Traversing Tradition(s) – Diversity in American Judaism

We, American Jews, have a problem.

We are often unwilling or unable to see the tremendous diversity of our own community. The truth is: Jews come in all shapes, sizes and colors. There are Jews of every race and ethnicity — some of whom share a genetic link to Judaism and some who don’t. There are Ashkenazim, Sephardim, Mizrachim, Teimanim, Mountain Jews, Indian Jews, Persian Jews, and Crypto-Jews. There are Jews who don’t yet know they are Jews, and far more who may never have the ability to discover it.

Yet, American Judaism is largely the product of a small sliver of this diverse Jewish world. American Jews largely believe Judaism to be an ethnicity, tied to Europe, conditioned on eating pickled fish and chopped liver. Seinfeld and its casual use of random Yiddish has come to signify more ‘Jewishness’ for many American Jews than genuine expressions of Judaism. Unfortunately, some have even suggested that we exaggerate this already over-inflated influence.

In fact, we need to be doing exactly the opposite. We need to be exposing that the ‘Jewish’ stereotype is a myth. Rather than reifying the pre-existent hegemony of a small group of American Jews who have imposed a specific culture on Judaism writ-large, we should be exposing and teaching the unspoken types of Judaism, the subaltern Jews and streams of Judaism right beneath our nose.

That doesn’t mean we need to tokenize non-Ashkenazi practice. That doesn’t mean that the synagogue Hebrew school sings Ocho Kandelikas at Channukkah and that’s that. Instead, we should aspire to actually create a diverse Judaism — one that respects and includes the customs and cultures of all types of Jews. If we, Jews who represent the values of America, can’t do this, what hope do we have of creating the cultural unity we all claim to want?

When R’ Ben Tzion Uziel, the first Sephardic Chief Rabbi of Israel was installed, he included the following in his speech:

It is my tremendous desire to unify all of the divisions that the diaspora tore us into, the separate communities of Sephardim, Ashkenazim, Temanim, etc. This should not be a difficult task, for unity is in our nature and our national character as a people. Should I succeed in helping to quickly realize and fulfill this unity amongst us, great will be my merit. It is not the countries of Spain (Sepharad) or Germany (Ashkenaz) that gave us great Torah scholars, rather the Torah itself—regardless of locale—that has inspired generation after generation of Torah learning.

R’ Uziel’s message is a beautifully utopian one — but even in the rebuilt Israel which he believed would usher in the end of ethnic divisions among Jews, there remains separate communities, separate synagogues and a fair deal of strife among various subgroups. Integration is not the key. Integration into one unified whole only serves the interest of that party which already has hegemony over the others. Instead, we require appreciation, recognition, and understanding.

All the more so, we as American Jews, who do not benefit from living in a casually Jewish society as our sisters and brothers in Israel do, need to understand the breadth and depth of Judaism. Judaism is more than one culture, one language, or one text. What we need as American Jews is a real reckoning with Judaism in its fullness.

That is why organizations like BeChol Lashon, the Jewish Multiracial Network, and Jews in All Hues are doing such great work to open up the American Jewish community to its own diversity. It is also why I have undertaken the project of creating a new siddur that will serve liberal Sephardic Jews in America. 90% of American Jews identify themselves as non-Orthodox, whether that is unaffiliated, Reform, Conservative, Reconstructionist or Renewal. Yet there exists no non-Orthodox prayer book which caters to the diversity of the Jewish community!

That is why I’m happy to announce Siddur Masorati — a Sephardic Egalitarian siddur that will bring diverse Jewish traditions to the non-Orthodox majority. Jews of Color, Sephardic Jews, new converts seeking traditions — no longer have to choose between a Sephardic prayer experience and a liberal or egalitarian one. Siddur Masorati will be the first of its kind, and will reflect the needs of the non-Orthodox non-Ashkenazi. But it isn’t just for them — it is for all of us. If we really want to take ourselves and our diversity seriously, we have to be open to using and sharing our traditions. We have to incorporate, sincerely, diverse perspectives, language, and customs. I hope that Siddur Masorati will contribute to that effort and will inspire others to do so as well.

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