Time for a Sephardi revolution?

By Reuven Shirazi, March 22, 2013
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A prominent Jewish leader came to speak to the Jewish Society in Cambridge recently. In his speech, he outlined how essential Israel is for Jewish continuity, noting how it had absorbed refugees from Europe (after the Holocaust), India, Ethiopia, and later the former Soviet Union. Afterward, I asked why he didn't mention the swathes of Jewish refugees from the Middle East and North Africa, since it is surely a gross oversight to miss out the communities that, along with their descendants, now constitute between 50 to 60 per cent of Israel's Jewish population.

This is but one example of a phenomenon endemic to most of the UK's Jewish cultural, educational, and religious life: it is very Ashkenazi-centric. The first Jews to set up shop in England, after Cromwell allowed them back in1656, were Amsterdam Jews of Spanish and Portuguese descent: Sephardim. It is only since the 1880s that Ashkenazim resettled en masse in the UK, fleeing pogroms in Russia. Yet our cultural references, intended to make us appreciate our commonality, are of kugel and gefilte fish. Yiddish words such as "mensch", "frum", and "schepping nachas" are frequently used. It is often assumed that all our grandparents came from the shtetl; in truth, even in the Ashkenazi world, many lived in the cities (particularly in Western Europe). In the Sephardi world, there were always more cosmopolitan Jews.

Growing up, I had known that there were Sephardi Jews and that my family came from Iraq, but that there weren't really Jews in Iraq anymore. But in my Jewish education I heard nothing about the pogroms, forced expulsions, revocations of citizenship and confiscations of property that led to the vast exodus from Iraq, Egypt, and other Arab and Muslim countries. These facts I only discovered at my own initiative. Yet having gone through the Jewish educational system, I am very knowledgeable about the Holocaust and the events surrounding it.

Without comparing those two tragedies (though they were linked: the Farhud in Iraq was partly inspired by widely-disseminated Nazi propaganda, for example), both were formative events of the post-war Jewish world and must deserve attention. Likewise, from a socio-religious perspective, the grand religious schisms in the Ashkenazi world are presented as issues affecting the entire Jewish nation. I refer to the differences between the Reform, Conservative, Modern Orthodox, Liberal and Charedi Jews (the latter themselves very divided). Yet the impressive mutual recognition of legitimacy, unity of purpose and moderation in the Sephardi world - which consists of truly diverse communities from lands as far apart as Iran and Morocco - is rarely acknowledged. Perhaps, if given more attention, this could serve as a model to inspire reunification in the Ashkenazi communities around the Jewish world.

Anglo-Jewry unquestionably has a large, engaged Sephardi minority. From my experience, and having spoken to others in the last few years, this subgroup often feels disengaged from the cultural, religious and educational experiences offered by the community. Commonality with the Ashkenazim is most felt in support of Israel. Because Israel is a melting pot in which Mizrahi culture is influential and widely appreciated, young Sephardim identify strongly with the country.

Sephardi numbers are not large enough to have separate schools, youth movements and communities. In any case, most Sephardim prefer to integrate with the mainstream community, and socialise with their Ashkenazi friends.

So what is it that I am asking? Not for us to cease celebrating Ashkenazi heritage. Stamping out a prevalent culture in order to make minorities feel more included is no victory. But when dealing with Jewish history, culture and community, it is time that more people take into account that all these things have Sephardi facets.

The Jews are a people with many different customs, traditions and stories to understand, and this is a key step towards our common, cherished ideal of unity.

Reuven Shirazi studies physics at Cambridge University, and also takes a strong interest in Hebrew grammar. He blogs at Biased Perspective.

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Last updated: 3:40pm, March 22 2013