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A Sephardic Jew: Why discriminate against this person?

19 Oct

emmanuelle chriqui

The man whom I will call the Martin Luther King of Israel has died at 93.

He was Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, a leader in politics and religion.

It is doubtful anyone else has compared him to the American civil rights leader, but that’s how I see it. Just as there is black and white in America, in Israel there is Sephardic and Ashkenazi. The Sephardim are the underdogs. Rabbi Yosef was their advocate and protector.

Rabbi Ovadia Yosef

Rabbi Ovadia Yosef

Most Americans think of Israeli Jews as homogenous. This is because most American Jews are of European descent, which makes them Ashkenazi. Overlooked and mostly out of sight in the U.S. are the Sephardim, who are Jews from the Middle East, North Africa and Spain. This group has more in common with Arab culture than with European culture, hence the dichotomy and the basis for discrimination.

It is dangerous for a non-Jew, such as myself, to write about the social fabric of Judaism, especially when the writer has never been to Israel and never witnessed the relationship between Sephardim and Ashkenazim.  So let it be known that I write with interest rather than authority.

It is of little consequence here, but a casual friend is a Sephardic American. He has never mentioned the word in my presence, nor has he ever discussed any difference between himself and any other Jew. His ancestors are from Morocco. His mother lives in France, is very refined, quite fashionable and appears wealthy. She reminds me of Jackie Kennedy. These things are all counter to the negative stereotype of the Sephardim, which I learned of only through television.

Jerry Seinfeld: Sephardic Jew

Jerry Seinfeld: Sephardic Jew

I wish I could remember the name of the film, or on which channel it appeared. I would link to it to see if you found it as shocking as I. It was shot in Israel and documented the perception of the Sephardim by the Ashkenazim. Some of the dialogue could have been overlaid on a film about white and black Americans.

For example, many Ashkenazi, in a nod to tolerance, said the Sephardim are hip and cool and fun; that they set trends and styles. Some said they have friends who are Sephardic. Still, in subsequent conversations, they said Sephardic Jews are mostly poor, crude, criminal and not so intelligent.

Clearly, social barriers have been set. This was confirmed for me when I read Rabbi Yosef obituary.

Other comments didn’t parallel the black-white struggle in America, like the disgust shown for the Sephardim who watch Arab movies.

Basically, the documentary illustrates how the one group considers the other inferior and beneath them. Overall, the impression was that the Sephardim were just too much like Arabs.

The irony here is that so were Moses, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and David.

Indeed, recent genetic testing has shown that the Ashkenazim may be far off the Hebrew bloodline. It was originally thought that the Jewish communities in Europe originated with men and women from the Near East.  Now it has been shown genetically that the ancestral roots of the Ashkenazim are in the union of non-Jewish European women and traveling Jewish traders.

Although the comparison between blacks and whites in America is somewhat accurate – an Israeli court, for example, had to force the integration of Sephardic and Ashkenazi school children — this intra-Jewish problem has additional layers of complexity. Unlike in America, differences in religious practices also keep the Jewish groups apart.

I referred to Rabbi Ovadia Yosef as the Martin Luther King of Israel, but, unlike King, he was for school segregation in the court case I mentioned. Religion, it seems, was taught at the school in question, and Rabbi Yosef wanted only pure and accepted Sephardic doctrine taught to the children of his followers, not a diluted, blended brand taught in a mixed school.

Religion aside, the life and work of Rabbi Ovadia – like those of Dr. King — indicate the pervasive need of Homo sapiens to form tight groups of very like people, to preach group superiority and to categorize others – even those who could easily be accepted into the group – as inferior and unworthy of advancement. It shows the incredible need to hold back rather than lift up.

What is the basis for this need?

Limited resources? Limited positions of power? Intrinsic insecurity? General nastiness? The necessity to have enemies as a motivating force for survival and civilization building?

Because of their differences, and because of our shortcomings as a species, it seems almost understandable that there is tension between blacks and whites, Jews and Arabs (even thought they are both Semitic people), liberals and conservatives. But why does each group draw circles within their circles to set even more people apart?

How can we solve global conflict when the people on the north side of Chicago distrust those on the south side?

The Jews possess a unique place in history as one of the first cultures – perhaps the first – to take stock of itself and say, “We are barbarians. This is unacceptable.”

For now and always, the People of The Book have documented their epic struggle for the perfect, enlightened society. Through darkness and light, catastrophe and near destruction, triumph, dire warnings, dire consequences and rebirth, they have never ceased to strive with God and themselves.

One would think that by now such a people could get along with themselves; that such a people might actually be the ones to bring peace to the entire Earth.

Who better?

While we wait for a new prophet, I would hope that all will soon dispense with finding disgust over another person simply because of his taste in movies.

Rest in peace, Rabbi Ovadia Yosef.

By Lanny Morgnanesi

 

 

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Danger – I’m talking about race (but also art)

26 Mar

cab calloway-2

I sat down to write about creativity but will begin with race. I’ll get to creativity later.

Normally, race is a subject best avoided. Even good-intentioned statements can offend. I don’t mind offending, as long as I offend everyone. When I discuss race, I generally keep these three precepts in mind:

  • All people are basically the same.
  • Even so, likes prefer likes.
  • Whether acknowledged or not, every group thinks it is better than the other.

I’m told that, historically, each tribe of Native Americans referred to themselves as “the human beings” or “the people,” while the names they gave other tribes were epithets describing creatures who were less than human.

That’s us! Is it not?

Dividing us by race and setting us against each other seems like a cruel thing for the Creator to do, but I guess there was a reason for it. Giving us the capacity to enslave others, however, is too harsh to even remotely understand. That capacity is what rightfully gives racial issues their hypersensitivity.

I can wish everyone wasn’t so sensitive, but there is too much working against it.

While smart people don’t discuss race, I have to admire those who do. One is Bob Huber, a writer for Philadelphia Magazine. In the March edition of the magazine, he wrote a piece called, “Being White in Philly.”  In it he tells stories of race from a white perspective.

“Everyone might have a race story, but few whites risk the third-rail danger of speaking publicly about race, given the long, troubled history of race relations in this country and even more so in this city,” he wrote. “Race is only talked about in a sanitized form, when it’s talked about at all, with actual thoughts and feelings buried, which only ups the ante.”

So let’s talk!Philly Mag

After Huber’s article, many did. This was his intention. There were a number of public forums around town and the online version of the article – as of March 25 – had 6,292 comments.

The article, among other things, mentions how whites, upon entering a local convenience store, hold open the door longer for blacks than for whites in order not to offend them. Later, Huber quotes a Russian woman who thinks blacks do nothing but sit on their front porches smoking marijuana. It’s that kind of material.

In response, the only full-time African-American employee at Philadelphia Magazine wrote a counter piece for the Philadelphia Inquirer. She described her coworker’s message as: “black people are essentially what’s wrong with the city and that white people who live here are afraid of them.”

My test of the article’s validity is not its truthfulness but its honesty. Fair or unfair, right or wrong, the piece accurately describes how some white people feel. It would be dishonest to argue they don’t feel that way. Whether or not they accurately portray blacks is a totally different issue

I think it is good to know how people feel. I want to know how people feel about me, even when they don’t like me. My natural assumption is many will not like me, or at least think I am less that I am, certainly less than they are.

In the extreme, this may anger me, but I can live with it.

I understand that others may not, cannot and will not.

But that’s not why I’m writing. I’m writing about creativity. Mainly, I want to know if one race is more apt to be creative than another – specifically whether minorities are more willing and more capable than the majority in advancing art.

In the past I’ve had thoughts on this. They resurfaced recently when I heard a radio interview with a black record producer. By his own admission, this producer is not your normal black record producer. In order to set up a story about his style of producing, he told the show’s host that black artists create something then quickly leave it behind to create the next thing. White people, he said, go back and revisit what already has been created.

Then, in a twist, he said, “I’m that white guy.”

Twist aside, I saw truth in his stereotype, especially in the progress of music. By the time white bands, for example, took up the blues, black artists had left it way behind.

Shortly after this interview, PBS aired an American Masters episode called, “The Blues Brothers Band Remembers Cab Calloway.” The Blues Brothers movie, of course, clearly depicts the tendency for whites to revisit the old. More interesting was a specific story in the documentary about the legendary Cab Calloway.

John Landis, the movie’s director (white), told how he wanted Calloway (black) to sing his 1931 classic  “Minnie the Moocher” in the movie and to do it in the original style. When Calloway saw the music charts, he expressed disgust and said something like, “What the hell is this?”

He could not comprehend why anyone would want to put a near ancient rendition into a contemporary movie. Landis eventually talked him into it, but it was completely foreign to Calloway.

I was amazed at how closely this little story paralleled what the black record producer had said. The record producer might not fit the stereotype, but Cab sure did. I wondered just how deep this pattern went, or even if it were true (Little Anthony and the Imperials, after all, still perform their hits.)

One of the shockingly bad things about art in any form is that it so often is a copy of something done by an innovator. I believe it was Paul Gauguin (not a minority but definitely off the path) who suggested that there are only two kinds of artists: plagiarists and revolutionaries. It could be said that the plagiarists have a stake in the status quo while the revolutionaries want to destroy it.

Could this be the case with the white-black creative dichotomy described by the record producer and illustrated by Cab Calloway?

While few want to discuss race, I’d like to hear from people on this. Let’s forget about Philly Mag and the suppressed hostilities of whites for a while and talk about whether muses favor those who have been pushed outside the mainstream. What drives a person to originality and risk when so many others are content to stay stuck on what’s popular?

Is white innovation a rarity? Surely there are white revolutionaries. In a pinch I could name 10. (Pollock yes; Presley no.) Do white innovators have to try harder, or must they – unlike blacks – possess a genetic mutation or be social misfits?

I can’t speak first hand to this. I’m hoping others can. Please write.

By Lanny Morgnanesi

If the Republican Party were a person, Dorothy Parker would slap his face, both of them.

10 Feb

 

latino-obama-sign

Consider the case of the young man who hates his uncle and has always treated him dastardly. One day the uncle reveals that by living poor he was able to accumulated a small fortune. The young nephew then begins to shower the old man with kindness and attention.

For the uncle, it is easy to see that the nephew is a disingenuous louse. The real insult, however, is that the young man thought the uncle could be fooled.

The young man reminds me of the Republican Party.

Here is a party that, for the most part, staked out a very tough position against amnesty or general kindness for 11 million people living and mostly working in the United States without the legal right to do. It was a legitimate position, although it is one I considered unwise.

When President Obama was re-elected after winning 80 percent of the minority and ethnic vote, the Republican Party realized that the poor uncle they didn’t care much for was actually rich.

Now they want to be friends. Now they want legislation to assist the 11 million. Now they want those votes.

And, I guess, they don’t think the Hispanic population is intelligent enough or aware enough to see the hypocrisy.

That’s the real zinger.

Gov. Bob McDonnell, a Republican from Virginia, thinks the GOP can get those votes if it just changes its tone. That’s what reporter Thomas Fitzgerald wrote today in the Inquirer. Tone, rather than the choice of whom you truly represent in Congress, is what’s important.

Reality is always second to image.

When someone says, “People want to know we’re like them”  (which Republican Congressman Scott Perry said this weekend) it usually means “We’re not like them.” When someone says, “We can win the presidency. … We don’t need to fix the laws to make that happen (which Pennsylvania party chairman Rob Gleason said), it usually means they ARE trying to win the presidency by rigging the system.

A good rule in politics is to exercise caution and maintain skepticism.

I’m very curious to see if the GOP efforts to gain Hispanic support will work. Woody Allen once said that the lion will one day lie down with the lamb, but the lamb won’t get any sleep. That’s the kind of alliance this speaks of.

By Lanny Morgnanesi

A musical legacy: Black, proud, loud and wet

18 Mar

Hard work is to be admired, as is James Brown, the Hardest Working Man in Show Business.

There’s a new biography out on Brown, who was also known as the Godfather of Soul. The book is by RJ Smith and called, “The One: The Life and Music of James Brown.”

Dan DeLuca, in a review that appears today in the Philadelphia Inquirer, repeats an anecdote from the book illustrating the intensity of Brown’s performances. The story had the entertainer playing in Tbilisi, Georgia, in the former Soviet Union, where a swimming pool separated the audience from the stage. As the show peaked with the number, “Sex Machine,” Brown – at age 73 – leaped into the water. He sank, and band members jumped in after him.

Wet, the entire ensemble finished the show.

According to DeLuca, Brown would sweat so much on stage that band members couldn’t avoid sliding on the drippings. After shows, Brown was rehydrated with an intravenous hook up.

Brown was a perfectionist and very tough on his musicians. He’d fine them for playing the wrong notes, DeLuca reports. He wanted to be the best. After Elvis died, Brown was given a private viewing of The King and was heard to have said, “Elvis, you rat. You’re not number one anymore.”

The book apparently paints James Brown as self-centered (his hair was done three times a day) and non-empathetic. But he rose from poverty, took nothing and – from what I understand – gave a lot of money away to help children, lectured to school kids on the importance of education (he had little) and was a social activist credited with preventing riots after the assassination of Martin Luther King. (He agreed to a rare television concert the quelled anger and took people off the streets.)

He was patriotic, but bitter. Once asked to give advice to a rising Tiger Woods, Brown said, “Get him to understand how vicious this world is. Everything in this world disappears and vacates.”

Add to his many credits: Philosopher.

Class Warfare Parable

4 Feb

How many do you have?

Here is what I call a Class Warfare Parable, a simple little story that tries – and I think succeeds – in saying a lot about class. It appeared in a piece by syndicated columnist Leonard Pitts Jr., who heard it from one of his students.

This is it:

A rich white man sits with a poor white man and a poor black man at a table laden with cookies. The rich white man snatches all the cookies but one, then turns to the poor white man and says, “Watch out for that darky. I think he wants to take your cookie.”

Three stories of race

16 Jan

Martin Luther King

For Martin Luther King Day I’d like to write about race, in three vignettes.

The first is about a family outing to a New Jersey lake resort. I was 8 or so, and we were going to one of my favorite spots. As our car stood in line at the gate, I realized something was wrong. The car in front was holding things up. There was an argument between the gatekeeper and the vehicle’s occupants, who were black.

My father went out to see what was happening.

When he returned, he seemed a little different, a little upset; certainly more reserve.

“They weren’t allowed in because they aren’t members,” my father said.

“Are we members?” I asked.

“No,” he said, “but I think they are going to let us in.”

The incident seemed unimportant once we were inside, although my father talked to other relatives about it. As I grew up and understood more, I never forgot the combination of guilt, sadness and, was it shame? that I had seen on my father’s face that day.

My second little story is about the only tip I ever received while working summers at a pizza restaurant. I was 20, and so good at making pizzas they let me manage the place. As a manager, I would try to remember what people normally ordered. For example, there was a theatrical-looking black man with a pencil-thin mustache and a fedora who always called in for a garlic and anchovy pizza.

One busy Saturday night the other pizza guy didn’t show up. This was a take-out place and the whole front of the store was packed with people either picking up food or trying to place orders. It was noisy and chaotic. I was trying as fast as I could to get people out so there would be room for those coming in. As I pulled a garlic and anchovy pizza from the oven, I saw its owner walk in. I boxed the pie, gave it to the cashier and pointed to the man with the mustache, who was way in the back, behind rows of impatient white people.  He walked forward, paid and left.

At closing, the cashier pulled two bills from her pocket and handed them to me. “From the black guy with the mustache,” she said.

Nice gesture, but I didn’t understand its depth until I lived for a time in a black neighborhood in Washington, D.C. There was a deli next to my building that was always crowded with people – black people. It was nearly impossible for me to get a sandwich there. If someone behind the counter had handed me one as soon as I walked in, I would have been surprised and delighted. I would have thought better of mankind and the world and most definitely would have offered a tip.

And so, because of that, I better understood the man in the fedora.

The third story is one I don’t quite understand. I don’t understand the socio-economic forces at work. Perhaps someone can explain.

My aunt, now deceased, ran a dry cleaning business in Philadelphia and lived with her family above the shop. When she started, the neighborhood was white. That changed, but she stayed put. Years later I asked her son, my cousin, what it was like being the only white family for blocks and blocks. He said when the neighborhood first changed, everything was fine. The new people were good people, family people. Then they moved out, and the people who moved in destroyed everything.

 Those are my three stories about race. Taken together, what might they say about life in America and the quality of our humanness? Please share your thoughts.

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