For Ellen of blessed memory
This is a ten-part series of online articles that, with G-d’s help, I hope to transform into a larger book. It is prompted and inspired by questions I have been asked over the past half century by my readers and particularly these past five years by non-Jewish political conservatives of Christian background who often love Jews but cannot figure us out. Because most online opinion articles range between 600-3,000 words, this subject cannot be treated properly and completely in one single article or even in a limited series. However, this series marks an ambitious effort to address a perplexing question, one that perplexes America’s one million Orthodox Jews more than it does even non-Jewish conservative Christians.
The purpose of this series is to inform readers authentically as to what Jews believe, to demystify. For those who live by other monotheistic faiths, may you be blessed in your pursuit of justice, kindness, morality, and ethics as you serve the One True Creator according to your understanding and belief. As explained in greater detail in Part 4, Judaism does not permit Jews to proselytize others.
Previous installments in this series can be found at these links:
Part One: The Basic Definitions of Jews and Non-Orthodox Jewish Denominations — can be found here.
Part Two: The Orthodox — can be found here.
Again, first: nomenclature. In Israel, the so-called “West Bank” is wrongly and falsely termed that for purposes of cynical politics. That land properly is named and called “Judea” and “Samaria.” Likewise, two thousand years ago the Romans cynically re-named the very Land of Israel itself, calling it “Palestine.” They re-named the Biblical city of Shechem, one of the largest and most important cities in Samaria, for the Roman empire’s city of Naples. However, Arabs who invaded the region centuries later could not pronounce the letter “P” as Anglophones and Romantic language speakers do; rather, their “P” comes out as a “B.” Thus did Shechem’s name move from “Naples” to “Nablus.” The Romans, as they conquered the Mideast and eventually expelled Jews from Israel, wanted the land severed from its Judaic moorings. Since one immediately prior tenant on that land had been the Biblical Philistines, the Romans named the land “Palestine.” As all Christian and Jewish students of Scripture know, there were no Muslims in that picture. (The concept is the same as explaining that Mahatma Gandhi of India has no ethnic or other connections with the Sioux, Navajo, or Cherokee “Indians.”) Islam’s Muhammed was not yet to be born for another 600 years when the Romans expelled the Jews from the Israel they renamed Palestine. Through the next two thousand years, until 1964, the term “Palestine” was synonymous with Israel. The English-language Jewish daily newspaper that published in Jerusalem before Israel was founded was the “Palestine Post.” The United Jewish Appeal that raised money around the world to help finance the creation of Israel was known as the “United Palestine Appeal.” The Jewish National Fund that has little blue charity boxes for raising money to plant trees and communities in Israel was planting forests in Palestine. The Irgun Jewish underground that drove out the British raised money in America through its fundraising arm, the American League for a Free Palestine.
When the Romans exiled the Jews from “Palestine,” many trekked eastward towards Babylonia, now Iraq, where a huge Jewish population already had grown and established itself from the time of the Nebuchadnezzar expulsion of 586 B.C.E. when the First Holy Temple was destroyed. II Kings 25; Jeremiah 52; Psalms 137. Many others of the exiled fled the Romans instead by racing towards Egypt or other areas in North Africa, relocating as far distant as Spain. Yet others eventually fled beyond the Iberian peninsula into the countries of Northern Europe, settling primarily along the Rhine in Christian lands like Germany, England, and France. By the Year 1000, there were emerging two distinct Jewish ethnicities, still unfolding. Significant parts of central and southern Spain had become Muslim, and Spain became a significant world cultural center of Islam. The Hebrew name for Spain to this day is “S’farad.” Thus, the Jews living in Spain and Portugal and extending throughout countries culturally and theologically associated with Muslim Spain, stretching to North African lands like today’s two-dozen Arab countries, became known as “S’faradim” (literally, the “Spanish Jews”). Today the most common English spelling and pronunciation of that term is “Sephardim.”
As Spain and Portugal became more predominantly Catholic with the Reconquista of the 1200’s, the term “Sephardim” came to be associated ever more with Jews living in the Muslim Arab lands of North Africa. Impacted by their host majority population, Sephardic Jews grew up culturally influenced by the Muslim Arabs around them. As a result, one hears distinctly Arabic-sounding melodies in their Jewish religious prayers, and many of their communities continued permitting polygamy into the Twentieth Century. Their traditional foods are more Middle Eastern: chummus (hummus), techina (tehini), pita bread, stuffed vegetables and vine leaves, olive oil, lentils, fresh and dried fruits, herbs and nuts, and meat dishes based on lamb or ground beef. Condiments often include cilantro, cumin, mint, and saffron. Other foods they have imported into their cuisine include babaganoush, falafel, couscous, kibbeh, matboukha, and shakshuka. It has been said that a Sephardic Shabbat table of foods bursts with bright colors while Ashkenazic Sabbath cuisine is monochrome brown. Because Sephardim come from a culture where the majority non-Jewish religion — Islam — reveres theologians and limits denominational ruptures very severely, Sephardic Jews likewise treat their rabbis with enormous respect and deference, and they tend to reject theological denominations, identifying more simply either as “religious” (dati) or “secular” (chiloni). Thus, they do not relate to denominations like “reform” or “conservative” Judaism, which have no relevance or meaning to them.
Ashkenazim are the other main ethnic Jewish group. Germany long has been known by various names. Even today, France calls the country “Allemagne,” America calls it “Germany,” and they call themselves “Deutschland.” During the Middle Ages, Jewish rabbinic and popular literature called the land “Ashkenaz.” In time, Jews living throughout the Christian communities of Northern Europe, along the Rhine River in Northern France and German cities like Mainz, Worms, and Troyes, came to be known as “Ashkenazim.” (Recall that “im” is a Hebrew suffix that makes a singular male noun plural.) As persecutions under the Church continued for half a millennium and more, taking the shape of such anti-Jewish genocides as the Crusades from 1096 into the 1300’s, the Black Death of the mid-14th Century that — in the absence of scientific biological understanding of bubonic fever — got blamed on “The Jews,” the Spanish Inquisition of the 1400’s, the massacres arising from blood libels and other defamations like the “desecration of the host” calumny, Paul IV’s introduction of ghettoes in 1555, the constant expelling of Jews from country to country, and other persecutions too numerous to detail here, most surviving North European Jews fled to Poland, which warmly and kindly extended invitations to come and help build the economy, and to Ukraine and Russia which took in Jews less affectionately as did other East European lands that came to be known as Hungary, Romania, Czechoslovakia, and Austria. All these Jewish communities of eastern and western Europe came to be known as “Ashkenazim” (literally, the “German Jews”).
Unlike Muslims, Christians banned polygamy, so Ashkenazic Jews living in those societies were enjoined a thousand years ago by Rabbi Gershom ben Yehudah of Germany, the leading light of the Ashkenazic rabbinic world, from marrying more than one wife at a time. Ashkenazic Judaic religious melodies do not sound “Christian” at first, but after a person has heard dozens of Sephardic melodies, one realizes that the “Jewish” worship music of Ashkenazic Jewry really has deep Christian melodious roots. Consider the quintessential Judaic ritual prayer “Kol Nidre.” Here is the Moroccan Kol Nidre. By contrast, the classic Ashkenazic Kol Nidre was composed in its most popular form in 1881 as an instrumental piece by a German Protestant, Max Bruch, as his Opus 47. It has been recorded over the years by the likes of Perry Como and Johnny Mathis. In more recent years, strains of contemporary Western music continue to influence “classical” Ashkenazic prayer melodies like those composed by the greatest Twentieth Century interpreter of religious Judaic music, Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach of blessed memory, and his successors.
Beyond food, Ashkenazim reflect their evolution in Christian cultural milieux in other ways. Although they respect their rabbis, many less learned laity are far less likely to treat rabbis with the deferential respect that Sephardim do. Like Christians, they have tolerated and even promoted the formation of more denominations. In countries where Christian society has tried to limit too many contending primary theologians — e.g., the United Kingdom with its Anglican Church and dominant Archbishop of Canterbury, and France with its Catholic Church and the Cardinal of Paris — so too have Ashkenazic Jews in those countries tried to work for quasi-uniformity by having a singular Chief Rabbi of the United Kingdom or Chief Rabbi of France and by organizing the greater population around one government-recognized “United Synagogue” central national infrastructure. Because modern Israel was founded under British oversight after the English were allotted the “Palestine Mandate” at the end of World War I, Israel not only developed a political parliamentary system that follows the British model but also has a Chief Rabbi — actually two: one the Chief Ashkenazic Rabbi and the other the Chief Sephardic Rabbi — modeling the British format.
On the other hand, in a Christian America that is marked by so very many Protestant denominations with no one predominant national religious figure like an Archbishop of Canterbury or an Ayatollah of Iran, the Jews of America evolved their denominations and decentralized rabbinate similarly. That is why “Reform Judaism” and “Conservative Judaism” do not exist significantly anywhere else in the world outside America and Canada, except in minuscule irrelevant pockets. Even decidedly non-observant, non-practicing Jews of countries from England to France to Russia to Israel identify simply as “religious” or “non-religious” — and almost all affiliate institutionally in those countries as “Orthodox” ultimately. The non-Orthodox “denominations” are irrelevant. By contrast, the one time that Orthodox Jews in America tried to elevate a man of true greatness to be “Chief Rabbi of America,” a century ago, the effort proved disastrous and never was repeated. Only when he died did the community repent the way they had mistreated him. His funeral is recorded as perhaps the largest in American Jewish history, with more than 50,000 Jews — many reports had participants numbering over 100,000 — marching behind his casket through Manhattan’s Lower East Side.
In terms of foods, traditional Ashkenazic Jewish foods often are not “Jewish” at all but rather the cultural heritage of living in Christian Europe: Shabbat challah basically is twisted Polish egg bread. Kishka also is a Polish delicacy. And so it goes: bagels, horseradish, stuffed cabbage, and potato foods associated with Russia, Ukraine, and Poland like latkes (potato pancakes) and knishes. Because of enormous poverty, they stuffed their fish with flour fillings (hence, “filled” fish or gefilte fish) and extended their liver with added flour and eggs (chopped liver). It is likewise common to find borscht — a beet soup that is Russian in ethnicity — in “kosher aisles” of supermarkets, and Upstate New York’s Jewish hotel-resort mecca of the 1950s and 1960s was known as the “Borscht Belt.”
Just as Sephardim came to reflect and even culturally mirror the Arab Muslim majority in whose midst they evolved while remaining true to their Judaic roots and heritage, the Ashkenazim took on aspects of their surrounding cultures, almost comically so. A German Jew (called a “Yekke” — rhymes with “Mecca” — a term that some deem complimentary and others regard as mocking) stereotypically is fastidious, can be dour, and always is punctual to the microsecond. By contrast, Jews from Russia, Ukraine, Georgia, and Latvia (all bunched together erroneously as “The Russians”) tend to be louder, more physical, and often hopelessly tardy. Yekkes often have inclined towards entrepreneurial undertakings, launching some of the great department stores and the various arms of the distilling industry, and also have gravitated towards the sciences, universities, and similar degreed professions. The Russians seem all to be high-tech computer engineers. For scores of years, Yekkes had contempt for Jews from Eastern Europe, whom they degraded as the “Ostjuden,” the identical contemptuous term used by their German non-Jewish neighbors, and several historians believe it was the Yekkes who coined the term “kikes” with contempt for their East European co-religionists’ surnames that ended with “-ky.” Thus, German Jews looked down upon Polish and Russian Jews just as non-Jewish Germans looked down upon the non-Jews to their east whom they ultimately invaded. In similar vein, Persian Muslims adamantly remind observers that, though Muslim, they decidedly are not Arabs — and Sephardic Jews from Iran likewise tend to worship with and marry other Persian Jews but, in the first instance, preferably not Sephardic Jews from Arab countries like Morocco and Yemen.
The North African Jews from those Arab lands are known as “Edot HaMizrach” (the “Congregations of the East”), and they find themselves a bit outside the Western cultural preferences of the original European Sephardim who hail from the 1492 Spanish expulsion, the 1497 Portuguese expulsion, and the safe haven many of those expelled found in the Netherlands, the primary European country that had not adopted Catholicism and its Middle Age anti-Jewish persecutions. Spanish-Portuguese Jews were the first to arrive in our country when the “St. Charles” boat brought 23 of them in 1654 fleeing from Spanish and Portuguese Catholic anti-Jewish persecutions in South America. They sailed up the Atlantic coast and into New Amsterdam, the only Dutch colony among the thirteen, anticipating hopefully their best opportunity to avoid persecution. That is how New York began its connection with Jews. Among several of the main cities among the original colonies, each still has a “Spanish-Portuguese synagogue,” styled architecturally as they had been in Iberia centuries ago, and they also preserve those centuries-old melodies. Just as a non-Jew from Madrid or Barcelona does not identify with “Hispanics” from El Salvador, Guatemala, or Mexico, so it is that Spanish-Portuguese Jews see themselves a Sephardic breed apart from those based in North Africa.
Meanwhile, as with Ashkenazim, Edot HaMizrach Sephardim also often reflect the attitudes, cultural preferences, and social status of the non-Jews among whom they evolved. For decades, Egyptian and Iraqi Jews have seen themselves on a more elevated North African status, Libyan and Tunisian Jews are seen as somewhat mirroring each other, and Moroccan Jews often are seen as the predominant population of North African Jews by virtue of their sheer numbers, their distinctly magnetic cultural traditions, and their traditions of learning and fealty to tradition. Syrian Jews, who hail mostly from Aleppo, are similar to Persian Jews in their preferring to marry endogamously, to worship specifically with other Syrian Jews and to conduct their own Syrian Jewish schools preserving their specific unique Syrian ritual traditions and lexicon. Like the Persians, Syrian Jews have tended towards commercial enterprise and store ownership. One finds Persian Jewish concentrations in communities like Beverly Hills and New York’s Westchester, and Syrian Jews base along Brooklyn’s Ocean Parkway near Avenue “R” and with expansive second homes in Deal, New Jersey.
Meanwhile, Jews from Yemen (“Taymanim,” the group with perhaps the most distinctive Mideastern Hebrew dialects and exotic Judaic traditions and raiment, influenced most by the surrounding Arab culture) often have been relegated to bringing up the societal rear, akin to placing a baseball novice in right field. To this day, one of Israel’s two or three worst national scandals was and remains the Y’lidei Tayman (“Yemenite Children”) controversy by which Marxist socialist Labor Party apparatchiks oversaw a process during the massive 1949-1950 airlift of 50,000 Yemenite Jews to Israel (known both as “Operation Magic Carpet” and, based on Exodus 19:4 and Isaiah 40:31, also as “Operation On Wings of Eagles”) that mysteriously saw many of the immigrating Yemenite Jewish children disappear from rosters of the living, with parents notified that their children had died in hospitals, but with an emerging understanding among many later historians that Israel’s Labor Party stole the children from parents whom the Labor Party socialists deemed too religious and too backwards to be assimilated, renamed them, and then relocated them anonymously in socialist kibbutz communities run by Labor.
Understandably, Taymanim often have felt themselves victims of ethnic discrimination in Israel, a country that is more than 70 percent Jewish, even as the greater Edot HaMizrach population rightly have felt unfairly treated by the socialist Marxist Labor Party apparatus of Ashkenazim mostly from Eastern Europe who founded Israel’s political infrastructure. In the 1977 Electoral Revolution, it was this population — the Sephardim of North Africa — who rose up at the polls to kick out the Labor Party that had ruled Israel for a half a century and more, dating to pre-independence times, and elected Menachem Begin’s center-conservative-traditional Likud that has dominated Israeli governance ever since. Although Begin and his inner circle also predominantly were Polish and Russian Ashkenazim, Edot HaMizrach Sephardim accurately saw Begin in particular as rooted more deeply in authentic Judaic values, traditions, and a just-plain “Jewish flavor” that transcended and unified all Jewish ethnicities as contrasted from the Marxist socialist elites among the “Beautiful People” who contemned the louder, more physical, Mideastern Jews whom they derisively called the “tshatsh-tsha-chim” (the “shiny ones” or the “greasy ones”). There was manifest electricity in the air when Begin campaigned among Sephardim.
Contrary to media fallacies, reinforced by lies taught at American university Middle East Studies departments, often co-funded with endowed chairs paid for by Arab governments, the demographic majority of Israel is not Ashkenazic White but Sephardic “Jews of color.” And that population is reinforced by an additional 20,000 Jews from Ethiopia for whom Israel risked its own soldiers’ lives and enormous national resources to liberate them out of Africa and bring them into Israel in the 1985 “Operation Moses” and again in the 1991 “Operation Solomon” midnight airlifts. It is widely believed among Jews who have studied the matter that the Jews of Ethiopia may well be remnants of the lost tribe of Dan, one of the Ten Lost Tribes of Israel. II Kings 17:6.
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