Sephardic, Ashkenazic, Mizrahi Jews - Jewish Ethnic Diversity

Jewish culture: The true melting pot.

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Although often confused with Sephardim (because they share many religious customs), Mizrahim have a separate heritage. Mizrahi (in Hebrew, "Eastern" or "Oriental") Jews come from Middle Eastern ancestry. Their earliest communities date from Late Antiquity, and the oldest and largest of these communities were in modern Iraq (Babylonia), Iran (Persia), and Yemen.

Today, most Mizrahi Jews live either in Israel or the United States. In their new homes, Mizrahim are more likely than other Jews to maintain particularly strong ties with others from their family's nation of origin. Thus, it is not uncommon to find a specifically Persian or Bukharan synagogue. Likewise, Mizrahim are not united by a single Jewish language; each subgroup spoke its own tongue.

The unique Mizrahi culture has penetrated Israeli mainstream society in recent years. Yemenite music entered the pop scene with Ofra Haza, who blended traditional instruments, rhythms, and lyrics with modern flair. Yemenite silversmiths create sacred objects used by Jews of all backgrounds. "Mizrahi" restaurants--where large platters of skewered meat and breads and bowl upon bowl of salads and condiments are shared by a group--have become fashionable gathering places in Israel.

Despite these trends, Jewish ethnic barriers remain strong. In Israel, Ashkenazic Jews still dominate leadership roles in public institutions. For much of Israel's history, Sephardim and Mizrahim were disproportionately underrepresented in the government. Yet now, they make up more than half of the population.

Jewish diversity still matters

Many Jews today live a multi-layered Jewish existence. Ethiopian Jews attend Hasidic yeshivot, and Sephardim serve matzah ball soup at their Passover seders. Jews from all backgrounds often borrow each other's cultural traditions. Many populous Jewish communities have a diverse range of ethnicities, and that diversity presents itself even within individual families.

Though some of these cultural divides have healed--partially due to the increase in marriages among members of different ethnic groups--ethnicity is still highly relevant in Israeli society. For example, the public school curriculum over-represents Ashkenazic cultural achievements and history. At least one study recently reported that Mizrahim are still half as likely to attend universities as Ashkenazim.

Massive economic disparities exist among different eidot, since Mizrahi immigrants frequently were brought to Israel by emergency airlifts, arriving with minimal property or wealth. Partially as a way to combat these discrepancies, Israeli political parties are often formed along ethnic lines, such as Shas (Sephardic), Agudas Israel (Ashkenazic), and Atid Ehad (Ethiopian Jews).

Some Jews protect their ethnic identity in other ways. Religious Jews will follow the minhagim of their ancestors in both their homes and synagogues. Others consciously study their traditional Jewish language, whether Yiddish, Ladino, or Farsi and join social clubs based on their ethnic heritage. In North America, where secular schools often celebrate multiculturalism, Jewish supplemental and day schools have begun to include Jewish ethnic diversity in their curricula. Indeed Jewish ethnicity becomes a way to trace the course of Jewish history.                     

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Rabbi Rachel Miller Solomin is an educator living and working in the San Francisco Bay Area. She was ordained from the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies of the University of Judaism (now American Jewish University) in 2001.