A STRIKING DIFFERENCE between Jewish life in the States and in Israel is the relative lack of Sephardim in the U.S. This difference gets expressed in Jewish religious life as well as in other aspects of Jewish culture (music, food, clothing, etc.). It also gets expressed in one’s consciousness of what a Jew looks like and what it means to be a Jew.
Growing up in the Flatbush section of Brooklyn, I happened to have been exposed to many Sephardim, since there is a significant community of Syrian Jews in Flatbush. (In general, Sephardim are Jews whose customs derive from life in Spain, Portugal and the Land of Israel, while Ashkenazim trace their roots to Eastern Europe and to Russia). Because the “Syrians” were my only contact with Sephardic Jewry, I (like all of my friends) tended to use the words “Syrian” and “Sephardic” interchangeably. How surprised I was to discover in Israel that the Israeli Syrian Jewish community is quite a minor community, when compared to the giant Sephardic Jewish communities from Morocco and Yemen and with the smaller ones from Iraq, Iran, Tunisia, and Kurdistan.
In America, many cities with Jewish populations contain no Sephardic synagogues. In Israel, standard synagogue rite is Sephardic, and in many of the smaller Israeli towns one will simply not be able to find a synagogue service that uses the traditional Ashkenazic rite.
Sephardim have put their stamp on the cultural map in Israel. There are clichés and caricatures of the differences between Moroccans and Yemenites, there is the Middle Eastern beat of the Mizrahi music that so encourages dancing (indeed, my wife Sarah takes a belly dancing class mainly with Sephardic women at the local JCC)., there are Sephardi Pop Stars like Ayal Golan and Rita, there is the peppery “zchug” and other spicy relishes and foods, and there is also what the Sephardim do to the conception of what it means to look like a Jew.
One of the fitness center instructors in Givat Ze’ev is a Sephardic woman named Zahava (“Golda”). When Sarah first began to work-out at the Center, she asked me how she would know how to recognize the instructor. I told her: “That’s easy. Walk in, look around for a woman who looks like a Native American Indian, and you’ve found her.”
I’ve written in the past about how in Israel there is no such thing as a Jewish nose, but the truth is more encompassing: there is no such thing in Israel as a Jewish body or a Jewish “look.” Why, there are various Sephardic Jews in Givat Ze’ev who in the U.S. would easily pass for Chicanos, Puerto Ricans, and Hispanics. I miss this Israeli multiplicity of Jewish looks when I visit the States; I miss the Sephardim. Because let’s not forget: with the relative monochromatic Jewish body in the States come certain implications about this body (yes, even in the States)—many of them negative. In Israel, as with other aspects of Jewish life, your Jewish body is what you make of it. And oh, what bodies! Though my life in America had not prepared me for it, after a few years of living in Israel it suddenly became clear to me: the Jews are a very beautiful people. And for this realization, I mainly have to thank all those gorgeous Sephardim.
Teddy Weinberger, Ph.D., is Director of Development for a consulting company called Meaningful. He made aliyah with his family in 1997 from Miami, where he was an assistant professor of religious studies. Teddy and his wife, Sarah Jane Ross, have five children.