Friday, April 22, 2011

Fringe Tales of Passover in Israel

1. It being Passover (Moadim l'simcha to you all), I thought I would
digress from my usual dismal obsession with Israeli politics and
comment on a few matters of "religion" at the fringes of the news.

The first involves the great battle over Ashkenazi-Sephardic customs
in a synagogue in Bnai Brak. The town of Bnai Brak has the largest
concentration of ultra-Orthodox "chareidim" – the black coat males and
wigs on females – in Israel. And in one of its synagogues, the
dispute over whether prayers should be conducted in Ashkenazi or
Sephardic tradition ended up being argued in front of the Tel Aviv
magistrate's court. That in and of itself makes this story silly
enough. But what makes it REALLY silly, and a fascinating
illustration of the complexity of life in Israel, including its
ethnicity and religiosity, is that NEITHER SIDE TO THE DISPUTE IS
SEPHARDIC. I repeat, neither of the two sides battling over whether
the prayer style in the synagogue should be Sephardic…. are Sephardim.

Confused? Well, the battle there is actually between Chassidim and
those who are opposed to Chassidim, or Misnagdim. In Israel the
Misnagdim are often referred to as the "Lithuanians." (When I told
that to my Lithuanian students whom I teach in Budapest, they were all
confused that Israel is one of the most bizarre places on earth!)

Briefly, their differences go back to the 1700s when the Chassidic
movement arose in Eastern and Central Europe. Many of the leading
opponents to Chassidism, led at some point by the Gaon of Vilna, lived
in Lithuania. But to make things even more confusing, many of the
leading Chassidic rabbis ALSO lived in Lithuania. In any case, both
groups have large populations in Bnai Brak.

The Chassidim are Ashkenazi, but most of them use prayer books that
follow "Sephardic custom." There are minor differences between
Ashkenazim and Sephardim in prayer texts and other customs. The
Ashkenazi synagogue to which I belong, and which is NOT Chassidic,
also uses a Sephardic custom prayer book. The Chassidim do not follow
Sephardic custom in everything, and specifically do not eat kitniyot
or rice during Passover, as real Sephardim usually do.

In the synagogue in question, the "Lithuanians" were upset by the
holding of "Sephardic" prayers in their building by the Chassidic
minority. What really had them worried though seems to be their fear
that the Sephardic-praying Chassidim would make a property claim at
some point to the building. So they went to court to fight over the
matter. The court ruled in favor of the "Lithuanian" dominant group
in the synagogue, and their right to refuse to conduct "mixed
tradition" prayer services.

Confused? Bewildered? Just say Gevalt three times loudly with
Sephardic accent!

2. The worst form of bigotry in Israel is the anti-Orthodox hatred by
some ultra-secularists. In some areas, most notably in the yuppie
leftist ultra-secularist Ramat Aviv suburb, in which Tel Aviv
University sits on occupied Palestinian lands, secularists zealots
have been battling to prevent religious people from moving into the
neighborhood. They are enthusiastically backed by most of the Left
and particularly by Haaretz, that Palestinian newspaper published in

The zealots are being increasingly dismissed as deranged "racists" by
the sane segment of Israeli society. Haaretz today interviews the
leaders of the zealots. How do they respond to the charge that they
are racists? "The Orthodox are not a race at all so how can we be
racists?" They chime in unison.

What does this remind you of? That long-time defense by Arabs
whenever anyone accuses them of being anti-Semites. How can we be
anti-Semites? They chime in unison, after all WE are Semites. In both
cases the bigots in question defend themselves via silly semantic
games and twists of words.

First of all, true the Orthodox are not a race, but those denouncing
the secularist zealots as "racists" are just using the word as it is
commonly and ordinarily misused in modern Hebrew. What they mean is
that the zealots are bigots, which they indeed are. Strange that
Haaretz never repudiates those Leftists who denounce all the
non-leftist Israelis for supposedly being anti-Arab "racists" with the
objection that Arabs are not a race either. Arab anti-Semites are not
haters of Semites but haters of Jews. Never mind that the word
"anti-Semite" is misleading. It has been the common term for hatred
of Jews for 150 years. Saying Arabs cannot be anti-Semites because
they are Semites is a bit like insisting that the Ku Klux Klanners
cannot possibly be considered anti-black because they all wear black
boots and socks.

3. I have posted the following story regularly, but a few asked me to
re-post it for Passover.

A few years back, I took the kids to the Haifa beach promenade during
Passover, where they had French fries. While sitting there, some
Russian Jews who had not been in the country very long came and sat
down. They ordered some salads, and asked the Arab waiter to bring it
to them with Matzos because they did not want to eat Chometz during
Passover. Then they asked the Arab to also bring them beers. The
Arab stood and explained to them that it was not only bread that is
Chometz but actually beer is also considered Chometz and so is also
prohibited for consumption by Jews during Passover. The Russians
thanked him enthusiastically for explaining that to them.
I was reminded about the section in Pirkei Avot where it says one must
feel beholden and gratitude to anyone who teaches one Torah or even a
single Hebrew letter. These Russian Jews were beholden to their Arab
waiter for teaching them Torah.
Only in Israel!

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