As we celebrate Sephardic and Mizrahi Jewish culture this Shabbat and coming week at the WJC, I wanted to offer some thoughts.
The vast majority of American Jews are of Ashkenazi origin – that is, their ancestors lived in Central and Eastern Europe and spoke Yiddish. Ashkenaz is the Hebrew name for Germany, where Yiddish was born. Because most of us have Ashkenazi roots we reflexively equate Jewishness with bagels and lox and Yiddish accents. But long before Yiddish was even invented, long before the emergence of Eastern European Jewish culture, numerous other Jewish cultures flourished around the world.
Jews settled on the Iberian Peninsula beginning in Roman times. By the 11th century Spain, known as Sefarad in Hebrew, had become the center of Jewish life, culture and scholarship. The Sepharadim, as they are known, developed their own language, Ladino, a Jewish-Spanish hybrid. They wrote philosophy and poetry, generated Jewish mysticism, and became leaders in politics, finance and medicine. When the Jews of Spain were expelled from the peninsula in 1492, they scattered across the Mediterranean and the New World, wherever they could find safe haven. These families kept their memories of home and their proud and vibrant culture alive to this day.
But even well before the emergence of Sephardic culture, other Jewish cultures took root and thrived around the world. The Jews of Rome trace their cultural practices back 2,000 years, as do the Jews of Greece. The Ethiopian Jewish culture is at least that old. The Jewish communities of Turkey, Syria, Egypt, Lebanon, North Africa, Yemen – known collectively as Mizrahi, meaning Eastern, or “Oriental” Jews – also trace their origins at least as far back as the Roman Empire. The Jews of Iraq can directly trace their origins back even further to the Babylonian exile of the 6th century B.C.E, more than 2,500 years ago. It is there that the Talmud was composed. Distinct Jewish cultures also took root in India and even China, and all along the Silk Road through central Asia.
In all these lands of our dispersion, over the course of many centuries, we developed distinctive Jewish cultures. I find it wondrous that despite the great distances that separated us we Jews somehow retained a sense of shared history and destiny, a sense of connection to one another.
With the creation of the State of Israel a new era emerged: Jews from all over the world collected themselves in one place, our ancestral homeland. Dozens of languages and cultures were thrown together, ancient Hebrew was revived, and out of this stew a new Jewish culture began to take shape: Israeli. But for many new Israelis, their migration was not voluntary. During the first decades after the founding of Israel, virtually all of the venerable and proud Mizrahi and Sephardic Jewish communities were forced out of their homelands by intolerant regimes. Most went to Israel; many found refuge in Europe and the United States. Meanwhile, millions of Ashkenazi Jews were murdered by the Nazis, Ashkenazi cultural and educational centers were wiped out, and the scattered remnants of Ashkenazi Jewry fled their home countries for Israel and the West as well.
And so now we Jews find ourselves in a new condition: all mixed up together, a multicultural Jewish melting pot. Nowhere is this more evident than in the emerging Jewish culture of Israel, a riot of different accents and skin colors and cuisines. But also here in the United States, we need to take note: several generations on, the ethnic “glue” of our ancestors’ shared origins will not bind us much longer. As we evolve and adapt, the American Jewish community is no longer ethnically or racially homogeneous. It is to our benefit to understand this new reality, and to actively welcome all who want to make common cause towards the continued flourishing of American Jewish life.
That is why the Woodstock Jewish Congregation continues our series that we call “All of Us: Creating a Completely Welcoming Community.” We want to proactively include and celebrate the entire spectrum of people that make us who we are. Tomorrow following our Shabbat service WJC members of Sephardic and Mizrahi heritage will share their stories with us (learn more here). We will also hear some Sephardic music from Cantor Micha’el Esformes, and we will enjoy a Mediterranean and Middle Eastern feast for lunch. Then on Wednesday, December 11 we are hosting Alhambra, a terrific ensemble playing Judeo-Spanish wedding music, love songs and instrumental dances. Click here to learn more and please plan to join us!
Shabbat Shalom and love,