The radio reported yesterday morning that a Beit Yaakov high school in Jerusalem was requiring future students to sign a form confirming that they will pray with an Ashkenazi accent.
Walla has a report on the story. Here are a few of the questions and conditions listed:
- Preference is given to girls whose fathers are “graduates of holy yeshivas” and whose mothers are Beit Yaakov graduates.
- “Prayer in our school must be with an ashkenazi accent (havara). Registration to our school requires the girl to pray with an ashkenazi accent.” Walla point out that the pronunciation and accent of words is completely different for sephardi girls, and some sephardi rabbis maintain that the prayer is invalid unless it’s said in a particular manner. (MiI: Whether or not you agree with this approach, it poses a dilemma for these young girls.)
- The family must have behaved and continue to behave according to the instructions of the school system’s committee, in every area. Walla points out that the committee consists of only ashkenazic rabbis.
- Girls may not participate in extracurricular activities or camps that are not under the auspices of the school, unless they get permission in writing.
- They may not borrow books from any library outside of the school’s library.
- A student may not become friends with students who don’t study in the “chinuch atzmai” (haredi) school system. Walla points out that this excludes girls who attend Shas, which is a separate school system catering to sephardic girls.
- The form also asked parents to list the parents’ country of origin, the mother’s family name before marriage, and the father’s place of prayer. The education ministry has ruled against these kinds of questions. (There are stories of people changing their family names, so they can get accepted to better schools and yeshivot.)
When I posted about this on the Facebook page, readers were confused about the issue. So here is a short lesson in Jewish history, ethnicity and inter-ethnic tensions in Israel.
Jewish law is based on the written Torah, or Pentateuch. But most of what we practice today comes from the Oral Law, a large body of commentary first written down with the codification of the Mishnah by Rabbi Yehuda Hanasi in approximately 220 C.E. He did so in order to preserve it in light of the tremendous upheaval after the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 C.E. The Jewish sages, centered in Israel and Babylonia, continued to issue rulings. Ultimately this discussion of the Mishnah formed the large body of Jewish law, the Talmud, which is studied to this day. The Babylonian Talmud was “closed” around 450 C.E. (some say as late as 700 C.E.).
But the development of Jewish law didn’t stop there. As Jews spread out from the Middle East to throughout the former Roman Empire, communication became difficult. Jewish law became less centralized as communities relied on local rabbinic leadership. The largest divide, beginning around 1000 C.E., has been between northern and eastern Europe on the one hand, and everywhere else on the other: North Africa, southern Europe, the Middle East, and Yemen constitute the largest groupings. The first group are known as Ashkenazim, from “Ashkenaz”, the Hebrew term for Germany, and the second group are mostly known as Sepharadim, from “Sepharad”, Hebrew for Spain, or as “Edot ha-Mizrach”, Eastern communities. Sepharadim generally lived in Moslem countries, and Ashkenazim in Christian ones.
Cultural and economic realities greatly influenced the development of Jewish law and customs, which remain a significant part of Jewish practice. Ashkenazi Jews say the early morning selihot (penitential) prayers for up to ten days before Rosh Hashanah, while Sepharadim begin a full month before. Sephardic Jews eat rice and legumes on Passover, Ashkenazim don’t. There are hundreds of such examples relating to Sabbath observance, wedding customs, kashrut, and virtually every area of Jewish practice.
In Israel, where the Jewish population is roughly half Ashkenazi and half Sepharadi, the cultural and religious differences cause clashes. There is a natural tendency to stay with your own kind and look down on others. It works both ways, but because the State’s founding fathers were mostly Ashkenazi, and the Ashkenazim tend to be more educated and wealthier, they generally have more power in society. This large socio-economic component is aggravated by the fact that in the 1950′s and 1960′s the largely secular Ashkenazi establishment in Israel absorbed several hundred thousand immigrants from Moslem countries into a small and undeveloped country. For the most part they did not respect their culture or religious beliefs, and in some cases entrenched them in a lower socio-economic status. The religious Zionist rabbinical establishment also tended to be dismissive of Sepharadi religious practice in the early years.
In the non-Zionist haredi communities, which are predominantly Ashkenazi, this is especially pronounced. Ashkenazi schools are seen as more desirable (but not in all cases). A Sepharadi, or “mizrahi” (easterner) as many prefer to be called, told my relative that he doesn’t send his children to a school that has more than 30% mizrahi’im among its students. Every year, there are reports of the number of girls who have not been accepted to any Beit Yaakov seminar (high school) because they are of Sepharadi descent. The government now intervenes to make sure these girls find places.
Yoav Lalum, the attorney who helped the parents in Emanuel, sent the registration form to the education ministry. The ministry instructed the school to omit the paragraphs about the Ashkenazi accent and the questions designed to determine the ethnic background of the parents. The ministry noted that 50% of the school’s students are of Sepharadi descent.
In the discussion on the Facebook page, reader Bracha explained the reasoning behind the school’s rules:
There are plenty of Sephardic girls at Beit Yaakov (BY) schools because the level of studies, the level of frumkeit (religiosity) is at a very high level. Try as they might, the sephardic community has not been able to establish a school with these levels. When Sepharadim came to Israel, the government did all it could to strip Sepharadim from their Torah and minhagim (customs). Sadly they have succeeded in many cases. The sephardic orthodox community has not yet regained all that has been taken from them by the state. They don’t have the ability to establish a school like BY for sephardim. So the Sepharadi girls who are looking for a certain standard, go to BY.
She goes on to explain that the school is trying to maintain its customs, it has the right to impose Ashkenazi standards on the Sephardi girls.
Whether the school’s goal was to deter mizrahi/sepharadi girls from applying, or to assure a uniform cultural and educational atmosphere, we don’t know. The Beit Yaakov in Emanuel used a similar tactic to group ashkenazi girls in a separate class. The court ruled that it was illegal, at least in a publicly funded school.
What do you think?
A short glossary of some relevant concepts:
- edah, or ethnicity. Edot hamizrach, or the Eastern communities, also known as sepharadi (lit. “Spanish”) includes Jews and their descendants from most middle eastern, North African, and southern European countries. Ashkenazi Jews are European Jews and their descendants. Jews from certain countries such as Italy, Yemen, and Ethiopia may not fit neatly into either category.
- nusach, This refers to the wording of the various prayers. The main ones are
- Nusach Ashkenaz, used in Germany.
- Nusach Sepharad, used by Hasidic Jews in Europe, who took some elements from the Sepharadi tradition (hence the confusing name). Nusach HaAri is a close relative.
- Nusach Edot Hamizrach, used by most of the Edot hamizrach (but not Yemenites, who have their own customs).
- havarah, accent or pronunciation. This refers to the different ways that ashkenazim and sepharadim pronounce Hebrew. Interestingly enough, modern Hebrew adopted a mostly Sepharadi pronunciation. The main elements of Ashkenazi pronunciation include:
- the letter tav in the middle or end of a word is usually pronounced s instead of t (Nesanel vs. Netanel, Shabbos vs. Shabbat)
- the accent is (incorrectly according to Hebrew grammar) usually on the first syllable
- certain vowels are pronounced differently, with further differences between Ashkenazi groups. The kamatz is pronounced oh or oo in ashekanazis and ah in sepharadit. The holam is pronounced oy instead of oh. This last one makes many people cringe, but preferring one accent over another is at best cultural insensitivity, and ethnic discrimination at worst.
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