Monday, January 07, 2008

It's uncool to be Ashkenazi in Israel. How sad

Lucky Joshua Freedman Berthoud. He's got a Sephardi girlfriend. He's sampled the delights of Sephardi food. But he misses his Ashkenazi, Eastern European heritage, which is substantial in Israel as the hole in a bagel. From The Jewish Chronicle of 4 January:

Beyond the familiar, flaking façades of the Dan and Daniel hotels, Israel can be quite a culture shock for the British visitor. It’s Jewish — but not as we know it: rich in a Mizrahi culture that Britain simply does not have.

Middle Eastern tradition pervades everything from food to music, styles and behaviour. And it’s attractive, of course, to explore these different elements of Jewish identity. Tasting an Iraqi sabih sandwich — with egg and aubergine — for the first time; hearing guttural Hebrew hacked out in the busy shuk; falling in love with dark, beautiful women — all attractive prospects for a young Ashkenazi visitor like myself.

Every time I visit my Sephardi girlfriend’s family home, I fall in love again — as much with her mother as with her, as I am fed delicious dishes that I’ve never heard of, let alone tasted. It would be a lie to say that I am not attracted to my girlfriend’s difference, much as I know it factors in her attraction for me. Little surprise, then, that a new Jewish race is being created in Israel, as Sephardim and Ashkenazim intermarry. “This is the real East meets West,” Israelis love to tell you.

But on closer examination, the “West” is revealed to be somewhat deficient, embodying not Eastern European Ashkenazi traditions, but modern, Americanised habits. Israeli popular culture is dominated by 50 Cent, McDonald’s and Nike on the one hand, and falafel, malawah and nargile on the other. Scratch the surface in an attempt to find Ashkenazi Judaism’s contributions to Israeli culture and you’ll dig deep, but find little treasure.

Although the first Zionists and the founders of the state were Ashkenazi Jews, steeped in the rich traditions of Eastern European Jewish culture, they deliberately rejected their European heritage, fostering a new Israeli identity, severed from the weakness and ignominy of their recent history. Europe was the shtetl, pogroms and the Holocaust — to be rejected for a new, strong, idealised Jewish people: the Israelis.

When Sephardi and Mizrahi Jews first arrived in Israel, they were culturally denigrated by this ruling Ashkenazi elite, their traditions suppressed. But as the Sephardim have found their voice, they have reclaimed their allotted space as the “other” to reposit their own heritage. It is now cool to be Sephardi; a counter culture has arisen to overthrow the dominant elite. Like black Britons and Americans, Sephardim dominate street cool, their food, styles, music and communities proudly giving backbone to the new Israeli identity.

However, having severed its links with its European heritage, Ashkenazi culture has become simply the Israeli mainstream: the stiff, canonical establishment against which it is cool to rebel. Where once it dominated Israel, without its Yiddisher heritage Ashkenazi culture has nowhere to go, beyond a generic Americanisation, following the advent of Israel’s new multiculturalism.

So while I laugh at the rather tired joke when I order falafel with extra chilli: “Harif?! Aval ata Ashkenazi, lo?” — “Hot sauce? But you’re Ashkenazi, no?” — one has to wonder where the restaurants are in which a Sephardi could order extra chraine with his gefilte fish and be met with a similar response. Likewise, despite a small Yiddish revival of late, the language that spoke volumes about Ashkenazi Jewish culture speaks no more — yet Jewish Arabic songs regularly feature on radio and TV.

An Ashkenazi move to Israel seems to necessitate an abandonment of some of the more European elements of Judaism, replacing them with either Sephardi or generic Israeli alternatives. Thus, when I asked two recent Ashkenazi olim where I could find a decent bagel — one that wasn’t just a piece of bread with a hole in the middle — I was not surprised when they replied, “That’s all a bagel is, isn’t it?”

Like their ancestors, new olim sadly continue to reject their Eastern European heritage in favour of a renewed Israeli ideal, leaving Israel’s Ashkenazi culture much like the Israeli bagel: bland, unrecognisable, and with a great big hole in the middle.

Read article in full


Aimee Kligmanm said...

I wish I could believe that your impression of what you experienced is the real Israel. It is my understanding that the Ashkenazim feel that it is uncool to be anything but Ashkenazi, and that the Sefardim are ignorant, arab jews, who can do nothing except write cook books. And this latter part, told to me by an Israeli who was just in New York.

I don't think the Sephardim are feeling that pride of being who they are in Israel. When I speak to my relatives there, they are ashamed to discuss the subject.

Aimée Kligman

bataween said...

You make an interesting point, Aimee. I think the author is right - culture is Israel is primarily Sephardi, but intellectually, the Ashkenazim still dominate - and that could explain why some Sephardim are not proud of their origins.