Is It Hip to be Sefardi?

By Ilene Rosenblum

Rabbi Avraham Yosef, Chief Rabbi of Holon and the son of Shas spiritual leader Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, recently declared that all newly religious Jews should follow the Sefardi tradition, regardless of their heritage.

I’ve heard this one before. Eating kitniyot, legumes on Passover and jamming to music that doesn’t have the oy oy oy refrain at first sounds enticing. But that’s ignoring the full picture. While some Ashkenazim wait anywhere between one hour and six hours after eating meat before eating dairy products, I’m unaware of any Sefardi tradition to wait fewer than six. Sefardi men also wake up before dawn to say Selichot for the entire month of Elul. That’s a lot of sacrificed ice cream and sleep for some chummus on Pesach.

Maybe the Sefardim want to gain a little more ba’al teshuva clout. In my experience, there is much less outreach from Sefardi institutions, and should a person of Sefardi descent become more observant, they often find support from Chabad or get “streamlined” into a program that doesn’t teach Sefardi customs. But I don’t think that is what is at stake here.

What is interesting is that this comment referred to Jews becoming more observant — not converts. Why not encourage the Jew to connect to his or her Jewish roots but rather to plant new ones? Although I believe the argument is flawed and otherwise problematic, it’s one thing to suggest that converts adapt a certain set of customs, it’s another to have a Jew change.

According to an article in Ynet, the rabbi explained in the halachic responses section of the Jewish website Moreshet, that in Israel one must embrace Sephardic traditions. In order to reconcile the precept that one mustn’t abandon the tradition of one’s fathers “and do not forsake the teachings of your mother,” he ruled that those born to religious parents should follow their traditions, but if a Jew has no religious background, no family tradition in halachic matters, that person must accept the Sephardic tradition and laws.

What about for someone like me, who comes from a traditional household that was clearly Ashkenazi but not Shabbat-observant? It would seem an insult to the tradition brought over by my grandparents and great-grandparents — albeit watered down in the United States — to switch to something else rather than try to revive what I do have.

While the gaps between Ashkenazi and Sephardi observance are not always so wide, it has been difficult enough keeping up with the prayers and songs I have not understood, unfamiliar phrases, doing this and not that on Shabbat, and odd customs, that it would have been an undue emotional burden to distance myself from what may be familiar, including my family!

Besides, I can’t imagine expecting to get a real tan without turning red, downing hilbe or being able to properly shake my hips. Pass the whitefish.

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15 comments on “Is It Hip to be Sefardi?

  1. Minhag is (was supposed to be) Hamakim- about the locality. Sefardim came to the land of Israel first (relativly speaking) and the Shulhan Aruch was the code of Jewish law in the land of Israel. What should have happened was that the Askenazim coming to Israel should have adapted Sefardic customs and practices (as happened when Sefardim left places like Spain and went to Poland etc.)

  2. Charlie (#13),

    Your point about the German origins of Conservative Judaism is a good one. I’ll add that I see German Jews, Sephardic Jews, and members of the Conservative Movement who are younger than Bar Mitzvah age wearing a Talit Gadol. I remember wearing one at about the age of 9 in Junior Congregation (where I acquired the basic knowledge that enabled me to feel at home in shul very quickly after a 20+ year hiatus.)

    Is it also possible that since most Conservative Jews do not wear tzitzit beneath their shirts, wearing a Talit is halachically necessary to recite the morning Shema? I am also under the impression that many Sefardim don’t wear tzitzit under their shirts either.

  3. Gary,

    I think the fact that Conservative Jews wear a talit gadol starting with bar mitzvah may have more to do with the fact that the Conservative movement originated in Germany where the usual minhag is for all Jewish men to wear a talit gadol.

  4. A host asked if Sephardic Jews ate glatt kosher meat. The guest explained that glatt kosher has been standard for Sephardic Jews for many centuries; in contrast. glatt kosher meat did not become popular with Ashkenazi Jews until the 1920s.

  5. For a long time Sephardic traditions were ignored in schools in the United States, and Sephardim were treated as tenth-class citizens in Israel. Sephardic Jews who came to Israel fleeing persecution in Arab lands found themselves marginalized in a culture that was very European and secular, prizing college education and academic achievement rather than trade or business pursuits. Regretfully many young Sephardic men in Israel wound up in gangs or in jail. In the U.S.A., frum Sephardic parents who wanted better Yeshivos for their children were frustrated by the sole emphasis on Ashkenazic traditions, to use one small example, the Yiddish introduction “m’vellen bentshen” instead of “rabotai mvoraych” to Birkat Hamazon.

    It may be that the Sephardim are simply trying to get back some of their pride and respect within a heavily Ashkenazic dominated Jewish culture. So they can’t resist a “dig” particularly when the Jewish frum culture that is pushed on Gairim and Baalei Teshuva is the Ashkenazic way of life.

  6. If I were to find myself in Israel, and I were to “make myself a Rav” who told me, an American-born Ashkenazi, that it’s permitted to eat rice on Pesach, I still might not do so because of family practices going back to my childhood and my parents’ (obm) childhoods.

    However, I would not discourage my kids from following the advice of this presently hypothetical Rav. They have been around for about 1/3 as long as I have, and they have many Sephardi friends who do eat rice on Pesach. It wouldn’t be so “foreign” to them.

    A note on unmarried males wearing a tallit. In the Conservative movement, to which I belonged until 20 years ago, almost every male past adolescence wears a tallit. I suspect that this may not be based upon a particular nusach; rather it is to compensate for the fact that very few members of that movement wear tzitzit under their shirts.

    I suggest that the leaders of Ashkenazi congregations consider “leniency” towards unmarried adult males who wish to wear a tallit. While they may have tzitzit under their shirts, I think that regardless of marital status, older males deserve to be distinguished from teenagers if they so desire.

  7. ROY is known for championing Sefard, which he understands to be the Pesak of the Mchaber of the SA, even to the exclusion and wnen such Psak conflicts with other valid Mesorahs within the Sefardic world.

  8. I have heard several Ashkenazi rabbis say that BT’s should wear a tallis before marriage unless they are aware of a specific family minhag not to. That is, it is not sufficient to say, “my ancestors come from Poland and the custom there was not to wear a tallis until marriage” The default should be to wear a tallis at bar mitzvah and the only reason not to would be a family minhag not to.

  9. I’m surprised to read that Rabbi Yosef would limit his declaration to eretz Yisrael — it was my understanding that pos’qim of his tradition consider that tradition to be “the” authentic one, regardless of baAretz vs. chutz laAretz, with many implications.

  10. I wonder how many religiously-assimilated-but-still-clearly-ashkenazi families are just parroting the cultural customs prevalent in American Jewish communities, not passing down authentic latke recipes. Certainly in my family, any religious practices I experienced growing up were the result of my mother’s 80s-era interest in discovering Judaism, not part of a chain of tradition.

  11. I think Western European Sefardim wait one hour between meat and dairy. That nusach also includes reciting selichot twice a day throughout Elul. The original Jews in America followed these minhagim.

  12. Rav Yosef also holds that gerim in the land of Israel must follow Sephardic minhagim regardless of where the gerut takes place.

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