Tzarich Iyun > “Seder Sheni”: Reflections > “Just the Way it Is?”—On Discrimination in Charedi Society

“Just the Way it Is?”—On Discrimination in Charedi Society

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Eden Abitbul Avrech, author (prose and poetry)

The Ashkenazi establishment of Charedi society views the Sephardi variant as being somehow inferior. This attitude is deeply entrenched. to the extent that related social norms are taken for granted. Excuses such as "differences in mentality" serve as a thin veil for the lower social status of those hailing from Sephardi origins. Charedi discrimination against Sephardi boys and girls, whether in educational institutions or in other areas of public life, is an unfortunate stain on our society. We need to do all we can to remove it.

Kislev 5779, November 2018
 

Have I ever personally experienced racism in (Israeli) Charedi society? When I try to remember specific incidents, I fail to do so. Quite to the contrary. For the observer on the outside, my story could be considered a successful example of a near-seamless assimilation into the Lithuanian Charedi mainstream.

I was born to parents who were baalei teshuvah. My first name, Eden, basically gives the game away, and my last name, Abitbul, quickly discloses my Eastern origins. I grew up in a secular neighborhood. Yet, I learned for more than fifteen years straight in elitist Lithuanian Ashkenazi institutions, to which I was accepted without special contacts or customary “donations.” For my part and that of family, my formative years were friction-less vis-à-vis the Ashkenazi administration. I knew no ethnic or cultural clashes—not, at any rate, at the visible level.

I was always careful to follow the local custom, with all this entails. I had my tzitzis out (following Ashkenazi practice); I learned to speak Hebrew with a yeshiva inflection; I even prayed with two machzorim during the Yamim Nora’im—both the local Ashkenazi version and the Mizrachi version of my own tradition. I sat down for Tachanun (the Ashkenazi custom) without ever pounding my chest. In general, I simply went with the flow of the customs I was surrounded by, absorbing local conventions and the general mindset of Ashkenazi institutions I studied at. I accepted the ethnic issue, which was always present yet dormant, just like those around me. It was one of the facts of life you just take for granted.

Naturally, I was well acquainted with the many stories of quotas and percentages in acceptance of Sephardi students to yeshivas and schools. I knew full well that Sephardi girls have significant difficulty in being accepted into the top (Ashkenazi) high schools. I understood that when it comes to a shidduch, an Ashkenazi family will never tie the marital knot with a Sephardi one. All this seemed obvious to me, simply because “that’s the way it is.”

Naturally, I was well acquainted with the many stories of quotas and percentages in acceptance of Sephardi students to yeshivas and schools. I knew full well that Sephardi girls have significant difficulty in being accepted into the top (Ashkenazi) high schools. I understood that when it comes to a shidduch, an Ashkenazi family will never tie the marital knot with a Sephardi one (aside from exceptional circumstances). All this seemed obvious to me, simply because “that’s the way it is.”

These are social norms that have been around for many years. Like my peers, too grew up on them unquestioningly. There seemed no point dwelling on the matter. Even commonly mentioned insults flung around in the yeshiva were legitimate in my eyes. When someone called his friend a frenk—the popular Charedi pejorative for a Sephardi—my hair did not stand on end. When one of my classmates did a mocking impression of Rav Ovadyah Yosef, or for that matter of Aflalo the air conditioner technician, I made no vehement protest. Or at all. To the contrary, I understood, without anyone needing to explain. “That’s just the way it is.”

Sometimes a certain discomfort, or even resentment, would arise in me when it came to a particular situation or opinion. But in general, the attitude toward my origin and toward Sephardi Jewry in general was acceptable and obvious to me. Until my time came to find a shidduch.

 

The Brick Wall of Shidduchim

On the day I began to actively pursue the duty to establish a Jewish home, my identity was suddenly forced to face the test of a harsh reality. Upon reaching maturity, I quickly understood that as much as I tried assimilate in the Lithuanian yeshivish world and its style, my social value remained modest to say the least. Lacking the right pedigree (coming from Sephardi origin), and compounded by the fact that my parents were “religious immigrants” (baalei teshuvah), the yeshiva shidduch-club branded me as third-rate. True, this should not have come as a total shock. I was always aware of my Sephardi background, and we all know that Sephardim don’t marry into Ashkenazi families. Yet, until I experienced the phenomenon myself, I never stopped to think of its social significance. I understood then that behind the social norms I had supposed to be innocuous hid a social order that perpetuated an inferior status for those of Eastern origin.

If until that time I could conveniently pretend that I was an equal among equals, my entry into the shidduch-market shocked my out of my childhood innocence. I realized that I am categorically different: a “Sephardi.” I could not marry into the families of my peers—not because of personal traits or talents, not because of religious commitment or ambition, but because something deep separates between us, classifies us as ontologically distinct. Society had given its verdict: I will marry a Sephardi girl.

If until that time I could conveniently pretend that I was an equal among equals, my entry into the shidduch-market shocked my out of my childhood innocence. I realized that I am categorically different: a “Sephardi.” I could not marry into the families of my peers—not because of personal traits or talents, not because of religious commitment or ambition, but because something deep separates between us, classifies us as ontologically distinct. Society had given its verdict: I will marry a Sephardi girl.

Looking back as an adult, the deeper insight of this episode is that I myself had unthinkingly adopted this very view, with all its corollaries. Over the years of my institutional studies I had come to endorse, without consciously admitting it, the superiority of the Ashkenazi yeshiva world. I had wholly adopted its worldview and its mindset, assuming these to be profounder, more correct, and more real than any other. The ethnic issue was strongly felt in yeshiva, but naturally it was seldom spoken of; giving it words would have amounted to a confession of vulnerability and inferiority. Needless to say, the Sephardi Torah world was entirely removed from my own. Without it penetrating my awareness, I had internalized the assumption that the Sephardi origin is inherently inferior to the Ashkenazi one. Not surprisingly, I buried my Sephardi past deep in my subconscious.

The illusion lasted long, yet it could not survive the shidduch period. At this stage repressed details of my life story, those I had conveniently repressed, were given a sudden prominence. The shidduch suggestions I received left me with no choice but to face up to aspects of my identity that I had always kept hidden. I suddenly understood that my friends and I do not belong to the same social status. I was never really a full member of the club.

The shidduch period put an end to my innocent belief in “that’s the way it is.” In retrospect, losing my youthful innocence led to many positive outcomes, sending me into a deep exploratory journey of my identity, standing, and relationship with the most basic aspects of my life story. It led to renewed connection with my roots. But as is the nature with such investigations, especially in matters of identity, it also revealed a number of jarring and inconvenient truths. I became preoccupied by reflections on the common attitude among Lithuanian Charedim concerning issues of discrimination and acceptance of the Other. I opened the door to thoughts I had always blocked out.

 

Mentality Gaps

While contemplating putting pen to paper on attitudes toward Sephardi Jewry in Charedi society, I expressed my thoughts to a number of friends and acquaintances. To my surprise, many of those I spoke with were truly convinced that all the talk of racism and discrimination in Charedi society is but an illusion, a fiction. They believed that the separation between Sephardim and Ashkenazim was due to “mentality gaps,” to real distinctions in spiritual (as well as material) conditions. “I really have nothing against Sephardim. Some of my best friends are Sephardim. Why would I not willing for my daughter to marry one? That’s not racism! It’s just a different mentality.”

This casuistic pilpul reached a height of absurdity when someone articulated the following defense with the utmost seriousness: “A light-skinned man is ordered by his doctor to use sunscreen to protect his skin, while a dark-skinned man does not receive the same instructions. Does that label the doctor a racist?!” The moral is even more absurd: Ashkenazi Charedim are more spiritually protected than their Sephardi brethren. Thus, there is a concrete need to separate from people and communities originating in Eastern lands, since their mentality is less Torah-oriented and devout. It has nothing to do with that awful word “racism.”

To my surprise, many of those I spoke with were truly convinced that all the talk of racism and discrimination in Charedi society is but an illusion, a fiction. They believed that the separation between Sephardim and Ashkenazim was due to “mentality gaps,” to real distinctions in spiritual (as well as material) conditions. “I really have nothing against Sephardim. Some of my best friends are Sephardim. Why would I not willing for my daughter to marry one? That’s not racism! It’s just a different mentality.”

The depth of absurdity in these arguments, certainly for Israel in 2018, is patently clear. The boundaries and mental gaps between different Charedi groups today are blurred beyond recognition. The following thought experiment might help to illustrate the point. Take a guy of Sephardi origin, Yosef Shlomo Sabag, a graduate of Kol Torah yeshiva whose father is a dayan (rabbinical judge) and whose mother teaches math at the national-religious school in Givat Shaul. Sabag, a classic Sephardi graduate of Ashkenazi institutions, cannot complete even two sentences from Petach Eliyahu. The only tune he knows for “Ki Eshmera Shabbat” is the Ashkenazi variant, and he sings it with a Lithuanian inflection (Shabbos, not Shabbat). The only thing he knows of his Sephardi heritage is the eggs his mother adds to the cholent.

Now let’s take a girl who grew up in an American home in Har Nof, Shani Silverstein. Her two parents went to college. The mother grew up traditional but non-observant, until a chance meeting with a counselor in tenth grade summer camp brought her deeper into the Orthodox tent, and she moved to a semi-yeshivish school. The father comes from a Modern-Orthodox home, a-la-Yeshiva-University. They met in college, married, became more Zionist and more religious, and after the move to Israel decided to send their children to Charedi schools. Later, under their children’s influence, they adopted the Charedi lifestyle and mindset (within limits). The father began to wear a hat and suit, the mother bought a subscription to Mishpacha Magazine, and even began to exchange desert recipes with her American Charedi friends in the neighborhood. For Shani’s parents, mechablim are those who carry out terror attacks in Judea and Samaria (rather than a branch of Ponevezh Yeshiva), and the names Rav Shmuel Markowitz and Rav Laizer Kahneman mean nothing.

Finally, let’s visit the home of the Shapira family in the Ramot Dalet neighborhood of Jerusalem. The Shapira’s are a model Jewish-Charedi family. The father is a Ponevezh graduate, a rabbi-educator for third year students at a prestigious yeshiva-ketana. The mother, nee Weiss, teaches at one of the top Charedi high schools for girls: Haseminar Hachadash. All the children—Rivki, Moyshe, Zeevi, Dassi, Chanoch, Shlomo, and Avigail—learn at elite Charedi institutions. Moyshe is 22.5 years old and is waiting impatiently to begin his shidduch experience. Half his friends from yeshiva are already married or engaged, and he feels somewhat embarrassed by his extended waiting period. But what can he do? He has an older sister who is 24.

Rivki is a great girl—social, talented, good-looking. She even has a well-paid job in computers. Everyone in seminary was convinced she would be the first to be hitched. And she was. In the beginning of her last year in seminary she shocked her envious friends with the first shidduch of the year—engaged to the son of a famous rosh yeshiva. But then misfortune struck. To her and her family’s great embarrassment, the shidduch was called off (due to a very sad story, whose details we won’t get into, but the discovery thereof briskly sent her prospective groom for a chizuk-period [spiritual reinforcement] overseas). Rivki became a little more “modern” due to the incident and her relatively advanced age. She took the unusual step of getting herself a driver’s license, traveled abroad with friends, and even bought a smartphone. But she remained pious and devout, and very much wants to find her bashert and establish a Jewish home.

One evening, in different rooms of the Shapira home, the following conversations take place. Rivki’s mother gets a phone call from a colleague and good friend, Mrs. Shotovitz, who teaches at the same high school as Mrs. Shapira and likes to try her hand now and again at playing shadchan. She tells Rivki’s mother about a “very special girl,” a true personality, so talented and noble and gentle and loving. An American family, yes—the girl herself only came to the country at the age of nine—but all okay, really. Both parents have good, respectable jobs, and generally “fit the mold”—in the shtantz, to use the right terminology. A true treasure, worthy of snatching up! “Maybe for Moyshe?” she suggests.

At the same time, Rivki talks to her good friend Racheli Vaknin, telling her of a guy she just broke up with. He wasn’t interested, she laments. She really did. This Yossi Sabbag is a very impressive young man, among the most famous “alterers” in Chevron. He even studies one-on-one with the Rosh Yeshiva. He’s charismatic, clever, full of self-confidence, but picky—what can you do? “You know,” she says with a readily audible half-smile, “I thought that you would go really well together. You have the same cynical humor.” They both laugh and Rivki says without thinking twice: “My mother will get a heart attack just from the idea.”

Right, mentality gaps.

 

Separation of Communities

Discrimination between Sephardim and Ashkenazim exists in almost every sphere of Charedi life: acceptance to Talmudei Torah, yeshivas, girls’ schools, seminaries, the shidduch, living arrangements, political representation, and so on.

Setting aside the mentality issue, perhaps a more logically-grounded argument that might justify the discriminatory attitude toward Sephardi Jewry is the “separation of communities.” Some argue that the separation of different communities based on distinct traditions and customs necessarily creates a byproduct of ethnocentric attitudes. After all, we are not interested in a “melting pot” that renders us all identical. The effort to preserve distinction in traditions and communities naturally leads to tensions between groups, and contempt towards the weaker group by the stronger one is an unfortunate but unavoidable consequence.

A known tale relates how a Sephardi parent once called the Ashkenazi Rosh Yeshiva about his son, whose application to the yeshiva was rejected. The Rosh Yeshiva asks the father: “You are after all Sephardim—why not send your son to a Sephardi yeshiva?” The father answers that the son is adamant in wanting an Ashkenazi yeshiva, to which the Rosh Yeshiva retorts: “But also I want an Ashkenazi yeshiva!” This story serves as a common justification in Charedi society for discrimination towards Sephardim. Ashkenazi Jewry is perceived as doing its little Sephardi brother a favor in accepting his children to its institutions. And favors have their limits. To this day, Ashkenazi yeshivas and seminaries are by and large considered superior to the Sephardi ones, and Sephardi parents—including for instance leading figures of the Sephardi Shas movement—generally prefer to send their children to these institutions. What complaint then is there against the Ashkanazi institutions? They simply want to preserve their basic character.

But this argument does not hold water. Preservation of the character of communities and institutions does not justify wholesale discrimination. This fact is well-proven by the national-religious community, a society also dominated by Ashkenazi educational institutions. Despite this domination, the community does not take ethnic origin into consideration when it comes to school or even to marriage. Men and women go out with partners who suit them in terms of values, character, spiritual commitment, or any other relevant factor for a relationship. Ethnic origin is recognized to be irrelevant for those growing up in the same institutions and religious atmosphere, and is left outside the story. There is plenty of halachic reference and precedent for how couples of mixed origin can manage—and manage very well—in terms of halacha and custom.

Acceptance to yeshivas and seminaries on the basis of ethnic origin is unforgivable. The oft-mentioned excuse of spiritual gap is simply false. Together with many peers, I can testify to the low spiritual level of many of my Ashkenazi yeshiva friends, who brought permissive attitude from home to the yeshiva. Yet they, their brothers and their sisters, never had problems getting accepted to the most prestigious institutions, simply because they were fortunate enough to be born into the “right” families. By contrast, children from Torah-based, pious, and highly observant Sephardi homes were forced to traverse a long and exhausting track, accompanied by anguish and emotional pain, just because of their origin. Families, few of which I know personally and many I don’t, undergo harsh travails, some of which leave long term scars, without any guarantee of ultimate success.

There is nothing wrong with an acceptance policy to educational institutions based on background and spiritual level. Elite institutions are not meant to be remedial. There is also nothing necessarily wrong with Ashkenazi institutions giving exclusive preference to Ashkenazi customs and tradition within their own boundaries. In a normal situation, one could find a class at a Lithuanian yeshiva which is largely Sephardi, since these are the boys who met the relevant standards. The yeshiva for its part will determine the style of learning, the prayer nusach and customs, and students from all backgrounds will integrate into the system. This need not come into any tension with the ethnic origin of students. The Yeshiva was never meant to be a democratic institution. But the social discrimination existing today is an ugly stain which paints Ashkenazi Charedi Jewry in a very unflattering light. It should be removed as soon as possible.

 

Guarding the Walls

Charedi society is known for its assiduous efforts to shore up the walls of separation against external threats to the Torah way of life. Every day we witness unending battles around a plethora of public issues in Charedi public life: technology, internet, academic studies, magazines, core curricula, cultural events, and more. Within the yeshivas and girls’ seminaries these wars of isolation occupy an even broader range of issues: dress code, places of leisure, party affiliation, and so on.

Charedi society invests great energies to meet the challenge of preserving the “purity of the camp,” and to prevent spiritual or moral damage to members of the community. Obviously, not all the wars end in victory; indeed, there are many breaches in the walls. But when some spiritual, Torah-based or ethical failing is found efforts will be made to remedy it, and the voice of Charedi leadership will resonate strongly throughout the camp.

Perhaps because of the great volume of material and emotional resources spent in “holy wars” against enemies from the outside (and sometimes from the inside), an internal accounting is sometimes neglected. It seems that this is why racism finds such a welcome home on the Charedi street. In the notorious Emanuel affair, for instance, the entire community enlisted to protect Judaism from the intervention of a secular court—intervention on behalf of girls from Eastern ethnic origin, who were separated from their Ashkenazi (Chassidic) peers. It may be that the school management was in the right in that particular case, and the discrimination was due to spiritual rather than racial issues. That is not the issue here. The point is that the struggle against external threats sometimes blinds us to our own flaws and shortcomings, sealing our ears and hearts from the jarring tones of ethical decay.

Racism and discrimination are a part of every society. I do not mean to accuse Charedim alone of racism. Yet, Charedi society might regretfully be the only group that does nothing to fight it. To the contrary, those who bring up the subject are often suspected of “treason,” as though they are collaborating with secular intervention in Charedi education. This conduct perpetuates discrimination in messages and deeds, whether open or covert.

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As my own personal story demonstrates, the attitude towards Sephardim in Charedi society is not necessarily “discriminatory” in the strict sense of the term. Studying in Ashkenazi institutions of learning, and willingly adopting their customs, I was for many years an ostensible equal among equals. Even in basic social life and interaction I received fair and equal treatment. Even in the shidduchim realm, the market knows well how to function within the parameters of Sephardi-Ashkenazi separation, and thank God there are many wonderful boys and girls to choose from in each camp.

The discrimination I wish to highlight does not draw from hardships I faced—though many go through hard experiences, especially in acceptance to educational institutions. Rather, it draws from the insight, culled over my own shidduchim experience but perceptible everywhere, of the contempt Ashkenazi Charedi society feels, directed not at Sephardim per se but at Sephardism. Anything carrying so much as a whiff of the East is automatically labelled deeply inferior, including rabbis, religious traditions, customs, family names, et al. There are painfully few exceptions to the rule.

I am aware that by appealing to the “emotional aspect” of this issue I am exposing myself to readers who will find the article naïve, even chuckle-worthy. Yet, I hope it will make the fair-minded pause, to allow a moment of reflective thought upon beholding this neglected corner of a society that otherwise strives for the just and the upright. Maybe it will even provoke a rethinking, even slight and subtle, of outlook and attitude.

I am not naïve enough to think that a single article can change views so deeply entrenched in our community. Yet, I strongly believe that for a God-fearing person, the attitude within Charedi society to Sephardi Jewry is an unjustifiable injustice. I know it might be distant, but yes, I would like to see decent Ashkenazi families whose children marry Sephardim as a first choice, not as plan D. I yearn to see the principal of a girls’ seminary or boys’ cheider open his gates and hive equal treatment to Sabbag and Shapira, Vaknin and Weiss. I wait for the day when the question of which part of the world parents and grandparents hail from will cease to play a role in the social status of the child.

I am hopeful that the day will come when racism in general, and the Israeli-Charedi variant in particular, will become an old and painful memory of bygone times.


photo: Bigstock

8 thoughts on ““Just the Way it Is?”—On Discrimination in Charedi Society

  • I know someone who might be interested.

  • We were able to “fly under the radar” with our first six shidduch and I have no reason to doubt the last four will be fine, as well. I know there is truth in what you wrote, but don’t become bitter. Because my daughter grew up in a Sephardic synagogue in the USA, she is completely open and maybe even prefers a Sephardic shidduch (in a year or two). I don’t know that there are tons of families who are a good fit, but all it takes is one. We have “Mechutanim” who are yeshivaish, modern, chassidic and, like us, Baaley Teshuva. I see my children’s homes full of Torah, love, respect, humor and beautiful grandchildren. Which hechsher, minhag, or tune each family prefers is worked out like any other differences. No big deal. May Hashem help all singles find their beshert b’simcha and b’shaah tovah.

  • I read your article with great concentration as my daughter is a happily married to a wonderful, caring, loving, devoted husband and father, who happens to be Sephardic. Yes, I will admit, at the beginning of their courtship I did have preconceived ideas of what life would be for her, married to a Sephardic man. All those ideas, B”H, went out the window. But then again, the fears that a mother has when their precious daughter marries, is normal, no matter who the man is. Now, my children made aliyah, to escape the religious (a.k a. Jewish) discrimination that is festering in the States. My children and grandchildren, never experienced discrimination and when I read your article it saddens me to no end that they might be discriminated here, in Israel, by Jews!! Oh no!! That has to stop. My grandchildren are wonderful people, smart, kind, full of chesed, intelligence. My grandchildren when they come over, always help, give d’var Torahs and did I mention they are all beautiful! I certainly hope that this discrimination that you discussed will disappear soon. There is enough discrimination and anti Jewish behavior going around. It should not be coming from our own people, our own family. We sing Am Yisrael Chai! Am – one nation. We are all Hashem’s children.

  • I wish you luck on your quest for your b’shert. You should not have to marry someone just because she is … but marry someone whom you love and could build a bayit naaman b’yisrael.

  • Please explain the Sephardic preference to marry an Ashkenazi. Is there a shortage of Sephardic girls?

    Is it discriminate when rabbonim only want to marry their children to other children of rabbonim?

  • The Litvishe blackhat leadership has not adequately internalized the fact that we did not all go to Poland or Lithuania.

    And why do they have books by Sephardim such as Rambam, and sing “L’cha Dodi” and other songs written by Sephardim?

  • I am a sociologist and have been working as a social analyst for a Haredi organization for over 10 years. I do not know Eden Abitbul and what I am writing has nothing to do specifically with him.

    Why no Ashkenazi Haredi-Sphardi schiduhim? It is nothing personal it is sociological. Sphardim is a very family oriented community. The extended family is important. When one marries a sphardi/a one marries into the family. The typical sphardi family is very heterogeneous when it comes to religious norms and values. At this Ashkenazi Haredi-Sphardi wedding will there be only separate sitting. How will the Ashkenazi Haredim feel when there are guests without kippot? I could go on but I will not have room. It is normative that the new couple will not go off to some far off city. What happens at the brit (mazal tov) when the calas cousin shows up in an army uniform.

    No, it is not prejudice or anything against Sphardim. It is a conflict of values and norms that the couple will always be involved in that especially becomes disruptive when their children grow up. The Ashkenazi Haredi does not want to enter such a situation and we should respect them and honour their position.

    There is nothing personal. It is to keep the Ashkenazi Haredi community stable and normative.

    Yitzhak Berman

  • Yitzhak Berman, you are using prejudice as its own justification!

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