When most American Jews think of their traditional Jewish culture, they think of Passover Seders and matzah ball soup, hamentashen and black-hatted, pale-skinned Hasidic men, and Yiddish-speaking bubbes (grandmothers) and zeydes (grandfathers). But, that is only one Jewish ethnic group of many.
In the early 1990’s, a representative from Operation Solomon spoke at our synagogue. Operation Solomon was a covert Israeli military operation to airlift Ethiopian Jews to Israel in 1991. Non-stop flights of 35 Israeli aircraft transported 14,325 Ethiopian Jews to Israel in 36 hours. The representative spoke of the first time he entered the synagogue of one of these villages and how amazed he was. They were reading the same Torah parsha that was being read by Jews all over the world. For probably two thousand years, they maintained the traditions of their forefathers.
It was perhaps the dream of Ethiopian Jewry to return to the Land of Israel that sustained them throughout the years. Their dream began to be realized in 1975 when the Chief Rabbinate of Israel recognized them as Jews, and two years later when the Israeli government decided to bring them to Israel in what was named Operation Moses. It was a clandestine operation organized to bring as many Ethiopian Jews as possible to Israel. Later, when the Ethiopian government banned Ethiopian Jews from leaving the country, Operation Solomon was organized. A long, in many respects hidden, group of Jews had now joined the international Jewish community.
While the Jewish community is united because of shared history, rituals, and laws, as Rabbi Rachel M. Solomin points out, “the divergent histories of Jewish communities and their contacts with other cultural influences distinguish Jewish ethnic groups from one another, giving each a unique way of being Jewish. Worldwide, Jews from distinct geographic regions vary greatly in their diet, language, dress, and folk customs.” She further states that “most pre-modern Diaspora communities are categorized into three major ethnic groups: Ashkenazim, the Jews of Germany and Northern France (in Hebrew, Ashkenaz); Sephardim, the Jews of Iberia (in Hebrew, Sephardi) and the Spanish diaspora; and· Mizrahim, or Oriental Jews.” But those categories are general at best.
From our very beginnings, we Jews were a blend of different groups. Ephraim Isaac, Ph.D., the Ethiopian-born director of the Institute of Semitic Studies in Princeton, New Jersey, explains:
“Over two thousand years ago, the Jews were an ethnic group, but even then not a “perfect” one. Since then, Jews have intermingled with many nations and absorbed many proselytes. The ancient Israelites were not a racial unit, but a sacral association… bound together by a common language, and common territory, a shared historical experience, and common consciousness…. It is the centrality of concern for the Torah revealed on Mount Sinai and the great values of our heritage that bind us together as Jews.”
The World Jewish Congress survey of the Jewish Diaspora points out that by the 1500’s, Jewish communities could be found not just in Europe, but as far away as Jamaica, Brazil, Yemen, Afghanistan, Ethiopia, Uganda, India, and China. Even today, the World Jewish Congress identifies 120 countries with a Jewish community. And, Israel is now one of the most racially, ethnically, and nationally diverse countries in the world, with immigrants from over 70 countries.
Throughout history, Jews married local people, and, as a result, they came to resemble the people around them. And while they retained their Jewish identities and religious observances, “they did so with a local accent and flavor.”
Even the majority of Jews in the United States who are Ashkenazi, and mainly from Eastern Europe, could trace their ancestry to a greater variety of European cultures than they think. And just as Ashkenazi Jews are a mix of many peoples and cultures encountered during the centuries of wandering throughout the Diaspora, other Jews also have different backgrounds that range from geography to socioeconomic class, from culture to language, from skin tone to paths to Judaism, and so on.
Many people who fall into the “non-Sephardic or European” category often feel marginalized when those in the mainstream may see diverse Jews as being “other.” Whatever their origins and culture, whatever their skin tone, whatever their path to Judaism, they are essential members of the greater global Jewish community.
Many Jews work to protect their ethnic identity in a variety of ways. “Religious Jews will follow the minhagim (customs) of their ancestors in both their homes and synagogues. Others consciously study their traditional Jewish language, whether Yiddish, Ladino, or Farsi and join social clubs based on their ethnic heritage. All this is fine, as long as its purpose is not to distance themselves from other groups of Jews. In North America, where secular schools often celebrate multiculturalism, Jewish supplemental and day schools have now begun to include Jewish ethnic diversity in their curricula as well. Indeed Jewish ethnicities have become a way to trace the course of Jewish history. And, aren’t we blessed with a rich, and colorful, cultural heritage?
Florence L. Dann, a fifth year rabbinical student at the Academy for Jewish Religion in LA has been a contributing writer to Jlife since 2004.