Friday, May 9, 2014

Is a Convert Ashkenazi or Sephardi?

When choosing a minhag (custom) or halachic opinion, you might think there are two choices: Ashkenazi or Sephardi. That's not quite accurate. Ashkenazi and Sephardi are geographic categories, but they are not inclusive of every group. There are many "ethnic" groups within Judaism: Mizrachi, Ethiopian, Yeminite, B'nei Menashe, Kurdish, Lithuanian, Chassidic groups (in some communities this may be akin to an ethnic grouping that shows a geographic origin), etc. Each group can have its own minhag or halachic ruling. Because of this, the "Ashkenazi" community may have several options for you to choose, even if you are choosing to actively associate yourself with Ashkenazi tradition.

As a general rule, you are an Ashkenazi or Sephardi based on the community you live in when you convert. If you are single (and especially if you're a single female), you can change your "affiliation" upon marriage to someone with an established family heritage. Only if you want to, of course - though some will tell you that you don't have a choice. (Though marriage has a way of mixing customs around even for those of the same heritage - every family is different because of this.)

But most converts are not completely Ashkenazi or Sephardi. Because of the unsupervised nature of most converts' Jewish education, we pick up customs and rulings from everywhere. In fact, we're given the halachic freedom to choose the minhag we want, though we may be required to take the halachic rulings of our current community (which is not a given nowadays). 

In effect, no matter which kind of community you learn with and convert with, you probably have a mishmash of traditions. And you know what? That's ok. Embrace that freedom rather than seeing it as a weakness. Arguably, few Jews today have a "cohesive" tradition because of changing tides within the community at large. Baal teshuvahs pick up a mishmash of traditions too (and sometimes even have the same latitude of choice as a convert), then they have kids who carry on those mashup traditions. Members of communities often consider "their Rav" someone who is not the leader of their community (often a Rosh Yeshiva from a yeshiva or seminary), so few communities have a cohesive community tradition. There are a lot of Ashkenazi/Sephardi marriages today, which creates kids with a cornucopia of traditions. Converts are not the only one with Jewish traditions equivalent to a Girl Talk mashup song (some NSFW language).

But really, what are you? Because people will ask, and you'll need to come up with an answer. I personally call myself "Ashkenazi by Default." What do you say?

7 comments:

  1. Interesting post. On an unrelated note, I think your readers would be interested in the website Shabbat.com. It's a great website where people can sign up to be guests and and find Shabbos meals. People can also sign up to be hosts. I've gotten many Shabbos meals through it. Go to http://www.shabbat.com/ to create a profile!

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  2. British Reform Judaism chose to blur the distinctions between Ashkenazi and Sefardi traditions, though my community at least seems to follow mainly Sefardi ones; this can be confusing as the Orthodox community, from which some of our members come, is overwhelmingly Ashkenazi and you can often hear some of the members pronouncing blessings à la Ashkenaz during services. Ever the leader of the awkward squad, I lived in Spain for two years and have somewhat an affinity for the country, having studied Spanish at university, I chose to observe overwhelmingly Sefardi customs; for one thing, this DEFINITELY makes Pesach easier!

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  3. I emphatically disagree with converts who attempt to “convert Sephardic.”

    Many Sephardic synagogues are specifically designed as communities for Jews whose ancestors come from a specific country, or even a specific city.

    For example, there are: Sephardic synagogues for Jews whose ancestors are from Damascus (southern Syria), Sephardic synagogues for Jews whose ancestors are from Aleppo (northern Syria), Sephardic synagogues for Jews whose ancestors are from Lebanon (the whole county is about the size of a large city), Sephardic synagogues for Jews whose ancestors are from Yanana (Greece), and Sephardic synagogues for Jews whose ancestors are from Shiraz (a city in Iran).

    These synagogues are socially like extended families, where everyone, and their parents, and their grandparents have all known each other since childhood. Since they usually marry within their own group, they are also extended families in the literal sense of the word.

    Why should converts force themselves into these super-specific communities, where they obviously do not belong?

    Another reason why converts should not “convert Sephardic” is that both converts and Sephardic Jews are often viewed as strange [or at least less-than-normative] by the majority. When a convert is also Sephardic, he is considered by many people to be as strange as a purple cow with bright green polka-dots and two heads and three eyes on each head.

    Last but not least, some Sephardic synagogues DO NOT ACCEPT ANY CONVERTS.

    In my humble opinion, converts have a much greater chance of success if they DO NOT “convert Sephardic.”

    PS: I have three decades of experience attending various Sephardic synagogues.

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    1. Mr. Cohen,

      You might be onto something. In my experience sefaradi communities are more resistant to converts. I have heard several sefaradim say outright that they do not believe in conversions. The Torah does, but they don't. Go figure.

      Nonetheless, based on my lineage I identify as sefaradi. Most of my minhagim come from sefarai tradition, but I confess, I attend an ashkenazi shul because I find them more accepting of my family. The whole conversion thing is a non-issue to my community. The same would not be true in a sefardi shul. At least not in my town.

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  4. Mr. Cohen, I appreciate your perspective and experience. However, as a Sephardi orthodox giyoret, your description was not my experience. It is true that some very monochromatic and tightly-knit neighborhoods of Sephardim are not open (or vehemently closed) to conversions, but this is a stance which haRav Ovadya Yosef z"l opposed, and he is followed by the majority of Sephardim in Israel and many in America as well.

    It is true that a Sephardi convert is unusual and "different," but I would counter that argument by saying that anyone whose primary goal in life is to look or act like everyone else should be doing just about anything BUT converting to Orthodox Judaism, Sephardi or otherwise.

    Most converts are not trying to "force themselves" into your extended family. We just want to live al pi halacha, bring light into klal Yisroel, and more or less be left alone. And for those of us of color, or of Spanish, Mediterranean, or Mid-Eastern nationality, a Sephardic shul and mesorah is much more natural and comfortable.

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  5. I am a convert due to my mother whose conversion fell short.. long story short raised in an Ashkenazi Orthodox home.. have many Sephardi friends including a Rabbi or two my husband and I are good friends with.. so, I am running my house in the Sephardi tradition taught to me by my friend who a Rabbi and who specializes in Halacha.. none the less I like the dishes I learned from him and his synagogue...Chalabi, etc.. so.. that's how I run my house and kitchen.. it makes my husband's tummy happy..all that visit are happy.. plus lovely Nana tea, cardamom tea.. aromatics yummy...However, my mother is French and her family has a Jewish last name.. but are not Jewish in practice for 100's of years hence not Jewish..all aside.. I am mixed in many ways and don't give a bother what others have to say.. I feel more comfortable in a Sephardi place than not.. all my siddurs are Sephardi.. Those that judge, then do not know the 613 and resist in following them.. no matter how Torah observant they claim to be, they aren't in my eyes.. A true Jew and I say that since I was raised studying Torah with my father (OBM) and as Jew until I found out 2 years ago I had to do a technical conversion as I put it.. would not judge or disparage a convert law # 14 of the 613, not commit Lashon Hara, and I could go on.. but wont.. but people that want to hurt or insult us converts should think twice, really.. think! We chose the path that you take for granted.

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  6. Thank you for sharing your story. I am half Jewish on my father's side. I am exploring my faith and being prayerful about conversion. Hearing about your journey and your self-confidence is very empowering. G-d bless.
    JC

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