When I was in fifth grade in Chicago, many years ago, we learned of the difference between a population that was more assimilated, in which their customs, mannerisms and dress melted together to become one, and that of a more diverse population which is more of a “tossed salad” concept. Each unique piece of a salad is distinct, yet it adds to the overall flavor. I always thought it was so beautiful to think of an immigrant society, such as the US and Israel, as a salad.
When the State of Israel was created, there was an attempt to bridge the millennia of exile by asking the Jewish returnees to shed their customs, heritage, dress, language and culture and melt into a new Israel. In fact, in order to be promoted to a certain level in the IDF, one would be required to shed their family’s name and take on a new Hebrew name. A new siddur was created which melted some of the prayers from different Jewish heritage, with a heavy Ashkenazi leaning, and was called “Siddur Achid”, the unity siddur. Iraqis, Persians, Hungarians, Poles, Indians, Moroccans, et al. were all asked to shed their millennia of culture and customs and create a new homeland.
I would like to posit that there was never “one Judaism”. We didn’t become Israelites, until after Jacob (Israel) had 11 children with four different women. Judaism is meant to be diverse, and we should celebrate that diversity. Customs were created for a reason, and upon learning the reasons it may just enrich our understanding of our own Jewish heritage.
For example, the first time I went to a Spanish-Portuguese synagogue was in Amsterdam. I was shocked to see the president and beadle wearing top-hats. Their dress, otherwise, was modern western dress. When I asked as to the meaning of this custom, I was told that it was to honor the English who allowed the Jews to return to the British Empire in the 1650’s, years before Jews were allowed to return to Portugal or Spain. A relatively modern custom, yet with a tribute to the communal Jewish history.
One of the goals of this column will be to celebrate the diversity. It is often the unknown that causes us to view people as the “other”. There has been anti-Semitism in Japan, a country with a mere 300 – 2,000 Jews. My husband, living in Israel, was insulted by his Ashkenazi high school peers that he did not bathe as he was “dirty”, i.e. was of a darker complexion, of Yemenite heritage. A friend from Egypt was told she was not Jewish by her elementary school peers. It is difficult to appreciate something you do not understand or comprehend – it can even be scary to see something so different. Can we create Jewish unity through an understanding of the unknown of the fuller Jewish community? At ASF Institute for Jewish Experience, and through this column, that is precisely our goal.