Image Caption: Spanish Jewish MS 26899, ff. 11v and 13r / British Library, Public Domain. Includes material on astronomy, calendar intercalation,

Spanish Jewish MS 26899, ff. 11v and 13r / British Library, Public Domain. Includes material on astronomy, calendar intercalation

Arab culture and aesthetic profoundly influenced Jewish culture in innumerable ways, and much remains to this day. It impacted our prayer service, our religious ritual and music, even our ritual foods. And the revival of modern Hebrew was successful only because so many words were (re)created from Arabic roots and forms. Even our modern Hebrew pronunciation has been profoundly influenced by Arabic.

In the modern period after the balance of Jewish life had moved from the Arab world to Europe, Jewish Arabs continued to contribute to the larger society and life of the lands in which they lived. They were involved in politics and political movements, literature, art, and entertainment. Famous singers such as Layla Murad (Lillian Zaki) in Egypt, or Alice Fitoussi in Algeria; film directors and producers such as Ahmed al-Mashreqi (Togo Mizrahi, Egypt), film actors such as Nagwa Salem (Nazira Shehata) and Raqia Ibrahim (Rachel Abraham Halevi). And today, some famous living entertainers are Arab Jews, such as the singers Eyal Golan (Biton) and Noa (Achinoam Nini) in Israel and the film producer Haim Saban in the US; and a national minister in the government of Tunisia, René Trabelsi.

Maimonides teaching, 14th c. Source: Wikimedia Commons

Maimonides teaching, 14th c. Source: Wikimedia Commons

The notion and idea of “Arab Jews” or “Jewish Arabs” is controversial to some because of the current tension and violence that continues to occur between some Jews and some Arabs. But the truth of the matter is that we Jews are a layered people, comprising Arab-Mizrahi as well as European Ashkenazi, Spanish Sefaradi, and so many other less known strata of Jewish identity. Perhaps the most striking uniqueness of the Jewish people is its nature as a mélange of identities expressive of our historical experiences spread throughout the world in diaspora, all of which overlay a central core of Jewishness going back millennia to the ancient Land of Israel.

As we welcome National Arab American Heritage Month we recognize the many commonalities we share with our Arab brothers and sisters here in the US. We recognize our many shared experiences upon immigration to these shores: overcoming prejudice, working separately and together for justice for our communities and for all the many communities that make up this great nation.

Current Arab and Arab-style Jewish popular music

Yemenite Israeli Jewish sister-trio “A-WA:”

Moroccan Jewish music in Jerusalem. Neta Elkayam

Traditional Judeo-Arabic sung by Yohai Cohen with Zafir Tawil, oud.

Yemen Blues singing Jat Hahibathi in Old City, Jerusalem

Hebrew Prayer sung in traditional Yemenite pronunciation and music.

Iraqi Jews singing 16th century piyyut in Iraqi “maqām” tradition.

The Jerusalem ensemble called Firqat al-Noor under directorship of Ariel Cohen performing the popular Arab music of Farid al-Atrash.

Moroccan tradition of singing piyyut. The Ten Commandments. The Piyyut Ensemble.

Courtesy of Rabbi Reuven Firestone
Regenstein Professor in Medieval Judaism and Islam
Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion