Once, on our way between Bombay and Chaing Rai in the Golden Triangle, Myra and I spent Yom Kippur with the friendly Jews of Bangkok. Most of them had their roots in Iran or in points further east, from Herat through Samarkand. There was also at least one family from Beirut and Aleppo.
It was our first time spending that long day of prayer and fasting with mizrahi Jews. We were used to the mournful melodies of Ashkenazim on the edge of bursting into tears. In Bangkok, standing before heavily judgment, the Jews rocked. “Hatanu lefanekha, rahem aleinu” – “We have sinned before you, have mercy on us,” they belted out, as if no thought could be happier.
When we arrived back in Jerusalem, somewhere just before Hanukkah, we told our friend Eric, who’d been housesitting our micro-apartment, about the difference between Ashkenazim and mizrahim on the day of divine judgment.
Eric is a defense attorney. He thought for about 3 seconds and said, “See, these two guys have their day in court. The first one is led in, sees the judge, and thinks, ‘Oy, what I’ve done,’ and wails, “Judge, have mercy, mercy.‘
“The other come comes in and looks around. ‘That’s the judge what let me off last year!’ he says, and then loud and happy, “Hiya, Yer Honor!”
The instant allegory perfectly describes two opposing ways of thinking about the human relationship with God as judge. Like my friend Bob, I certainly believe in the value of examining one’s deeds (the Hebrew word for “to pray” literally means “to judge oneself”) in order to change them. But I still prefer the joy of Sephardi prayers on the High Holy Days, the essentially positive view of the past and the future. If my own congregation, Yedidya, ever decided to send its sundry hazanim (prayer leaders) off for lessons in the traditional synagogue melodies of Baghdad and Aleppo, I’d walk to Yom Kippur services with a dance step.
Anyway, I mentioned this story a week or so ago to a friend learned in Jewish history. “That’s the difference between people whose neighbors opposed their existence and people who were accepted as – even if second class – members of society.” (This isn’t an exact quote. I was sipping cinammon coffee at the time, not taking notes.)
I wouldn’t want to attribute all the differences in Ashkenazi and Sephardi culture to the gap between how Christian Europe and the Muslim Middle East related to Jews. But I’d guess that it is one key reason. As I noted last year in an article on anti-gentile prayers that worked their way into Jewish liturgy and that should be removed:
Hebrew University historian Israel Yuval says that traditional liturgical attacks “are always against Christianity,” and are found in Ashkenazi prayers, not Sephardi ones. The rage reflects theological battles with Christianity, which claimed the Bible as its own and argued that Jews suffered in exile because God had ended the covenant with them. The Jewish response was a stress on “vengeful redemption”—looking forward to a conclusion of history in which the power relations were reversed, the Christians destroyed.
While there were ups and downs in Jewish-gentile relations in both the Christian and the Islamic worlds, Jewish liturgy itself bears testimony that Jews felt that their lives were far more precarious among the Christians. Recently, in the midst of contemporary nonsense about the “Clash of Civilizations,” some rightwing Jews have made a habit of arguing that things were as bad or worse for Jews among the Muslims. The psychological record of the prayerbook says otherwise.
A few days ago, for reasons I can’t remember at the moment, Myra mentioned to me the recent fad of older Jews from Iraqi Kurdistan taking organized tours to the old country, entering through Turkey. One old woman who lives on a moshav on the Lebanon border has talked on the radio about how she’s gone back twice, ignoring the security warnings from the Israeli government. The Kurdish Jews like to see the places where they grew up and the Muslim friends they left behind. I suggested that this was more evidence that the lachrymose view of Jewish history in Muslim lands was questionable.
“Jews also take old-country trips to Eastern Europe,” my wife wisely pointed out.
She’s right. But I hear a lot less about such trips focusing on hugging old friends, and more about the brutal ending of the Jewish story in Hungary or Ukraine.
In subtle, indirect ways, it seems, our sense of divine mercy is shaped in part by the amount of human warmth we’ve met.
Sing it, now, with feeling, with a trill, get up and dance: Hatanu lefanekha, rahem aleinu!