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Sephardic Judaism

01/22/2021 12:38:26 PM

Jan22

Tomorrow at 7pm on Zoom (zoom.tbdcheshire.org), TBD will be hosting Rabbi Rifat Sonsino.  Rabbi Sonsino will be speaking to us about Sephardic Judaism.  Rabbi Sonsino is an academic, writer and former pulpit Rabbi who was born and raised in Turkey. But why did I ask him to speak about Sephardic Judaism of all things? I asked him to speak about his Sephardic roots as I saw it as a parallel to our work on race. 

Sephardic Judaism refers to Jews “from the areas around the Mediterranean Sea, including Portugal, Spain, the Middle East and Northern Africa”.  This is in contrast to Ashkenazi Jews “who originated in Eastern Europe”[1]Some interesting facts about Sephardic Judaism include: Their main language was ladino.  Many Sephardic Jews had to pretend to convert during the Spanish inquisition and practiced their Judaism in secret (sometimes for centuries).  Sephardic Jews were the first group of Jews to settle in America en masse long before the Ashkenazi Jews.  Maimonides, arguably the greatest Jewish thinker in history, was Sephardic.  Also, Sephardic Jews are allowed to eat rice and beans (known as Kitniyot) on Passover.

You may still be wondering why this is important for us to hear about?  What does this have to do with me as an American Jew in 2021?  So, much of Jewish history in America is told through the perspective of Ashkenazic Jewry.  While it is a long and valuable history, we rob ourselves of the richness of our people’s narrative by not paying homage to our Sephardic ancestry. 

This past week during our Temple’s Thursday night book club, we read and discussed the book “Understanding White Privilege” by Frances E. Kendall.  In her book, she argues that as a white person it is hard for her to break away from the Eurocentric, white narrative of history she learned as a child.  What she came to understand is that the story of American history was far more dynamic than the one she was told.  By learning a more dynamic history she was able to develop more empathy, understanding and perspective on the shape of the world and her life. 

Similarly, our Jewish history and culture is far more dynamic then perhaps many of know.  By exploring the story, culture and history of Sephardic Judaism, we are modeling internally the type of work we must do in the outside world to work on bringing down systemic racism.

What we find is that by expanding our knowledge of the other, by hearing their story, we become more knowledgeable, empathetic, open and authentic.  We do not lose our identity by discovering never-before-told stories of our past, but rather it strengthens our identity.  It allows us to understand and enrich ourselves by better knowing our fellow Jews’ stories and cultures. I hope to see you tomorrow night as we welcome Rabbi Sonsino.

Shabbat Shalom!

[1] https://www.latimes.com/science/sciencenow/la-sci-sn-ashkenazi-jews-dna-diseases-20140909-story.html

Sat, March 6 2021 22 Adar 5781