Visitors from the United States quickly notice that life here in Israel is different. Certain items that Americans consider essential to Jewish life as we know it are missing. For example, what could be more Jewish than a good poppy seed bagel with a smear of cream cheese and a strip of shiny orange lox topped with a slice of red onion?
There are plenty of foods to feast on in Israel. One is a platter of Sephardic houmous with tehina, a mixture of ground chick peas and sesame seeds. These spreads have a smooth golden texture and are bathed in glistening olive oil, fresh parsley and other Middle Eastern spices. They are scooped up and eaten with fresh round pita bread. Yet in all of Israel there are no good bagels!
Why no bagels? It’s not that the recipe is top secret and not allowed out of New York. Nor are Israeli bakeries unskilled or ill-equipped to handle the fine art of bagel making. Israel has many great bakeries that produce the finest breads and cakes. The absence of bagels in Israel is not a problem to Israelis. It is simply a matter of taste.
The donut-shaped rolls called bagels originated in Austria, not New York City. (Bagel, an Old High German word, means ring.) Bagels and many other foods and customs that seem to represent the fabric of Jewish life in America are reflections of the Eastern European (Ashkenazic) tradition. These were brought over by Jewish immigrants from Europe in the 1880s through the 1940s. In the United States, the majority of the Jewish community is so thoroughly Ashkenazic that little else is known or accepted as Jewish.
In Israel, however, a different tradition prevails. During the 1950s, the State of Israel absorbed tens of thousands of Jewish people from the Middle Eastern lands—Tunisia, Morocco, Egypt, Yemen, Iraq and Iran. These immigrants brought with them the Sephardic traditions of the Middle East. Their influence on Israeli culture and life forever changed the nature of the fledgling state.
The last official census (1991) recorded that approximately 40 percent of Israelis were Sephardic born, while 40 percent were Ashkenazic born. The other 20 percent were sabra (Israeli born). Though sabras may come from either background, Sephardic families are generally larger than Ashkenazic, so more of the sabra population is Sephardic.
Today the Jewish State of Israel officially recognizes both the Ashkenazic and Sephardic traditions and their religious requirements. Israel has two chief rabbis. Rabbi Eliahu Bakshi-Doron represents the Sephardic community, and Rabbi Israel Lau represents the Ashkenazic community. Nevertheless, a distinctly Sephardic flavor prevails. This is quite logical, since we are located in the Middle East and the majority of the population is Sephardic.
Sephardic customs reflect the pace of the Middle East, which is slower and more deliberate than that of Western civilization. The day starts early, but there is time for the traditional coffee break. Then comes the large midday meal followed by a lengthy afternoon break. Somehow the workers muster the energy to start work again in the late afternoon, and they continue until early evening. In contrast, the fast-paced Ashkenazic culture affords hardly any time for breaks or leisure during the work day.
Many of the older customs still prevail here. These are reflected in the expression of hospitality, the role of family and even the way business is conducted. In Israel, business deals are still discussed over hot Turkish coffee served in small cups. Arrangements are agreed upon with a handshake. Personal relationships are valued over the best deal.” Nevertheless, negotiations can appear quite heated, and a novice or Westerner can easily lose heart. Once the parties come to terms, things quiet down very quickly and more coffee is served. The handshakes and greetings exchanged at the end of the session are the official seal of approval.
Ashkenazic and Sephardic music also differ, both in the synagogue worship and in the more popular styles. To the Western ear, Ashkenazic music and worship seem slower paced. Ashkenazic melodies are rich in tone and encompass a deeper vocal range. In contrast, the Sephardic music is faster paced, with a lively, drummed cadence. The lyrics express joy to a beat that makes one want to get up and dance.
In earlier years, Sephardic recording artists had difficulty in signing record contracts with major studios in Israel. The record producers, who came from Ashkenazic backgrounds, were not convinced that a sufficient market existed for this “strange” sounding music. Many Sephardic artists recorded very simple records and cassettes and sold them on street corners and in the busy market areas rather than in record stores. Today, however, this has changed, and many of Israel’s top recording artists are Sephardic.
The political life of Israel reflects a unique blend of the Ashkenazic and Sephardic cultures. The founding fathers of the modern State of Israel were Ashkenazic, and so are many of the current politicians. Some of their philosophical and political ideologies prevail.
For example, socialism has been one of the key principles behind the modern State of Israel. With it came the notion that the government must play a strong role in meeting the basic needs of the people. To the dismay of many of the Sephardic immigrants, the Israeli government took an influential role in education, housing, health and employment. In traditional Sephardic life, the family was the central structure, and the father was the final authority. The rabbi and the kahal (congregation) would provide any needed support or assistance to the family.
During the early days of the State of Israel, the society was unstructured. The country needed to absorb many immigrants in a short time, and resources were scarce. Government involvement was necessary. Still, many sharp conflicts and misunderstandings arose. Over the years, relations have been smoothed out. Yet the differences remain.
Political discussions are usually heated and quite volatile. Even in the Knesset (the Israeli Parliament), a debate can seem like a street brawl. This is a result of that unique blending of cultures with all of their intricacies and concerns.
In the long run, what matters is that both the Sephardic and Ashkenazic peoples are Jewish, and both communities are committed to the preservation of the State of Israel. The return of Jewish people from the Diaspora brings with it all of the variety and uniqueness that developed during the two thousand years of dispersion. Remarkably, after 47 years, a cohesiveness and unity exist along with the rich diversity. All of this makes for an interesting and spicy life in Israel.
There must be more to the unity of Israel than food, culture or customs. Ultimately, the unity of Israel rests upon the God of Israel. What finally will unify the Jewish people is not a common land or common destiny but the worship of the God of Israel. The bond of unity that holds the Jewish people together will ultimately be strengthened by Yeshua, the Messiah of Israel. His prayer for His disciples was that they might be one as He and the Father are one (John 17:11). It should be the hope of believers throughout the world that the proclamation of the gospel to the Jewish people will strengthen the nation of Israel.