The Failed Journey
How Jews of Sephardi and Middle Eastern heritage have lost their way.
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"
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:
* * *
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
The Levantine Project is a new syndication service of articles, essays, art and photography available through Ivri-NASAWI.
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