I was very pleased to see The Jewish Week’s special section on Sephardim in New York (June 27). This is a long overdue story, as what is happening in New York is nothing less than the revival and flourishing of an ancient tradition in a modern context.
However, there are several inaccuracies in the section that merit correction. First and most importantly, Gary Rosenblatt’s piece on Rabbi Elie Abadie and the Safra community (“We Want a Seat at the Table”) conflates Syrians and all Sephardim. The article states that the Sephardic community issued an edict forbidding conversions. While it is true that the Syrian community has a strictly enforced ban on conversion, that is absolutely not the case for other Sephardim. In fact, none other than Rav Ovadia Yosef went to task with the Syrian rabbinic leadership over this ban on conversions.
Along these lines, the article states that more Sephardic young people are going to college “as opposed to going into the family business.” Again, that is a trend that describes the Syrian community and not others, such as my North African community.
The Safra community is doing wonderful work, primarily targeted at the Syrian/Lebanese community. There is an equally important revival going on among North African Jews, whose culture is distinct from the Syrian one. Come to my synagogue (West Side Sephardic Synagogue) any Shabbat, and you will meet young professionals, most of them French ex-pats, who are so tied to their heritage that they research authentic Moroccan tunes by night, revive long-forgotten prayers, organize Torah classes in French, establish their own soccer league and otherwise ensure that the culture of their ancestors in Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia is perpetuated on these shores.
Tempting as it may be, let’s be sure not to lump all Sephardim together. We are a rich and diverse group, just as are our Ashkenazi brethren.
And lastly, I would be remiss if I didn’t say that the section’s emphasis on food, from the pastries on the cover to the random single recipe to the article on a Sephardic cookbook author, reflect a certain offensive mindset about what constitutes Sephardic culture. Yes, food is important, just as it is in any community, but let’s at least give as much attention to the Sephardic approach to Jewish law, unique as it is, the Sephardic version of Zionism, which pre-dates the Ashkenazi movement and a host of other cultural traits.
Again, thank you for your attention to the rise of Sephardic culture in Manhattan.