Disappearing the Sephardim

In the interest of full disclosure, I am not Sephardic, so I really would like to apologize in advance for any sort of patronizing tone this post might take on, and for the ignorance I might display on occasion. While no offense is intended, some may be taken for some things missed or unexplained.

One of the alternately sadder and more infuriating aspects of inter-Jewish relations is the hegemonic relationship of the Ashkenazi Jews to Jews of all other varieties – Jews of Kaifeng, India, Mizrahi and Sephardi Jews. By adopting a detached discourse about and casting as archaic the Sephardi Jews, the Ashkenazi have dominated the conversation and allowed their Judaism to win out as the default, and unless you listened to what Sephardic Jews had to say about their own religion and history, you wouldn’t know it to be any different.

One of the major and harder to define ways in which this plays out is in the observation of Jewish religion, especially in Israel: the power having been given to Ashkenazi religious authorities by Ben-Gurion early on, they strongly advocated for a rigid, and severe Judaism which some Sephardi believe misrepresents the Torah and the Talmud:

Sephardi Jewry, like Ashkenazic Jewry, retained Halachah (Jewish laws) as an important religious reference. However, where Ashkenazim have tended to put Halachah above and before local customs, Sephardim have given much more credence to the well-established religious customs in various Jewish communities, customs that often responded to local Muslim and Christian practices.

For example, in the past, if a Sephardi rabbi found a barely perceptible drop of blood on the lung of a kosher animal he removed the blood and, for practical reasons, allowed the meat to be consumed, while an Ashkenazic rabbi would find the meat to be not kosher.

Ashkenazic authorities traditionally have placed a “fence around the Torah,” enlarging restrictions in order to be sure not to risk breaking the original rules. At least in the past, however, Sephardi Jews did not add such extra restrictions, believing it was more important to trust in the intelligence and integrity of Jews to follow the laws as written. In general, Sephardim, as rationalists, tend to believe that individuals who are well-schooled in the tradition should have fairly wide latitude to judge principles for themselves.

In addition, this fine post from JVoices gives a rather personal description of the differences in traditional Sephardic services and how they have become Ashkenazified over the years:

In traditional Mizrahi and Sephardi synagogues, for example, the women generally sat upstairs in the gallery, where they had full view of the service led below, and where they were welcome to sing at full volume along with the male congregants. I vividly remember the passion of women with white lace head coverings and colorful dresses, praying from the bottoms of their hearts and the depths of their souls, closing their eyes while holding their hands open and in front of them, as if to gather the energy being raised by the congregants, then bringing their hands to their faces and kissing them – as if they were kissing G-d.

Today, in most of the Mizrahi and Sephardi synagogues I have attended in Israel, that image has been replaced by one of resigned women silently crumpled in their chairs – some bored and staring into space, others talking, still others holding out their hands – this time behind an energetic layer of fear and a physical barrier to the space below. Not only are women seated in the gallery today (quite enough to keep us separate from the men, thank you very much), but there is a wall blocking our visual connection to the service – purportedly to keep us way, way out of men’s line of sight. Just in case that wall is not enough, there is also a curtain hanging on top of it, one which must not be moved for all but one part of the service. To top it all off, women’s voices must not, under any circumstances, be audible to the men below.

What exactly has caused this shift I cannot specifically say, for certain – all I can do is comment on what has been lost, this idea of Judaism that brought me into the community and the people in the first place, and now angers and outrages me that it sounds to be dying even if Sephardim outnumber the Ashkenazim worldwide!

Which isn’t to say that this drowning out of Sephardic voices confines itself to just religion – Sephardic contributions to the world at large, and the world within Judaism are often downplayed or ignored. Jacques Derrida and Baruch Spinoza, for instance, he of the first biblical criticism and neurology (it turns out his rejection of Descartes’s approach to mind-body duality presaged advances in neurological science by centuries), were born of the rationalist tradition of Sephardic Judaism!

And, as this other article by Zeek points out, even in recent years an anthology of Sephardic literature published by a major Jewish publishing house was edited by a non-Sephardic Jew and at one point veers heavily towards a more European kind of Sephardi rather than a Mediterranean one. You would not appoint a Protestant or Catholic to edit an anthology of Eastern Orthodox Christian literature, so why would anyone think this was a good idea?

The other major way I wanted to discuss about this disappearing act is a great deal more contentious and I must halt my accusatory tone, somewhat – as it turns out that in many cases, the Sephardim too suffered under the Shoah. I mean not to offer any kind of comparison, just quotes and stories:

from Ynet:

The story of North African Jews has until today remained absent from Israeli public discourse regarding World War II and the Holocaust. This might have been the result of the conception that they fared better than European Jews.

But this perception ignores the suffering of Jews who lost family members in labor and detention camps; who were forced to deal with a cruel and brutal reality that included forced labor of children, confiscation of property and other plights; who were forced to wear the yellow Star of David and who in many cases were deported to concentration camps in Europe, from where several hundreds of them (from Libya) continued to their death at the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp.

One of the heaviest losses to the Sephardic world was the loss of the community in Thessaloniki, Greece. Greece is home to world’s oldest Jewish community not originating from Israel, and Greek Jews had history dating back well before the time of Jesus, right from Alexander the Great’s conquest of Judah from the Persians. People versed in Biblical history know that Greek was the first non-Hebraic language used for the Bible, when (tradition holds) the elders of Alexandria created the Septuagint.

From Wikipedia:

On July 11, 1942, the Jews of Thessaloniki were rounded up in preparation for deportation to the German camps. The community paid a fee of 2.5 billion drachmas for their freedom, the effect of which was only to delay deportation until the following March. 46,091 people were sent to Auschwitz. 1,950 returned[2] to find most of their sixty synagogues and schools destroyed.[13] Many survivors emigrated to Israel and the United States.[2] Today the Jewish population of Thessaloniki numbers roughly 1,000, and maintains two synagogues.[13]

So we do have evidence of large numbers of Libyan Jews sent to Bergen-Belsen, and the ancient community in Thessaloniki being devastated – in fact, many stories about the effect of The Shoah on Sephardic communities is just now coming to light. I must clarify that I’m not placing any specific blame on any Jews for this, just noting that it is sad that for decades we’ve known so little of the effects of World War II on all Jewish communities, not just the ones (maybe) most heavily affected.

More information about the community of Thessaloniki can be found here.


2 Responses

  1. There is a magnificent book that is partly about the Holocaust and partly about Greek Jews and partly just… wow, amazing. One of the most beautiful books I’ve ever read. It’s called “Fugitive Pieces” by Anne Michaels. I highly recommend it.

  2. Sounds interesting, I’ll have to check it out! Thanks for the heads-up.

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