Tonight in “Intro to Judaism” class the topic was Ashkenazi history and culture. It’s a big topic for just 90 minutes.
Ashkenazi Judaism is that portion of world Jewry with its roots in Europe, except for Spain and Portugal. It is partly an ancestral thing, but also a category of ritual, custom, and Jewish law. The vast majority of American Jews are Ashkenazim (more than 80% by conservative estimates.) There are many subgroups and topics within the big umbrella of “Ashkenazi,” but one thing I noticed was that we kept wandering off topic.
One minute we’d be talking about Askhenazi customs, and then a student would ask a question that was more about Sephardic Judaism. A few times there were questions about Mizrahi Jews, and other, smaller groups. And it hit me: we really are Am Echad, one People. As diverse as we are, it was impossible to talk only about Ashkenazim. The other groups, the other threads just kept creeping into the discussion.
Here in the United States it is particularly impossible to separate the ethnic groups. The first Jews in North America were Sephardim, Jews with roots in Jewish Spain, even if they actually arrived from Brazil, or England, or the Netherlands. While they are today a minority of American Jews, it was they who set the tone for Jewish life in America, who served in the Revolutionary Army, who were well-regarded by George Washington. They built the first synagogues here.
Not all individuals with Sephardic ancestry go to Sephardic synagogues, either: I know several Reform rabbis of Sephardic descent, and many more families who claim both a Sephardic heritage (or a Mizrahi heritage) and attend Reform or Conservative synagogues.
As our discussion went on tonight, I stopped trying to drag the discussion back to the Ashkenazim. It was clear that the topic would wind up back there soon enough. I watched what we were doing, and realized that this is what we always do: you just can’t talk about one corner of Jewry without eventually talking about all of Judaism. If we talk about something Reform, sooner or later someone will reference “the Orthodox” (which drives me crazy, since Orthodoxy is hardly a monolith – there are divisions within it, too.) Next week, when we talk about the Sephardim in class, I’m sure we’ll be back to the Ashkenazim before I make it out of the 16th century. If we talk about American Jews, sooner or later the topic will come around to Israel, and if you talk about Judaism in Israel, here comes the Diaspora! And this past week, everyone’s been worrying about the Ukrainian Jews!
What I learned tonight in class is that while Jews are diverse, we are also truly one big noisy sometimes dysfunctional family. We are so much One that we are truly inseparable, living in relation to one another.
Am Echad – One People.