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Galilee Diary: Definitions IV

Galilee Diary: Definitions IV

by Marc Rosenstein
(Originally published in Ten Minutes of Torah and Galilee Diary)

Esther did not reveal her people or her kindred, for Mordecai had told hernot to reveal it.
-Esther 2:10

At a recent in-service day for coordinators and facilitators inthe ORT "Jewish roots" program, one of the guest speakers was Hannah Azulai, oneof the most popular and busy actresses in Israel today (stage, screen, and TV).She told her life story - and it was interesting and moving (needless to say,she knows how to tell a story). Her parents were immigrants from Morocco in the50s - her father a blind Torah scholar who worked here as a janitor, her motherilliterate, she was raised in Beersheba's tough "Neighborhood D." Interestingly,Tami and I spent a year in Neighborhood D, when Hannah Azulai was about tenyears old; she was probably one of the kids we used to see around the shoppingcenter. She spent a couple of decades of her life trying to suppress and hideher Moroccan origins, and to "pass for white" in order to make it in eliteAshkenazi society - and there were plenty of well-meaning educators and mentorswho were only too eager to help her with this project. Only as a successfuladult was she able (with the help of her husband, playwright Samuel Hasfari) toconfront this cover-up and reclaim her identity, with sympathy for and pride inher family and what they had experienced in the transition of aliyah. Awarenessof her not atypical experience is important for understanding another dimensionof the complex religious tapestry of Israel.

The drama of Zionist vs. anti-Zionist Orthodoxy; indeed thewhole onslaught by modern movements on traditional Jewish society and theensuing polarization and petrification - are almost entirely an Ashkenaziphenomenon. And so these conflicts were central components of public discourseand political life in pre-1948 Palestine, when Ashkenazim dominated the society,and Zionism was a European movement. However, the huge wave of immigration fromNorth Africa and the Middle East in the 50s and 60s shifted the balance, so that"Oriental" Jews became the majority. The culture of these immigrants wasdifferent in a number of ways, one of which was that they had mostly missed the19th century confrontation with modernity, and hence were not particularlyinterested in the religious and cultural wars of the Ashkenazim. For them,tradition was not ideology, it was just what they had inherited, and theirobservance of the mitzvot was not generally accompanied by an ideologicalrationale. They came to define themselves as "masorti," or traditional(i.e., neither Orthodox nor secular).

The Conservative movement, in what seems to me to have been anattempt to co-opt this population, took the Hebrew name "Masorti" - but this hasonly created confusion, and has certainly not drawn in the masses of OrientalJews, who tend to view the liberal movements with some suspicion. After all,these movements are nothing if not Ashkenazi and ideological, and even now, halfa century after this wave of immigration, the elites of Israeli society remaindisproportionately Ashkenazi, and the feelings of resentment and alienation onthe part of the Oriental Jews continue to find expression in politics andculture at all levels.

Thus, there are a couple of different conversations one can havehere as a Reform Jew, and I've had them both. With a committed Orthodox Jew, onehas to argue against the ideological position that God gave all the mitzvot atMt. Sinai, that there is a chain of authority descending from Moses to the localrabbi, and that denying that chain and usurping that authority is a violation ofGod's will and a danger to the Jewish people: An argument about basic beliefs.

With a masorti Jew, the argument takes place on adifferent plane. "This is how we've all always done it, this is what Judaism is,this is who we are, this is what makes us Jewish and keeps us a people - how isit conceivable that you would reject/undermine/undo/re-form these traditionalnorms:" A conversation about identity - or perhaps not really a conversation atall.

Published: 4/01/2010

Categories: Reform Judaism, Israel
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