Masking Identity: Sephardim as Ashkenazim

David Shasha

 

 

There is a famous scene towards the very end of “The Godfather, Part II” where Frank Pantangeli, a former family head in the Corleone clan who is now imprisoned in a secluded Federal facility and whose testimony against Michael Corleone has not gone as it was supposed, is speaking with family consiglieri Tom Hagen about the ancient Roman Empire and its stratified military system.  Pantangeli is an amateur history buff and sees the contemporary Mafia as a modern variation of the old Roman military system.  Earlier in the film while attending a Corleone family function in the hills of Nevada, he wearies of Michael Corleone’s jerking him around for a meeting and drunkenly rips into the Don.  At the end of the tirade he speaks words that haunt those of us who continue to try to figure out what tribal allegiance really means.

 

“And you give your loyalty to that Jew over your own family,” states Pantangeli to Corleone, referring to Michael’s deal with Hyman Roth – a deal that effectively sacrifices the interests of loyal Corleone employees in Brooklyn – once the base of operations for the family.

 

Indeed, Pantangeli identifies an important part of what has gone wrong in the family and Michael Corleone’s way of dealing with things.  In his lust for control and power, Michael Corleone forgets the values of the family and those who have served him faithfully.

 

So too can we see the Sephardim who have turned their backs on their “family” in this light.

 

Back in the 1940s, the Brooklyn Sephardic community took a turn away from its own heritage and the manners of its value system.  The leadership of the community saw that the old ways were not the way to go and began to look to the brightly shining lights of the Ashkenazim who had vigorously built successful religious and social institutions of seemingly great substance and magnitude.  These Sephardic leaders did not see the internecine squabbles within the Ashkenazi community as they were far less pronounced than they are today.

 

The Syrian immigrants to New York brought with them a piety and religiosity that began to gradually erode in the face of the American dream.  Men were in some cases forced to work on the Sabbath and Jewish holidays.  The freedom of the American system permitted those who chose to free themselves of observing the Jewish rituals and there was a great fear that the Brooklyn Syrian community would fall apart if not for a horizontal assimilation to the values and institutions of the Ashkenazim.

 

As I have repeatedly stated, the main victim of this assimilation to Ashkenazi norms was Hakham Matloub Abadi, the most brilliant and articulate representative of the old ways that were in remission.  Rabbi Abadi was let go from his job as the driving presence in the Magen David Talmud Torah while other rabbis were brought from overseas to run the few religious institutions that were developing in the still-evolving community.

 

But as the old ways were forced into obscurity, the new ways of the Ashkenazim were leading the community down a path that affects us to this very day.

 

One of the primary forms of identification for the new leadership was with UJA-Federation and its pronounced concern with the emerging state of Israel.  Before there were “Black Hats” in the Brooklyn Sephardic community, there was a very strong identification with Zionism.  Such a fierce identification was strengthened for the Syrians, as it was for many American Jews, by an equally strong perception of an all-pervasive Anti-Semitism and a separatist sense of clannishness among all Jews.

 

Contrary to their experience when they arrived to these shores, many of the Syrian immigrants started to forget their own marginalization at the hands of Ashkenazim and began to revisit their own history in the Middle East and see the Arabs as their enemy – as was required in the Zionist framework.

 

This anti-Arab racism was the first by-product of a new Ashkenazi mentality in the community.  Such a mentality sought to give community members a more modern luster that could further their acceptance among the Ashkenazim.  Even though most of the immigrants left Syria for economic reasons and to avoid the incessant violence that plagued the region in the wake of the collapse of the Ottoman Empire and the succession of two World Wars, a new understanding of the community’s history was developing. 

 

This history substituted for the history that was actually lived in the region.

 

I recall my grandmother saying that when she lived in Syria it was the Christians rather than the Muslims who had created problems for the Jews.  And, true to form, a reading of the episode of the Damascus Blood Libel of 1848 shows clearly that it was the local Christians in cahoots with the French imperial authorities that led to the tragedy of the Blood Libel.  In my own reading of this history I have not encountered any sort of Muslim Anti-Semitism.  I have encountered inter-communal strife, at times leading to violence, but this violence was usually dealt with by the indigenous governments. 

 

Jews were, it is true, not first-class citizens as were the Muslims, but on the whole the lives of the Jews were free of the types of persecution that Jews experienced in Europe – persecutions it should be remembered, that led from the Spanish Inquisition to the Holocaust.  It should not be forgotten that in each case of Jewish tragedy in Europe, the Crusades, the Inquisition and the Holocaust, the Muslims and Arabs provided sanctuary for the Jewish people.  The most recent example is the fact that the Islamic Turkish government protected the Jews of Istanbul while the Jews of Salonica, which had been lost by the Turks to the Christian Greeks, were sent to the gas chambers. 

 

But this history of inter-ethnic and inter-faith cooperation was lost in the assimilation of the Sephardic Jews to the new pathways of the Ashkenazim.  To be “modern” was to be fully integrated into the mindset and value-system of the Ashkenazim.

 

At the very moment that this assimilation was taking place, those Jews who had remained in the Middle East were vulnerable to the most significant cultural displacement in the long history of Jewish life in the Arab world.  After the establishment of the state of Israel, a series of transformations were in the process of taking place for Arab Jews.  Having lived in relative peace and having had communal autonomy for centuries, the Arab Jews had already been compromised by their relations with the European imperial entities in the region.  With the emergence of Israel, the native Jews were caught in an even more dangerous bind that was exacerbated by the Zionists in a way that we can now see was quite underhanded.  Being vulnerable to the charge of dual loyalty at a time when the Palestinian tragedy was an open wound, the native Jews were caught between their traditional loyalty to their Arab hosts and the perception that they were part of the Zionist system.

 

This sense of dual loyalty was exploited by the ruling Mapai party led by David Ben-Gurion, Israel’s first and most important Prime Minister.  Ben-Gurion at first was averse to bringing the Sephardim to Israel, having seen the new country as the exclusive provenance of the Ashkenazim.  He was disdainful of Sephardic culture and its pronounced religious tendencies.  This was not merely a professional assessment; Ben-Gurion’s antipathy towards the Sephardim was often charged with a primal hatred that spilled out into his references to Moroccan Jews as being criminal thugs.

 

At this time those Jews who were native to the Middle East and had moved to the West – North America or Europe – began to successfully reconstruct their economic world and achieved great success in commercial ventures.  Sephardim who went to Europe added a professional class while in the United States the commercial field was far more prominent.  The anomaly of Sephardim coming to Israel and becoming a part of the impoverished and exploited classes was a new dynamic that belied the actual realities, cultural and historical, which showed that the Arab Jews were intelligent, capable and productive citizens wherever they chose to live.

 

The forced suppression of the Sephardim in Israel was perhaps one of the first great splits in the community.  As the Brooklyn Syrians, soon to become a major economic force in the American Jewish community, achieved their financial success they had lost sight of what was happening to their brethren in Israel.  This split between the two communities proved important in trying to understand their future development.

 

Sephardim were trapped in a downward spiral of poverty and oppression in Israel. They not only lost their native culture and values, but had replaced their culture with the detritus of Zionism – Arab hatred.  The psychological mechanisms inherent in the Zionist treatment of the Sephardim turned the Sephardim against themselves.  By implanting a fierce hatred against the Arabs within the Sephardi breast, the Zionists were not only undermining the traditions and culture of non-Ashkenazim, they were forming a potentially volatile fifth column which was utilized to populate the abandoned border regions of the fledgling country forcing Sephardim to do much of the “dirty work” to build a new mono-ethnic state.

 

This development did two things: It turned the Sephardim against their own native identity by denying them the ability to maintain their Arabic culture and language – except insofar as it would be useful in the struggle against the Arab enemy; while it subsequently served to turn the Sephardim into mindless automatons whose very existence was dependent upon the approval and the largesse of the Ashkenazi Zionist leadership.

 

Such a phenomenon can be seen by viewing the late Ephraim Kishon’s racist masterpiece “Sallah Shabbati” – one of the most honored and best-known Israeli films of all time. 

 

Sallah is a boorish Yemenite immigrant whose peregrinations in the Israeli bureaucracy permeate the screen – he is trying to find employment and permanent housing – in his words SHIKKUN – while he remains trapped in the debilitating confines of the Transit Camp – in Hebrew Ma’abara.  Kishon draws Sallah as an ignorant and violent man: A misogynist, an idiot and a moral derelict.  Kishon neglects to show the viewer that the Yemenites were deeply moral human beings and devoutly religious Jews.  In the traditional style of colonialist portrayal of the savage “natives,” Kishon highlights the social dysfunction in the Ma’abara and pokes fun at the pre-modern traditions of the Arab Jews, seen in the film, as they were in Zionist culture at large, as similar to those of the Arab enemy itself.

 

In Brooklyn, the plight of these Israeli Sephardim was completely ignored.  There was an understanding that the Arab Jews were poor and money was sent to assist them through the UJA – this much is true.  But there was no human connection between the Brooklyn leadership and those Jews stuck in the dire straits of the Ma’abarot.  In point of fact, the transition to the Ashkenazi mentality led the Sephardic leaders to fix their sights more markedly upon the “miracle” of Israel and the greatness of its new leaders and its military prowess rather than on the dire predicament that its founding created for their Eastern brethren.

 

So the two Sephardic communities that were now developing led to a cognitive dissonance that began to separate them.  The Brooklyn Sephardim were almost completely oblivious to the realities of the Israeli Sephardim and their harsh treatment under their Ashkenazi hosts – a harshness that was often more severe than what they had experienced in their native lands.  The trajectory of Sephardic Brooklyn was pointed towards its continued economic success and its ability to integrate into the Ashkenazi-dominated world of American Jewry.

 

As I have said many times, this integration took place in our schools and Synagogues. 

 

In our schools, we adopted the modern Orthodox curriculum of Torah u-Mesorah and began to ease out the rabbis from the old country.  Children were barely taught how to read Scripture with the traditional cantillations, te’amim, while no attempt was ever made to restore the traditional curriculum based upon the literary analysis of texts that Matloub Abadi had once promoted; a curriculum he embraced from the teachings of his mentor, the great Aleppan sage Rabbi Yitzhak Dayyan.  In addition, there was no attempt whatsoever to teach the children the history of the Sephardic community or to instill in them the values of the Judeo-Arab culture of our progenitors.

 

This led to the emergence of two opposing camps in the community beginning in the early 1960s: There was a group that had been affiliated with the Yeshivah of Flatbush that had gone the way of Yeshiva University and Modern Orthodoxy.  A number of community rabbis in the late 1960s were trained in YU and became devotees of Rabbi J.B. Soloveitchik and his method.  This struck the death knell of the old system – at least what little of it was still left.  Parallel to this, and to some degree as a reaction to it, was the identification of some young men with the fundamentalist Yeshivah world of Lakewood and Ner Yisroel and Mirrer.  Although, like their Republican party peers, these nascent “Black Hats” had little power or status, they were extremely dedicated and worked diligently to create Lithuanian-style Yeshivah learning in Syrian Brooklyn.

 

It should be noted at this point that the emergence of a YU-trained and influenced cadre of teachers and leaders was linked to the Israeli victory in the 1967 War – a victory that energized an American Jewish community which had previously not been so enthralled with Israel.  In fact, the Syrian community was on average far more concerned with Israel than American Jewry at large because of its fierce identification with Ashkenazi Modern Orthodoxy. 

 

But after 1967, American Jewry’s passive identification with Israel was quickly transformed.  American Jews began to become fierce partisans of this tiny country that had vanquished the mighty Arab armies.  For the Brooklyn Sephardim there was no knowledge of the oppression of their Israeli Sephardic brethren and the debilitated state of Sephardic culture in Israel.  Ironically, the Brooklyn Sephardim were a great help in ensuring this state of affairs: Having almost completely assimilated into the Ashkenazi world, the Brooklyn Sephardim had done their part in the evisceration of Sephardic history and culture. 

 

They had been led by the nose to believe that their culture was sub-standard and that the future was to be Ashkenazi.

 

This change led to a state of crisis in Sephardic education and institutional life in America.  Sephardim were turned away from education as a lifestyle and career path – to a man, almost all members of the community remained in the commercial sphere and were averse to any form of education as a means to secure the future of the community.  This state of affairs led to the valuation of money as the sole means for attaining power and status in the community at the expense of education, professional occupations and community service as a path to keep the community together.

 

The forced insertion of money as the primary community value took place at the expense of religious piety and intellectual acuity.  The influence of money was so important a value that outsiders identified the Syrians as completely vain and materialistic and bereft of education and intellectual values.  This was then addressed by some of the young leaders in the community as they moved further into the world of the Ashkenazim.  They even began to assert publicly that the Sephardic ways were outmoded and had been superseded by the superior Ashkenazi culture, a culture that was seen as more in tune with modernity.

 

In Israel, the Sephardim had been decimated and crept back into civilized society slowly.  As in the nature of a self-fulfilling prophecy, Sephardim in the 1970s rebelled against the Labor party (once Mapai) and began to support the Right Wing Likud led by future Prime Minister Menachem Begin – paradoxically an Ashkenazi ethnocentrist who continued the tradition of pandering to the Sephardi “Negroes” – who they helped lead to victory in 1977.  This transformation of the Israeli political system, which had been completely dominated by the Laborite Left for decades, affected liberal Ashkenazi perceptions of Sephardim.  Just as Ben-Gurion had used the Sephardi immigrants to secure his own military policies, Likud used the Sephardim to affect a Right Wing revolution in Israel, a revolution that would lead to the debacle in Lebanon and the reign of Ariel Sharon over the West Bank settlement enterprise.

 

In addition, the Sephardim, most of whom had been shorn of the traditional Jewish religiosity and values by the heartless Ashkenazi Zionists, now “returned” to Judaism – but now they were not returning to the traditional legal rulings of the sages of the Middle East.  The “Ba’alei Teshuva” Sephardim in Israel, those returning to the faith, were being ushered back into Judaism by Ashkenazi Orthodox rabbis and by Sephardic rabbis who had long ago taken the Haredi turban.

 

This development now dovetailed with the battle being waged in Brooklyn in the 1970s and 80s over the Haredization of the community.  After many decades in the “Modern” Orthodox camp, the effects of cultural evisceration and educational debilitation in the community had taken its effect.  There was little life being breathed into the mainstream of the community as far as Judaism and education were concerned.  The Black Hats had a proselytizing faith that fought with bare-knuckles and played for keeps.  They were intent on generating troops to promote their version of Jewish faith and practice.

 

They found a great ally in the weakness and wishy-washiness of the so-called moderates in the community.  As we have seen, these moderates were not moderate at all, but had been at the very forefront of destroying the native values and intellectual traditions of the community and had done so in an often vicious manner.  They had run roughshod over the indigenous Sephardic culture and done little to apologize for it – in fact they were quite proud of their murderous “accomplishments.” 

 

This left the Brooklyn community with an Ashkenazi-style religious war that would eventually be won by the Black Hats among us.  With all the viciousness that the so-called “centrist” Orthodox in the community had mustered against a vulnerable traditionalism, they folded like a house of cards when the Haredim began to attack them.  They still ran most if not all of the main Synagogues and schools in the community, the Black Hats had to build their own institutions, but they were being targeted by the Haredi leadership for obliteration; a process that is ongoing and looks to end with a complete victory for the Black Hats.

 

The Israeli Sephardim had already been ushered into this Haredi world.  Having been stripped of their cultural and religious heritage by the official Israeli system itself – and not through an internal process of self-loathing and self-vilification as had been the case in Brooklyn – the Israeli Sephardim were less able to make sensible choices and were thrown into the maelstrom of Israeli fundamentalist Orthodoxy which was deeply reactionary and xenophobic and situated to the Right even of the American Jewish fundamentalists. 

 

This having been said, it was clear that many Sephardim had already opted out of the religious system altogether.  Israel was a secular country and Jews were the majority.  There was no need to be religiously observant in order to be Jewish in Israel, as was the case in America and Europe.  The internal battles waged within the Israeli Sephardic community over religion split community leaders and activists.  The religious element, most of whom identified themselves as Haredim, were almost completely at odds in a political sense with the secular activists, who now chose to call themselves Mizrahim, identifying themselves as “Orientals” in opposition to “Sephardi” which as a term of identification was now seen as part of the more conservative and reactionary culture of those Israeli Sephardim who had abandoned the struggle against Ashkenazi hegemony.  Such is the difference between the Sephardic Rainbow Coalition (ha-Keshet ha-Mizrahi) and SHAS, the latter being a deeply conservative religious party that is virulently anti-Arab and anti-secular.

 

The great irony in all this is that the “Left Wing” forces in Brooklyn, the YU-types, are zealously Zionistic and more in line with SHAS rejectionism than with the Keshet’s open and pluralistic democratic vision.  While the Brooklyn Zionists did not much see eye to eye with Rabbi Ovadiah Yosef’s support of the Oslo process, the general sense of synergy between Sephardi Right Wingers in Israel and the Brooklyn mainstream is seen as quite compatible.  It is among the Brooklyn Black Hats that identification with Israel is not a given.  Like their Haredi counterparts in B’nei B’rak and Me’ah She’arim, the Brooklyn Haredim are defiantly anti-Zionist and will not display the Israeli flag in their institutions and refuse to celebrate Israel Independence Day.

 

These Zionist issues animate a great deal of the intra-community polemic in Brooklyn circles.  The very issue of, let’s say, The Ringworm Children or Mordechai Vanunu’s revelation of the Dimona nuclear reactor, to name two items of profound concern to Israeli Sephardim, are of no concern to the Brooklyn Zionists or the Brooklyn Haredim.  The 1959 Wadi Salib riots and the emergence of the Israeli Black Panthers are completely unknown in Brooklyn.  In addition, as I have also pointed out a number of times, there has been, paradoxically, a large influx of Israeli Sephardic expatriates here in Brooklyn. 

 

These “Yordim,” what Israelis call the emigrants, come to New York with many of the Right Wing illnesses of their Israeli sojourn completely intact.   They tend to be vicious Arab haters and are religiously reactionary.  These Israeli Sephardi expatriates fit in quite nicely in the already Ashkenazified leadership cadre in the Sephardic community.  They are easily assimilated into our Synagogues and schools even though they have little knowledge or concern for the old Sephardic ways, having almost no connection to their historical past. 

 

Ironically, it has been the recent influx of actual immigrants from Syria that has shown that the old ways are in fact quite dead – the Syrian immigrants by and large have maintained their native Arab culture and speak Arabic and are familiar with the modern Arab world.   These immigrants have either remained outside the mainstream or have followed the neo-Ashkenazi model that permeates the community.  But this is the exception that most definitely proves the rule.

 

The volatile mix of Ashkenazified Brooklyn Sephardim and Ashkenazified Israeli Sephardim has created a perception that Sephardim are the way they appear to be on the surface.  But in reality these Ashkenazified Sephardim betray almost none of the traditional traits – intellectual, moral and cultural – that their Arab Jewish forbearers had.  They lack what is known in Judeo-Arab culture as SUFFEH, that graceful elegance, breeding and warmth that once suffused our communities.  Their horrid and at times degenerate behavior exemplifies not the Sephardic folkways, but the mores and standards of the Ashkenazim that they have patterned themselves after.

 

Thus, when we read about how the Sephardim are “religious” or how they are ultra-Zionists, we must bear in mind that the values that currently permeate the “Sephardic” community are merely a simulacrum of the Ashkenazi model that has served as a template for the “Sephardim.” 

 

In actuality there is really no Sephardic community anymore.  There are just various Ashkenazim who argue that their variant of Ashkenazi culture is the “true” Sephardic tradition.

 

We now have rabid messianic Zionists, Orthodox extremists and those too apathetic to care one way or another – even as our community is falling into the proverbial toilet.

 

As you look at the Sephardic community, either from within or without, you should be reminded that as a community it has become almost completely unhinged from the moorings of its own past.

 

Though there are a few Sephardim who have selflessly tried to maintain the values of the glorious past – and a number of righteous Ashkenazim as well – the whole thing has been of little effect on the primary realities of the community.  These realities are now almost completely Ashkenazi and have locked the community in a vise which it is now being choked by.  The endless wars and controversies being waged in the community among the various partisan groups have led to a cultural and moral degeneration in the community.  This degeneration has taken the form of a general decadence that has infected the youth of the community; a youth that is wayward and conflicted and apathetic in relation to what should rightly be the real values and priorities of the community.

 

Ironically, this internal collapse has been addressed with the inclusion and adoption of even more forms of Ashkenazi self-identification.  Our schools, community institutions and rabbinate are increasingly becoming ever more Ashkenazified with no Sephardic models on the horizon.  What I have called The Levantine Option, the model of Religious Humanism exemplified by the Judeo-Arab traditions and culture, is something that I have had to carry on my own shoulders and been vilified, mocked and attacked by those Ashkenazified Sephardim who wish to continue their promotion of the dysfunction that rules the community.  The endless whining and negativity in the community regarding the religious and cultural strife and acrimony has become a tonic breathing ever more life ever more abundantly into these groups.  This cultural nihilism has now become the animating spirit in the community.

 

The attempts that I have made to identify these problems and to provide answers has united the factions: While none of them can agree on much, one thing that they can agree on is that any attempt to de-Ashkenazify the community is one that must be met with vicious force and virulent hate.

 

Would that the members of the Ashkenazified Sephardic mafias understood what shooting oneself in the foot actually meant.

 

But such is an intellectual concept that is sadly beyond the purview of those who have buried any idea of intellectual attainment in the dustbin of their history for many years now.