Friday, April 11, 2008

Call Me Ashke-Sephard - The Jewish Mutt

(this was done as a Web Journey in the Shabbat-O-Grma of March 22, 2002. Some of the links may no longer be operative, but the basic ideas expressed are as relevant as ever!)

This week's journey begins with my own article in the week's Jewish Week, at, which in turn was based on a sermon I gave here a couple of weeks ago. I make the claim to being a Jewish mutt, and that all the old lines of division between Jews are dissolving.

What I thought I'd do was to transform that article into a web journey, complete with hyperlinks and annotation, to encourage you to explore more fully the shifting sands of Jewish identity. For what is Passover but an annual Jewish Identity Booster Shot? Let's prepare to once again sit around the Seder table with family and friends by gaining a better understanding of what it means to be a Jew in this crazy, complex world.

My Boston-bred sister Lisa, who is Orthodox and now living in Israel, recently married a Jew by choice originally from Texas, whom she met on their settlement on the West Bank (see where at In the scheme of the Jewish world today, that match comes as no shock.

But now she tells me that she has decided to become Sephardi. (for lots of this subject, see the Sephardi Connection at, and also check out the American Sephardi Federation at understand, no one in this world looks less Sephardi than my red-haired, freckle-faced, fair-skinned, dimple-cheeked sister. If I were in the Israeli rabbinate, I would surely investigate this — except that they’re the ones who authorized it. It seems that when her husband, Asher, converted, an Ashkenazi and a Sephardi rabbi were both present. Asher asked them which tradition he should adopt, Ashkenazi (European-based, see or Sephardi (primarily Middle Eastern, Spanish based) and was told to take neither but to wait for the time when a new indigenous Israeli tradition is established. So for the time being, he took on Sephardi ways, and when my sister married him she went along for the ride. (What are the differences between the two? Go to, also

And a nice ride it is, thank you very much. For now, with Pesach approaching, Lisa will be able to get away with things that would make most American Jews turn karpas-green with envy. She gets to eat the rice and legumes ("kitniyot") that Sephardi Jews have always eaten, foods that their more stringent Ashkenazi cousins have avoided. Cleanup is also not as difficult as in an Ashkenazi kitchen. (For Sephardi customs on Pesach, and lots more, go to of this, and the only drawback is having to do "hagba" (lifting the Torah) with those heavy, encased Torah scrolls. So where do I sign up to become Sephardi? A few years ago, the Masorti (Conservative) movement in Israel came out with a rabbinic ruling indicating that it was OK for Ashkenazi Israelis to adapt a Sephardi posture with regard to kitniyot on Pesach (see the ruling at The feeling was it would make sense to relax the practice in order to allow all Jews in Israel to "break bread" together on the holiday, so to speak.

But Israel is Israel, with a majority Sephardi population, and America is America, where the European legacy prevails. So when I offered my congregants the Masorti ruling as a valid Passover option, and when I told them that, as a vegetarian, I would be adopting it myself, people went ballistic. It was as if I had just sanctioned the eating of pork, except that a number of certified pepperoni pizza eaters were among those who scoffed at the impudence of my OK to eat kitniyot. Despite the resistance of these inveterate Ashkenazim, it’s clear the distinctions are dissolving, almost as fast as you can say "Sadducee." (Read about Josephus' views on this 1st century sect at, or, in simplified version at For the pattern of the past several centuries of Jewish life has been to create acute cultural divisions, pump lots of anger into these feuds, and then to see them run out of gas within a few generations.

We Jews divide like amoebas, but our internal conflicts tend to dissipate quickly. The Litvaks ( and the Galicianers (, bitter enemies in the Old Country, now lie down like the lion and the lamb (if they even know what they are); the Zionist Revisionists (, and Laborites now share a unity government (for the whole shebang on Zionist history, go to and go to town!); and today’s chasidim act more like their former arch enemies, the Mitnagdim (, than did the original Mitnagdim two centuries ago, who defined themselves by the fact that they hated chasidim. As for the religious denominations, growing numbers of Jews shun the old labels, choosing to identify themselves as "post-denominational," "Reformstrucative" or "Renewal-Orthoprax." Rarely do the labels matter anymore because the sands of Jewish identity are shifting too quickly. (All the movements of Judaism are described on a basic level at

That’s a good thing, for just as Israel needs to maintain its unity government, the rest of the Jewish world is also aching for unity. A few weeks ago, the Israeli Supreme Court issued a landmark decision granting unprecedented recognition to non-Orthodox conversions that occur in Israel. While the Orthodox authorities haven’t been happy, the response on all sides has been amazingly muted. We’ve all come to realize that it’s ludicrous for Jews to haggle over questions of "Who is a Jew" when terrorists are answering that question loud and clear. We all seem to be intuiting that this is not the time to emphasize our differences — those that haven’t already dissolved. (Unfortunately, see below for an update on this issue)So call me Sephardi this year when Pesach rolls around. Call me Sephardi when I say the Kaddish ("YIT-gadal") (What is the Mourner's Kaddish? See but Ashkenazi when I say "Good Shabbos." I like to combine a Sephardi diet with an Ashkenazi soul; my blood churns Ladino hot (, and my humor spouts Yiddish ( irony. I daven Orthodox (, hum chasidic (, philosophize Conservative (,, innovate Reconstructionist (, meditate kabbalist ( and do social action Reform ( I’m Likud ( on terrorism and Labor ( on human rights. I’m Meretz ( meets Yesha (; and they do meet — in me. I’d have been a Zealot on Masada ( yet a Pharisee in Yavneh (, a Saul supporter on Gilboa ( and a Davidite in Jerusalem. I’ve got the Gaon of Vilna ( in my mind and the Baal Shem Tov ( in my heart. Dig deep enough and you may even find that I’ve got a little Karaite in me, too (

In short, I’m a Jewish mutt. All of Jewish history culminates in each of us. We all are the synthesis of Torah and time. Seemingly irreconcilable opposites are reconciled in the intractable, complex matrix of the individual Jewish soul. So good Shabbos to you, a zisen Pesach … and please pass the legumes.

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