Friday, July 17, 2009

Jewish culture enjoys a Sephardi renaissance

Photo: JTA News

Don't believe everything you read about the supposed repression of Sephardi culture. On the contrary, according to JTA News, Jewish culture is enjoying a Sephardi renaissance (with thanks: Heather):

DeLeon is part of a new crop of modern Jewish artists drawing on their Sephardic roots -- from Spain and Portugal, to Morocco, Iran and Syria, to India and Greece. Many of those Jewish communities, although not all, were created by Jews who left Spain following the Inquisition, when they were ordered to convert or leave the country by July 31, 1492 (Tisha B'Av of that year).

Now, more than five centuries later, dozens of musicians, writers, poets, playwrights, filmmakers, historians, educators and chefs are reclaiming that culture to create a veritable Sephardic renaissance.

Many artists mine Sephardic culture because they want to popularize a lesser-known Jewish heritage.

“People who came from Poland stick together, and they are not so interested in the people who come from Morocco or Spain,” says Nathalie Soussana, arranger of “Songs From The Garden Of Eden: Jewish Lullabies And Nursery Rhymes,” a book and CD of songs in Hebrew, Arabic and Spanish, including Y'aommi Yamali, an Algerian lullaby in Arabic whose words mean “King of the Home/May God touch you and lift up your soul.”

Soussana wanted something that reflected her own mottled family -- originally from Morocco, living in France, with an uncle with a wife from Turkey, an aunt married to an Ashkenazi, family members in Israel.

“I think that it's like that for a lot of Jewish families,” she says.

One might not know that from seeing the history of Jewish culture in America.

“Jewishness has tacitly been assumed to be synonymous with Germanic or Eastern European descent,” Aviva Ben Ur writes in the new book “Sephardic Jews in America: A Diasporic History” (New York University Press, 2009). “What began at the turn of the 20th century as denial of shared ethnicity and religion (whereby Ashkenazim failed to recognize Sephardim as fellow Jews) continues today in textbooks, articles, documentaries, films and popular awareness. More often than not, Sephardic Jews are simply absent from any sort of portrayal of the American Jewish community.”

Ur prefers the term non-Ashkenazic Jews, dividing those called Sephardim into three groups: Sephardi Jews (Spanish and Portuguese-speaking Jews of Western Europe and Ladino-speaking Jews of the Ottoman empire); Mizrahi Jews (Arabic-speaking Jews native to the Middle East and Western Asia); and Romaniotes (Greek-speaking Jews native to the Byzantine Empire).

“In America there was 'Fiddler on the Roof' and gefilte fish and Orthodox and Conservative and Reform Judaism,” says Rabbi Daniel Bouskila of Sephardic Temple Tifereth Israel in Los Angeles. The various non-Ashkenazic groups “had every desire to be American when it came to living their lives, but in terms of their Judaism, they didn't have much interest in assimilating into the American Jewish community.”

That's why Sephardim formed their own synagogues like Tifereth Israel (founded by a small group of Sephardic, Ladino-speaking immigrants in 1920) or more recently the Sephardic Cultural Center in Scottsdale, Ariz., both with congregants from communities such as Iraq, Iran, Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, Libya, Egypt, Syria, Lebanon, Iran, Yemen, Brazil and Israel.

Bouskila believes that a Sephardic resurgence in Israel has fueled a wider movement in America and around the world.

“Once upon a time there was one definition of being Israeli -- the prototypical Sabra being from Europe had blond hair and listened to a particular kind of music -- I think that's changed in Israel,” he says, citing the pop stars Sarit Hadad, Eyal Golan and Israel's first “Idol” winner, Maya Bouskila (no relation). “There's a unique sense of cultural identity through music and even names” -- people don't Hebraicize their Sephardic names as much.

It has “spilled over” to America, Bouskila adds.

“I think people feel more secure in their identity today than they did a long time ago,” he says.

Read article in full


Anonymous said...

Ms Shabi would appear to be 20 years out of date. This is not a new phenomenon, in the US or in Israel. It has been going on for quite a while.

How much of said "repression" could be attributed to the the fact that there is no real Conservative or Reform movement in non-Askhenazi judaism, and that the Reform movement in the much of the 20th century looked down on the Orthodox Judaism as backward?


bataween said...

Interesting thought, Heather, but I think in Shabi's case her motivation is political, and by extension, pure Israel-bashing.