One people (sort of)

“We’re from an old Sephardi family in Bucharest,” Orna said, which surprised me a little since her last name is Holczman.

“There were two Sephardi synagogues of course,” she said. “A big one and small one. We had nothing to do with the Ashkenazim. To us they were lower class.”

“Considering your last name,” I said, “you must have had something to do with them.”

Orna laughed. “Oh, yes,” she said, “but my grandmother did not approve!”

I told her I once read that when Ben Gurion was a law student in Salonika, his Sephardic landlady locked him in his room to protect her daughter. You never knew what those Ashkenazim might be capable of.

“Absolutely!” said Orna. “My grandmother would have completely agreed. Those Ashkenzaim are barbarians!

“In Rumania, we just thought of ourselves as Jews,” said Orna, “specifically Sephardic Jews. Later in my childhood I was raised in Israel. It’s funny that I didn’t feel Rumanian until I came to Israel.”

Talking to Orna made me think of a Shabbat lunch we had in Haifa years ago. Our hosts invited two of their friends, a couple I’ll call Pinchas and Penina (Paul and Penny before they made aliya from Denver.) Pinchas and Penina were of our own vintage, both psychologists, serious and sober people not given to frills. One index of this was the fact that Penina did not color her gray hair. She would have considered that an affectation.

Then in the army their son met a girl from a French-speaking family from Tunisia. Cultural tensions began at once. In the girl’s family tradition, an engagement was marked by a big party at which the groom bedecked his bride with heavy, expensive jewelry. Pinchas and Penina were troubled, even appalled. Not only was that a very expensive proposition, but, well, where they came from you just didn’t do that sort of thing.

As delicately as they could, the groom’s family conveyed their misgivings to the other side. This did not go well. Looking down their (well, sort of) Gallic noses, the bride’s family sniffed, “Americans! Where did she find such people?”

Not quite barbarians, perhaps, but vulgarians surely.

The families compromised on one bejeweled necklace. The wedding came off, and the couple, one hopes, lived happily ever after. In the modern world, once a couple is married the extended families recede into the background and mechutanim meet, more politely or less, on ceremonial occasions.

Old-fashioned cultural divides (Ashkenazim and Sephardim, Galitzianers and Litvaks, Jews from Turkey and Jews from Rhodes) fade with time and distance. But then they are replaced by other distinctions. In every society, groups need to gauge their own worth by looking down on other groups. Otherwise, where’s the fun?

“You know,” Orna says, “They say we Jews are all one people.”

“Federation fund-raisers do like to say that,” I agreed.

Jewish unity is a useful notion, and there is more than a little truth in it. But like all generalizations, the reality they describe is a little more complicated.

About the Author
Avi Rockoff lives in Newton, Massachusetts