At a time when attitudes about cultural differences and fear of immigrants are dividing the nation, Michelle Azar has turned her own mixed background into a one-woman show with an anti-prejudice message.
The self-described Iraqi, Sephardi, Ashkenazi, Israeli, bicoastal actress, singer, dancer, and writer will perform “From Baghdad to Brooklyn,” her musical and sometimes humorous take on her life, in a program presented by Jewish Family Services of Middlesex County on Sunday, May 21.
In a phone interview from her Los Angeles-area home, Azar spoke of how her father — who grew up in Iraq and Israel and, after completing his military service with the Israel Defense Forces, moved to New York “to make his fortune” — met and married her Brooklyn-born, Ashkenazi mother with Eastern European roots.
Her mother, a psychologist, started out as “a lovely Yiddish singer [who] was in…a one-woman production of ‘Fiddler on the Roof,’” said Azar. “My father and mother met the first week he was in America when he came to see it. I still laugh when I think about it.”
Her mother found her suitor “exotic,” and married him despite his “Middle Eastern mentality that the man had the authority” — as when, after their wedding, he instructed her to quickly change out of her gown because he had gotten a job in Chicago and they were driving out that night.
Azar said she got the idea for her show while attending a reunion of the Habonim Dror Labor Zionist summer camp she attended as a child. A woman leading Israeli dancing at the event recognized her last name — “an iconic name in the movement,” Azar said — and recalled her father speaking about his Baghdadi childhood, telling Azar, “You should write about it.”
Azar did just that after doing what she said was “miles and miles of research.”
Azar had previously “fled” Broadway for Israel, where she met her husband, Jonathan Aaron, a Reform rabbi (“a big deal” to members of her Conservative family). They moved to Los Angeles when he became religious leader of Temple Emanuel of Beverly Hills, giving Azar the opportunity to focus on her film and television career. She recently appeared as an assistant district attorney in the hit TV series “How to Get Away with Murder.” The couple has two daughters.
Azar said her own childhood was at times colored by fear.
“In the 1980s there was a huge crackdown on Arabs in the United States,” she said. On long family road trips, “border patrol would always stop us. If the police saw my dad, they would shine their lights and pull us over.” Her father “was used to it because of the way he looks.”
She described her father — born Shaul Azariahu, later called Saul Azar — as “a bare bones, every-man-for himself” type, a result of a Baghdadi childhood surrounded by anti-Semitism.
His family went to pre-state Israel through Aliya Bet, the illegal immigration by Jews in defiance of the British, and settled in Jerusalem. They remained “very Iraqi,” said Azar.
In developing her show, Azar said, she wanted to examine the effects bigotry has on people, saying she is deeply troubled by hatred directed at any minority — Jews, Muslims, people of color, immigrants. “As a Jew I wanted to explore what it truly means to deal with prejudices and to help us live as one, without prejudices.” Along the way, she came to recognize her own. “I thought I was the most tolerant person in the world, but there’s still that moment of fear when I hear Arabic.”
At one point in the show, Azar becomes her 13-year-old self as a camper participating in an exercise where youngsters were asked to put color-coded pieces on a map of Israel to denote the different populations.
“But I left the Arabs off the map,” she said. “I realized as an adult I had internalized the fears of my father. This is what he did to me. This is what we do to our kids. I realized I had this fear of people who weren’t all bad.”
She also inherited some of these tendencies from the other side of her family.
“My Polish bubbe was also filled with fear. She would say, ‘Arabs are bad. I know you’re Arab, but you’re not bad.’”