Turning the Poison into Medicine

Iraqi Jewish punk rocker Loolwa Khazoom talks about activism, abuse, healing, and our primal need to break stuff.

First, an update on some things around town. The entire Seattle City Council did not end up signing on to Councilmember Sawant’s letter to President Biden calling for an end to support for Israel. (After some revisions, Councilmembers Herbold and Mosqueda did sign.) Still, some people thought it was a good idea, including this reader, who wrote a formal letter to the editor!

It’s time for Seattle Jews to show up for Palestine
Today, The Cholent published an article highly critical of Seattle City Councilmember Kshama Sawant’s letter to president Biden demanding the US to stop supporting Israeli’s war crimes against Palestinians in Gaza. The article discussed at length Hamas rockets and propagated a strong pro-Israel narrative. As an anti-Zionist Israeli Jew living in Seattle, I was disappointed to see this take.
Despite these equivocations, the fact is that the current situation is actually incredibly simple: one state—Israel—controls the entirety of historic Palestine, from the river to the sea. Human rights groups, including Israel’s largest human rights NGO B'Tselem and Human Rights Watch, have described Israel as an apartheid state. The reality on the ground is not an equal war between Israel and Hamas, but that both the Israeli state and Zionist settlers are actively waging a campaign of ethnic cleansing against Palestinians, trying to take over neighborhoods such as Sheikh Jarrah in order to realize the dream of a homogenously Jewish ethno-state. 
As Jews living in Seattle, we have an obligation to denounce this violent, settler colonial project of Israel being waged in our name. Many of our synagogues, federations, foundations, and other communal institutions actively spread pro-Israel propoganda and are committed to silencing Palestinians and justifying Israel’s violence. Our tax dollars are sent to Israel to buy bombs which are used against Palestinian civilians in Gaza. Our city’s police officers, who murder our Black, Brown and Indigenous community members, train with Israeli occupation forces. Drawing from Jewish values such as those of Tikkun Olam תיקון עולם, let us embrace efforts to end the violence and bring about justice.
We should welcome, not criticize, efforts by Councilmember Kshama Sawant to call out US support for Israeli war crimes. Now is the time to take action to support Palestinian freedom, human rights and self determination.
Sincerely,
Guy Oron

OK. I really actually like when people write to me with their critiques, and I like responding. I’m not going to do that here. I see this as boilerplate anti-Zionism, and there’s just not much to say. The only thing worth asking is, what’s the end game? The conversations that take this track ramble toward a terminus of Israel’s essential dissolution. I’ve read some nice analyses that claim to advocate for a democratic, equal state for Jews and Arabs. History, unfortunately, points toward another prediction.

I am kvelling over a new development: ads! Welcome to my first advertisers, Washington State Jewish Historical Society and the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum! I am developing a couple of ad plans, so if you are interested, email me at thecholentseattle@gmail.com.

Now on to the guest of the week, local musician Loolwa Khazoom, whose band Iraqis in Pajamas is releasing its debut album. Loolwa is a bassist, drummer, singer-songwriter, non-conformist, and so much more. As an Iraqi Jewish woman, she brings a needed perspective to Jewish life and thought. We had a very long conversation — this interview has been edited.

—Emily


Running into the Darkness

Loolwa Khazoom is an educator, musician, writer, and healer.

Let’s start with your backstory. You’re a musician, you’re a Jewish multicultural educator, and you say your new album ties together themes of the Jewish Middle Eastern Experience. How did you get here? 

It’s taken me time, I mean decades, to allow myself to become a musician. That’s kind of related to being an Iraqi Jew. Everyone on my dad’s side is musical, but nobody is a musician. When I was three months old, my mom tells me, I was in a bassinet in the backseat of the car, and I started singing the songs we sing on Shabbat. And she said she nearly had a car crash, because she was looking in the rear view mirror and she couldn't believe it. I was kind of like bobbing back and forth and singing it. So I actually started singing before I started talking. And from the time I was really, really little, I would bang on everything, rhythmically, like everything was my drum, and it drove my mom crazy. 

It was a very academic family. They didn’t give us allowances, they gave us a behavior modification system, which was pluses and minuses. So its like, vacuum the entire house, you get 10 pluses, which is 50 cents. Right? Anything that I could do, I did. And I saved all my money in this Mickey Mouse puzzle box. And then when I was eight, I went up to them and handed them a wad of $300 in cash. And I go, now can I have a piano? And they were so stunned. 

I went to the conservatory. They got me lessons, but it was really clear: This comes after academics. I went to the top schools and took all honors and AP. I was Orthodox and I was going to public school. I was very devoted to Judaism. Music just kept being on the back burner. And then that became my pattern for the rest of my adult life. I always felt something else was more important, and it was typically Jewish multiculturalism. It was just constantly Jewish activist stuff and then really intense schoolwork. And then I graduated, and I was like, okay, enough, I gotta do my music. I moved to LA to become a rock star. That was the plan. 

I got an internship as a recording engineer in north Hollywood, but then, Yemenite and Syrian Jews were being kidnapped and tortured and no one was doing anything about it. And I said, okay, you know, I have the ability, and with the ability comes responsibility, so I'll do it. 

The long and short of it is the next 20 years I was a Jewish multicultural educator. I kept putting my music to the side, and then I lost my mom. That was in 2019. 

I’m sorry. And you had gone through cancer, too?

I had been diagnosed with cancer in 2010. 2019 was kind of like a follow through. So I was diagnosed with cancer in 2010, and I chose to reject the conventional options surgery for a number of reasons. I decided to look at cancer as an opportunity to heal on every level in my life. That journey led me back to my music. I had stopped doing music for 13 years. 

When I radically altered my diet, it just stopped the nodules. The main reason I moved to Seattle was the Sephardic community and the music. So I came here and I started this band and within a few months the nodules started shrinking. I made a vow to myself I would never ever put my music on a back burner. I went to the waterfront, to a souvenir shop, and I got a guitar key chain, and ever since then I have either had a guitar key or key chain to remind me, are you doing your music? Because I’m not going to not do it again.

I went to the waterfront, to a souvenir shop, and I got a guitar key chain, and ever since then I have either had a guitar key or key chain to remind me, are you doing your music? Because I’m not going to not do it again.

It was really tough, because I was running a PR company, and when you heal holistically, everything's out of pocket. So my personal healthcare expenses were as much as $7,000 a month, and I was taking care of my mom. And then my mom nose dived into dementia. After I lost her, I took a couple weeks off. The prudent thing to do would have been to resuscitate my business. I felt another force pulling me into my music, and I knew it was my mom. I couldn’t go back to PR. On paper, that looked really stupid. I had no money. I was living on credit. I heard my mom’s voice: It’s time, it’s your turn now. I was healing from cancer and healing my mom and running a company, and I also knew, music is why I’m on this planet, but also, music is what heals me. I have to do this. I was like, fuck it. 

I got all this media. I lined up gigs. We were getting big money. Things were good. Then you know what happened in March 2020. Everything crashed. I decided, I have to do this whatever it takes. I realized I have like six albums I haven't done anything with. I was always writing songs on napkins and losing shit. It was a big project to track it all down. So what I’m doing is launching albums once a month. My intention is to just keep knocking out albums. 

So let’s talk about this album, the first of many to come. What are the major themes, what ties it together? 

I didn’t sit down and say, I’m going to write an album about “this.” A lot of songs in my life, you know, there are things that happen and you don't know what's going on when they happen, but then when you look back later, you have some perspectives. 

I understand that dealing with people's mental illness has been a big theme in my life. I grew up in a violent home, and I’ve always had the soul of a healer. I saw that there’s this thing that happens where people are simultaneously destructive and self-destructive. I was so devoted to doing everything I could to get them help, and they kept not getting help. There’s a song, “Landmines,” about a friend: “there are holes in your foundation that leak through all over our friendship.”

What I've come to understand is when people don't deal with their trauma, they just vomit it all over everybody else. And then they cause more trauma. And for me, I wanted to get that over with really young. I started going to therapy when I was 16. I had a bottle smashing range in my twenties. I was like, I am getting this out. This is not mine. I don't want anything to do with it. I don't want this dominating my life in any way, because I found that when people don't deal with stuff, it ends up controlling them. So that's the irony. You try to run away from it and then it owns you. I got all the rage out, and then I forgave. 

I face constantly this ethical question as a writer, as a musician, that it is profoundly healing to share my story, because then I'm not holding on to the darkness. I think by sharing our stories and our process of healing, we can inspire others to look at their own lives and to heal themselves. And to me, it comes from a place of love. It comes from a place of light. However, I have this concern: I've spent a lot of time protecting people who've been abusive, because I feel like their ego is very fragile. I fear destroying them. And that I think is part of the cycle of abuse. You keep it in the dark because you love them. And that's the complexity of domestic violence. You love these people, these people who are hurting you. 

The song “Suffer” is about someone in my family. A lot of the songs are. It's very complicated. And then in the Jewish community, nobody wants to talk about that. We have these tidy Jewish narratives. Every time I would go into a synagogue, especially Orthodox, I would get interrogated. Everybody wants to know, who are your parents? Where did you grow up? And it's just, you know, it just starts to get really invasive. I didn't understand, why this barrage of questions? And then I started to get it: I think they're trying to find a place of commonality, but the problem is that it comes from the assumption of a tidy Jewish narrative. 

This is a big topic right now in Jewish communities — creating inclusive spaces in a real way. 

The assumption that everyone comes from a nice Jewish home, the assumption that we all have certain variables that are exactly the same: there are a lot of people that don't. Sometimes there's a disconnect. They don't get it that it's like, oh, this person I'm sitting next to may have abused their child. This person that I am smiling with and having a great conversation with, they're warm and they're friendly and they're lovely, may have molested their daughter. Do you know what I mean? It's like, oh, it's somebody else. There's some random person that I don't know who's doing all of this 25% domestic violence. Couldn't be someone I know, couldn't be my friend for sure. 

This comes up every couple of years, and it kind of touches somewhere in the personal sphere of: I know this person did something atrocious, and I don't know how my relationship should be. And then it’s like an open secret discussion of what we should do with this person. Some people will commit “crimes” that aren't really crimes and get ex-communicated when they maybe don't deserve it. Other people commit actual crimes, but they're kind of pardoned by a jury of our community. 

This is exactly what I'm talking about. What if we shift our paradigm? What if it's not, “this person's a villain?” What if it's, “anybody who does any kind of abuse is very seriously wounded, because healthy people don't abuse other people.” So what if we approach them? I never would undermine or minimize the devastating impact of abuse. I just feel like this is really the core theme of my life. This is how I faced cancer. How do I approach this as an opportunity for healing and transformation? 

The whole album is about the crashing wave of emotions of the impact of wounding and trauma. And you love someone, but they're also toxic, but they're also self-destructive, and you want to rescue them, but they don't want to be rescued. They're not going to do the work. 

A friend and I were laughing a number of years ago, because we realized that a disproportionate number of our friends had some form of mental illness. And we're like, well, they're just more interesting people. And I think it's actually true. They're really creative and brilliant and artistic and interesting as fuck, and they're also kind of nuts. I think as long as somebody wants to face the darkness, they can transform it into light. But when people run from the darkness, it just becomes a tidal wave of darkness. And then what do you do with that? 

Let’s talk about the purpose of music. I don’t think I can answer the questions, but they're great questions put out there, and you have turned to music to deal with them. So what does that do? 

Well, you know, it's interesting. I was doing a virtual program for Limmud a few months ago and initially I just threw out the title of, “healing and transformation through music.” But as I was preparing for it, I was like, wow, you know what? This is very Jewish. I was actually just kind of wondering, how did I survive my childhood? And I thought Jews, what do we do with trauma? We turn it into a full-on festival with song and prayer and storytelling. I'm not just about how do you transcend trauma? No, how do you take the very energy of that trauma and transmute it like an alchemy process? How do you actually turn that energy into something that itself becomes healing itself becomes medicine. How do you turn the poison into medicine? And I think music is the portal. Music is the vehicle that makes that transformation happen.

How do you actually turn that energy into something that itself becomes healing itself becomes medicine. How do you turn the poison into medicine? And I think music is the portal.

And you don't need to look any further than Judaism to find proof of that. I mean, that's what our whole fricking culture is about. Almost every holiday. Here's the trauma. Let's, you know, do some singing and some praying, eat some food, and tell some stories. That's what we do with everything.

So true. There is definitely real trauma in our tradition, in our culture is trauma, within individuals, but there's also a lot of talk — I see the word trauma all the time. It's probably becoming more comfortable to talk about trauma. But I also think it's been a bit overused. I wonder what you think about this.

Yeah. I think this gets into like a whole social commentary. It's really important to honor, acknowledge, feel, express the depth and the truth of what we're going through, including rage, sadness, grief, but not get stuck in it and not turn it into an industry. I think that people either shove it down or swim in it for decades. And I don't think either one is healthy. Look, I think we have a sick society at the core. 

We have libraries. We're okay with being quiet. Why don't we have noise rooms? We need rage rooms. Everybody gets mad. Every single person. 

There was one day where I got so angry, a bunch of years ago, I went outside and found all these clay pots that I wasn't really using for plants. And I threw them at the house. I get it. And they do have rage rooms. They don't have many of them, but they have these rooms full of appliances, and you can just go to town on them with a baseball bat.

There’s a lot of wounded people walking around. Why do we have such crazy over the top numbers of addicts and people on Prozac and road rage? What is that? This is just a big, thick, primal need to express ourselves. And we're not allowed. It is not socially sanctioned. Why? Every single person feels it. Every single person needs it. How do we normalize that? If everyone had a bottle smashing range, I don't think we’d have war. 

We could have one in every park, like a tennis court with the cement wall for hitting the ball. You just make, like, three sides, and you just put a bunch of junk and protective glasses and some gloves. There you go. And it’s basically free.

Totally. It’s for two minutes! I didn’t even have to be enraged. It was just like, I was pissed off at something. I go to the back yard, smash a bottle, I’d yell, you know, “fuck you!” Whatever I had to yell. Ninety seconds go by, I’m chortling like a baby, I’m full of life and delighted instead of carrying that crap all day. And that is one of the songs, “Action Reaction.” The words are “action, reaction like a baby. You make things so complicated. Impede the natural flow. Crying is weak. Yelling is violence. Making faces is crazy. Push the energy down.” That's what that song's about. 

I was kind of wondering what that was about. I'm glad you explained it. 

Yeah. It's all interconnected with this core of, how do we take the wounding and the trauma of the world and transmute that? And oh wait, why do we have all of these strictures against it? And why do we assume that everyone comes from a nice Jewish family? How are all of these ideas that we have harming us? If we face wounding and trauma and shame — everyone has some version of it. Every single fucking person has some version of it. Okay. So now what are we going to do with it to make ourselves healthy? Simple. Action, reaction, like a baby. You feel it, express it, move on. 

I like the move on part. I think we're getting a little stuck with that stuff. We do a lot of holding on to self-pity.

[This is why] I hate academia. I mean, really, it's like an institute of wallowing and also unoriginal thought. In our society, there's a self-righteousness about it all. 

How does this connect to academia?  

I have a very strong voice. I’ve always had a very strong inner voice, and I listened to it, and I asked a lot of probing questions, and I observe things and I come to my own conclusions. And I kept getting dinged in college. I kept getting dinged. I knew what the professor wanted me to write. I knew that I would get an A if I wrote that, but I wrote what I thought, because I was like, I’m here to learn and I’m here to engage in conversation.

What I see in academia is there's a lot of deference. There's a lot of, well, so-and-so said this, and so-and-so said that, and you have to be very careful and you have to cite people and you have to be a bit of a sycophant. It's basically like a lot of social agreement. It's very conformist and I'm not surprised it’s very anti-Israel, because it's just this snowball effect of everybody quoting everybody else. And there's a tone in academia that just makes me want to cross my eyes. I mean, it's just, it's so self-righteous and you know, victimy, and it doesn't feel alive. It doesn't feel fun. It's dead. It's like everybody's walking, they're like a stick with a head. 

I relate to a couple of things you said. First, that you couldn't pursue your creative ambitions because you had to do something more productive first. The first thing I knew about myself was that I was going to be like a creative writer, but I don't allow myself to do that. So I did at first go down the academic path, because I like learning and I like writing and I like processing and sharing things and coming up with new ideas. But I've had a little bit of awakening about exactly what you're saying. There’s so much garbled nonsense coming out of the academy. 

I was taking an economics class at Columbia and this professor was supposed to be phenomenal, and I didn't understand anything he was saying. I'm like, this guy's an idiot. Other people also didn't understand anything he was saying. And they thought they were idiots. 

I basically have spent the first 40 years of my life thinking I'm the stupid one. 

I realized at some point that, if I don't surround myself with [academia], I feel naked and really insecure. So I said, okay, here's what we're going to do. We're going to not tell anyone any of that shit anymore. And it was terrifying when I first started doing that, because I felt so vulnerable and I didn't have any armor. And then I loved it. And I developed such a deep, deep, inner sense of security that I just, I love who I am. And I know I'm really cool. 

Finally, bringing it back home, you said that this album deals with the Middle East conflict and your Iraqi Jewish identity, too. Can you talk about that?

I had been a Jewish multicultural educator for 20 years, and then I stopped. I was like, I don't want to see a Jew again for, like, years. And in 2016, I didn't watch the news because I'm very empathic and I was already maxxed out, but I called my aunt in Israel, and she was completely freaked out. I was like, what is going on? And she said, “Arabs are running around. And they're stabbing people and they're like driving cars into people and shooting people.” It was just one of many waves of terror that she has had to live through. And this comes after they all survived the Farhud, which was a pro-Nazi uprising in Iraq. And they were forced to flee from Iraq. 

Iraqi Jews were in the land of Iraq for 1,300 years before the Arabs even arrived. And yet we’re white, colonialist, imperialist — what? I was so frustrated, because my heart was bleeding for her, but then I was like, I don't know what to do anymore. Not only did I do 20 years of Jewish multicultural education, and I was very successful at it. And on top of that, I wrote about Jewish refugees from the Middle East and North Africa. I wrote about it for the Washington Post, BBC News, Rolling Stone, and Seventeen magazine. I got it in the big places, right? Tens of millions of people have read my work, and it's still the same narrative. So I was like, there's no point. I was really just feeling hopeless. There is really no point in doing anything.

And I was so frustrated, and it's just the same stupid, theatrical production over and over and over again. So there's a line in “Pointless”: “I'm inclined to get a bowl of popcorn and watch this drama play out.” I changed after that. That song actually marks a turning point for me, because I had kind of hit a low I'm like, there's no point to activism. I know that I've made a difference, but I haven't made a dent. I was at a Shabbat gathering in Seattle, and this woman said, “It's not your job to make everything change. When you write these articles, you do make a difference, but it's not all on you to change the whole thing.”

And I started to feel good about what I had done. And then I changed in other ways too, because I started looking at things in terms of healing. There's a dance between limits and limitlessness, and when I lost my mom, that really was like a sucker punch: here, you're facing your limits. I'm still processing that. The song was in a very hopeless place at that time. 

There's a dance between limits and limitlessness, and when I lost my mom, that really was like a sucker punch: here, you're facing your limits.

There is a woman who is Iraqi Muslim who started a Facebook group for Iraqi artists in the diaspora. I don't know how the hell I ended up on that Facebook group, but it is the first Arab or Middle Eastern, not specifically Jewish space in my life, that I have felt welcomed as a Jew.

And through that group, I met another woman. When the violence started, we reached out to each other. We touched base with each other. Just the fact that these two women exist on the planet is more powerful than all of that garbage, all of it, all of it. 

The thing is, how I've presented things is: this untold story of the 900,000 Jewish refugees from the Middle East and North Africa. I want to change my tone. I want to change my tone, because I've now met two people who care. I am completely changing my tone to one of invitation. And I always wanted that, but a lot changed. Facing cancer changed me. My focus is now on peace and harmony and wholeness and fun and ease. 

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Shoutouts!

To Isaac Levy 
Mazal Tov on your graduation from YU Sy Syms School of Business. 
To Ray Levy 
Mazal Tov on your graduation from Cardozo School of Law. —Miriam Levy

This is in memory of my old neighbor Yadviga Halsey, who died in early March at the age of 93. She wasn't very connected to her Judaism but she was a force. Degrees in biochemistry from U of Chicago and Yale. Established Seattle artist. Marijuana activist (really!). Mother of three. I could go anywhere in Seattle and not be surprised to find her walking with grim determination. She spent a lot of time on her feet, even in her final years. We should all take a long walk in her memory. —Joel Magalnick

Happy birthday to Carmel Aronson! Stay strong. —Jacob Rosenblum 

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