When I ventured into the Syrian Jewish community in Brooklyn a little over a week before Passover, all I wanted was a few extra votes for my campaign. Maybe. In truth, I was there because I felt that the election was crucial to the future of the country, and no voice could be ignored. The outcome would affect even those who did not think they would be affected. And I also realized that aside from ignoring important constituencies, complete lack of connection with this community in general was not doing anyone any favors. THe subject of that particular campaign is irrelevant to this issue, and anyone interested enough can look me up and find my political leanings. The campaign had an unintended effect, however, which took my life in an unexpected but rewarding direction – opening myself up to my own people.
I entered the community with a fellow activist. Both of us were Ashkenazi, and I am not even particularly religious, though I have some basic education on important issue, a strong sense of identity, and a passionate interest in Sephardic issues and everything Middle Eastern. I had a little bit of a theoretical background in understanding this particular community as well, though theory and practice very much differed. (Take note: the article I linked to was quite controversial with the community itself, and I don’t particularly like it myself, but it is the only one I could find that gives some information and an idea of the community’s culture on a somewhat relatable level). I was a little bit nervous as I had no idea what to expect. Initially, our attempts were politely rebuffed. We never quite got a solid “no”, and in some cases there was even some initial interest, but then various people would come back to us and give the general intimation that the community did not get involved in big campaigns or that there was no substantial interest for this matter. We understood the importance of breaking through and having our message heard, but we also realized that there were cultural barriers that were difficult to overcome. At one point, when we were close to giving up, I told my counterpart that sometimes a breakthrough comes just as you feel that all is lost, and gave him some examples from my past, where even in life and death situations it was only when I seemed to have reached the point of no return that a breakthrough came. My counterpart responded by wishing that we should be sent the right person at the right time, and with that, we entered one of the many synagogues in the community.
Our decision to open one last door changed everything, because that was the moment that we were indeed blessed with meeting the right person who introduced us to other members of the community. We were met with warmth, interest, and genuine human understanding. The campaign itself was a complicated battle, and the ultimate political outcome of our actions will take many years to figure out. However, our week-long lobbying effort in the community did not go unnoticed, and led to a feeling of greater understanding and a connection on a deeply personal level to the individuals within the community. What helped us in this endeavor was not only persistence, but the humility to understand that we were coming into a different community, different mindsets, and concerns, that were every bit as legitimate as our own. However, what we ultimately came away with was feeling like we have made an important step toward reuniting with our own family that was always there but with whom we had a disconnect. The “we” vs.”they” mindset – the Ashkenazy and Mizrachi, the secular vs. the traditional, were easy stereotypes to fall into. And certainly, it would have been quite easy to turn away and focus on communities that did not have the reputation for being inward-looking, if not insular, concerned with local issues to the exclusion of nationwide issues or wider Jewish community interests, and with much greater deference to local authorities and community leaders than where we came from.
Still, I had to ask myself, how this came to be the case. The truth of the matter was this highly successful community did not necessary experience any sort of support from the overwhelming larger Ashkenazi community upon being turned out of Syria and deprived of their property before coming to the United States. On the contrary, the Ashkenazi world, for a long time had a reputation of open discrimination and derision towards Jews from the Middle East and other non-Western and Eastern-European countries. Such attitudes plus a strong connection to local culture and tradition did not make for an easy combination. I was entering the world bring in decades worth of cultural baggage. Worse than all of that, however, I was not even “native” to the American Jewish world. I am a Russian-speaking Jew, who resides much of the time in another somewhat insular emigre community, the culture of which is quite different from both the general American world and Sephardic Jewish communities.
But perhaps, I thought, that could also be our greatest connection. Frankly, as a Russian Jew, for a long time I did not feel like quite the great fit within the larger Jewish American world. I mostly hung out with individual Jews and only started feeling welcomed when I joined the Manhattan Jewish Experience, a religious kiruv (Outreath) organization, when I was in law school. Until I found that commonality of a warm welcoming community of people trying to reconnect with their religious Jewish identity, I had very little in common with the overwhelmingly Long Island born and bred Jews I encountered, and who seemed to have as little interest in me as I had in them. Starting out on my journey through the lens of kiruv helped me overcome the stigma of being a “stranger”, as well as the temptation of standing in judgment of fellow Jews from different backgrounds. We were all, at the end of the day, on the same boat.
What if, I asked myself, there was a reason for me, of all people being here, and making that first step towards the return of the Jewish people towards each other? All of this was happening right before Passover, when we all, as one nation, stood together to remember that at one point we were all slaves in Egypt but despite all the differences, we managed to overcome that slave mentality, accepted the Torah and our mission, and became one nation… that is, until such time when infighting weakened us and made us vulnerable to outside intervention, and we became dispersed around the world, and only in recent decades have finally been more or less coming together in Israel and the United States. That mentality that once drove us apart did not have to keep it apart. Curiosity propelled me to explore what would happen if I did not give in to inertia and stereotyping, and viewed the Syrian Jewish community as brothers and sisters with much in common with me rather than a strange group of people to whom I did not exist.
I did not come in with the stereotypical baggage of the US-born Jews stuck in their habits. I came in as a traveler, to whom each new place and community is exciting and wondrous and worthy of respect and exploration. Throughout out “stay” in the community, my counterpart and I engaged in a lively debate about overcoming our challenges in our communications. Both of us saw an incredible opportunity in our very being there, but I felt less inclined to be pessimistic, because some of the natural resistance that we encountered did not seem reasonable to me. There must be reasons why this community prioritizes certain things and issues over others, I thought, and since they are a cohesive and successful community, those reasons must be pretty good. I wanted to understand the new language, not just change the terms to suit my agenda.
The election would come and go, and we would all still be here. Presidents come and go, and yet the community is growing, prospering, and keeping its traditions while remaining one of the most charitable communities in the world. They must be doing something right, I thought. WHo am I to come in here and tell them they are wrong and they should change? What if I need to change? Or better yet, why should anyone change? We are fellow Jews, we have our differences, but surely we also have a lot in common. We are all concerned about each other, the US well being and security, the State of Israel. We all want the freedom to practice our religion in peace, to grow our communities, to insure that our families are successful and happy. Different things work for different people – but let’s find some things that will work for all of us. I saw that many people in the community were receptive, and although they had their concerns, and cultural quirks and issues, none of it was illogical or beyond my comprehension.
And to me, I saw this situation as a bridge to build rather than a mountain to climb. I liked what I saw and I wanted to strengthen the connection beyond the issue du jour, beyond the task at hand. Perhaps the campaign was merely a tool for something greater and stronger. Perhaps the real issue was not about getting the group of voters to merely go out and vote for who I thought would serve everyone’s interests best, but that the time has come to overcome our divisions and come to a place of friendship rather than estrangement. Perhaps it was time to put old divisions and prejudices to rest and to start slowly opening up to each other, not at the cost of diluting identities and cultural traditions, but for the sake of learning from each other and strengthening the Jewish community as a whole, together.
Throughout this experience, I was pushed to try to understand the community’s concerns and to put myself in the shoes of the people who live here. It was a difficult exercise at first, because my own perspective made so much sense to me, and the opposition to it seemed initially strange. But then I started thinking less in terms of getting others to see what I see as important but rather finding within my own perspective what could also resonate with others. That’s when my own view of the community really began to shift, and when things started to happen – not just in terms of making breaktrhoughs with my goal, but in terms of making those personal connections, and being able to connect to the individuals and their concerns and start thinking in terms of relationships and friendships.
For me, the decision to try to enter the community proved transformational, not only in terms of coming closer to understanding the communty culture, but also in terms of my view of the Jewish community as a whole and overcoming our separations in general. For too long, history, and outsiders have dictated our divisions and caused much strife, pain, and isolation from one another. I decided that it’s long past time that we should move from using one another or fighting over organizational resources, press time, and other nonsense and more for enjoying each other’s companionship, learning as much as possible, and coming together to celebrate the richness of all our cultures and of everything we have produced as distinct communities and can continue to co-create together.
The greatest success of this campaign was not the voter turnout or other measurable result, but the immeasurable joy of feeling of returning to the fold, of opening oneself up towards the people I would not otherwise have met, but who are part of my destiny, part of my nation, part of my own tradition, part of everything I am working and striving to protect and defend. We have many communities, many cultures, many manifestations, many debates, but we are one nation with one mission, with one Torah, and ultimately, we share our destiny. Ultimately, we cannot fully separate from one another, nor should we. Ultimately, we have more in common than meets the eye and that we give ourselves credit for. And ultimately, it is when we come together and share our ideas, and invite each other for holidays, and share in each other’s traditions that we grow and become stronger and make our communities stronger and more successful.
We are in the Sefira now, and on this Lag B’Omer, as I reflect on what it took to bring me to the point that I myself am voluntarily seeking out that unity, that understanding, that diversity, and that sense of family, I cannot help but smile knowing that we are ultimately succeeding. Our enemies have failed to break us apart. Time has worked out that we are finally reconnecting. My Shabbat table will always be open to everyone regardless of background and preconceptions, and if it’s not over a (generally Sephardic meal) at my home than over a cup of coffee or a dinner out or some other activity that we can take some time to get to know each other better and work together to address mutual concerns and find the seeds to grow and take us further than we could have ever imagined.
So come on over, let’s talk, and it doesn’t have to be about politics.
And if you invite me, I promise, I’ll make every effort to be there as well. 🙂
(And yes, I am mobile and I travel! Even the fearsome Upper East/Upper WEst divide has never stopped me!)
Since the primaries, I have stayed busy trying to meet members of other communities, bring together people who would not normally interact, organize enjoyable fun and substantive events, and spend some quality time with members of the Tribe.
Because ultimately, beyond words, categories, boxes, and divisions, we are family.
And family needs to know each other.