Jason Guberman-Pfeffer, Illuminating Mizrachi history

By Helen Chernikoff

Published on The New York Jewish Week


So why’s an Ashkenazi boy making the reclamation of Mizrachi history his life’s mission?

Jason Guberman-Pfeffer, 24, gets asked that question a lot. His great-grandfather was a survivor of the infamous Kishinev pogrom; his namesake was a Litvak.

But he’s had a longstanding preoccupation with the Jewish past, taking special note, for example, when his grandmother pointed out the Bridgeport, Conn., synagogue she’d been married in was now a church. When he immersed himself in Middle East studies at Sacred Heart University, he learned that Jewish history in the Middle East and North Africa is under-studied and under-documented.

Guberman-Pfeffer founded his organization, Diarna, which means “Our Homes” in Judeo-Arabic, to mend that break in Jewish history through the use of online and on-the-ground networks.

“Jewish identity is rooted in the Middle East,” he said. “Jewish food is more than deli. This is where we’re from; it’s our heritage.”

He started with Google Earth, using its technology to identify and photograph Jewish Morocco, and from there gradually built up a team of researchers, travelers and locals, many of whom are not Jewish.

“We had a group in Arabic on Facebook,” Guberman-Pfeffer said. “People sought us out, and on Twitter, too. There are all these different ways of connecting.”

Where safety and funding permit, Diarna also sends its own staffers on research trips. The result is an online exhibit that features 100 historical sites, and includes videos and interviews. The group’s primary backer is the Cahaman Foundation.

Next up: Iraqi Kurdistan, where two Diarna researchers are currently exploring ancient villages, teasing out the remnants of Jewish life, like the last headstone with Hebrew writing on it.

Piano man: Guberman-Pfeffer’s mother is a music teacher, and he plays the piano. He says he’s terribly out of practice, but his favorite pieces to play are Ernesto Lecuona’s Malagueña and Gershwin’s Preludes. Keepsake: His feeling for history is evident in his longing for a simple memento. His grandmother once owned a cloth napkin that had belonged to relatives who died in the Holocaust. It is lost, a minor tragedy for Guberman-Pfeffer.

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