Author of "Embracing Auschwitz" and "Mensch•Marks: Life Lessons of a Human Rabbi - Wisdom for Untethered Times." Winner of the Rockower Award, the highest honor in Jewish journalism and 2019 Religion News Association Award for Excellence in Commentary. Musings of a rabbi, journalist, father, husband, poodle-owner, Red Sox fan and self-proclaimed mensch, taken from essays, columns, sermons and thin air. Writes regularly in the New York Jewish Week and Times of Israel.
Friday, March 8, 2013
Call me Ashke-Sephard, Pass the Pesach Hummus!
When I am in Boston before Passover, as I was this week, I love to go to the Butcherie on Harvard Street. They have the best knishes and a great variety of baked goods and appetizers. But I was not prepared for the extent of the offerings with Kitniyot (legumes), something that you see everywhere in Israel, but I really haven’t seen so much here in the States.
Let me cut to the chase, they had hummus. Honest to goodness K for P hummus. If I’m willing to go Sephardic, the Hummus is mine!
With Pesach approaching, Jews of Sephardic extraction, particularly in Israel, will be able to get away with things that would make most American Jews turn karpas-green with envy. They get to eat the rice and legumes (“kitniyot”) that Sephardic Jews have always eaten, foods that their more stringent Ashkenazi cousins have avoided. Cleanup is also not as difficult as in an Ashkenazi kitchen. All of this, and the only drawback is having to do “hagba” (lifting the Torah) with those heavy, encased Torah scrolls.
So where do I sign up to become Sephardi? A few years ago, the Masorti movement in Israel came out with a rabbinic ruling indicating that it’s OK for Ashkenazi Israelis to adapt a Sephardi posture with regard to kitniyot on Pesach (see the ruling here). The feeling was it would make sense to relax the practice in order to allow all Jews in Israel to “break bread” together on the holiday, so to speak.
But Israel is Israel, with a majority Sephardi population, and America is America, where the European legacy prevails. So when I offered the Masorti ruling to my congregants as a valid Passover option, and when I told them that, as a vegetarian, I would be adopting it myself, people went ballistic. It was as if I had just sanctioned the eating of pork, except that a number of certified pepperoni pizza eaters were among those who scoffed at the impudence of my OK to eat kitniyot.
Despite the resistance of these inveterate Ashkenazim, it’s clear the distinctions are dissolving. For the pattern of the past several centuries of Jewish life has been to create acute cultural divisions, pump lots of anger into these feuds, and then to see them run out of gas within a few generations.
We Jews divide like amoebas, but our internal conflicts tend to dissipate quickly. The Litvaks and the Galicianers, bitter enemies in the Old Country, now lie down like the lion and the lamb; the Zionist Revisionists and Laborites have shared unity governments, and today’s Hasidim act more like their former arch enemies, the Mitnagdim, than did the original Mitnagdim two centuries ago, who defined themselves by the fact that they hated Hasidim. As for the religious denominations, growing numbers of Jews shun the old labels, choosing to identify themselves as “post-denominational,” “Reformstrucative” or “Renewal-Orthoprax.” Rarely do the labels matter anymore because the sands of Jewish identity are shifting too quickly.
So call me Sephardi this year when Pesach rolls around. Call me Sephardi when I say the Kaddish (“YIT-gadal”) but Ashkenazi when I say “Good Shabbos.” I like to combine a Sephardi diet with an Ashkenazi soul; my blood churns Ladino hot and my humor spouts Yiddish irony. I daven Orthodox hum Hasidic, philosophize Conservative, innovate Reconstructionist, meditate Kabbalist and do social action Reform. I’m Likudon terrorism and Yesh Atid on pluralism. I’m Meretz meets haBayit haYehudi; and they do meet — in me. I’d have been a Zealot on Masada yet a Pharisee in Yavneh a Saul supporter on Gilboa and a Davidite in Jerusalem. I’ve got the Gaon of Vilna in my mind and the Baal Shem Tov in my heart. Dig deep enough and you may even find that I’ve got a little Karaite in me, too.
In short, I’m a Jewish mutt. All of Jewish history culminates in each of us. We all are the synthesis of Torah and time. Seemingly irreconcilable opposites are reconciled in the intractable, complex matrix of the individual Jewish soul.
So good Shabbos to you, a zisen Pesach … and please pass the hummus.