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by Mitchell Abidor
Peter Novick, in his 1999 The Holocaust in American Life — a brilliant analysis of the process by which the Holocaust went from being, in American Jewish life, the subject of shame and silence to a central fact and a sacralized event — speaks of the "profound 'Israelization'" of American Jews following the 1967 Six-Day War. This "change," writes Novick, "extended to language, as kippa replaced yarmulke and as Israeli (Sephardic) pronunciation of Hebrew – Shabbat instead of Shabbos, bat rather than bas mitzvah — became dominant."
Since that book, the change Novick identifies has continued apace, and Simkhas Torah, Sukes, Shvues, mitsves, and the poor talis have all turned "t" on us and fallen victim in the war to turn everything Jewish into an adjunct of Israel. Even the Holocaust itself is as often as not called the Shoah, becoming an Israeli-named event.
This has not been the result of a concerted campaign by Israel to impose its form of Hebrew on the Diaspora. Rather, American Jews, in their weakness and ignorance, have willingly surrendered their linguistic independence along with their political independence to Israel. But the issue is, in fact, far more profound than that, for language is politics. We say many things when we say anything, and linguistic choices, pronunciations and accents implicitly speak volumes: meanings are embedded in how a word or sentence is said. By importing Israeli pronunciations, American Jews have further allowed Israel to occupy their minds; with Israeli pronunciation of common words and names now so normative, those Ashkenaz who say “Shabbat Shalom” instead of "Gut Shabbos" have so thoroughly internalized Israeli hegemony that they accept it as natural.
Among many if not most Orthodox and fundamentalist sects, however, the Ashkenaz terminal "s" and the "aw” missing in Sephardic Hebrew have been retained, at least in religious life. Among the Orthodox — who have contributed mightily to turning Israel into a pesthole of racism and obscurantism — this can be explained largely by fidelity to tradition, though there no doubt enters into this the strain of anti-Sephardi racism that is, in my experience, quite strong among them. Caught between the rock of their love of Greater Israel and their disdain for Jewish Arabs, they allow tradition to decide. They maintain their historic pronunciations at prayer and then become faux Israelis when they speak the language conversationally.
Of course, many if not most Jews of those who celebrate "Shabbat" know no more Hebrew than the odd prayer learned by heart and a handful of words, and they are certainly not aware of the role of Eliezer Ben-Yehuda, the man responsible for the revival of Hebrew as a spoken language, in deciding that Sephardic pronunciation is more closely related to Hebrew as it was spoken in antiquity. Their use of the Sephardic pronunciation simply serves as a clear, even if not-quite-conscious, marker of fealty and submission to Israel.
What those who use Sephardic pronunciations are seeking though, is not just a connection to Israel, but a form of authenticity.
It's hard to conceive of services at a progressive synagogue without someone playing the oud to the accompaniment of a doumbek while wearing a Bokharan yarmulke. Sephardic music, Sephardic tunes for prayers, have become signs of both open-mindedness and of a more real, more inclusive Judaism. Even with the success of the klezmer revival, no shul brings in an accordionist to drone A7 and D minor chords, the most Jewish chords of all: that would be gauche. But replace “biddi-bums” with ululations and that's another matter. You get to be Jewish and cosmopolitan as Sabbath services become a world music festival.
Why, though, should the Sephardic be thought of as more authentic? With some exceptions, like the communities in Algeria (where Jews, unlike their Muslim neighbors, were French citizens) and sections of the Egyptian and Iraqi communities, Mizrakhi communities remained in their ghettos long after many European Jews had moved out. To be sure, huge chunks of European Jewry — those found in the photographs of Roman Vishniac — remained literally mired in the past. Although some seekers of Jewish authenticity romanticize the ghetto, it is too close to Ashkenaz for us to be fooled into thinking that there is something essential and authentic about it. But if the Judaism of our parents’ generation, the children of immigrants, was an empty, desiccated thing, we have to distinguish ourselves from them and represent something more elemental, more alive. Far better something that is the same but different; fellow Jews but a little different, with different customs, different foods, even a different history: the exotically authentic Sephardim.
This difference is the key: as American Jews increasingly become an indistinguishable part of the American whole, being a fake Sephard provides just enough estrangement to make being Jewish fascinating. It simultaneously provides a falsely progressive cover for the support of Israel some Jews feel is necessary.
Sephardic pronunciation has something for everyone: it provides progressive Jews with an attractive and cheap cultural cover for their support of Israel and its policies, and more conservative Jews with a direct line to the Israeliness they so covet without ever having to go to there. It is bad faith squared.
Mitchell Abidor is a contributing writer to our magazine and a translator, musician, and actor living in Brooklyn. He is author of Communards: The Paris Commune of 1871 as Told by Those Who Fought For It.
Mitchell Abidor, a contributing writer to Jewish Currents, is a writer and translator living in Brooklyn. Among his books are a translation of Victor Serge’s Notebooks 1936 – 1947, May Made Me: An Oral History of My 1968 in France, and I’ll Forget it When I Die, a history of the Bisbee Deportation of 1917. His writings have appeared in The New York Times, Foreign Affairs, Liberties, Dissent, The New York Review of Books, and many other publications.