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Soulmate Wanted

Slowly but surely, the divide between Ashkenazim and Sephardim in Israeli society is ebbing. But in one sector it continues to stand fast. This is the community of the ultra-Orthodox, or Haredim, obsessed with issues of purity and boundaries—to the point of not only separating from other Israelis, religious and non-religious alike, but, on the part of Ashkenazi Haredim, enforcing strict internal divisions between themselves and their ethnically suspect and allegedly less rigorous Sephardi brethren.

Relevant Links
Rank Discrimination  Mendel Lopez, Eretz Acheret. A Haredi intellectual decries the ethnic discrimination his community thinks it needs to survive as a spiritual elite.  
Student Unrest  Eliezer Segal, From the Sources. Since talmudic times, sharp frictions among students, teachers, and administrators have been a periodic feature of the life of learning.    
Struggle for Control  Buky Naeh, Ynet. At the Ponovezh yeshiva in Israel, the contest for leadership takes a violent turn.  

The acuteness of this internal obsession was made painfully clear last summer when Ashkenazi Haredim in one Israeli town preferred to go to jail rather than obey a court order mandating that their schools integrate Sephardi children with their own. In the face of such fanaticism, even Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, towering Sephardi authority and victim of Ashkenazi condescension all his life, held his tongue.

In recent weeks, the issue has come up again as Rabbi Haim Amsalem of the Sephardi Shas party, a maverick member of the Knesset, called for introducing general studies in Haredi yeshivas and for persuading the vast majority of able-bodied Haredim to enter the work force. For good measure, Amsalem added a plea to end Sephardi obeisance to the ideologies and prejudices of Ashkenazi Haredim. His challenge to ultra-Orthodox fundamentals has set off a political storm. 

The same fierce inner divide is also at the heart of a powerful new novel, Yedid Nefesh ("Soul's Beloved"), by Ari Eitan, a young Sephardi and first-time author. The latest in a burgeoning Israeli genre of spiritual memoirs written from within Orthodoxy, Eitan's is also one of the first to emanate specifically from the Haredi world. It is based on his own experiences as a student in an elite Ashkenazi yeshiva (one of the so-called "Lithuanian" yeshivas, modeled on the great institutions that flourished in Eastern Europe). Since its publication, the book has garnered positive reviews and stimulated discussion in less-inhibited Haredi internet forums. 

The book's narrative spans nine months, an appropriate interval for its protagonist's costly gestation, labor, and rebirth. Seventeen-year-old Tsiyon ("Zion") Taharani (the family name implies both purity and Persian origins), a diligent pupil from a poor Jerusalem family, enters the prestigious Ishrovitz yeshiva as the winner of a coveted slot in the "Sephardi quota" rigorously maintained by supreme Haredi authorities.  Admittance to the yeshiva, as to any elite academic institution, promises intellectual challenge and social advancement (within limits—Tsiyon knows he can never dream of marrying a Haredi girl from an Ashkenazi family).

But Tsiyon is no less driven by a longing for absolute spiritual spotlessness and submission to God, ideals he sees as incarnate in the intense and august yeshiva.

For the sake of these sacred ends he is willing to endure the rigors of endless study, punctilious observance, the relentless policing of earthly desires—and the institution's unapologetic anti-Sephardi racism. Time and again, the fact of his inherent inferiority is reinforced by explicit reminders by others that he is there on sufferance, by the efforts of his fellow Sephardi students to hide their origins, and by the free use around him of the epithet "Frenck," the Israeli equivalent of the "n"-word.

Try though he might, Tsiyon also cannot find a havruta, a study partner—until, that is, he meets Amram Biton, a dirt-poor Sephardi from the desert town of Beersheva who, even more than Tsiyon, bears the fine lineaments of his non-Ashkenazi spiritual heritage: a gentle piety, accompanied by the eschewal of intellectual gymnastics in favor of a more prosaic understanding of the plain sense of holy texts. Amram is desperate to gain entry to the beit midrash, the great communal study hall; in a tragicomic episode, he succeeds when Tsiyon blackens his friend's ragged fedora with enough shoe polish to meet the yeshiva's unforgiving dress code.

As the novel progresses, the yeshiva is swept up in a bitter leadership struggle between two leading rabbis. The students, with few legitimate outlets for their youthful energies, are egged on by their spiteful elders to choose sides. Soon enough the place descends into a maelstrom of character assassination and physical violence. (Fantastical though it may seem, struggles like these have racked great yeshivas past and present.)  Throughout, Tsiyon and Amram keep their distance and maintain their idyll of study, but finally one of the dueling rabbis decides to enlist them in his ranks, setting in motion a chain of events with, for Amram, a terrible end.

On the long walks he takes in search of peace and perspective, Tsiyon repeatedly encounters a homeless Jerusalemite named Isaiah who quotes Maimonides but seems more like one of the sages that roam the pages of the Zohar. Isaiah speaks in a mix of deep faithfulness and rich inner freedom, worlds away from dogmatic certainty. "The one thing keeping you from seeing the truth," he tells Tsiyon, "is the belief that you already know it."

By the story's end, broken by tragedy but liberated by this gentle wraith, Tsiyon decides that he must leave, not Judaism or God but the Haredi world.  To an incredulous classmate's question: "Are you Haredi or not?," he answers: "I want to serve God. And in truth, I tend to think that, if I want to be a servant of God, it is forbidden for me to be Haredi. . . . I've understood that the Torah lies in a corner, and whoever wants to can pick it up and become a servant of the Holy Blessed One."

Ari Eitan's descriptions of the contortions undergone by his young characters for the sake of abstract religious ideals—sacred transfiguration,  forgiveness, transcendence—and for the approval of the authority figures who seem to embody those ideals will stretch the credence of many readers. They stretched this reader's, too, until he recalled that he had once been quite like them. Still, one wishes that Eitan had rounded his portrait with evidence of the genuinely compelling sides of yeshiva life, especially the intellectual intensity that is its chief drawing power and greatest collective achievement.

There can be no doubt, however, that institutionalized contempt for Sephardim is the official norm in Israel's Ashkenazi-dominated Haredi society, rooted not only in historic privilege but in the ideology of a self-described spiritual and intellectual elite at war with the surrounding culture. (Shas and its yeshivas hardly figure in Eitan's story, except as a sad, pale imitation of Ashkenazi dogmatics.) Although cruelty, prejudice, power games, and emotional obtuseness are hardly unique to ultra-Orthodoxy, the movement invests its institutions and authorities with superhuman legitimacy and rectitude, rendering them blind to their own baser impulses and impervious to critique.

Israeli though he is, Eitan writes in a self-consciously traditional Hebrew. This has its strong moments, though the novel's prose rarely achieves the lyric power of the Cairo-born writer Haim Sabato, whose fiction (Aleppo Tales, Adjusting Sights, The Dawning of the Day) redeems the honor of Sephardi spirituality by drawing deeply from the well of its rabbinic and liturgical legacies. As for Eitan's characters, though movingly drawn, they tend to one-dimensionality, and in limning them he hardly attains the psychological depth of the greatest chronicler of yeshiva life, Chaim Grade.   

Modern Jewish literature produced a flood of autobiographical novels tracing their protagonists' painful way out of traditional society and religion, typically ending up lost and with nowhere to go. In contrast to such utterly uprooted souls, Eitan's Tsiyon has no doubt that union with God and Torah are waiting and in some sense looking for him, if only he can find the right path. Without reducing Eitan's fictional intensities to mere sociology, one may observe that present-day Israel does in fact offer a broader horizon of spiritual possibilities than did Eastern Europe—and, perhaps more importantly, a free society in which to explore them. 

And so it is that in the book's last, haunting pages, Tsiyon buries the past (along with his and Amram's hats) on the outskirts of Jerusalem as he prepares to set out on a new and uncharted course. Having seen religious life at its ugliest, he is comforted by the exquisite 16th-century hymn Yedid Nefesh, an entreaty for the illumination that always slips from reach and a prayer for and to the divine havruta.

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micha on December 8, 2010 at 8:46 am (Reply)
The bit about Emmuanuel is false, as their complaint had nothing to do with integration. 27% of the school was already Sepharadi (despite the fact that the curriculum is Chassidic). Yehudah Mirsky describes parents as "preferr[ing] to go to jail rather than obey a court order mandating that their schools integrate Sephardi children". But, of those parents 6 of the 8 mothers were themselves Sepharadic, and of the 43 fathers, 16 were Sepharadi and one Teimani.

I am not saying that Chareidim are immune from racism, there are schools in Jerusalem where the quota of Sepharadic girls accepted is low. Nor am I saying the school in Emmanuel didn't break the law in misappropriating funds and part of a building to create their own track. But be accurate.

If you want to look for racism in that story, try the media, which managed to portray a mixed group of parents as Ashkenazim with prejudice against Sepharadim, and the High Court that made this allegation -- which has 1 Sepharadi out of 14 judges. Notice that neither are Chareidi institutions, thus belying the central claim that racism is Israel is declining faster in the general population than in Chareidi quarters.

Ron Broxted on December 8, 2010 at 11:36 am (Reply)
Weren't the original "aristocrats" of Judaism in the European diaspora Sephardim? Bevis-Marks synagogue in London was Portuguese-Spanish in foundation.
LT COL HOWARD on December 8, 2010 at 10:57 pm (Reply)
Whatever degree, there is too much separation and ill will. The enemies of Israel and the Jews want to destroy you. History shows that division has been an enemy of the Jews. I read the responses with sadness. Many of these name call. Others deny. Such a dialogue is not productive to unity or to survival. From my perspective within the Islamic world I see much hatred toward Jews and to Israel. They do not discriminate. They want you dead. I have met kindly members of the Jewish community from all levels of belief, including none. I have met spiteful Jews who profess a deep love of their religion. All of us can do better. All of us must strive to do better. Let us cease this nonproductive exchange and focus on what we can do to make us one people, united in love.
Jake on December 9, 2010 at 12:11 am (Reply)
I am afraid you misread the article as well as the Emmanuel affair. There most certainly was racism in Emmanuel - what else do you call the requirement that young girls pray using the Ashkenazic pronunciation even in their own homes?!?! That requirement was later dropped but it is evidence of the racist intent.

What this article points out is that there are Sepharadim ready to abandon their traditions and do whatever is necessary to integrate and assimilate with their "oppressors". The tragedy that this article points out is that despite all their efforts, they will never be accepted in that world. That some of the Emmanuel parents were themselves of Sepharadi origin, is irrelevant and completely understandable.

I am Sepharadi and have experience with the Israeli (and American) Hareidi world. The racism is palpable and far worse than in any other sector of Israeli society.
micha on December 9, 2010 at 6:24 am (Reply)
I see the requirement to pray in Ashkenazis: (1) primarily aimed as being in contrast to Israeli accent, not Sepharadic; (2) part of trying to build the Chassidic culture. This is a Chassidic program, which means they see cultural trappings as part of the Judaism they propagate.

What you miss is that 27% of the school is Sepharadi. So, one girl didn't get in, her parents assumed it's racism, and called the activist, Yoav Laloum. But in a school aimed at teaching a version of Judaism that happens to have Ashkenazic roots to include that many non-Ashkenazim doesn't sound racist to me. Going to jail rather than integrating Sepharadiot into their school when the school already has many Sepharadi students?

And I find the author's describing a group of people who are 2/3 Sepharadi as going to jail rather than let Sepharadim in to be a mis-reprepresentation of the situation there.

And I find his pinning more blame on Chareidim than the rest of us, as though things are better in the rest of Israel, to be equally wrong.
Amo Fuchs on December 9, 2010 at 3:04 pm (Reply)
Jake is correct. I am Ashkenazi, but speak both French and Yiddish. When I was working (I have now been retired for 10 years) I spoke French with Moroccans and Yidish with Poles and was everybody's friend. The problem is essentially an Israeli one, in shul things are much smoother.
Jake is also correct when he laments that there are Sepharadim ready to abandon their traditions and try to integrate and assimilate ...
I am very disturbed with Rav Ovadyah, who in his youth was much more following the "Koach deHetera" in the Giyur problem of the Ethiopians, and now adopts the more stringent Ashkenazi rulings. I can only transfer to Israel what de Gaulle said about a French Jewish politician who converted: there may be one Christian more but not one Jew less. There may now be one Charedi more but not one Frenk less.
Yoni Kirby on December 13, 2010 at 4:18 am (Reply)
Wow what a biased article. Blanket statement in the first lines condemning all "haredim" as "obsessed with purity" etc. Why not just say that all Americans are obsessed with money.
LT COL HOWARD on December 13, 2010 at 2:15 pm (Reply)
The problem exists. The problem is real. Improvements are crucially needed. Please propose workable improvements. Those that can be instituted at the ground and working level. Within families. With neighbors. Within communities. Please Israel, this is essential to your survival.

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