Trying to Articulate the Levantine Jewish Presence


The exercise of a good mind, or a good personality, is the accomplishment not of escaping a tradition of thought, speech and behavior but of having understood its elements well enough to make them one’s own reflectively, to sort and distinguish among them.

Jedediah Purdy, For Common Things

Your memory’s the sunshine every new day brings
I know the sky is calling
Angel let me help you with your wings
Take every chance you dare
I’ll still be there when you come back down

Nickel Creek, “When You Come Back Down”

The Levantine Jewish Voice: Shattered

The failure of the Levantine Jewish voice to be heard is one that has profound ramifications for the Jewish present.  The venerable Jewish communities of the East, some going back to Biblical times, have come unglued; there is no coherent Levantine perspective that might be brought out in our present tribulations.

The following essay is an attempt to intertwine my own personal experiences as a Levantine epigone along with some historical context in order to permit my reader the framework that may yet lead all Jews to come to the understanding that the monuments and paradigms of Levantine Jewish culture in its manifold variants – Talmudic, Andalusian, Ottoman, et. al – present a vitalistic Judaism with a worldview predicated upon the values of what one of its last rabbinic practitioners, Hakham Jose Faur, has termed its Religious Humanism.  

What with “Religion” and “Humanism” currently seen as either antithetical or peripheral to “Judaism” I hope that the following words will illuminate our present by attempting to garnish from our past.

In My Synagogue

I attend a Sephardic Synagogue in Brooklyn which has been led, since its founding, by an Ashkenazi rabbi. Each week I enter my Synagogue with trepidation. Little of Sephardic tradition may be found there – the animating spirit of the place is, as it is in the bulk of the Modern Orthodox Jewish community in Brooklyn, a curious blend of religious/chauvinist Zionism – which stops just short of Kahanism – and a prediliction for Jewish ritual.  The core praxis of Modern Orthodoxy, a denomination that has controlled much Jewish pedagogy for the past half-century, displays a contempt for civilization as we currently know it.  This contempt is manifested by a fierce exclusivism that tunes out an ongoing dialogue with the outside world.  Such Jewish dogma displays a rigid concern with a code that has methodically inched carefully to the Right – politically and religiously.  

I tend to worry less about the ignorance and mechanistic behavior surrounding me, and more with the sheer hatred that animates the place.  Perhaps one can overlook the fact that no one understands what they are reading (we now have a Sephardic siddur with an English translation – a first for the community), but it is impossible to sit each week and listen to impassioned pleas from the pulpit that insist that God has called for the end to the Peace Process and has determined that Arabs generally and Palestinians more specifically have no rights to the Holy Land.  The Holy Land is no chimera to my fellow congregants – they feel the Biblical landscape burning under their feet as they hear the weekly Torah readings declaim the “promise” that is omnipresent in Synagogues all over this country – the dirty little secret that is shared by Jews who exist in a world of absolute Difference, the difference between God’s chosen people and the scheming, perpetually decrepit Arabs.

Going back to the Oslo process, the Synagogue was regularly subjected to an ever-maddening crescendo of sermons (we even had key Gush Emunim representatives visit on a regular basis) that called for the Prime Minister’s (then Rabin) head on a platter.  The irony of all this was that Rabbi Abraham Hecht, the rabbi of yet another community shul, was hung out to dry for what was said openly each and every week in nearly all the congregations in Brooklyn. Hecht, of course, was careless (he not only made his statements in Synagogue, but went to the media as well) and got caught.  Others said worse and got away with it.  The Oslo process caused a tidal wave in Brooklyn Synagogues.  The very idea of returning land, God’s land – our land, set the rabbis off. The messianic era, begun in 1948 with a crucial advance in 1967, was now being stolen by Rabin and his cronies.  So we were deluged with rhetorical posturing.

At the time of Rabin’s assassination I snapped.  In my impoverished confusion, I finally had the guts to stand up and proclaim my Levantine anguish.  I organized my thoughts and expressed them in a short essay.  I submitted this essay to the Synagogue committee for publication and was turned down.  This led to a battle with the committee which further served to anathematize me.  I sat at home for six months.  (Parenthetically, it is worthwhile to note that during this period of self-imposed exile the Synagogue was sponsoring a series of lectures by a prominent Modern Orthodox rabbi in the community under the title “Tikkun Olam.”  I wrote a letter to this rabbi and told him of my plight.  This rabbi, delivering lectures on how to make the world a better place, told me that the Synagogue’s rabbi could legitimately make sure that my voice could not be heard.)  

What is ironic in all this is that the Synagogue still took pride in the liturgical heritage of the Syrian Jews.  The Syrian liturgical traditions, as beautifully recounted in Kay Kaufman Shelemay’s Let Jasmine Rain Down (University of Chicago Press, 1998), are intimately connected to the Arabic musical heritage, a part of the very culture that was being excoriated from the pulpit each and every Shabbat.  More specifically, the tunes utilized in the prayer service have been lifted wholesale from modern Levantine songcraft.  For those unfamiliar with the Levantine Jewish musical heritage a bit of explanation is in order: With the destruction of the Jewish Temple at the beginning of the common era, many musical traditions native to Palestine were transported and assimilated into the rich cultural fabric of the Middle East.  But without territorial stability, the Jews began to assimilate their written texts with melodies that were common to the culture they lived in. The master of this musical school was the legendary Israel Najara (Turkey, 17th century) who coupled his poems and psalms to the tunes of Ottoman popular songs.  In this manner Najara was able to transmit his liturgical compositions throughout the Ottoman Empire at a time when there was no technology other than popular song to link the psalmody of the Jews of the Levant.

In the tradition of Najara and his school, two eminent cantors of the Syrian community, Refael Antebi Tabboush and Moses Ashear, composed liturgical piyyutim which were calibrated to current Arabic songs.  Tabboush, who never left Aleppo, and Ashear, who was in effect the House Cantor  of the community when it moved to New York in the 1920’s, are the foundation upon which the Syrian songbook was created.  Their songs were composed utilizing the Arabic modal system known as Maqamat.  Each Sabbath and Holiday cantors in our Synagogues would be expected to conduct their prayers in a particular musical scale be it Nahawand or Rust or Bayat etc.  These poets led a small group of cognoscenti who preserved the traditions.  The last authentic expositor of this precious heritage was Ezekiel Hay Albeg, a man who wrote poems and belles-lettres in the style of an 11th century Andalusian court poet. Albeg’s work, at the very cutting edge of what is progressive in the humanities today, remains untranslated and out of print – another casualty of the Sephardic collapse.

It was therefore ironic that the very sounds I heard from my seat were Arab, but the racist, Ashkenazi vitriol from the pulpit proclaimed differently.  The irony of this fact was seemingly lost on my fellow congregants.  After a particularly rough speech attacking Oslo, I luxuriated to a Kaddish which was sung to the tune of Umm Kulthum’s Inta Omry – Nasser’s favorite song!  The aesthetic dimension of the Synagogue experience, including the traditional Friday evening recitation of the Song of Songs – that most Levantine of erotic poems – sung in traditional intonation (I seem to be one of the last people who can read the text as my grandfather once did), clashes mightily with the semantic dimension that has been foisted on us by our rabbi and his ideas.


It is this binary opposition, that of Levantine versus Ashkenazi, that is thrust into the foreground for me.  Wherever I turn I am left with Ashkenazi variants to deal with.  I cannot hear my own voice amid the clamor and distortion of what today is Judaism.  These are the variants:

1. Right Wing Orthodoxy: Views as binding all rabbinical statements regarding everything.  From spontaneous generation to the ontological veracity of legendary elements of the Midrash, the Haredim live in an enclosed, hermetic world that keeps out more than it allows in.  There is no sense of history, no sense of intellectual growth beyond the mimetic recapitulation of the Talmud.  Even intensive and exacting study of the Bible is out of bounds.

2. Modern Orthodoxy: Grown out of the roots of the Haredim, Modern Orthodoxy seeks to lighten the sanctions on what is let in – but still adopts a censoring process.  By and large many of the dogmas relating to the paranormal are accepted as true.  However, there is a much-ballyhooed effort to integrate elements of modern life with Judaism.  The paradigm of this integration may be found in Religious Zionism where the most retrograde ethnocentric elements of Hegelian nationalism sit together with the Haredi dogma of Jewish election.

3. The Jewish Left: The Jewish Left, represented by the non-Orthodox denominations and sundry progressive elements, betrays an unmistakable fluidity in its range.  From those who have abrogated their commitment to Jewish law to those who have transposed, a la the Enlightened Jews of the German 19th century, Jewish values and ideas into a universalistic context, the Jewish Left is agreed that the character of the Jew is based upon something larger than strict traditional continuity.  The Jewish Left has sundered a number of very crucial ties to the Jewish past.  This fact has led to the total disconnect between the Jewish Left and Orthodoxy.

With this overview in place, we may see that the available options in today’s Judaism are primarily Ashkenazic. The worldview underlying much of this is essentialist; meaning that there exists a proper manner in which to delineate and articulate Jewish values.  This is why so much of the internal Jewish dialogue is fraught with argument and imbalance.  Many of the most important issues now facing Judaism; Zionism, our place in the stream of secular history, the status of the Jew in the outside world, the challenges of the modern etc., have been assimilated into particular dogmas which are repeated by adherents of the various denominations – none of whom will hear one another because of what is excluded in each denomination.

As Samuel Freedman has pointed out in his excellent Jew Vs. Jew, the Orthodox worldview predominates.  As the Orthodox control many of the key institutions within Judaism, particularly the pedagogical, a generation of Jews has been beset by the monolithic viewpoint of Orthodoxy.  Most American Jews have chosen to disaffiliate. Intermarriage is at an all-time high and the inability of any mechanism, conversion or otherwise, to stem the tide has strengthened the hand of Orthodox.  Orthodox Jews, paradoxically, given their great success here, display a profound disrespect and mistrust for the luminous civic values that have made this country such a wonderful place in which to live.

Where Do I Come From?

The current world of Judaism is alien to me.  In the Synagogue, in the media, in books and in my encounters with others I find that the simple fact of my historical existence is absent.  Like Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, I spend my days futilely trying to find a place to call home.  On the one hand, I hold close to my Arab past: The culinary, musical and cultural inclinations that I hold are all immersed in the Arab milieu.  I feel at home reading Arabic literature and listening to Arabic music.  But the Jewish framework tells me that I do not belong to that world.  And the Arab milieu only hears what the (Ashkenazi) Jews are saying.  They cannot hear me because I do not properly exist. Resolutely, I live in the world of Jewish law and lore as I live in the world of Arabic civilization: I pray three times a day, I keep kosher, I venerate the historical and cultural traditions of my forebears.  

My life is thus fully integrated into two seemingly incompatible worlds.  Some Sephardim have grudgingly accepted their losses and taken a side: Some have been swept away by the Haredi revival, some have gone Zionist and some have abandoned Jewish praxis in favor of a more inclusive and politically correct humanism.  These options have negated the possibility of an organic articulation of Sephardic identity.

At the beginning of this essay I used the phrase “Religious Humanism” to characterize the Levantine Jewish sensibility.  This phrase has a rather tortuous history in the West: Commonplace in the Muslim revolution of the early Middle Ages, religion was wedded to the fragmentary remnants of Greco-Roman civilization.  The barbarian hordes that overran the Roman Empire had an uphill battle to fight in order to match the grand synthesis established in the scholastic study of Islam begun in the first centuries after Muhammad’s revolution.  By the time of Thomas Aquinas there had already been nearly four centuries of scientific and philosophical progress in the Muslim world.  Europe’s seemingly endless religious conflicts have made religious pluralism, so crucial to the Arab civilization, a moot point.

Levantine culture, in its medieval Islamic variant, permitted openness.  Jews who had once been reticent about integrating into the Gentile world took to Islam and its culture in a profound way.  In the work of Se’adya Ga’on (9th-10th century) Judaism was translated into the Arabic language – literally and conceptually.  Where the earlier Jewish sages quietly adopted aspects of Greek and Persian civilization, the Levantine rabbis found that they did not have to hesitate in entering Arabic culture and civilization. Seeing the Islamic veneration for Judaism and its magnificent historical accomplishments, Se’adya began to restructure Judaism in light of the vast systemization that animated Islamic scholarship with its careful wedding of religious concerns and sensitivities to the wider humanism of the Greeks.

This advance set into motion the defining and elemental characteristics of Levantine Judaism.  These characteristics center, as Ammiel Alcalay has noted, around the concept of mobility: Levantine Judaism has maintained its own internal flexibility permitting it to retain elements that became ossified in Europe.  The Sephardic tradition has not merely adopted the literary and philosophical currents of Islamic and Western culture, but developed a profound semantic assimilation of a universalism that did not subsume and negate Judaic specificity.  According to Levantine tradition it is not necessary to interrogate the legitimacy of a world seen as external.  Sephardic Judaism lacks the anxieties so dear to the Ashkenazic Jewish experience.  Its humanism does not tear asunder tradition, its humanism is a legitimate expression of tradition.

For example: while there is an ongoing battle over such issues as sexuality and gender among Western Jews, a medieval rabbi such as Judah Halevi thought little of composing homoerotic verse and reciting such verse in public.  But let us not confuse ourselves: Halevi was not a homosexual and did not advocate legitimizing homosexuality within the framework of Halakhah.  This would be the confused response of many modern Jews.  They would be keen to know whether the poet-rabbis of Spain and the Muslim East harbored crypto-heretical tendencies. Halevi understood that the creative and religious experiences are not mutually exclusive; the world operates on its own axis and Judaism must adapt in an intuitive manner to the world’s challenges.

This idea reflects the crucial difference between Ashkenazi Judaism and its Sephardi counterpart: Ashkenazi Judaism has taken great pains to establish a single, unwavering truth framed in dogmatic terms.  The Sephardi tradition, while just as intellectually and existentially rigorous, sees in the Jewish tradition a more elastic middle. Sephardic rabbis were able to balance more humanely the feelings and actions of real people and not measure them against an unreachable standard.  Truth could come from many places because history was seen as a flux.  God was not monolithic but could be processed in many different aspects.  The magnum opus of Moses Maimonides, The Guide of the Perplexed, as seen within its Levantine context, assimilated Islamic scholasticism in Judaic terms.  It was not a static attempt to make two contrasting wordviews cohere, it was a visionary challenge by a great sage to express the everlasting truths of Judaism in a new language, a language touched by the cadences of the New.

Sephardim have handled transitions with relative ease: The transition from scholastic rationalism to Kabbalistic mysticism, though not completely without tension, was relatively painless.  The introduction of Rabbi Moses Cordovero in his opus Pardes Rimmonim betrays all the classic hallmarks of the scholastic tradition as typified in Bahya ibn Paquda’s Book of Direction to the Duties of the Heart, written in Arabic some four centuries earlier.  What is sometimes a major ordeal in Western culture, call it the anxiety of influence or call it the transition to modernity, is quite often merely a prosaic movement in Sephardic tradition.  The rejection of the ideas of Giambattista Vico in his New Science (18th century) by his “modern” compatriots, reflecting the Enlightenment’s rigid stance toward balancing religious and historical truth(s), was unintelligible to the great 19th century Italian Rabbi Elijah Benamozegh who found in Vico a prescient model which could bring religion and history into harmony.  In his Vico and Herder (recently reprinted in his Three Critics of the Enlightenment), Isaiah Berlin sought to restore the Vichian advance in human knowledge for contemporary civilization.

But that “advance” had been present among the Sephardi sages for centuries.  The amazing lines of contact between Maimonides and Benamozegh express not slavish recapitulation, but a dynamic and creative interplay between the scholasticism of the 12th century renaissance in what S.D. Goitein has called the “Mediterranean Society” and the philosophy of the Enlightenment.  There is a grace and fluidity in Sephardic classicism that is omnipresent in its literary sprawl.  Rabbis who held to the pieties of Jewish praxis were free to delve deeply into the classical library.  The Library, a key symbol best illuminated in the Sephardic-like writings of Jorge Luis Borges, was the enabling construct that Sephardic culture turned into its “home.”  It is therefore a great pity that very little of this literature is part of the vocabulary of modern Jews.  The rejection of the ideology in favor of the more limited and limiting Ashkenazi culture has manifested itself in a seeming disqualification of the literature unless used for partisan parochial purposes.


I dream of rabbis who wrote poems, who fixed astronomical points in the skies, who debated good and evil, who elucidated in precise fashion the texts of the Hebrew past and who lived in a spirit of good cheer among their neighbors whoever they were. Today, I awake daily to Jews who fight.  They fight Muslims, they fight Christians, they fight each other.  In trying to make my way in such a community I feel the odd man out. While the burning battles of the day continue to animate and exercise Jews, I am trying, pained though I might be, to sit quietly and understand the world I live in.

The state of Israel is paramount in my mind: The debate between Zionists, anti-Zionists and non-Zionists burns a hole in Jewish credibility.  Where is the dignity in our sense of self which was such a vital part of Jewish continuity? What if the discourse we are utilizing is impoverished and not conducive to tackle the matter at hand?  Much has been said regarding the role of native Middle Eastern Jews in analyzing the current calamity, but little has actually been heard in this regard.  The voice of the Levantine Jew is not heard: Either we have been silenced by the media or we have acquiesced to the ruling discourse and taken a position that does not serve to distinguish ourselves.  I am consistently told that we must accept the status quo and therefore have little opportunity to articulate our true feelings. And the bottom line is that Sephardim are seen as either peripheral to the issue or as an integral part of the problem.

Our feelings are (or should be) thus: We are proud Jews and do not hate Arabs.  We have lived in the Middle East for millennia and have no existential need to divorce ourselves from our native element – the Levant.  Nor do we wish to relinquish who we are as Jews.  Neither is mutually exclusive.  Much of what has happened since 1948 has not only affected the Arabs of Palestine – it has devastated Jews native to the Middle East. We believe that Palestine is our ancestral home.  We do not wish to “separate” from anyone, we have lived here peacefully forever and will continue to do so.  Our Jerusalem is not the Europeanized “Vienna” of the Middle East, nor can it been stripped of its pluralistic character.  We believe that Jerusalem can indeed continue to function in a pluralistic manner. We do not wish to oppress or be oppressed by anyone – Jew or Arab. We are confident in who we are as human beings and have much to offer our neighbors. We seek peace and fellowship as we have done consistently over the centuries.

My children are taught in their Ashkenazi-run Sephardic school that their Levantine heritage is worthless because it comes from the Arabs.  Hence, their self-knowledge is objectively deficient.  When students in my community take an interest in matters intellectual they tend to assimilate into the Ashkenazi worldview.  In a discussion that I had with the aforementioned Kay Kaufman Shlelemay, I told her that those Syrians who were interested in her book could not read it, and those who could read it would not be interested in the topic.  This paradox now animates the world I live in.  A binary opposition grips the community: We have Sephardim who are too ignorant to understand the world they live in and Sephardim whose entry into the world negates their identity.

Books and People

Current books on Jewish literary culture by Ruth Wisse and Sidra Ezrahi are unabashedly Eurocentric, insulting to the vast literary culture of my people.  The latest installment of the Cambridge History of Arabic Literature, The Literature of al-Andalus, dealing with the Golden Age of Sephardic creativity, does not contain a single essay written by a Sephardi or an Arab.  While Arabs, in the person of Edward Said and his school, have articulated their grievances to the West and have been heard, the Sephardim have languished.  The few Sephardic books that have appeared have been duly marginalized by both the mainstream press as well as the academics.  Ammiel Alcalay’s landmark study After Jews and Arabs: Remaking Levantine Culture (University of Minnesota Press, 1993) has had a limited audience and has had little to no impact on the discourse as it is being framed in the current debate.  Jose Faur’s seminal Golden Doves With Silver Dots (Indiana University Press, 1986), an attempt to read the Sephardic rabbinic tradition in light of modern philosophy, an extension of Benamozegh’s project, has been anathematized by more professors than I care to imagine.  

Each day I turn to the New York Times’ Op-Ed page to see if the viewpoint that I espouse is presented. And each day I walk away empty-handed.  The terrain has been clearly set out: Jews must fight Arabs.  Those Jews who take the Arab side are not seen as Jews.  And even those of the Jewish Left who wish to make peace with the Palestinians do not see a Jewish-Arab synthesis as desirable – the main platform of the Peace Camp is separation from the Palestinians in order to keep Israel a “Jewish State.” Paradoxically, many of these same Jews have relinquished the basic elements of Jewish living.  Where are those Jews who have maintained the basic truths of Jewish life and combined that with a worldliness that walks freely and confidently into the precincts of the non-Jewish communities?  Where are there Jews who wish to abide by the Halakhah and live in the Levantine civilization?

Some years ago, my grandfather came to New York from Syria.  He brought with him the faith and values accumulated by Levantine Jews over many centuries.  Such a tradition was the most precious thing he could hold onto.  Yet in the push and pull of America, new elements came to unsettle his tradition.  An ultimately failed battle took place in the Brooklyn community to maintain our heritage.  The “modernizers,” those who brought in the Ashkenazi element, won the battle even as they left their own community a shell of what it once was.  And while the fault lies with my grandfather and his generation for not preserving their identity, we must as civilized human beings come to understand that the loss of Sephardic identity has helped no one.

The brutal manner in which we have been disenfranchised haunts me deeply.  What was once a culture that provided Judaism with its formative literature and ideology has turned into a broken, shattered community that has vanished in the West and been vanquished in the state of Israel.  The Sephardic voice, a voice that would replenish the Jewish soul today, is missing in action.  The scholarship of Hakham David Nieto (the Sephardic leader of the London community in the 18th century) and Elijah Benamozegh (whose Israel and Humanity represents the only sane approach to modern Judaism that we now have) would enrich the lives of the tens of thousands of Jewish students who are alienated by the incestuous dialogue that now exists in the Jewish community.  

The movement for Sephardi progressivism is almost non-existent.  Sephardim have assimilated into the Ashkenazi majority and been relegated to second-class citizenship.  There are few who espouse a Sephardi identity and even fewer who know enough about the Sephardic past to articulate it to others.  Young Sephardic schoolchildren hear stories about Eastern European rabbis (or, worse, Sephardic rabbis translated into the European idiom) and are forced to identify themselves in a tradition that is inconsistent with whom they are as human beings.

Jose Faur once told me that the problems between Israel and her Arab neighbors would be resolved if the Sephardim were running the government.  This is not an option that is currently available and may not be available according to the way things work in the Jewish world.  This essay has been a plea to redeem this sad situation.  It is imperative that our voice be heard and that it become a standard feature of Jewish discourse at the present time.

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