When I married Elana, I just assumed that all Israelis were alike. I came to find out that it more closely resembled America as it was becoming a melting pot. While some Israelis can trace their roots back many generations—like former president Reuven Rivlin, whose family has been in Jerusalem for seven generations—most Israelis have roots from another country. We have Moroccan, Polish, Yemenite, Iraqi, French, German, American Israelis, and so many more.
And it is the same when it comes to religion. There is really no such thing as simply Jewish. Many sects live in subdivisions based on both religious and ethnic identity. In every neighborhood, there are synagogues within walking distance for all the different types of expressions.
There are three primary ethnic Jewish groups when it comes to the Jewish religion. They each have their own unique traditions but are all based in the Torah and the belief in the God of Israel.
These are lighter-skinned Jewish people who came from Germany and Eastern Europe. They are the group you see wearing the black clothing, and they are where Yiddish (a mix of German and Hebrew) came from. Their food is very bland compared to the other two groups I’m about to mention. I am Ashkenazi (though my mother is an amazing cook). Our liturgy is much more chanting than singing. And no clapping! That would be disrespectful.
Most Ashkenazi Israelis are not religious or even traditional. The kibbutz movement was started by socialist Jews from Eastern Europe, and they didn’t even have the Shabbat meal.
These are Jews who came from Spain. Sephardic means Spanish. Because tens of thousands of them were exiled during the Inquisition, they ended up spreading to different parts of the world, including North Africa. That is where the Jewish populations in Morocco, Algeria, and Tunisia came from. Ladino is the language that the Jews created from old Spanish. And they have the best food in all of Israel! Ask for Moroccan fish or Couscous when you are here!
These are oriental Jews—meaning from the Arab nations in Asia like Iraq, Persia (Iran), and Yemen, even some from India! Both the Sephardic and the Mizrachim have a much more joyful sound in the synagogue, with less chanting and more singing. Every male I know from those backgrounds can sing the liturgy beautifully. They also have a very tasty cuisine. Yemenites are known for their jachnun.
While most of the Sephardic and Mizrahi Jews are not ultra-orthodox, a much larger percentage of them are what we call masorti. That means they follow the traditions, such as Shabbat and the holidays (Passover, Tabernacles, etc.) and tend to keep kosher. Elana’s family is mostly masorti Moroccan Israelis.
I said three, but more recently, we have a fourth: The Jews of Ethiopia have immigrated. When they were identified, they had none of the rabbinic traditions as they pre-date rabbinic pharisaical Judaism. They do not follow the Talmud (commentary on the supposed Oral Law) but the Bible alone. They practiced animal sacrifice and water immersion for purification. Ethiopians brought to Israel their unique dishes and staples like shiro (from ground chickpeas) and injera bread (made from teff, which their long-distance runners eat for energy). We have several Ethiopian restaurants in our area where we get injera to go. They use this light, spongy bread to scoop up their food—which is usually bean-based.
How orthodox are you?
Among all these groups, you will find the ultra-ultra-orthodox, the ultra-orthodox, modern Orthodox, knitted kippa settlers, traditional, and atheists. In recent years, we have seen a rise in nationalism in certain religious groups.
Nationalism is different than patriotism. To be a patriot is to love one’s country and celebrate its culture. To be a nationalist is to be against other countries and their cultures. White supremacy groups are nationalists. The Nazis were nationalists. Many Islamic groups are nationalistic. And we even have Jewish nationalists or Jewish supremacists, although they make up a small but growing minority.
Bibi’s Big Blunder
In what I regard as one of the greatest mistakes of Benjamin Netanyahu’s long reign as Prime Minister, he brought into our government a far-right racist named Itamar Ben Gvir. Why would he do that? Because he knew that in order to build a coalition, he would need a few crazies, and these crazies were being left out of the government because they could not get enough votes. But by propping him up, he has made this racist provocateur legitimate. Now he is more popular than ever. (Even with that, the vast majority of his allies find him abhorrent.)
And, of course, there are Messianic Jews. We continue to grow within the Jewish nation. As our sons and daughters serve in the IDF, start businesses, and become professionals, more and more, we are becoming legitimate. To be clear, we were already kosher in the eyes of the Almighty, but more and more Israelis are seeing that we are true Zionists dedicated to the state of Israel.
In the early years, the children of Messianic Jews were severely taunted and persecuted. That has become less and less common. The very fact that two years ago, I was able to sit down with the leadership of our largest cable company and sign a deal to get a Hebrew-speaking television channel on air is proof (the fact that there was an Orthodox uproar against us shows we still have work to do). It was a Jewish believer who was in the prime minister’s office running his social media. And the PR firm owned by a Messianic Jew works for the Israeli government. The largest tour company in Israel is owned by a Messianic Jew. But we still have a lot of work ahead of us. We don’t just want to be liked; we want to see Israel’s salvation.
The moral of the story is that you cannot simply call somebody Jewish or Israeli–maybe you can from the outside, but we come in all different shapes, sizes, and colors.
This article originally appeared on roncantor.com, June 13, 2022, and reposted with permission.