Masking Identity: Sephardim as Ashkenazim
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
“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.
Syrian immigrants to
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.
of the primary forms of identification for the new leadership was with
UJA-Federation and its pronounced concern with the emerging state of
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
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
This history substituted for the history that was actually lived in the region.
recall my grandmother saying that when she lived in
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
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.
the very moment that this assimilation was taking place, those Jews who had remained
sense of dual loyalty was exploited by the ruling Mapai
party led by David Ben-Gurion,
this time those Jews who were native to the Middle East and had moved to the
West – North America or
forced suppression of the Sephardim in
were trapped in a downward spiral of poverty and oppression in
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.
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.
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
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
after 1967, American Jewry’s passive identification with
They had been led by the nose to believe that their culture was sub-standard and that the future was to be Ashkenazi.
change led to a state of crisis in Sephardic education and institutional life
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.
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
development now dovetailed with the battle being waged in
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.”
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.
having been said, it was clear that many Sephardim had already opted out of the
religious system altogether.
great irony in all this is that the “Left Wing” forces in
Zionist issues animate a great deal of the intra-community polemic in
“Yordim,” what Israelis call the emigrants, come to
it has been the recent influx of actual immigrants from
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.