Israel's Vibrant Jewish Ethnic Mix

Just because Israel is a Jewish country doesn't mean all Jews are the same.

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Walk through the Carmel open-air market in Tel Aviv and you'll hear Russian, Arabic, Yiddish, Amharic, German, Spanish, and of course, Hebrew. You'll smell foods from Libya, Russia, and Venezuela, and your eyes will notice mounds of yellow and red spices from the Middle East displayed in large wooden barrels. If you talk to a fruit-seller, he'll gruffly tell you he stocks three kinds of bright-orange persimmons--soft for the Russians, hard for the Israelis, and medium for Americans. 

While you try to process how country of origin affects fruit-firmness preferences, and how any businessman can ever keep track, a woman will swish by in a crinkled cotton scarf with gold coins attached to the end, in traditional Yemenite style. Next, an old woman in perfectly pressed linen will bump into you, giving you a perfect snapshot of what was in style in Berlin in 1932. For anyone who thinks a Jewish country means everyone looks the same, sounds the same, or eats the same food, a few days in Israel can be a shocking education.

ashkenazic sephardic israelAs you shop, the radio might blare songs with beats ranging from belly-dancing swivels to a slow ballad that feels like it could have been written on the Volga River. No wonder--these songs are written by people whose parents came from every imaginable country, and some singers have one Libyan parent and another Brazilian parent. The market stands hawk a dizzying array of prepared foods--Argentinian beef, Hungarian pastries, and a slew of Iraqi options. You can eat gefilte fish on one corner, shish-kebab on the next. Stuffed grape leaves and black olives abound, and if you tire of that, you can go eat some Ethiopian food with your bare hands. You can hear prayers in dozens of accents and intonations. In fact, some say it's only possible to understand the magnitude and reach of the Diaspora in modern-day Israel.

A Little History

Persecution, wandering, economic interests, and adventure sent Jews around the world, and Israel has seen immigrants from Shanghai, India, Moscow, and South Africa, to name a few. The modern Zionist movement coincided with rising anti-Semitism in Europe, where pogroms, compulsory army service, and constant discrimination made the dream of a Jewish state a very attractive and somewhat crazy-sounding idea. What began as a pragmatic response to European anti-Semitism has become a living dream--the worldwide return to the Jewish homeland.

Israel's Jewish population came in several waves. The first wave of immigrants to present-day Israel began arriving in 1882, following two years of terrible Russian pogroms, and those First Aliya immigrants were therefore from Russia. The Second Aliya, from 1904-1914, was sparked by another rise in persecution of Russian Jews. Through the 1940s, the vast majority of immigrants were from Europe, and so German, Polish, and Russian traditions were important to Israel's major institutions.

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Aviya Kushner

Aviya Kushner is a Lecturer of Creative Writing at Columbia College of Chicago. She is the author of And There Was Evening, And There Was Morning.