By David Shasha
I received this quite disturbing letter through an intermediary who thought I could provide a more effective response than he would be able to. It was written by a young man in the Brooklyn Syrian Jewish community who currently attends Yeshiva University. The letter is reproduced in bold characters with my comments following:
Earlier this semester in a course at YU entitled “twentieth century hebrew literature” the professor felt the need to tell the class that the “sephardim made no contributions to modern hebrew literature because they were all poor and uneducated” (the period in question is the twentieth century up until 1967)
I see here four claims:
1 all sephardim were uneducated
2 all sephardim were poor
3 sephardim made no contribution to modern hebrew lit
4 because they were poor and uneducated
What would you answer to an idiot like this guy?
- The letter expresses the racism of many Ashkenazim that those of us who seek to articulate the worth of the Sephardic heritage have heard far too many times. For those who believe that the anti-Sephardi racism that I claim exists in the Ashkenazi-dominated Jewish world is some figment of my imagination, I can assure you that things like this are quite common.
- The YU professor completely ignores the nature of 20th century Israeli Hebrew literature and where it comes from. I have addressed the matter in an article discussing the novelist Amos Oz:http://groups.google.com/group/Davidshasha/browse_thread/thread/7ba5fe94c5b77dd9
- The remark by the professor presents us with two intertwined issues: Ashkenazi Zionist intellectuals changed the rules of Jewish civilization as their national project developed into a state. Sephardic Jews were stigmatized and marginalized for their understanding of Jewish culture and the way that culture had been mediated for centuries by Arab civilization. The harsh suppression of this culture was intended to draw a sharp line between Arabs and Jews, while the unintended effect was to alienate Sephardim from their own heritage which is now in a state of disrepair and collapse. It undermined a traditional Jewish expression that permeated Sephardic literature over the course of many centuries, leaving Sephardi writers bereft of their native literary heritage.
- As I write in my article on Amos Oz, the “New” Jewish culture in Israel that the professor alludes to is not “Jewish” at all: The “New” Israeli culture represents an extension of Western European civilization.
- The Israeli attempt to become “Western” is an odd thing given that European Jews were for many centuries kept apart from cultivated intellectual society. In response to this medieval Ashkenazi Jews formed a religious Jewish culture that was hermetic and sealed-off from the general society.
- It is interesting to note here that, unlike the Ashkenazim, the Jews of the Islamic world were indeed part of the cultural mainstream in their societies and did not feel any need to cut themselves off from the wider intellectual discussions that animated Arab civilization.
- With the advent of Zionism a process of Eurocentric elitism gripped the Jews who sought to emulate the very European Christians who had so cruelly persecuted them for many centuries. From Voltaire to Hegel the leading lights of European civilization were contemptuous of Jews and Judaism. And yet it was this largely Anti-Semitic civilization that was the model for the Zionists in creating their culture.
- A central feature of Modern European civilization was its tendency to colonize what they considered to be “lesser” nations and cultures. In this process, the Europeans – and along with them the Zionists – came to the Arab world where the roots of the YU professor’s prejudices can be seen.
- The Europeans – as the late Edward Said has shown in his classic 1978 book Orientalism – saw themselves as superior to the natives and marked them as inferior beings. So too did the Zionists mark Sephardic Jews as their inferiors.
- And yet – as I also point out in my article on Amos Oz – the Sephardim, over the course of many centuries, were responsible for creating the lion’s share of literate Jewish civilization. In poetry, philosophy, religious studies, science, and various other intellectual-cultural pursuits, the Sephardim laid out the foundational post-Talmudic literature that was, prior to Zionism and the founding of Israel, the pride of Jews the world over.
- The Zionist effect on Sephardic Jews was largely negative from a cultural standpoint. Sephardim were deemed inferior and uneducated even when the level of attainment of many Sephardic elites was superior to many of the Eastern European Zionist Bolsheviks who had never truly integrated into Western civilization.
- The Ashkenazi religious leaders were caught in an even more complicated quandary when factions and divisions grew in the wake of the Haskalah; a cultural movement whose seeds were planted by Moses Mendelssohn (1729-1786) in Germany, but which quickly became anathema to the rabbinic leadership and devolved into a faction that rejected in quite emphatic terms the rituals and beliefs of rabbinic Judaism.
- As the Ashkenazim broke off into acrimonious factions, Sephardim retained their traditional culture. But like their Arab Muslim neighbors, the Sephardim struggled to maintain their heritage in the wake of the European imperial project. The ascription of “stupidity” to Sephardim stems from this transformation of Middle Eastern life.
- In spite of this cultural bullying Sephardic Jews could continue to count important historical figures like David Nieto (1654-1728) , Isaac Abendana (ca. 1640-1710), Hayyim Yosef David Azoulai (1724-1807), Moses Angel (1819-1898), Elijah Benamozegh (1822-1900), Sabato Morais (1823-1897), Israel Moses Hazzan (1808-1862), Haim Nahum Effendi (1872-1960), Yitzhak Dayyan (1878-1964), and Matloub Abadi (1889-1970) among their rabbinic leaders. These men all represented the intellectual and ethical values of Maimonidean Religious Humanism at a time when Ashkenazi Jews were caught in the crosshairs of many controversies that tore communal unity apart.
- At the time of Israel’s founding Ashkenazi factionalism became institutionalized and continues to plague the country. Religious forces clashed with secular forces, Leftist partisans with Right Wingers, all serving to problematize Jewish identity; a matter that remains unresolved to this day as we see in our daily newspapers.
- The nature of Hebrew literature was thus changed under the pressures of Ashkenazi-Zionist hegemony. A seminal figure like Yitzhak Shami (1888-1949), whose stories of native life in the Middle East were ignored in the new state, is matched by later authors like Shoshana Shababo (1910-1992), Shimon Ballas (1930-present), Sami Michael (1926-present), Samir Naqqash (1938-2004), and the recently-resurrected Jacqueline Shohet Kahanoff (1917-1979).
- These writers, largely unknown to Jews today, vigorously represent the Sephardic heritage in a time of great pressure and transition. Theirs was a literature that marked the painful breakdown of an ancestral culture in both an existential as well as a religious dimension. It reflected the socio-cultural norms of a Judeo-Arab civilization that was anathema to the Zionist project which marked the Arab as its primordial enemy. This was the reason for its suppression, but to say that there is no Sephardic Hebrew literature in the 20th century is sheer ignorance.
- In the indispensable writings and literary anthologies of Ammiel Alcalay, these neglected authors have been restored to our consciousness. But the contentious nature of Zionism has forced many Sephardim to turn their back on this scholarship. This Sephardic literature is not a triumphal literature like much of Israeli Hebrew literature, but one of critical reflection on Zionism and the tragic displacement of Sephardim by the Ashkenazi onslaught.
- The young student who wrote the letter we are examining has been raised in a pedagogical environment – as evidenced by his angry confusion over how to respond to his professor – that has completely removed the Sephardic literary heritage from its curriculum. Sephardic students of the past 50 years have no idea what Sephardic culture is and who produced it.
- Instead, the Sephardim have now allied themselves to one of the two major Ashkenazi Orthodox denominations. They are either Haredim or Modern Orthodox. We can find no institutional exceptions to this rule in the current Sephardic world.
- In the case of a YU student we have to deal with the values of Modern Orthodoxy. In Modern Orthodox circles there is an arrogant sense that Sephardim, as I have said earlier, are “poor and uneducated” even though Sephardim were the most important producers of Jewish culture over the course of many centuries. In addition, the Hebrew literature of the 20th century under discussion here is a literature that is more Western in nature than Jewish.
- In spite of this, there have been a number of important literary works by Israeli Sephardim that Alcalay discusses in his book After Jews and Arabs: Remaking Levantine Culture. We have, for example, Yitzhak Shami’s astounding novella The Vengeance of the Fathers (1927), Yehuda Burla’s In Darkness Striving (1929), Shimon Ballas’ The Transit Camp (1964), Sami Michael’s All Men are Equal – But Some are More (1974), Eli Amir’s Scapegoat (1983), Yitzhak Gormezano Goren’s Alexandria novels (Alexandrian Summer, 1978 and Blanche, 1986), Albert Suissa’s Bound (1990), Ronit Matalon’s The One Facing Us (1995), and the rather complex matter of Sephardic identity in the novels of the iconic A.B. Yehoshua, the most prominent of which, Mr. Mani (1989), is an epic work dealing with Sephardi life in pre-1948 Palestine.
- These books are not known to Sephardic students whose standard concerns are those of Ashkenazi Orthodoxy. They have been fed on a strict diet of the ritualistic Halakhah where they are keen – in the SHAS style – to distinguish between Sephardi and Ashkenazi customs. But the wider civilization of the Sephardim is completely unknown to them.
- The books of Rabbi Jose Faur, intellectually on a par with those of Emmanuel Levinas (1906-1995), Abraham Joshua Heschel (1907-1972), and Joseph B. Soloveitchik (1903-1993), the best-known Jewish thinkers of the 20th century, are not taught to Sephardic students in their Yeshivahs. With this lacuna comes the relinquishing of the classical Sephardic tradition from the Geonim to Elijah Benamozegh and Sabato Morais to more contemporary figures like Matloub Abadi and the poet Ezekiel Hai Albeg.
- The Sephardic student – like the writer of the letter we are discussing – has been raised in an environment free of Sephardic intellectual culture. On the one hand, Brooklyn Syrian Jews are fiercely arrogant about their identity. They see their great wealth and social status as marking them as important members of the Jewish world. And yet, on the other hand, the Jewish world does not usually see them as they see themselves given their profound ignorance of civilized culture.
- In a certain sense, the YU professor is correct about the Sephardim being uneducated – but not in the way he thinks. Sephardim, through a complex process that has been mediated by European colonialism and Zionism, have been marginalized and demoted from their elite status in Jewish culture. Having lost their historical culture, the Sephardim have become beholden to the Ashkenazim who have convinced many of them that they are not worthy and must acclimate themselves to the Ashkenazi tradition and its agenda.
- In my essay “Sephardi Typologies” I have discussed this sad state of affairs. Indeed, the very fact that a Sephardi student is matriculated in an Ashkenazi university like YU where he can be demeaned by his professor in this repugnant manner is proof positive that Sephardic culture is in a bad way. Sephardim are now beholden to Ashkenazim for their access to Jewish institutions, a state of affairs that has been reinforced by a leadership cadre in Brooklyn and Deal, New Jersey which has ruled the community for the past half century with an iron fist, not permitting any form of Sephardic self-knowledge. All attempts at trying to bring the materials of Sephardic history and culture have been rejected with brute force by a leadership that has no moral compunction in its actions.
- This has led not only to historical amnesia, but to a general lessening of intellectual and moral values in the community. The Brooklyn Syrian Jewish community is basically unlettered in comparison to its Ashkenazi neighbors and has turned a blind eye to unethical behavior. After many decades of defeatism and self-contempt, the Brooklyn Syrian Jews have largely relinquished the propensity for intellectual advancement as they have been rigidly controlled by a group of unaccountable lay leaders whose priorities run counter to the Jewish tradition.
- When a young Syrian Jew is brought face-to-face with a YU professor who says that Sephardim are inferior, the student is shocked and dismayed. And yet the student has no consciousness and, more importantly, no knowledge that would aid him in his burning desire to respond forcefully to the impugning of his community and his character as a Sephardic Jew.
- This outrage, at least in my experience, is a rare thing. Most Brooklyn Sephardim are content to acquiesce to Ashkenazi hegemony and emphasize the minor ritual differences and the uniqueness of their Arab food and music. When it comes to strictly intellectual issues, Sephardim routinely defer to the Ashkenazim who they unthinkingly see as superior. Those who defy this consensus, the present writer included, are demonized and turned into social pariahs.
- This happened in the case of Matloub Abadi who was forced out of the rabbinate and out of the educational system of the community by Isaac Shalom. It was the also case with Ezekiel Hai Albeg, perhaps the last authentic representative of the classical Andalusian Jewish poetic tradition in the Sephardic world. Albeg, in addition to writing many Pizmonim and editing the Siddurim and Mahzorim still used in the Brooklyn Syrian Jewish community today (his name appears on the title page of these books), authored an exquisite maqama (a rhymed-prose literary text interspersed with metrical poems) about his childhood in Baghdad called in Hebrew Kenaf Renanim. This brilliant writer left Brooklyn for a job as an insurance salesman in Encino, California where he lived for many years. Most importantly there is the vexing case of Jose Faur who now left Brooklyn for Israel. His important scholarship on the Sephardic intellectual tradition remains decidedly outside the mainstream of a community that has no grasp of its vital importance for Sephardic continuity. These cases show the way in which any attempt to promote the Sephardic heritage has been fraught with danger and difficulty.
- It is a widely-accepted idea that Sephardim are an enfeebled community that has nothing to contribute to Judaism and to Jewish life today. This idea is based on a combination of Ashkenazi racism and a profound lack of understanding of the classical Jewish civilization. With or without the participation of contemporary Sephardim, the vast archive of Jewish civilization is permeated with the contributions of Sephardic writers and thinkers. Even during the troubled period in contemporary Israel, as Ammiel Alcalay has expertly shown in his books and articles, Sephardic voices remained passionate and, for those who wish to hear them, have not been completely silenced.
- I once told my good friend Kay Kaufman Shelemay, professor of Ethnomusicology at Harvard University and the author of the classic study of the Brooklyn Syrian Jewish community Let Jasmine Rain Down: Song and Remembrance Among Syrian Jews(1998) – a text not studied by the students of the community such as the writer of this letter, that the people who would be most interested in reading her book would lack the intellectual skills to read it, but those who were intellectually capable of reading it – the Ashkenazified Sephardim – would have no interest in it.
- The process of Ashkenazification in the Sephardic community has led to complex psychological problems involving the Sephardic heritage. Their heritage reduced to a small number of customs and non-intellectual matters such as food and music, young Sephardim have little idea the riches that their progenitors have produced. And because of a pedagogical system that has been formed under the iron hand of Ashkenazim and their Sephardi lackeys, the Sephardic student has been trained in the fine art of self-hatred and self-ignorance without often knowing exactly how it all happened and what it means.
- In closing, I would say that the YU professor is right and wrong at the same time. The Sephardim who are in his class are likely ignorant of many things in comparison to their Ashkenazi peers. This ignorance comes from the social stigma in the Brooklyn Syrian Jewish community against all things intellectual. Intellectuals are treated with contempt while anyone with a big bank account is seen as a saint. Yet what the professor misses is the socio-cultural process that has led to this unfortunate state of affairs.
- From the rejection of the Sephardic heritage has come an adoption of the Ashkenazi culture and an inferiority complex that leaves the Sephardic student questioning his own identity. In Israel this is a process that has been nationalized and not just institutionalized. The Israeli Sephardim were forced to relinquish their ancestral culture and many were never able to replace it. Unlike American Sephardim, Israeli Sephardim – many of whom have come to America bringing with them the Sabra hubris and Israeli cruelty that has infected the American Sephardic community in some extremely unfortunate ways – faced prejudice and social hurdles that told them that they were inferior to European Jews. Having fewer economic, social, and political resources, Israeli Sephardim were forced to acculturate to the Ashkenazi hegemony. This led to a transitional phase for both Sephardim and for Jewish civilization more generally.
- This transitional state can be seen in the malaise and dysfunction of contemporary Jewish civilization and its replacement by European values and ideas. Only by returning to the classical Jewish civilization can Israel and the Jewish Diaspora rediscover its authentic identity and find its true place in the family of nations.
Some Resources to Learn More about Modern Sephardic Hebrew Literature
Ammiel Alcalay, After Jews and Arabs: Remaking Levantine Culture (University of Minnesota Press, 1993)
Ammiel Alcalay, editor, Keys to the Garden: New Israeli Writing (City Lights, 1996)
Ilan Stavans, editor, The Schocken Book of Modern Sephardic Literature (Schocken, 2005)
Gil Hochberg, In Spite of Partition: Jews, Arabs, and the Limits of Separatist Imagination (Princeton University Press, 2007)
Yitzhak Shami, Hebron Stories (Labyrinthos, 2000)
A.B. Yehoshua, Mr. Mani (Doubleday, 1992)
Ronit Matalon, The One Facing Us (Henry Holt, 1998)
Sami Michael, Refuge (Jewish Publication Society, 1988)
Yehuda Burla, In Darkness Striving (Institute for Hebrew Translation, 1968)
Deborah Starr and Sasson Somekh, editors, Mongrels or Marvels: The Levantine Writings of Jacqueline Shohet Kahanoff (Stanford University Press, 2011)