Guest Posting By Chabakuk Elisha - Ashkenazim & Sephardim
A Simple Jew recently sent me an article that touched on the infrequency of marriages between Ashkenazim and Sephardim. Being that I am from Ashkenazic family and my wife is from a Sephardic family, I have my opinions on the subject – and while I realize that there is anti-Sephardi racism harbored my some (perhaps many) Ashkenazim, I don't think that's the only reason for this phenomenon. Obviously, any such pure racism is disgusting, and would in my opinion be a Chilul Hashem. Maybe another reason for me to like R' Mendele Vitebsker is that he married his children to Sephardim. But, truth be told, I don't think it's so simple:
We all have our cultural background. We are heavily affected by our environment and upbringing. We adopt attitudes and ideas from our communities, peers and teachers. We are products of, and proud of, our individual cultures. Obviously, it is only normal to look for a spouse with a similar background – and I don't think there is anything wrong with that – and I think that's the primary reason that Ashkenazim want to marry Ashkenzaim. Just as we would expect a Chossid to marry into a Chassidic family and a Litvak to marry into a Litvishe family, or an American to marry an American family and a Mizrachi to marry with a Mizrachi family, it's normal for an Ashkenazi to seek to marry an Ashkenazi. And, yes, should their "stock" fall, for whatever reason, they would naturally be more open to other ideas – we needn't paint that as racism.
More to the point though, Ashkenazi / Sephardi labels are broad terms. There are all kinds of Ashkenazim and all kinds of Sephardim. And while things were different once, I must say that in many places today's Sephardim and Ashkenazim have much more in common than they did in generations past. The world is smaller, the experiences more similar and the communities not as distant or separate. Many Sephardi children go to school with Ashkenazi children, and in many cases all these definitions lose their past meanings. So, while differences exist, very often we can find that we have much more in common today.
In my specific case, there are far less of the differences than similar cases might have. My wife is a Lubavitcher – therefore, minhagim are pretty much Chabad minhagim, the Siddur is a Chabad Siddur, and the wavelength she's on is that of a Lubavitcher first and Sephardi (a perhaps distant) second. She speaks (and teaches in) Yiddish and most of our children have Yiddish names (although some of her family members might find that a bit funny) – in fact, when we went out, I didn't believe that she was really Sephardi. Sure, some cultural differences exist, but I don't see why that would be a bad thing.
That said, the rest of my wife's family is a bit more obviously Sephardi. They maintain many Sephardi minhagim and the attitudes can be quite different from mine or those of many Ashkenazim. They find certain things important that I generally wouldn't, and vice-versa. And while I don't like to make blanket statements about large diverse groups of people, I do see strong similarities among those Sephardim that I'm related to through marriage and their friends:
They remind me of the Jews of the Tanach. They have strong emotions. They have strong emunas chachomim and strong emuna in general. They naturally respect the mystical over the rational and the spiritual over the tangible. For them, Tehilim is a way of life. Simplicity is synonymous with Judaism and attitudes and values express that constantly. Where Ashkenazim seem to be more concerned with hypocrisy or consistency, Sefardim seem to be more spontaneous, concerned with the moment or the isolated issue – so, for example, it seems to me that an Ashkenazi who perceives a certain practice to represent a higher level than the station he's currently on, is unlikely do it, while Sefardim seem to feel that if the specific matter is something they are inspired to do, than why not do it?
In Hebrew there isn't really a word for half-measures. Hebrew has a word for "Love" and a word for "Hate," but how often do we see a word that expresses "liking" or any mid-range emotion? So, too, they tend to express emotions strongly and more openly than I've generally seen among Ashkenazim, and they can display completely opposite types of behavior (sometimes at the same time). They speak to G-d in personal term – they get mad at him, they love him. They're less guarded, less consistent, less calculated and less worried about ramifications, but it's so much more real.
So the question is: What happens if we mix two cultures? What if we take two individual people – who are different enough to begin with – and start adding to the differences? At what point do the two of them get too far apart to successfully bridge the gaps? What gaps make a relationship more interesting and alive, and what gaps break down successful communication and ability to understand and relate? It's easy to say, "We're all Jews! Don't look at the differences!" When building a family we need to conscious of additional strain on a relationship; it needs to be looked at on a case by case basis. There isn't anything wrong or right about each culture, but there are real differences ; that seems to make sense. However, there is much more to the equation then Ashkenazi or Sephardi: As an American, out-of-town kid, with my specific background and personality, I actually think I have more in common with my Israeli, Sephardi, out-of-town, Lubavitcher wife than I would have had with many an Ashkenazi from Boro-Park or Williamsburg – even though I may have peyos and wear a streimel. So, for this Ashkenzai married to a Sephardi, I wouldn't want it any other way.