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September 3, 2015 | 19th Elul 5775

Definitions IV

Galilee Diary #484, April 2, 2010
Marc Rosenstein

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

At a recent in-service day for coordinators and facilitators in the ORT "Jewish roots" program, one of the guest speakers was Hannah Azulai, one of 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 the 50s - her father a blind Torah scholar who worked here as a janitor, her mother illiterate, she was raised in Beersheba's tough "Neighborhood D." Interestingly, Tami and I spent a year in Neighborhood D, when Hannah Azulai was about ten years old; she was probably one of the kids we used to see around the shopping center. She spent a couple of decades of her life trying to suppress and hide her Moroccan origins, and to "pass for white" in order to make it in elite Ashkenazi society - and there were plenty of well-meaning educators and mentors who were only too eager to help her with this project. Only as a successful adult was she able (with the help of her husband, playwright Samuel Hasfari) to confront this cover-up and reclaim her identity, with sympathy for and pride in her family and what they had experienced in the transition of aliyah. Awareness of her not atypical experience is important for understanding another dimension of the complex religious tapestry of Israel.

The drama of Zionist vs. anti-Zionist Orthodoxy; indeed the whole onslaught by modern movements on traditional Jewish society and the ensuing polarization and petrification - are almost entirely an Ashkenazi phenomenon. And so these conflicts were central components of public discourse and political life in pre-1948 Palestine, when Ashkenazim dominated the society, and Zionism was a European movement. However, the huge wave of immigration from North 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 was different in a number of ways, one of which was that they had mostly missed the 19th century confrontation with modernity, and hence were not particularly interested in the religious and cultural wars of the Ashkenazim. For them, tradition was not ideology, it was just what they had inherited, and their observance of the mitzvot was not generally accompanied by an ideological rationale. 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 an attempt to co-opt this population, took the Hebrew name "Masorti" - but this has only created confusion, and has certainly not drawn in the masses of Oriental Jews, who tend to view the liberal movements with some suspicion. After all, these movements are nothing if not Ashkenazi and ideological, and even now, half a century after this wave of immigration, the elites of Israeli society remain disproportionately Ashkenazi, and the feelings of resentment and alienation on the part of the Oriental Jews continue to find expression in politics and culture at all levels.

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

With a masorti Jew, the argument takes place on a different 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 is it conceivable that you would reject/undermine/undo/re-form these traditional norms:" A conversation about identity - or perhaps not really a conversation at all.

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