by Loolwa Khazzoom

Iraqis in Pajamas: Why the Personal Is No Longer Political

I wanted the cohesion of community
But the price was conformity

3-raw-healing-power“Conformity” is the first song I wrote that fused original English lyrics with ancient Hebrew text, in an ironic punk rock rendition of “Eli eli lama,” an Iraqi song for Simhath Torah. I had just come home from a small, progressive, observant Jewish gathering in someone’s home, where right upon entering, I’d been introduced as an Iraqi Jew. Then, I’d been barraged with rapid-fire questions about where I’d grown up, which Middle Eastern synagogues I’d attended, who my family was, and which Iraqi Jews I knew. I excused myself within 20 minutes, making up something about a heavy work load, and I left with an overwhelming sense of agitation and frustration. Why, I wondered, are observant Jews so obsessed with these kinds of questions, as opposed to being interested in questions about who I am—or, for that matter, just saying hello and letting me enter a space quietly?

Jews, I mused, are tribal by nature, defined not by our individuality, but by our relationship to others in the clan. Jews like to peg each other at the outset in an eager attempt to forge bonds of connection. The impetus is a desire to be welcoming, to cultivate an immediate sense of belonging. The problem is that there are numerous false assumptions inherent in the particular line of Jewish questioning, such as the assumption of the Nice Jewish Family. For those whose lives do not fit this or other pan-Jewish narratives, what is meant to be warm and embracing actually feels intrusive and alienating—to the point of casting Jews out.

When you’re part of the same community
That denies or fails to understand violence
You have to choose
Between pretense battle or alienation
Keeping the violence alive for a lifetime
— “Violence”

On top of that uncontrollable Jewish tic, there is a human tendency to categorize people, creating shortcuts to figuring out who someone is and where to place her. It’s labor-intensive, after all, to take the time to get to know someone on the level of an individual soul, and to truly comprehend not only all the interweaving threads in her life, but the significance those threads have to her, personally and uniquely. So we corner off: Jew vs. non-Jew, white vs. person of color, Sephardic vs. Ashkenazi, woman vs. man, and so on.

While I understand the power of gathering around a particular theme or cause; while I recognize the truth of shared experience among certain groups; and while I honor the spiritual nourishment that can emerge from bonding over that shared experience, I also believe that each of these constructs is, on some level, false. And that if not approached mindfully, with awareness of their limitations, they in themselves can create the kind of distress or trauma they seek to remedy. It’s not just that, Russian doll style, people who are excluded from Group A often gather in Group B in ways that exclude people from Group C, and so on down the line. It’s that so much more is at play than external identities—namely, a cacophony of unresolved personal issues acting out in public spheres (jealousy, fear, greed, ego) that repeatedly interfere with, undermine, or downright sabotage efforts to recognize, make room for, and celebrate all of us in our unique beauty.

I can pique your curiosity
But I can’t make you care
“Talking About Me”

After two decades of ground-breaking Jewish multicultural work, I came to understand that at the end of the day, social change depends on individual spiritual work—caring for oneself and others “with reckless abandon,” as one author put it, and doing whatever it takes to facilitate healing and transformation in one’s personal life. As long as people are walking wounded, they will project onto the world around them all their drama, in turn limiting what can be accomplished on the greater socio-political level—no matter how informed, skilled, and persuasive one may be. You can lead the horse to water and all that.

I no longer seek to change what is out there, in the Jewish community or otherwise. Instead, I seek to share what is in here, in a very personal way, by singing about my thoughts and experiences—offering them as a gift to others, with the blessing that my own journey of healing and transformation may touch and inspire theirs. Through my band, Iraqis in Pajamas, the diversity and wisdom of my life now flow through music like colorful ribbons, creating a uniquely textured landscape.

Of course, I stand at the intersections of all kinds of things said to be inherently in conflict—not the least of which is the very act of being a woman singing a punk rock rendition of sacred Iraqi Jewish music. I also sing unabashedly about some very complex matters, without explanation—like the relationship between cancer, domestic violence, and Iraqi Jewish traditions. So, it is entirely possible that most people will not understand where I’m coming from.

And I’m OK with that.

Talking about me
In my own language now
After decades of translating
You may not
Understand or relate
I don’t really care anymore

I’m tired of persuading you
Breaking it down
Packaging it for you
So that it’s digestible
Fitting your perceptions
And points of reference

You can hate me
And malign me
And claim that I am crazy
I just don’t have the energy
Or interest

So I’m just going to say
What’s on my mind
And you may be confused
But I’ll be crystal clear
This time
— “Talking About Me”

Loolwa Khazzoom’s lifelong passion for healing and wholeness has expressed itself through her pioneering work as a Jewish multicultural educator, writer, healer, musician, and public relations manager. Today she synthesizes all this work through music-driven programs with her band – performing and sharing the personal stories behind her original music, then inviting people to share their own stories, as a way to inspire and support each other. Loolwa’s music incorporates themes of courage, integrity, self-expression, freedom, and other building blocks of transformation, and it includes songs that are a mashup of Iraqi Jewish prayers, punk rock, and original lyrics. Loolwa’s work has been featured in top media, including The New York Times, CNN, and Rolling Stone. She can be found at, and her band can be found at Sign up for her newsletter, and receive a copy of the Iraqis in Pajamas song book, here.

© 2011 Lilith Magazine