There is a stereotype about Sephardim, that they are, among other things, loud, argumentative, hot-blooded, and can be, well, kind of uncivilised. As someone who is half Ashkenazi, half Sephardi, I can tell you that with regards to the Sephardis in my family at least, that stereotype is kind of, sometimes, a little bit, in some ways… true. And being the half Sephardi that I am, I kind of, sometimes, a little bit, in some ways… like it! Guiltily of course, because of the Ashkenazi part of me.
There were over 30 of us at my aunt and uncle’s Seder (the Sephardi side). Everyone behaved through the reading of the Hagaddah, everything was going smoothly, until Shulchan Aruch aka The Food Part. The meal was served buffet-style, and yes, there was some over-excited shouting and good-natured jostling as everyone helped themselves; and a bowl of chutney was somehow dropped into a bowl of techina, but as one cousin said “it’s fine, it’s fine, I do that on my plate every Shabbat”.
It was while we were all sitting down happily eating that it happened.
One cousin – probably knowing full well what he was going to start – made a casual remark about the Charedim in Israel. And then just sat back and watched as World War III erupted around him, between two uncles and my father. The Charedim take advantage of the state, they are a burden, lazy etc etc. No, you’re wrong: the Israeli army is too secular, does not understand the Charedim, would not accommodate them even if they wanted to join in the IDF, and besides that, they should all be learning, all day. And my dad, in the middle: maybe the IDF as it is is too secular, but Charedim should join, most will probably be glad to do so if the IDF accommodates their requirements, but there should also be some Charedim learning all day.
All of this and more had to be shouted repeatedly whilst gesturing wildly, on and off over the space of nearly an hour. At one point wives intervened, trying to calm down their husbands, most likely concerned about the blood pressure situation. My brother tried “we’re supposed to be discussing the Hagaddah, not Israeli politics!” We cheered and chanted his name, but stopped when we saw they weren’t listening. Of course none of us thought at the time of some of the most obvious things that would have worked:
“So… what do you think about Yachad?”
“Are Spurs a one-man team, does it even matter, isn’t Gareth Bale the best footballer ever?”
Instead I mustered up some acting skills and tried dramatically telling them “you’re stressing me out, I think I’m going to faint!” They barely glanced at me. When that didn’t work, I turned to my cousin: “Dessert”. As we brought it in another cousin randomly started singing Happy Birthday, nearly everyone joining in, not realising that of course it was no one’s birthday. Strangely it seemed to work, although we’re still not sure if it was because of the desserts or the singing. Either way they left the debate at having to agree to disagree. (I’ll pretend that subconsciously I knew that dessert would end the debate, not that I just wanted my aunt’s incredible I-can’t-believe-it’s-not-chalavi-chametz chocolate cake.) “Part 2 tomorrow!” someone quipped.
When they did walk in from shul on the second Seder night, my dad joked, “topic for tonight: Obama!”
As it turned out though, the only drama that night was the story of Yetziat Mitzrayim. Maybe they’d just needed to release all the stress from the build-up to Pesach. Or maybe they’re just Sephardi.