Not the Sephardi way

Yosef Elgazi

 

Many members of the Jewish communities in the East studied at local universities or in Western European academic institutions. From them sprang physicians, engineers, bankers and famous artists. Others, some of them Torah prodigies, studied in secular schools and did not adopt an insular attitude

 

The chief rabbi of the Ottoman Empire (known as the hakham bashi), Rabbi Chaim Nahum Effendi, who was later the chief rabbi of Egypt, was a graduate of both the rabbinical seminary and the ecole superieure of languages in Paris - as can be attested by Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, who was his student in Cairo.

The chief rabbi of Alexandria, Dr. Moshe Ventura, was a graduate of the Sorbonne. When the Palestine Philharmonic Orchestra, precursor of today's IPO, which Levy and his aide say is being forced on Sephardim, gave a series of concerts in Egypt before the state's establishment, its members were received with respect in local synagogues, and the Jewish press exulted at the orchestra's visit.

The 11th century Jewish community of Yemen produced the religious scholar Netanel Brabi Fayumi, whose book, "Bustan al-Oukoul" (Orchard of the Mind), was published for both Jews and Arabs. In the 13th century, Arabs in Yemen admired Rabbi David Haadeni, the author of the Great Midrash.

In the 16th century, the author of "The Book of Morality," Rabbi Zechariah al-Zahari, drew on both Muslim and Jewish traditions. A few years ago, the religious scholar Saleh al-Zahari (Tsadok Yitshari) died in Israel; he was a renowned Arabic and Hebrew linguist who took part in the revolution that ousted the Imam al-Badr and declared a republic in Yemen.

The Jewish writer Shalom Darwish, who first wrote Arabic poetry before turning to prose, catapulted to fame in 1930s' Iraq for his book "Baydat al-Diq" (The Chicken's Egg). And in the 1950s, the chairman of the Iraqi Communist Party and leader of the opposition was none other than the Jew Sasson Dalal, who paid with his life for his political views and activities.

In his book "The Jews of Morocco: The Reign of King Muhammad V," recently published in French and Hebrew, Robert Asraf, scion of a French-Moroccan family of great lineage, describes a mixed Jewish society, rather than the religiously monolithic one that Deri, Levy and their ilk are trying to foist on us.

Sephardi culture, like Western culture, is multi-faceted, with good points and bad. The two cultures are enhanced when they do not try to invalidate each other, but instead take part in a mutual encounter which leaves its imprint on both.

In the end, it has to be made clear to both Deri and Levy that the Sephardim never lived in trees, and therefore they were never compelled to climb down from them.

 

First published in "Ha'aretz", 15.4.1998

Also appeared in Not the Sephardi way