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When Sephardim Wear Black Hats

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Perhaps there is no era of Jewish history as hotly debated as the Golden Age in Spain. After the rise and spread of nascent Islam, leading into the subsequent Islamic conquest of the Iberian Peninsula, the Jews of Spain suddenly found themselves under Muslim rule in the early 8th century.
 
According to the classical historical approach, an era of unparalleled freedom for any ancient or medieval Jewish community had arrived. Jews were fully accepted into the mainstream Muslim society in terms of religious freedom, education, profession and various other aspects of the public sphere. The Golden Age in Spain is still, today, often viewed as a historical precedent and model for building a civil society that contains multiple faiths.
 
Dissenters of this classical approach point to the fact that Jews, although seldom physically threatened, were still viewed, and often treated as, secondary citizens. Jews were not allowed to carry any type of weapons, receive military training, display any type of public religious ritual and were forced to pay a special tax simply due to their minority status.
 
Like many historical debates, both sides contain truth. While the Jews did not enjoy freedom in a liberal democracy type of way, it was undoubtedly orders of magnitude better than their fellow Jews living (or suffering) in Christendom. During this time in Spain, Jews not only rose to prominence in a variety of fields including medicine, economics and astronomy, but they had the time and freedom to explore and radically evolve their Judaism. 
 
Since the Spanish Jews (Sephardim) were almost fully integrated into Muslim society, their Judaism became much more ecumenical than their Ashkenazi counterparts. During this era, the Sephardic Jews learned how to simultaneously practice and take their Judaism seriously, while still appreciating, participating in, and advancing the surrounding culture and intellectual life. Great works of Jewish literature, poetry, philosophy and law were produced during this time, and an entire new strain of Jewish intellectualism was born and subsequently spread throughout much of the Jewish world after the Spanish expulsion in the 15th century.
 
Now the Golden Age in Spain is only one example out of a whole array of distinct Sephardic traditions and schools of thought. We can just as easily speak about the communities of Jews in Iran and Iraq that have maintained a continuous Jewish presence for almost 3,000 years; a community that produced the Babylonian Talmud and developed their own brand of Judaism during the Sassanian empire.
 
But in the 20th century, something happened. For a variety of reasons, the world’s Muslim countries each took turns either explicitly expelling the Jews or making life so difficult that escaping was the only reasonable option.
 
Sephardic Jews came to the west en masse, creating their own Jewish communities, but inevitably being influenced by the dominant and already settled Ashkenazi community, a community that had been radically shaped and fractured from their own experiences of living through the torturous Dark Ages followed by the Haskalah (Enlightenment) Movement.
 
One of the truly great things about Judaism is that it is extremely difficult, if not impossible, to point to one form of Judaism as being “more authentic and genuine” than others. While all Jewish communities share ancient history and texts, different communities have evolved in disparate ways, reflecting their own historical narratives. The strength of the international Jewish community is the fundamental diversity amongst us, and the understanding that Judaism can concretize itself in a multiplicity of ways.
 
Many first generation American, Sephardic immigrants are inveigled into thinking that right-wing Ashkenazi Orthodoxy is the “right” way to be a Jew. Their parents, often oblivious to the nuances of Ashkenazic Jewry due to various language and cultural barriers, often have no choice but to acquiesce to this cultural trend.
 
For this reason I am deeply saddened whenever I see Sephardim wearing black hats. And by black hats, I mean any type of unnecessary adoption, whether explicit or implicit, of Ashkenazi tradition by Sephardic communities, fueled from the presupposition that Ashkenazo practice is somehow superior or more authentic.
 
Even for Ashkenazim, wearing black hats makes absolutely no sense in the modern world. They are just one of the many remnants of a shtetl-centric life full of lachrymosity, insularity and ignorance that many fundamentalist Jews somehow view as an idyllic era. If one takes the time to read the poetry, study the philosophy and engage with the intellectualism that the Sephardic world has produced, they would hopefully begin to share my frustration of the proliferation of black hats amongst the next generation of Sephardim.
 
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