4: Embroidery with appliqué of satin and velvet, Haim Maor's “Ana yahudi," 1990.

4: Embroidery with appliqué of satin and velvet, Haim Maor's “Ana yahudi," 1990.

This is an image of a tapestry bearing the Arabic words “Ana yahudi” (“I am a Jew”). Produced by artist Haim Maor, the Israeli-born son of Polish-Jewish Holocaust survivors, the work was originally exhibited in a Tel Aviv gallery in 1990. It later appeared on the back cover of Hakivun mizrah (Eastward Bound), a journal of Mizrahi culture and literature, for a special bilingual Hebrew-Arabic issue.

This embrace of the Arabic language by an Ashkenazi Jewish Israeli might be seen as a statement on Jewish/Palestinian relations in Israel, as an example of a Jew embracing the language of the “enemy.” At the same time, Maor’s tapestry seems to distill the themes of Behar’s short story—and the complexity of Mizrahi identity—into a single image. In its very construction, it disproves the ideas—prevalent in the Middle East and elsewhere—that an Arab cannot be a Jew, and that a Jew does not speak Arabic. Since most Jewish viewers would not be able to read the Arabic, this piece reminds them (once they read the title in English or Hebrew) of the loss of Arabic as a common and publicly spoken Jewish language.

From yet another perspective, the word “Jew” sewn on a cloth patch may evoke memories of the Holocaust, when Jews and others were forced to wear such badges proclaiming their inferior status under Nazi rule. And yet, Maor’s tapestry seems to upend the Nazis intentions; by adding “I am a” (“Ana” in Arabic), the “Jew” becomes an affirmatively claimed identity rather than a pejorative label. (For further interpretation of this image, see Lital Levy's Poetic Trespass: Writing between Hebrew and Arabic in Israel/Palestine (2017), page 267.)

Suggested activity: Look closely at the image with students. Together, describe the design, shapes, colors, and content of the tapestry. Ask students what the image makes them think of. A Holocaust-era identity badge? A statement of ethnic pride? An “Oriental” rug? An Arab flag? A parochet (the curtain in a synagogue that covers the ark which holds the Torah scrolls)? How do their different associations fit together or contradict one another? 

Discuss: why might Maor—an Ashkenazi Jew—have created this artwork? How might it resonate with Mizrahi Israelis? With Ashkenazi Israelis? With Palestinian or other non-Jewish Arab viewers?

Ask students to come up with their own visual representation of the relationship between Arabness and Jewishness, or between Jewishness and some other ethnic or national identity they might claim (e.g., Jewishness and Americanness). What might it look like? Ask students to sketch out a plan for it on paper or, if you have more time, to create a complete work of art.

Source: Haim Maor, "Ana yahudi," embroidery with appliqué of satin and velvet, 140 x 190 cm, 1990. From the artist's collection.