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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The Nazi threat brought hordes of German Jews, or yekkes, to Israel in the 1930s, and they left their mark on Israel's major institutions. The legal code is based on Germany's, and the universities are also founded on the German model. German immigrants founded orchestras, art museums, and populated entire neighborhoods, such as Rechavia in Jerusalem, known for its neat, classy apartments and residents wearing perfectly pressed shirts.

During the years of the British Mandate, stiff, hat-wearing German Jews clashed with jolly, boisterous, and prank-happy Russian Jews. Israel's socialist roots--seen in its universal health-care and generous social-welfare programs--are tied to the large number of immigrants from the Soviet Union, who were raised on Communism. German-Russian couples sometimes banned each other's songs from the house, and Hebrew was the compromise language.

But after the War of Independence in 1948, over 700,000 Jews were expelled from Arab lands. Arriving by foot or through Operation Magic Carpet, which airlifted tens of thousands to Israel, these Jews had darker skin, different songs, different foods, and a somewhat different outlook on life. The arrival of these Sephardic Jews changed the dynamic to Ashkenazic-Sephardic as opposed to Russian and German, or German and Polish styles.

For decades, tension brewed between Ashkenazic Jews, and Sephardic Jews in Israel. A marriage between an Ashkenazi and a Sephardi was called one of the "nisuei ta'arovet," or mixed marriages. The stereotype was that Sephardim were less intellectual, less wealthy, and less educated than Ashkenazim. While a girl from an Ashkenazic family might wear traditional European-inspired pearls or gold jewelry, a Yemenite girl would have filigree jewelry and long, flowing skirts. A Yemenite girl might know how to belly-dance--not a skill the average German-Jewish girl has.

On Shabbat, an Ashkenazic family will serve cholent, a cold-weather food of beans, potatoes, and meat. A Sephardic family might have malawach and jachnun, fried dough and a hot red sauce. On Passover, Sephardim eat foods that Ashkenazim won't touch for the duration of the holiday. The status of women was also different in each community, as most traditional Sephardic women stayed home and raised large families, while Ashkenazic women were more likely to work in outside jobs.

Slowly Coming Together

Over time, Sephardim and Ashkenazim have come closer together. Today, Sephardic Jews hold key political, rabbinic, and defense positions. Shaul Mofaz, who was the Army's Chief of Staff, is a Sephardic Jew, and Binyamin Ben-Eliezer, who served as Secretary of Defense, was born in Iraq. The large number of Arabic-speaking Jews is a great asset to the military and intelligence efforts. Young people who study together and then serve in the army together don't see the same differences their parents and grandparents did, and many laugh at the idea of a "mixed marriage" being any kind of mix at all.

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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.