Sephardim and Jewishness
An American visitor to Israel is immediately struck by the fact that Jews here look a lot different than Jews in the States. The presence in Israel of a large population of Sephardic Jews completely changes one’s conception of “Jewish looks,” and indeed this physical difference was what most drew my attention in the column I wrote about the Sephardim a few years after my aliyah. Having lived in Israel now for over a decade, I have realized that the Sephardic impact on me goes much deeper. Quite simply, the most important Jewish factor affecting me since making aliyah has been by exposure to the Sephardim.
[Note: As my friend Yaron Harel, a senior lecturer in the department of Jewish history at Bar Ilan University tells me, there is no easy way of designating non-Ashkenazic Jewry. I use “Sephardim” here for convenience purposes only, even though literally this term only denotes those who came from Spain—i.e., after the expulsion in 1492--and does not include the different non-Ashkenazic Jewish communities in Asia and Africa.]
Had I made aliyah a few decades ago, things would have been different. In the early years of the State, there was systematic discrimination against Sephardic Jews and Sephardic culture. Though the Jews of the Land of Israel (who represent an unbroken presence ever since the return of the Babylonian exiles in the 6th century BCE) are Sephardic, the mass immigration of Jews to Israel at the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th century was primarily Ashkenazic. As a result, when Israel gained independence in 1948, the country’s power structure was in the hands of Ashkenazim. Western culture was considered the loftiest ideal, and Sephardim were considered primitive “orientals” whose traditions were heavily influenced by precisely those who wanted to destroy the new State of Israel. Thus, when the Sephardim arrived in huge numbers following independence, they were placed in transit camps (infamous for poor facilities, these camps also included Ashkenazic immigrants, but the Ashkenazim left the camps relatively quickly), their traditional culture was belittled (including the shearing of the forelocks of men and boys), and there are even stories of the kidnapping of Yemenite babies to give to childless veteran Israelis. (Though it’s clear that no widespread kidnapping occurred, the fact that so many in the Yemenite community still believe this to have happened speaks volumes about the history of their absorption into Israeli culture.)
Those Sephardic families who resisted Israeli secularization and who sent their children to religious schools were met with discrimination there as well. I recently heard Jackie Levy, a journalist and popular storyteller, speak about how in his religious high school, though the students were overwhelmingly Sephardic, prayers were conducted using the Asheknazic rite. Jackie went so far as to joke that even if there had been only a single student at his school with one parent who had once visited Poland, that would have been enough to have all the students pray in the Ashkenazic tradition.
Today, though there are relatively more Sephardim in Israel’s underclass than Ashkenazim, and though centuries of Sephardic scholarship and culture are given scant attention in Israeli schools, institutional discrimination is a thing of the past (a significant exception to this is the de facto quota put on the number of Sephardic ultra-orthodox students who are admitted to Ashkenazic ultra-orthodox institutions). It’s common in religious schools, for example, to have separate prayer services for Sephardim and Ashkenazim. Within religious circles especially there is an easy mixing of the populations. At my daughter Ruthie’s Sweet-16 party last year, out of the dozen girls from Givat Ze’ev who crowded into our kitchen to help her celebrate, 8 were Sephardic. On Friday nights at the local branch of the B’nai Akiva youth movement, the evening service follows the Moroccan rite (preceded by a Kabbalat Shabbat using the tunes of Shlomo Carlebach), and on Saturday mornings the Torah is read from a scroll enveloped in Sephardic casing.
In short, by the time I made aliyah in 1997 Sephardic culture had significantly recovered from the injustices done to it in the first decades of Israel’s history. A bonus for me is that I can partake of Sephardic culture guilt-free. After all, even though I am Ashkenazic, my parents or grandparents were not in any way involved in the poor treatment of Sephardim. In fact, the more I am here the less exotic Sephardic culture becomes, the more I just enjoy it as a matter of course. Yes, those Sephardic good looks, the spicy food, the gutturally accented Hebrew, the Middle-Eastern music are registering less and less with me as Sephardic and more and more as just Jewish.
Copyright 2007, Teddy Weinberger