The 18th World Congress of Jewish Studies

Ana Ummek: “Passing” and the Denial of Motherhood in Israeli and African American Literatures

The protagonist in Orly Castel-Bloom’s short-short Hebrew story “Ummi Fi Shurl” (1993), repeatedly denies any relation to her mother, an old Arabic-speaking woman dressed in black, who she meets in a city park. Similarly, in the short story “Passing” (1934), the African American writer Langston Hughes describes a man who ignores his mother on a Chicago street. Hughes’ protagonist is passing as white which prevents him from acknowledging his black mother, afraid to reveal his repressed racial identity.

Many scholars of Hebrew literature discussed the repression of Mizrahi identities in Israel, and most recently, Gil Hochberg described the separation of “Jew” and “Arab” in “Ummi Fi Shural” as a “dark abyss of national amnesia” (IN SPITE OF PARTITION, 2010). My research connects between the erasure of Jewish ethnic identities in Israeli fiction, and the erasure of one’s past through acts of passing in African American literature. Through a comparative study, this paper argues that Castel-Bloom’s story is a PASSING story, and that while Hughes` and Castel-Bloom’s characters achieve certain freedoms through passing, the act also prevents them from having meaningful connections with their family and their past.

For African Americans, passing is seen as a one-way ticket, offering no return (Hobbs, 2014). Can previous Jewish identities, races and ethnicities be retrieved in the hegemonic Israeli context? With the use of Hebrew linguistic and literary theory, I will show that passing is a circular state: it involves a tragic loss, a void, and an obsessive return to that void, a literary trope which Chaim Nachman Bialik called ״גילוי וכיסוי״ or “revealment and concealment” (1915).