February 11, 2009
For several decades now, one of the most dreaded words in the Jewish community has been the A word: assimilation. How often have we heard rabbis, pollsters and Jewish leaders remind us that America has “loved Jews to death,” to the point that high intermarriage rates and other forms of assimilation have threatened the future of our little tribe in an ocean of loving gentiles?
Thankfully, though, if you look around our community, you will see numerous examples of assimilation of a whole other kind — one that shines a more hopeful light on the Jewish future.
This is the assimilation between Ashkenazim and Sephardim.
After centuries of mutual distancing, these two culturally distinct Jewish communities now represent one of the great stories of the ingathering of exiles, a story of maintaining and sharing traditions in the midst of a long-delayed family reunion. And there’s no better place in the Jewish world to see this reunion than in Los Angeles.
Recently, I witnessed two examples of “Ashkefardic” assimilation, one in a school and the other in a shul.
The school is Yeshivat Ohr Letzion, and it was started a year ago by a Sephardic Orthodox rabbi named David Toledano. In the Sephardic world, the name David Toledano is like Hershel Greenberg for the Ashkenazim. You look at Rabbi Toledano, you hear his accent, and you might as well be transported to the Golden Age of Sephardim in the early Middle Ages.
You would think that such a proud and knowledgeable Sephardic Jew would open a Sephardic school and teach Sephardic tradition. But, in fact, instead of focusing on the uniqueness of ethnic tradition, Rabbi Toledano has opened a school that highlights the uniqueness of each individual student.
Currently a preschool for Jewish kids ages 2 to 5, the school plans to add one new grade each year right through high school. Jewish studies are all done in Hebrew. Every kid gets assessed individually. Teachers are trained to deal with the unique quirks of each child, reflecting the fact that each kid learns differently. I spent a full morning observing their classes, and I saw teachers — Ashkenazim and Sephardim — engage in the delicate balancing act of dealing with individual kids, as well as their whole class. It helps that classes are kept small, just 10 to 15 students in each, and that there are up to three teachers per class.
One of the people instrumental in helping Rabbi Toledano start his “boutique” school is Tamar Andrews, an Ashkenazic woman who runs a Reform preschool at Temple Isaiah on Pico Boulevard. She volunteered to help him navigate through the maze of red tape and regulations to obtain accreditation and to help him hire the best educators. She did this, she says, because she really “believes in the school.”
Imagine that. An Ashkenazi educator from a Reform school helping a strictly Orthodox Sephardic rabbi create a cutting-edge pre-school. This is not your grandfather’s neighborhood.
The location of the school itself is perfectly Ashkefardic. It’s inside the venerable Congregation Mogen David, an old-time Ashkenazi institution on the western edge of Pico-Robertson that has recently seen a minirevival, thanks to the addition of a large Sephardic minyan led by Rabbi Yehuda Moses.
My second recent experience of Ashkefardic immersion came at a bat mitzvah last Shabbat that will surely go down as a first in multicultural assimilation.
It was the bat mitzvah of Rabbi Daniel Bouskila’s daughter, Shira, at his large and elegant synagogue in Westwood — Sephardic Temple Tifereth Israel.
Bouskila, like Toledano, is as Sephardic as baklava and Turkish coffee. Since he married a woman who’s as Ashkenazic as kreplach and matzah ball soup, they have children who are going through, if not an identity crisis, then at least a pleasant overdose of ethnic variety. With Sephardic and Ashkenazic family members in the audience, what’s a sweet bat mitzvah girl with a beautiful voice to do to keep everyone happy?
This was the Bouskila solution: Sing the first half of the haftarah in the Ashkenazic melody and the second half in the Sephardic melody. It was like a slice of gefilte fish with horseradish followed immediately by my mother’s spicy Moroccan fish balls. A perfect and delicious solution.
Of course, it was more than a solution. It was a celebration. Throughout the ceremony, Rabbi Bouskila interspersed traditions from both his Sephardic roots and his wife’s Ashkenazic heritage. Even the Sephardic chazzan mixed up the flavors.
What was weird was how not weird it was. Jews with dark skin and one eyebrow who look like Arabs praying with Jews with white skin and two eyebrows who look like Swedes, and it all felt so ... normal.
I’m sure that every day throughout Los Angeles we can witness hundreds of delightful encounters between Jews of different traditions. Some might lead to starting a new school, others to a beautiful marriage and still others simply to interesting conversations that arouse one’s curiosity.
At the Bouskila bat mitzvah, I had one of those conversations with a dear Ashkenazic friend, a rabbi whose roots trace to Russia and Poland. His Ashkenazic background didn’t stop him from offering me a suggestion for a class I will be giving at LimmudLA on President’s Day weekend: “Ten Uniquely Sephardic Traditions that Belong to Every Jew.”
He told me about an ancient Moroccan custom that married couples would follow after the lighting of the Shabbat candles to help keep peace in the home. It turns out I had never heard of it before. So I’m researching it now.
Assimilation works in mysterious ways.