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January 24, 2018 2:07 pm

The Sephardi Perspective

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A Torah scroll. Photo: RabbiSacks.org

JNS.org – While deciding on the title for this blog, I was keenly aware of the use of terminology and its sometimes confusing and divisive role. How are non-Ashkenazi Jews to be referred to? We encompass such a variety of backgrounds, cultures, languages and traditions, it is almost impossible to find a word that encapsulates all these disparate groups.

Daniel Elazar, a leading Jewish political scientist and author of the book The Other Jews, was one of those who grappled with this issue.

Elazar did not like the term Edot HaMizrah — as the translated terms “eastern” or “oriental” are frequently used in a pejorative sense, usually meaning backward and inaccurate. Morocco is farther west than all of mainland Europe, and many Sephardim have lived in the most geographically western countries for centuries.

Elazar preferred the term Sephardi, as he rejected any geographical distinction to describe this group.

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“For Jews, what is most important as a distinguishing characteristic is not the specific culture acquired in any particular country of exile by any particular Jewish population, but the broadest issues of halakhah and mishpat (Jewish law), community organization, and common cultural patterns from food to synagogue ritual. In these respects, the Sephardi world is one,” he wrote.

The next question that can legitimately be asked is: Why the need for a page specifically devoted to Sephardi perspectives?

Statistically, around one-fifth of the world’s Jewish population has non-Ashkenazi roots, including more than 50 percent of Israeli Jews. However, much of the English-language media focuses largely on Ashkenazi history, culture and tradition, and little is known of the history, culture, tradition and — most importantly — perspective, of the broader Sephardi world.

While the term Sephardi has today come to incorporate all non-Ashkenazi communities, especially in Israel, there are major differences in history and experience between Jews from the Maghreb (North Africa), the Levant (Syria, Lebanon), the Middle East (Iran, Iraq, Yemen) and other parts of Asia and Africa. But the Sephardi world is at least partially unified by a similar tradition and worldview.

In addition, the Western Sephardim were the first communities in the English-speaking world — like in the US and the UK — and their contribution in forming these great communities, as well as the role they still play, is largely unknown.

There is also a growing population of crypto-Jews around the world, especially in North America, who are reconnecting to their Sephardi traditions, and are eager for information about their ancestry, history and tradition. These populations have been conservatively estimated by eminent Jewish demographer Sergio Dellapergola as numbering in the high tens of millions.

All of these populations are rarely given a voice in the mainstream English-language media, and theirs is an important voice when assessing such issues as Israel-Diaspora relations, religion and state in Israel, Jewish tradition, history, politics and culture.

The Sephardim, because of their thousands of years of historical experiences, have a very different approach on many of these issues, and their voices deserve to be part of the global Jewish conversation, where they have been largely excluded in recent generations.

Many commentators have begun derogatorily to use terms such as “Ashkenormative,” meaning that the Jewish history, tradition and culture are seen solely or predominantly through the Ashkenazi prism and experience.

Dr. Aviva Ben-Ur, in her study of the American Sephardic experience, describes a phenomenon which she calls “coethnic recognition failure,” the denial of a fellow group member’s common ethnicity. Thus, while Ashkenazim and Sephardim are fellow Jews, coethnic recognition failure occurs when members of these groups do not recognize their shared ethnicity, while holding different traditions and culture.

Since the Ashkenazic establishment largely had control of Jewish institutional life in many countries, non-Ashkenazim tended to be the victims of coethnic recognition failure.

Dr. Ben-Ur writes: “Levantine Jews, with their unfamiliar physiognomy, Mediterranean tongues, and distinct religious and social customs baffled their Ashkenazic brethren. In the words of a contemporary satirist, ‘how could you be a Jew when you looked like an Italian, spoke Spanish, and never saw a matsah ball in your life?’ … The denial of shared ethnicity and religion was the most painful and frustrating reaction that Eastern Sephardim encountered in their dealings with Ashkenazim.”

Thus, while the situation has certainly changed since the early 20th century, when Sephardi and Ashkenazi Jews re-encountered each other en masse — in many places like Israel, the US and Western Europe — there remains a significant lack of awareness and understanding of non-Ashkenazi perspectives.

Additionally, many Ashkenazi Jews are becoming more and more interested in Sephardi history, because Sephardim laid the foundations for many of the current and recent global Jewish movements, like Zionism, Jewish mysticism, liberal Judaism and Jewish feminism.

Furthermore, thanks to the advances in genealogical and DNA technology, many Ashkenazi Jews have found out that they are in fact of Sephardi heritage, and were sometimes no more than a few generations in Central or Eastern Europe.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who has direct Lithuanian and Polish ancestry, found out recently — thanks to a DNA test — that he, like a large percentage of Ashkenazi Jews around the world, indeed has Sephardi roots.

So it is hoped that this column will be a place of diversity and pluralism, a place to learn and share, to welcome new voices to the global Jewish conversation, and to shed light on the Sephardi experience and perspective for new audiences.

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