Religion & Beliefs

Semites Are Sexy

On Friday I blogged about a lot of the holes in a contemporary Jewish day school education, and one of the major gaps involved general lack of knowledge about Jews that aren’t Ashkenazi. That is, Jews who are not of … Read More

By / June 18, 2007

On Friday I blogged about a lot of the holes in a contemporary Jewish day school education, and one of the major gaps involved general lack of knowledge about Jews that aren’t Ashkenazi. That is, Jews who are not of Eastern European descent. In the US the vast majority of day schools and Jewish community organizations are run with the assumption that pretty much everyone involved is Ashkenazi, and this isn’t a completely farfetched assumption. In the US, non-Ashkenaz Jews are the minority, but not by as wide of a margin as programming and organizations would lead one to assume. The States are home to small enclaves of Jewish communities with origins all over the world, including India, Egypt, Tunisia, Morocco, Syria, Yemen, Iraq, Iran, India, China, and Afghanistan. These communities are often lumped together with Sephardic Jews (literally, Spanish Jews, or Jews from Western Europe) even though their customs and communities are quite different. Jews from Middle Eastern countries like Yemen, Iraq and Iran are most accurately identified as Edot HaMizrach, or Tribes of the East, because they’re generally thought to be remnants of the community that was exiled from Israel is 587 BCE to Babylonia. When the Second Temple was built many Jews returned to Israel, but even more stayed put, and the Babylonian community and its offshoots became what we now call Edot HaMizrach. I have a crush on all of the Edot HaMizrach because they’ve done the best job of preserving customs from Talmudic times. Everything from having kids give Aramaic translations to the Torah as it’s being read on Shabbat (a practice originated thousands of years ago, and contemporarily being reinstated via Storahtelling) to speaking Hebrew in a way that distinguishes between letters that are pronounced exactly the same way by Ashkenazi Jews. They also have amazing cuisine, and many cute olive-skinned Jewish boys. Perhaps the most important thing to remember about Edot HaMizrach is that they weren’t victims of the Holocaust since most of them live much farther East than Hitler ever ventured. This doesn’t mean, though, that they didn’t suffer all kinds of cruelty, discrimination, and pain at the hands of the governments where they lived. There were pogroms and serious problems of anti-Semitism in the Middle East long before the Nazis came to power. Unfortunately the Holocaust has mostly drowned out any communal memories of these problems to the extent that many people don’t even know they existed. Tension relating to this problem, and a more general sense of discrimination against Sephardic and Mizrachi Jews is still potent in Israel today. For one thing, Mizrachim tend to look like Arabs, and so are searched more often by security in Israel, which, as one might expect, is rather unpleasant. A few other cool things about Edot HaMizrach: each community has its own traditions regarding cantillation of the Torah, more commonly known as trope. Mizrachi weddings are notoriously awesome, especially since they’re preceded by a henna ceremony, which is a really cool and weirdly erotic pre-wedding ritual. See pictures here. And finally, there are some Mizrachi Jews who speak Judeo-Aramaic, a modern Jewish dialect of the language used in the Talmud, and parts of Tanach. I imagine I’m one of about three girls in the world who think Judeo-Aramaic is among the coolest things in the world, but it’s kind of the family business, so I’m allowed this luxury. Anyway, there’s clearly lots to be taught about Edot HaMizrach, and it’s not getting taught in day schools or Sunday schools. Next time you have the opportunity to lead or teach something in your community, think about adding a Mizrachi custom, song, or food. Kugel is like, so last season.