The Failed Journey

How Jews of Sephardi and Middle Eastern heritage have lost their way.
by David Shasha

I hope you never fear those mountains in the distance

Never settle for the path of least resistance

Liviní might mean takiní chances but theyíre worth takiní

Loviní might be a mistake but itís worth makiní

Donít let some hell bent heart leave you bitter

When you come close to selliní out reconsider

Give the heavens above more than just a passing glance

Lee Ann Womack, "I Hope You Dance"

Got it from a friend

On him you can depend

I found out in the end

It was a piece of crap

Neil Young, "Piece of Crap"

In reading Carole Shamula's thoughtful but depressing essay in the August/September 2000 Nasawi News,
I was struck by the ironies and vexations of Sephardic identity at the present moment.  In her recounting of the painful details of a life lived in the very real Sephardic community at present, we see little respect for values that would elevate and distinguish our community.  In opposition to the prevailing cultural mores of American society, the Brooklyn Sephardic community, the largest organized Sephardic community in the world, has abdicated its responsibility to decency and civility.  In doing so it has forgotten that human beings have deep personal feelings and struggle to assert their humanity.

    This deeply unflinching and unattractive portrait of the present-day Sephardic community must be addressed.  Ignoring the massive cultural and religious legacy that emanated from the Levant, the Sephardic community has bought into the very myths perpetrated by the Ashkenazi majority: Judging the Arab civilization as backward and barbaric, the Ashkenazi Jewish establishment has created new fault lines that have deeply impacted Judaism.  Wherever I turn I sense this fact:

  • In Ruth Wisse's new book The Jewish Canon the acknowledgement of Arab Jewry is absent.  While accepting the figures of Primo Levi, A.B. Yehoshua, Albert Cohen and Albert Memmi as part of the "canon," Wisse never mentions their ethnic background.  In fact, she explicitly prides herself in her Ashkenazi-centric approach, an approach that is infused with a vulgar ethnocentrism and chauvinism.  Her reactionary politics (which even prevent her from acknowledging Judeo-Arabic as a diaspora Jewish langauge) therefore distinguish her book from the relatively benign project of Sidra DeKoven Ezrahi and her book Booking Passage: Exile and Homecoming in the Modern Jewish Imagination which at least acknowledges the fact that there is another side to the story.

  • The seemingly endless reverberations of the public posturing of the SHAS party and Ovadiah Yosef.  In the past few months the international embarrassment of the Sephardi establishment in Israel has negated any positive valence the work of SHAS in restoring ethnic pride to the Sephardim may have had.  The sheer ignorance and boorishness of the Sephardi Orthodox in Israel has been vilified by Avishai Margalit and Tom Friedman in high profile contexts (the New York Times and the New York Review of Books).  The disgusting sight of Aryeh Deri being celebrated as a Sephardic "hero" shows how perverse our present has become.  It is imperative that an alternative to SHAS develops.

  • In the excruciating debate over Yoram Hazony's controversial opus The Jewish State: The Struggle for Israel'sSoul, found in the pages of Commentary, Tikkun, the New Republic,Midstream, the New York Times, the Weekly Standard and even the National Review, we see the extremists becoming ever more extreme.  The Israeli Left has now not merely abandoned Zionism in toto (even the classical Zionism which stands, as I have tried to show elsewhere, in opposition to modern, statist Zionism) but has begun to attack the very historical foundations of Judaism itself.  The hard Zionist right has entrenched ever more deeply into its inflated sense of Jewish election and in perpetuating the constricting myths that have encumbered Zionism since its inception.  The debate has become hysterical and useless.  The very political traditions manifest in the classical Sephardic heritage, exemplified in the vast ouevre of Elijah Benamozegh and the humanistic writings of Eliyahu Hazzan, are needed to stifle the mindlessness and violence that animates current political writing.

  • In a recent book on the Syrian community by the orientalist ethnographer Walter Zenner, the Sephardim are presented, yet again, as an inert configuration that has maintained, in ostrich-like fashion, its commitment to "tradition."  Without deeply investigating the utter and almost total internal cultural collapse of the Syrian community, Zenner has drawn a static and demeaning portrait of a once-vibrant community that is now in its death-throes.

  • Pace the Shamula essay, the internal focus of the Sephardic community is now settled on playing out the conflicts of the Ashkenazi community.  Instead of setting out independently, the Sephardim, where they are organized to do so, have split up into warring factions.  We have ultra-Orthodox Yeshivot and highly reactionary modern Orthodox leaders who have gambled away the store (and have been defeated) on their imported ideology.  As may be seen in Samuel Freedman's Jew Vs. Jew, the inner collapse of moderate religious denominations in American Judaism has led to the coopting of American Jewry into the fundamentalist fold.  While the inner logic of this in the Ashkenazi continuum can be studied and addressed, there is no historical precedent for such a split in the Sephardic community.



    * * *

        Shamula's painful essay is symptomatic of a larger illness rampant in our Sephardic community.  In the collapse of Sephardic culture over the past century, many have chosen to throw out the baby with the bathwater.  Our communities have been riven by discord and lack of foresight.  Schools were not built, intellectuals not empowered, teachers not trained.  All of this is emblematic of the nearly total rejection of Sephardic culture as the ruling ethos in our communal life.  The troubling sub-text of the Shamula essay is that those who feel spurned and outcast by the so-called "mainstream," those who have sought to grow in productive ways in our community, will find a non-"mainstream" avenue to express themselves, an avenue that rejects Sephardic culture altogether.  In Shamulaís own case she has made a transition into the larger Jewish community by working for the World Jewish Congress.

        The fact that the World Jewish Congress has been at the center of many issues raised by Norman Finkelstein in his excellent (but, naturally, controversial) The Holocaust Industry, a tiny book that speaks volumes about what is happening to the soul of Western Judaism, issues involving the crass exploitation of Jewish memory and the disastrous impact of politicizing the tragedies of world Jewry (for, even more embarrassing, financial gain), never occurs to Shamula.  Her main objective is to slander those who have hurt her and portray them in an unflattering light.  A sociological Manicheanism is at work: The Sephardim typify backwardness while the Ashkenazim have adapted to modernity.  But as has become typical for the Sephardi self-haters, no investigation of the Sephardic past is attempted to try and find out how we have gotten to this point.  There is no attempt to transcend the present morass and come to a more penetrating and elevated understanding of the relationship between memory and modernity.

        And this is the tragedy we now face.  With the eclipse of the immigrant generation and the passing of communal leadership to its grandchildren, the intellectual heritage of the Sephardic millenium is in a state of utter disrepair.  Sephardic children are taught exclusively by Ashkenazim.  In Sephardic schools nothing of the Sephardic past is taught.  Even in the case of scholarly writings (most, like Zenner, vulgar and insulting, some, like Kay Shelemayís work on the Syrian pizmonim, valuable and sympathetic) we are faced with Ashkenazi academics who do the work.  Many Sephardic intellectuals have wallowed in obscurantism and have little organic and mental connection to the children at their schooldesks.  While analysts such as Samuel Freedman try to make sense of the American Jewish reality, there is no Sephardic perspective emanating to the mainstream from our very own academics.

        We can whine and complain about this or try and do something.  In my own intellectual and moral evolution I have tried to leave the whining behind.  I have consistently over the past few years articulated the fact that our failure is of our own making.  We have doubted our own intellectual abilities and done little of realistic worth.  We have allowed others to speak for us and at us.  We have held a vibrant historical legacy and pissed it away.  Those who have abandoned the cause of Sephardic continuity accuse those who of us who still struggle of futility.  We are condescendingly told to give up the ghost of self-realization.

        The lionís share of the solution resides in our spiritual self-confidence and our sense of self-worth as a community.  Once we establish that we must take care of our own business, we need to allocate material resources toward revitalizing our community.  To say that we lack the material resources to change the equation is somewhat pathetic.  Sephardim have amassed a good deal of wealth over the latter half of the 20th century, yet unlike the epic philanthropic projects of the Schottensteins and the Bronfmans and the Spielbergs, we have merely enmeshed ourselves in more fog and have placed our children under the direction of those who have imperiled American Jewry, a Jewry that is in danger of self-immolation.

        While we sit and debate what is now happening in Israel and here in the States, the issues of Judaism and homosexuality, womenís ritual rights, who is a Jew, the ever-growing divide between religious and secular, the choice between peace with the Palestinians or an endless state of armed conflict, we should realize that the authentic Sephardic voice is not present in the discussion.  We have sold that voice to others who have used it for their own purposes.  In recently leafing through the loathsome Meir Kahaneís opus They Must Go!,I carefully noted Kahaneís playing of the Sephardi "race card."  Kahane went on and on about how Sephardim were the ones who truly understood the viciousness of the Arab.  It was funny then to read his argument repeated by the Left macher Michael Lerner in Tikkun last month.  In reply to the post-Zionism of Jerome Slater, Lerner insisted that the current debate should focus not on the Ashkenazi past in Europe, but on the Levantine past of the Mizrahim and our primal hatred of the Arab.

        As sick as I am of Lerner (who once had a debate over Sephardic culture in his magazine which featured two Ashkenazim deciding what we thought and felt) and his New Age crud, the essay I read by Carole Shamula made me feel worse.  Here was a bright, articulate young woman who sought the finer things in life and said that she would rather seek  them outside the Sephardic community.  And this has been the case with many of our people.  Once a young Sephardi starts to read and think about their identity as Jews (not something to be taken for granted in our culturally and intellectually impoverished age), he or she is likely to find their way to the Ashkenazim.  We can profitably discuss what the Ashkenazim have done to us and for us, but we must be frank in admitting that our own historical trajectory is our responsibility and ours alone.

        The path that the Sephardic community now faces is not ours.  I try to remain hopeful that we will see the failure of our way and redress the issue.  But I remain unconvinced in the face of my own frustration, a frustration borne out from my isolation and alienation, that the future will change anything. Who gets to tell a Mizrahi story? I tell you the truth: We must be able to articulate it to each other (especially to our children) before we are able to tell it to the world.

    # # #

    read Carole Shamula's Single Syrian Jewish Female

    David Shasha is a writer and activist in Brooklyn.


    The Levantine Project is a new syndication service of articles, essays, art and photography available through Ivri-NASAWI. 


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