24 June 2022
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.
In the Calendar of the Church, we are in Ordinary Time, but today the church celebrates the Feast of the Birth of John the Baptist. Today also marks the anniversary of my ordination as priest 21 years ago on 24 June 2001 by Archbishop Walton Empey in Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin.
Before today begins, I am taking some time this morning to continue my reflections drawing on the Psalms.
In my blog, I am reflecting each morning in this Prayer Diary in these ways:
1, Short reflections on a psalm or psalms;
2, reading the psalm or psalms;
3, a prayer from the USPG prayer diary.
Psalm 121 is the second of a series of 15 short psalms (Psalm 120-134) known as the ‘Songs of Ascents.’ These psalms begin with the Hebrew words שיר המעלות (Shir Hama’a lot). In the slightly different numbering system in the Greek Septuagint and the Latin Vulgate, this is counted as Psalm 120. It is sometimes known by its Latin opening words, Levavi oculus.
Many scholars say these psalms were sung by worshippers as they ascended the road to Jerusalem to attend the three pilgrim festivals. Others say they were sung by the Levite singers as they ascended the 15 steps to minister at the Temple in Jerusalem.
The Mishnah notes the correspondence between the 15 songs and the 15 steps between the men’s court and the women’s courtyards in the Temple. A Talmudic legend says King David composed or sang the 15 songs to calm the rising waters at the foundation of the Temple.
One view says the Levites first sang the Songs of Ascent at the dedication of Solomon’s Temple during the night of 15 Tishri 959 BCE. Another study suggests they were composed for a celebration after Nehemiah’s rebuilding of the walls of Jerusalem in 445 BCE. Others suggest they may originally have been songs sung by the exiles returning from Babylon ascending to Jerusalem, or individual poems later collected together and given the title linking them to pilgrimage after the Babylonian captivity.
These psalms are cheerful and hopeful, and they place an emphasis on Zion. They were suited for being sung because of their poetic style and the sentiments they express. They are brief, almost like epigrams, and they are marked by the use of a keyword or repeated phrase that serves as a rung on which the poem ascends to its final theme.
Psalm 121 is one of the great expressions of trust in God’s protection, often recited in times of trouble. The Hebrew word sh-m-r, ‘guard, protect,’ appears six times in this short psalm.
I try to imagine the writer of Psalm 121 setting out as a pilgrim on a journey or pilgrimage to the hill country, perhaps to Mount Zion and the Temple in Jerusalem, perhaps to hill country where earlier people imagined pagan gods were dwelling.
As he looks up to the hills, he asks himself, perhaps rhetorically, ‘from where is my help to come?’
He then answers his own question: his help comes from God, the creator.
He then hears another voice, perhaps a priest in the Temple, tell him of God’s protection of his people: God is always vigilant in protecting the pilgrims’ path, protecting them along the way against the sun and inclement weather, by day and by night, protecting them against all evil, not only through their own lives, but ‘from this time forth for evermore.’
Yosef Karduner sings his classic song ‘Shir Lamaalot’ (Psalm 121), with Ari Goldwag at a benefit concert in 2018
Psalm 121 (NRSVA):
A Song of Ascents.
1 I lift up my eyes to the hills—
from where will my help come?
2 My help comes from the Lord,
who made heaven and earth.
3 He will not let your foot be moved;
he who keeps you will not slumber.
4 He who keeps Israel
will neither slumber nor sleep.
5 The Lord is your keeper;
the Lord is your shade at your right hand.
6 The sun shall not strike you by day,
nor the moon by night.
7 The Lord will keep you from all evil;
he will keep your life.
8 The Lord will keep
your going out and your coming in
from this time on and for evermore.
The theme this week in the prayer diary of the Anglican mission agency USPG (United Society Partners in the Gospel) is the Swarupantor programme in the Church of Bangladesh. This theme was introduced on Sunday.
Friday 24 June 2022 (The Birth of John the Baptist):
The USPG Prayer invites us to pray today in these words:
Today we remember the birth of John the Baptist. Let us give thanks for his preaching and witness.
Scripture quotations are from the New Revised Standard Version Bible: Anglicised Edition copyright © 1989, 1995, National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide. http://nrsvbibles.org