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Sephardi, An Exile Within

Sephardi, An Exile Within

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Published by dramirezg
The present article contains my very personal journey of self-discovery. In it I relate certain events which led to certain rational choices I had to take in my Jewish life, none of which I regret, and all of which have made me more aware of the world around me and secure about who I am. In this journey I have many women and men whom to thank, but for discretionary reasons I prefer not to mention.
Being a Jew in the 21st century is a disconcerting task, but it does not have to be that way.
The present article contains my very personal journey of self-discovery. In it I relate certain events which led to certain rational choices I had to take in my Jewish life, none of which I regret, and all of which have made me more aware of the world around me and secure about who I am. In this journey I have many women and men whom to thank, but for discretionary reasons I prefer not to mention.
Being a Jew in the 21st century is a disconcerting task, but it does not have to be that way.

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Published by: dramirezg on Jun 26, 2011
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Sephardic Heritage Update
 
 A collection of current Essays, Articles, Events and Information
 
 Impacting our community and our culture
 
 A Publication of the Center for Sephardic Heritage
 
“Service is the rent we pay for living. It is the very purpose of life and not something you do in your spare time.Education is improving the lives of others and leaving your community and world better than you found it.-MarianWright Edelman
Contents 29 June 2011
Sephardi, an Exile Within
By: David Ramirez
Chaim Amsellem: Toward a Sephardic SpiritualRevival in Israel?
By: Misha Uzan
Israel and the ‘M’ Word
By: Philologos
Activist Jews Use Mimouna Festival to ProtestUltra-Orthodox Conversion Stance
By: Yair Ettinger
Killing Jews in the Balkans, Saving Jews in theBalkans
By: Edward Serotta
Arab Spring? Not Quite
By: Yoram Ettinger
The Seder Night Question
By: Amalia Rosenblum
Israel Unveils First ‘Sin-Free YiddishSmartphone’
By: Bangkok Post Staff 
Meet Bart Ehrman: A One-Man God FraudSquad
By: Anneli Rufus
Why Being a ‘Foodie’ isn’t Elitist
By: Eric Schlosser
A Budget for the 21
st
Century
By: Paul Ryan
Ultimate Spoiler Alert
By: David Brooks
 
Sephardi, an Exile Within
By: David RamírezIn the life of every individual a person is faced with an arrayof choices, which determine his or her decisions.Sometimes some of these choices are forced on theindividual because of the circumstances, other times theseoptions are freely elected according to the goals one setsin life. As many Jews of our era, I was not raised in areligious milieu. I became religious by my own choices,which gave me an advantage from the Jews who had beenraised religiously, who are trained from a young age tobelieve and behave a certain way. The advantage was thefreedom to look at things critically from the outside in, andrationalize every step of the way.Being already a Jew of Sephardi stock, the decision as tothe tradition I was to follow was an intuitive and naturaloption. However, I – as many other Sephardim of mygeneration – really did not know what it meant being aSephardi. Most of the books available in print gave a partialand disjointed understanding of the subject, not to mentionthese were hardly authored by a Sephardi, both in ethnicand cultural terms. The situation was very confusingbecause nothing was coherent; nothing actually madesense.My Sephardic Rodhesli synagogue, which I had beenattending since I became religious, had gone through aprocess of abandonment of tradition long before I wasborn. It did not take a rocket scientist to realize that muchof the Ottoman Sephardic tradition had not been carriedover by the subsequent generations, which I had tounderstand it in the context of cultural adaptation to Anglo American culture and issues of acceptance within thelarger American Ashkenazi community and Israeli Zionism,as well as certain cultural particularities the synagogue’sfounders already came with, a baggage of its own alreadydeveloping during the 19
th
c. which included thedenouement of rabbinic norms. Though newer generationsof the community’s Rhodesli-Turkish Sephardim had fledthe community through intermarriage with Ashkenazim,
 
 2
migration to Israel, or 
conversions
to ultra-Orthodoxy, theolder congregants maintained the traditional Sephardicmarks of dignified abnegation, humility, happycontentment, hospitality and kindness very muchreminiscent of my own grandparents and family back inMexico – one contrasting picture to the aggressiveness,intrusiveness, smugness and inhospitable environment of the neighboring Ashkenazi religious community. At one point, as many other Sephardim of my generationwanting to “
uplift 
” their spiritual experience, I migrated to a“more observant Sephardic” community. At the suggestionof a fellow community member who was doing the same, Idid so, but such community was precisely located at theheart of the Ashkenazi religious community. The rabbithere was of Persian Jewish stock, trained in a Lubavitchenvironment since his youth. The members of this newcommunity, some of whom had migrated from the older Sephardic community for the same reasons I had, werevery much at the mercy of what the rabbi said. Itsenvironment had little to do with my older synagogue. Inthe course of time, they had adopted the same smugnessand inhospitality characteristic of their Ashkenazi religiousneighbors, with the added bonus of a sense of righteoussuperiority at the idea they were doing something“right,”
unlike
the city’s mother Sephardic “slipshod”community three miles away.The worst part of 
that 
experience came during services andthe third appointed meal of Shabbat, where it wascommonplace – and perhaps still is – for small altercationsto break out and discuss money and business matters atthe table, something I hardly – if ever – experienced in myolder community. Historically, traditional Sephardiccommunities and families have been particularly attentiveto
dérekh eress
, a Hebrew term for “good manners,” soexperiencing the uncouth attitudes in the new place,especially during the Sabbath when such things should nothappen at all, was particularly shocking to me. Had it notbeing for an angel, a young fellow Jew of Persian stockand his extended family with whom I shared many holidaysand Sabbaths, who took seriously the lessons of kindnessand hospitality from Abraham our ancient Patriarch, thatinterim of my life would have been a complete waste. Wereit not for the countless times we spent together at hisfamily’s table, with an array of Persian and Middle-Easterndishes and desserts complimented with the lively and easeof conversations, the period of my life would had remainedvery disconcerting; a true Lot in the midst of Sodom.The breaking point for me came at hearing thecommunity’s rabbi say in one of his regular lessons thatone should recite the blessings over fruit and vegetablesbecause it “liberated” the human souls trapped in them.Such thing not only stroke me of superstitious and naïve,but also completely against the purpose of the
berakhót 
(Jewish blessings).Not soon after this I migrated back to my older community.By this time, my older community had seen some changes.Having hired new rabbis to replace the retiring one, mycommunity was able to see renewed commitment toJewish observance. All the while through these phases, I had discovered bychance the writings of Hahám José Faúr, a Syrian rabbi of Sephardic extraction who had been working all his life toexplain Rabbinic Tradition to the modern mind. Thisdiscovery was watershed, momentous. For the first time inmy reading experience Jewish tradition made all the sense,where all its intellectual infrastructure was neatlyorganized, a seedbed of ideas and legal principlesexplained with documented accuracy, working as
loci 
(acollection of departing points) upon which the entirecivilizing-organism of Judaism is based. Even though suchJudaism as transmitted by Faur was no longer part of our contemporary lives, it was nonetheless a burning flame thatkept me from falling into the skepticism, cynicism, cul-de-sac perplexity, convenient hypocrisy, awkwardcomplacency or outright abandonment of tradition asexperienced by so many Jews of our age.The time of my life when it all came together to maturitywas when I was invited to be part of a start-up Spanish &Portuguese synagogue, where I was able to get in directtouch with a rabbi who carried this Western Sephardictradition. Myself being coming from this traditional stock, itwas a very meaningful part of my life, where I was able toreaffirm many family traditions that had been lost throughassimilation. This experience made me realize theimportance of Sephardic tradition first hand, their meaningsand objectives, as well as having found a new respect tocommunity leaders and communal rabbis everywhere.Managing a community is not an easy task, beset with thebrutal realities of human existence. And despite theheartache, it was for the first time in my life where I wasable to experience a true freedom and the vision that thingscan be changed for the better, starting from a humbleseedling, away from the baggage current world Jewry issuffering from literary decades of accommodation tosecular-Zionists prerogatives and recent cliquey religiousawakenings, which have created an untold unprecedentedconfusion in the minds of our young generations.Though often criticized for being an idealist, seeking andlonging for a Sephardic Judaism no longer in existence or one impossible to “resurrect,” my peers often do not seemto understand that my enthusiasm should not be confusedwith the lessons ancient Sephardic Judaism carries for our contemporary lives. It seems especially uncomfortable tothem that one can show a viable alternative, which often isin opposition to what they were raised to believe and holddear in their hearts.One thing I often heard was that there was very littledifference between the two dominant modes of Jewishtradition, Ashkenazi and Sephardi. Perhaps – but onlywhen mediated by secondary sources and readings by our contemporary scholars. But when one gets to read firsthand the works and lives of Sephardic rabbis and
 
 3
community leaders, one cannot help but to realize thatSephardic Judaism, heir to the Geonic-Babylonianacademies, is a very different parallel universe from whatwe are now accustomed to see and hear – even in thepost-Kabbalist debacle. The slight-of-hand attempt tocollapse differences, though at heart noble, it only achievesto dampen inquiry.Now, when I hear that again, I think who would ever saythat the English and Italians have little difference amongeach other, despite both being Europeans? Anyone withthe slightest understanding of both cultures would look atyou as if you were crazy, besides the English and Italiansbeing personally insulted. But somehow the currentdiscourse has gotten away with that seemingly benign lie,purposefully ignoring that both of our traditions developedcontingent on our historical experience, and how eachdecided to deal differently with the realities thrown at us.What is so threatening about a Judaism that demands bothsecular and religious erudition from its rabbis? What is sothreatening about a Judaism that allows each individual hisor her personal space for growth and development? Whatis so threatening about a Judaism that does not appreciatepopulism and banal superstitions? What is so threateningabout a Judaism that dares to speak its mind, and thoughdisagreeing, always holding a civility of respect and mutualfreedom of expression? What is so threatening about aJudaism that views our legal texts through the lenses of thecontingent realities, and not through some high-pedestal a-priory idealism? What is so threatening about a Judaismwhere the community is in charge of its own affairs throughthe highly regulated medium of its communal Constitution(Ascamot), independent from the personal interest andideologies of the community’s rabbi? What is sothreatening about a Judaism that maintains ethical principleover personal ideology?What is so threatening about all that, and whole lot morethat Sephardic Judaism represents, is the issue of givingup control. Most of our people do not realize how much our lives are being controlled by forces which we cannot trulyunderstand, yet we all have a latent discomfort deep withinourselves which we cannot exorcise.Choosing to live by the example of our ancestors, who verymuch imitate the Biblical personalities such as Abraham,Jacob and Moses, is a freedom who sets us in exile oncemore, from the confusion brought in by the controllingidolatry and tyranny of Pharaoh.Being true to Sephardic Judaism today means to be inExile, and
exile
within another Exile of the historical Galut.Yet one, despite its desert daunting loneliness, where weas individuals can experience a peace of mind, freedom of expression, and finally a liberation from perplexity. 
Chaim Amsellem: Toward a Sephardic SpiritualRevival in Israel?
By: Misha Uzan A year ago he was nearly unknown, but within a fewmonths he made headlines, defied his own Shas party, andwas exposed to criticism from the orthodox Haredi world.They are talking about him for a possible new party, andwhether we like it or not, we can only emphasize hisaudacity and more, in fact, use his position to appreciateand reflect on the relationship between Judaism and IsraeliZionism.Chaim Amsellem is a rav (rabbi) and Israeli MP electedunder the banner of the Shas Party for the first time in2006. He was born on October 12, 1959 in Oran, Algeria,of a family recently having emigrated from Morocco (recallthat Morocco became formally independent in 1956). At theage of six months as Algeria was in full blown war hisfamily moved to Lyon. He lived there until age 11, then hisfamily moved to Israel. Chaim Amsellem is francophone.
The journey of a rabbi
 Amsellem is foremost a rabbi: he graduated in 1990 andwas ordained a rabbi in 1993. He became the rabbi of Moshav Sharsheret in the northwestern Negev, then theneighborhood rabbi in Netivot proper, a small town north of Moshav. He was also director of a yeshiva (religious studycenter) and Kolel Baba Sali (named after the famousSephardic rabbi) in the same city. Then he moved toJerusalem in the Har Nof neighborhood and foundedanother Kolel. He still lives with his wife and eight children.He also officiated at the Sephardic community of Geneva inSwitzerland. Amsellem is primarily an intellectual rabbi, heis the author of several books (including one on Zera Israel,the seed of Israel , meaning the Jewish origin). His workfollows, he said in an interview with Jerusalem Post, in thetradition of Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, Shas’ mentor, who hasread, agreed and often cited in his own works.Rabbi Amsellem says, to whoever still wants to hear it, thathe has always been loyal to Rabbi Yosef, former Sephardichief rabbi of Israel, who ordained him, and who he alwaysperceived as a great scholar and the great inspirer of the"Sephardic spiritual renaissance" in Israel. Along with Nissim Ze'ev he is the only ordained rabbi toserve in the Shas group in the Knesset. That said, since2009, although elected to the eleventh seat on the Shas listin 2006 and tenth in 2009, Chaim Amsellem expressed hisdifferences with the party leadership on several sensitivelevels.
The comings and goings of Shas
To understand the emergence of Amsellem’s criticism, wemust retrace the history of Shas. The political party wasborn in 1984 just before national elections. It was created

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