24 June 2022

‘A single nation’ where
‘exclusionary segregation
… is not our way’

Sephardim against Ashkenazim … a chess set in Murano glass seen in a shopfront in Murano in the Venetian lagoon (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Patrick Comerford

Quite often, when I discuss Jewish spirituality, traditions and customs in my blog postings, I am asked why refer more often to Sephardic rather than Ashkenazic customs and traditions.

At times, the portrayal of Jewish culture in popular media outlets, from comedy shows and films to music and clothing, is dominated by sounds and images created in the US: think of, say, a Woody Allen movie or the lifestyles, music and songs Fiddler on the Roof.

Of course, there is a line of Sephardic descent in one branch of the Comerford family. But in my travels through Europe – especially in Spain, Portugal, Italy and Greece – or in visits to the Bevis Marks synagogue in London, I have been enriched by Sephardic cultural approaches.

Indeed, Sephardim were the dominant majority among the Jewish communities in these islands until the arrival of the first Jewish immigrants from central and eastern Europe in the 18th and 19th centuries. Early Sephardic families arrived in Britain and Ireland from Spain and Portugal through Italy and Amsterdam.

American popular culture, including films, comedy and television programmes, often creates or reinforces stereotypes and clichés that are informed by or based on American Ashkenazi Jews. In this way, Sephardic customs, culture and traditions are in danger of not fitting in or being seen as ‘foreign,’ sometimes not even Jewish, in what sometimes becomes a monochromatic Jewish world.

The responses to these differences can sometimes hurt people. I recently came across a tongue-in-cheek exploration of Sephardic culture for Ashkenazic readers, written for the Times of Israel by Professor Carlos Zarur, an American anthropologist born into a Mizrahi-Sephardic family.

I have adapted some of his humorous yet salient points for my Friday evening reflections this evening:

Sephardic ancestors did not live in shtetls but in major cities in Spain, Portugal, the Mediterranean and Middle East.

Adafina or Hamin are not the Sephardic versions of Cholent (a traditional Jewish stew); indeed, the addition of beans to the Shabbat stew started in Spain.

Ladino is not the Sephardic version of Yiddish; Ladino is a Castilian-based language.

When praying, Sephardim do not ‘Daven,’ the phrase is to do Tefillot.

Ashkenazim call a synagogue ‘Shul,’ but Sephardim call synagogues Kal, Snoga or Knist.

Eating kitniyot (grains) at Pesach (Passover), singing Ladino songs and having Moroccan miracle makers are not the only characteristics in the very rich Sephardic traditions.

Sephardim do not say Gut Shabbos or Shabbes. Besides the generic Shabbat Shalom, the phrases include Boas entradas de Saba (Portuguese), Sabado dulse i bueno (Ladino) and Sbit Salam (Arabic).

While Yiddish speakers mark the anniversaries of death with Yahrzeits, the Sephardim have Meldados and Ereyes.

There are clear differences in pronunciation too, such as the Sephardic Pa-ra-sha instead of Parsha, Se-fa-ra-di instead of Sfardi, or She-lo-mo and She-mu-el instead of Shlomo and Shmuel; Talet rather than Tallit, and Shiva or Enlutados, Mikva or Mikwah and Torah rather than Shive, Mikve or Toire.

Sephardim call the rite of circumcision rT’hur in Arabic, Berith Milah, or just ‘the Milah,’ and not Bris.

To introduce female babies to the community, the Sephardim have a baby-naming ceremony, Zeved Habat, fadar a las ishas, or just Las Fadas, and rejoice in both genders receiving communal acceptance.

Rather than playing dreidel or sevivon in Hanukkah, Sephardim sing lots of songs and eat almond pastries and Syrian and Greek sweets, adding a new one every day.

The greatest Jewish sage was Sephardic. Maimonides, philosopher, physician and author of Guide for the Perplexed, was born in Cordoba. Hundreds of other sages were born in Spain and Portugal or in the Sephardic Diaspora.

Sephardim wear kippot and tarbushes and not yarmulkes.

Those Sephardim who are Hassidim or Haredim have abandoned Sephardic traditions and adopted Ashkenazic ways of life for themselves.

In the past, Sephardic Hakhamim (rabbis) never wore black hats, also known as fedoras and shtreimels, but turbans, kippot and the fes.

The Sephardim say they have no notion of Reform, Conservative, Orthodox or Ultra-Orthodox. They do not have denominations within the Sephardic tradition, and see themselves as a single nation of Jews with varying levels of observance. ‘Exclusionary segregation … is not our way’ says Carlos Zarur.

Shabbat Shalom

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