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Tuesday, June 20, 2006

Sephardic Culture

Recently, while searching for information for a discussion on a much more "Orthonomic" issue, I ran into a thread on a very old discussion of modern Orthodox educators about ideas for a Sephardic Culture Day. The discussion on Sephardic Jewry was much more interesting to me than what I was searching for an is the impetus for this post.

The initiator of the thread was looking for ideas for a Sephardic Culture day in addition to his own. I'm glad that he was seeking ideas, because he really needed them. His list was definitely limited: food, Sefer Torah, and Tefilla.

The sparsity of the list provided, and many of the other ideas provided, left me somewhat shocked, saddened and dismayed, as well as a little angry.

How is it that over one thousand years of glorious history that brought the Torah world the likes of so many greats including Yehuda HaLevi, Yosef Caro, the Abarbanel, the Ibn Ezra, the Ramban, and the Rambam, and many more, as well as some of the more recent greats such the Ben Ish Hai, Chief Rabbis Benzion Uziel and Chaim David HaLevy, and Rav Ovadia Yosef Shlita,
became reduced (in the minds of the educated, no less) to borekas, a "quaint" Sefer Torah, and and a different Nussach?

To limit Sephardim to a borekas and pasteles, is akin to limiting Ashkenazim to Gefilte Fish and kugel. And, that is patently ridiculous.

And, don't think for a second that these educators who were discussing their schools' Sephardic Culture Days have never met a Sephardi or Mizrachi Jew. For the most part, they all appeared to be in communities that host their own, longstanding, full-service, Sephardi Batei Knesset. So, I can only assume that their schools have been educating Sephardi students for many years.

While I do (greatly) appreciate that many schools are trying to include Sephardim in their curriculum, I personally believe that Sephardic education or culture is part and parcel of a Torah education and should be incorporated into the regular classroom education, rather than relegated to its own corner, as something that is, perhaps weird or even exotic.

While it goes without saying that Sephardi students should be knowledgeable of their interpretations of halacha and minhagim, their nussach, and their history,. . . I think that Ashkenazi students too would benefit from knowing some of the basics of Sephardi life. As American Jews become more and more integrated, it is important to know some of the basics of interpretations of halacha and minhagim between different types of Ashkenazim, Hasidim, and Sephardim. I firmly believe that it is valuable to have at least an elementary familiarity with different Siddurim, as there will be times when a person will attend a minyan or a simcha where the Nussach and the minhag is different. And, understanding the interplay of Jewish history and general history is vital towards understanding and dealing world and communal issues in the modern world, from kiruv in different types of communities to Messianism to Iran.

(More to come).


Anonymous said...

Totally agree...I actually have more respect for Sephardic culture and minhagim then ashkenazim...

Sephardim actually respect tfilah and keep their mouths shut in shul and's amazing.

hazit said...

I agree with you but as a whole, Sephardim don't value education. For them it's not the PhD but the Porsche that is the goal. Let's face it - how many serious scholars are in the Sephardic community today? Maybe that's why they are identified more with meaningless externalities like kibbeh and rose water. Hazit indeed.

Anonymous said...

hazit, in my opinion the education is a means to an end...if they are actually able to afford a Porsche through entrepreneural and street smart business then kol hakavod.

Who are we to say how important degrees are if they are contributing and not leeches on our society...

Also, be careful with the are bound to insult someone...

SephardiLady said...

Hazit-As we all know, or should know, there are many types of Sephardim and Mizrachim. I don't know which community you are generalizing about (well, I probably do), but it doesn't match my experience with other communities of Sephardim and mixed communities of Sephardim.

Outoftown said...

The lack of familiarity with Separdic minhagim is amazing. I was at a training meeting for mikveh attendants, and of the 15 women there, only 2 or 3 knew anything about the fact that sephardim have different minhagim in this important area. Although there are not a lot of sephardim here, there are some, and it can be very insulting to tell a woman that she is not performing this mitzvah correctly b/c the mikveh lady is ignorant.

Good post, SephardiLady.

Charlie Hall said...

I would add to your list of people to know some very important Sephardic rabbis in America: Rabbis Sabato Morais z"l, Dr. Henry Pereira Mendes z"l, Dr. David De Sola Pool z"l, and Marc Angel shlita.

Mordechai Y. Scher said...

I certainly share your dismay. How we got to such a state where there needs to be a 'special day' is just beyond understanding.
As a product of modern Israeli yeshivot, I learned in study halls where the population was about half and half. We went to each other's homes and simhas. Although a pure Ashkenazi, the rav I usually went to confer with (Rav Mordechai Eliyahu, sh'lita)was a Sefardi. I thought this was a normal mix until I came back to the US to teach as an adult. My students were shocked to hear that the rav I went to most often was a Sefardi (not at all unusual in Mercaz Harav). They couldn't understand why common figures in my shiurei halacha were not only the Aruch Hashulhan or the Chafetz Haim, but also the Hida or Rav Haim David Halevy (whose Makor Haim Hashalem is an absolute gem of halacha education).
In Israel, in 'modern' circles, we have kibbutz galuyot. We have the Torah of Bagdad informing the Torah of Cracow. We have the Teimanim and the Halabim and the Moroccaim learning from, and informing, the Galicianers and the Yekkes. Truly a return and revival of Torah achut y'hiyeh lachem...
Why Ashkenazi 'charedi' circles maintain a separation is beyond me. Of course we have an obligation to preserve the customs and learning of each holy community, but that is supposed to contribute to a greater whole Am Yisrael. I have been very sorry to have my eyes opened to this over the years.

SephardiLady said...

Mordechai Sher--I would love to have a teacher like you for my children!!!

I agree completely that knowing halacha, the underpinnings, and the different psakim ADDS to Torah, not subtracts, chas v'shalom.

Thank G-d more and more is being published in English, and once the Sephardi publishing houses complete some of the major projects in work (including a 6 volume Shabbat halacha work), I hope that more achdut and respect will be created. These works are sure to contribute to the great amount of learning taking place in the US.

SephardiLady said...

OutofTown-Glad you were at the meeting to enlighten the other ladies. This is an important area, but just knowing the underpinnings of halacha makes the Sephardi way 'logical' (not "strange" as some people will tell you).

CharlieHall-Thank you for mentioning such Rabbis. I believe the Spanish-Portugese Synagogue just celebrated a monumental 250 years in America. Everyone should go to a service there when they visit Manhatten. It is a wonderful experience of history and decorum. Both Rabbi Marc Angel and his son Haim Angel are fantastic (as is the rest of the Angel family of Sephardi fame).

Charlie Hall said...

'I believe the Spanish-Portugese Synagogue just celebrated a monumental 250 years in America.'

Believe it or not, you are off by a century! The congregation traces its roots to the first Jews to arrive in New Amsterdam in 1654 and celebrated its 350th anniversary. It was not until around 1730 that the colonial legislature permitted them a charter to build a beit knesset. The current building (which is one of the most beautiful worship spaces you will ever pray in) is over a hundred years old yet it is their fifth building, in the fourth location. They have their own particular set of minhagim about which they are very particular. (Ashkenazim: don't even THINK about bring your tefillin there on Chol HaMoed -- I know an Ashkenazic rabbi who did and was asked to leave!) They have their own siddur. They are also the only Sefardic congregation I've ever heard of to have a women's tefillah group.

They also have a sister congregation in Philadelphia that dates to colonial times, but I've never visited there.

SephardiLady said...

Charlie, You are correct. When I wrote 250 I kept thinking that this was too short a time period.

The Spanish-Porteguese synagogues is absolutely beautiful and I love seeing different minhagim in practice.

Mikve Israel in Philly is worth a vist if you are passing through.

Esther said...

Great post. I think it's unfortunate that the variation in minhagim, not only between Ashkenazim and Sephardim but even between European groups, is looked at as strange. When people become baalei teshuva, they are supposed to take on the customs of whoever does kiruv to them, rather than look to their own heritage. I admire what you and your husband have done in reaching back to his Sephardic heritage and keeping the authentic customs from this tradition.

Charlie Hall said...

'they are supposed to take on the customs of whoever does kiruv to them, rather than look to their own heritage'

I know people who have received the opposite psak. For example, someone who knew his ancestors were German being told to take on Yekke minhagim.

ליטוואק said...

"I actually have more respect for Sephardic culture and minhagim then ashkenazim...Sephardim actually respect tfilah and keep their mouths shut in shul and's amazing."

I am mocheh on such a sweeping generalization about Ashkenazim. It's ironic that the same poster wrote later "Also, be careful with the are bound to insult someone...".

Just like you are defending the kovod of the Sepharadim against negative generalizations, you ahould be careful not to paint Ashkenazim with such a broad brush negatively and incorrectly.

queeniesmom said...

It's amazing that so little has changed since I was in yeshiva and had an arguement with the rav teaching us about Pesach and he presented Askenazi customs as law.

I pointed out to my children's school that they need to enlighten the parents and our children to other groups' customs. this came to light when some of people inadvertantly refused to eat in a shiva house. This was extremely upstting to the family sitting shiva even though no offense was meant.

Anonymous said...

I am happy to have discovered this site and interesting post when researching Sephardic halachot for Tisha B'Av.
I think that Sephardic minhagim is effectively marginalized in direct proportion to the numbers of Sephardim in the world, particularly outside of Eretz Yisrael. Additionally, we often select the cities, towns, neighborhoods in which we live by criteria other than the presence of other Sephardim. Many Sephardim simply integrate into Ashkenazi congregations, which is, of course, their right. I am not castigating. I do not think that this portends well for Sephardic minhag. I should say that my wife and I are actually planning to relocate to a new city. Our priorities: 1)Jewish day school, 2)Orthodox synagogue, 3) Sephardic community. We recently received notification of a new Spanish and Portuguese Synagogue (our minhag) in a city which we do not wish to live!


SephardiLady said...

Anon (HaSefaradi)-I really hope you will come visit often. I assume you are in the US.

I agree with your theories, and I might suggest Seattle as a destination for you and your wife. Great community, beautiful city, heavily Sephardi. Another community that has active Sephardi kehillah is Chicago.

Let me know what you decide! Maybe we will join you there.