January 16, 2019

Letters to the Editor: Sephardic Judaism, Gun Violence and Tribalism

Ashkefardic Column

I loved David Suissa’s March 9 piece “Living in Ashkefardic Times” (as I do everything he writes). I have always felt that we are all Jews with a common foundation, and that we can only stand to benefit from enjoying what we experience and learn from one another’s traditions.

David, I still remember singing “Dror Yikra” with you at your Shabbat dinner, your surprise that I, of Ashkenazi origin, knew the Sephardic melody, and my response that the beauty of the words and melody spoke for themselves irrespective of the origin.

Michael Rosove via email

Sephardic Sharing

It was with great pleasure that I read Kelly Hartog’s cover story last week on the heightened interest in the Sephardic tradition (“The Many Facets of the Sephardic Spirit,” March 9). Its flexibility, optimism and inclusiveness of the entire Jewish community are most heartening. Moreover, I found it interesting that its origins in Muslim countries may create the understanding necessary for greater potential in peacemaking initiatives by Israel with its neighbors.

I wanted to alert the public to the fact that Academy for Jewish Religion California (AJRCA) also offers an accredited master’s degree in Sephardic studies and held a sold-out Sephardic/Persian event just last week that included music, food and a prominent panel. The Sephardic community tradition holds great promise in addressing our current fragmented Jewish community. Congratulations to the great job the Sephardic Educational Center is doing to make its great tradition available to the public.

Rabbi Mel Gottlieb, President, AJRCA via email

Talking Gun Violence

Given our gun culture, the number of firearms and the influence of the National Rifle Association (NRA), it may be impossible to completely eliminate mass shootings, which are occurring with increasing frequency. But there is a rational solution to preventing a good deal of the mayhem.

The common thread between all mass shooters is their acquisition of an inordinate amount of firearms and ammunition before committing a rampage. Creating a national registry of guns and ammo could provide an automatic warning when an individual is amassing a suspicious number of weapons and shells. Authorities could then further investigate whether that person poses a public threat.

The NRA is strongly opposed to gun registration, but its excuse that it is a slippery slope leading to the confiscation of all weapons is ridiculous. Registering cars has not led to eliminating automobiles. Moreover, registering guns and ammunition does not contradict even the most far-fetched interpretation of the Second Amendment.

Ted Carmely via email

Driving to the 90th Oscars brought home the reality of the Hollywood left’s absolute hypocrisy.

There were checkpoints for passes, bomb detectors, maneuverability. There were street barriers along a designated route. There were fences on the sidewalks, blimps in the air. There were SWAT armored vehicles, police cruisers and motorcycles. I have never seen so many armed officers!

Where were the gun-grabbers?

Where was security at the Parkland High School? The Pulse nightclub? Sandy Hook? Columbine?

Taking firearms from citizens to protect themselves from government overreach, corruption and abject failure … what a concept!

Ever gone through security at LAX? The IRS? A courthouse? The mayor’s office?

Let’s do away with “gun-free” zones, where good people are sitting ducks for aberrant individuals and terrorists.

Enriqué Gascon, Westside Village

Columnist Gets It Just Right

Karen Lehrman Bloch beautifully states where we are in 2018 (“Can We Please Start Over?” March 9).

Simply, she says we are all different, and when people try to make their point(s) by bullying, there can be no dialogue. Just screaming at each other.

Agree to disagree and everything can be discussed. Then, Bloch’s vision of respect for each other’s opinions can become the new norm. Our society requires this approach for effective communication.

Warren J. Potash, Moorpark

David Light’s View

I’d never heard of David Light before reading the “Just Asking” interview with him in the March 9 issue, but I applaud his courage. His statement that his rabbi wife’s group IKAR “was founded during the Bush [43] years, so we were forged in the fires of resistance” was especially stirring.

Chaim Sisman, Los Angeles

Harrell’s Humanity

Thank you for the story about about Lynn Harrell (“Cellist Lynn Harrell’s Meta Moment,” March 9). In an era of almost dystopian combativeness, it was uplifting to read about a fellow traveler whose hands and heart are much bigger than most, sharing his gifts generously with the world.  He is a mensch and it makes me proud to have him within our community. Well done and l’chaim.

Eric Biren, Santa Monica

Reacting to the Rabbis

Reform Rabbi Sarah Bassin confronts Orthodox Rabbi Ari Schwarzberg over the issue of unequal representation of women in Orthodoxy (“Back and Forth,” March 9). She writes, “I literally do not count — in a minyan, as a witness or a rabbi.” Rabbi Schwarzberg responds that “gender and halachah is our community’s foremost issue.”

As a non-Orthodox convert of more than 50 years, who belongs to an Orthodox synagogue and attends daily minyan there, I would reply to Rabbi Schwarzberg’s fear by stating that, indeed, I feel those standards should be changed, which is part of the reason I go to Orthodox services daily. I personally know what it feels like to not count in an existential way that surpasses what Rabbi Bassin has experienced. While she may justifiably complain the she literally does not count as part of the minyan, the plight of the non-Orthodox converts trumps that invisibility by leaps and bounds; we not only don’t count for a minyan, we also don’t even count as being Jewish in Orthodox eyes, and should we happen to also be women converts, we get the double humiliation of not having our children and future generations count as being Jewish in their view.

The commandment that is listed more times in the Torah than any other is to remember and welcome the stranger and treat them with compassion, because we Jews were strangers in Egypt. =We Jews by Choice have transformed our lives for love of God, Torah and Am Israel. We deserve better treatment.

Peter Robinson, Woodland Hills

Trapped in Our Tribes

I love your sense of humor and your honesty, David Suissa! (“Trapped Inside of Our Tribes,” March 2). I read your column several times and really enjoyed it. It is such a truthful reflection of the American political reality.

That is what great journalism is all about: To show those trapped inside their powerful tribes what they look like in reality from outside. Similarly to what Suissa says, I can only pray that more of those in power read it.

Svetlozar Garmidolov, Los Angeles

Liking the New-Look Journal

Ending the stories on the same page (instead of having to search in the back pages for the last two paragraphs) is much appreciated in the Jewish Journal.

I wish you and the Journal a better future and am confident that you seem to have the energy and good sense to achieve that.  However it would be nice if you added some new blood, and let me suggest three Jewish writers I admire: Melanie Phillips, a very strong International woman’s voice; Joel Kotkin, a liberal Jew who is writing amazing pieces about California; and Daniel Greenfield, a religious Jew who writes amazing pieces about everything.

Shura Reininger via email

Living in Ashkefardic Times

I remember the look on Rabbi Elazar Muskin’s face when I asked him if he could transform his very Ashkenazi synagogue, Young Israel of Century, into a Sephardic experience for one very special Shabbat morning — my son’s bar mitzvah.

To say that Rabbi Muskin’s synagogue is very Ashkenazi is like saying that the Lubavitcher Rebbe is Jewish. It’s Ashkenazi plus — and I say this as a compliment. This is a shul without an identity crisis. It knows exactly what it stands for and which traditions, rituals and melodies it enjoys.

But as much as I love the synagogue (I’m a member of several shuls so my kids can experience many traditions), I just couldn’t see myself abandoning centuries of my Moroccan tradition on my son’s special day, especially with an army of Sephardic relatives flying in from Montreal and other places.

So I knew I was asking for a lot. To show some accommodation, I mentioned that I could bring in a Sephardic chazzan who would lead Sephardic services using the shul’s own prayer books. After making a small grimace, the rabbi said, politely, “Well, David, I don’t think we’ve ever done that before, but why not? Let’s do it.”

Why am I telling you this story? Because of something that happened at the conclusion of the services, when longtime member Mark Goldenberg said, as part of his weekly remarks: “For years I thought we had the perfect shul, until I heard Sephardic davening and leining (Torah reading) this morning. Today we had the perfect shul.”

My ancestors could never have imagined a neighborhood like Pico-Robertson, where more than 40 distinct flavors of Judaism perfume the Shabbat air every week.

Maybe he was being polite because of all the out-of-town guests, but I do think Mark’s words speak to something I see more and more in the Jewish community — an embracing of Sephardic culture. It has become common for many of my Ashkenazi friends to serve Sephardic cuisine, sing Sephardic songs and inquire about Sephardic customs.

As you’ll read in our cover story this week on “The Sephardic Spirit,” for the past three years Rabbi Sarah Bassin of Temple Emmanuel of Beverly Hills has organized a celebration of a signature Sephardic custom — the Mimouna party on the night after Passover. Among other examples, Valley Beth Shalom in Encino regularly hosts Sephardic services on Friday nights.

There also seems to be a greater effort among Sephardic groups to reach out to the broader community. One of those groups is the Sephardic Educational Center (SEC), which is co-sponsoring a conference in Los Angeles next week featuring one of the premier Sephardic voices in the country, Rabbi Marc Angel from New York. Among the events will be a Sunday workshop at the Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles to assist Jewish educators in incorporating more of the Sephardic intellectual, cultural and Torah tradition in Jewish education.

Rabbi Angel, as well as his partner at the conference, SEC leader Rabbi Daniel Bouskila, are examples of Sephardic rabbis who love their Sephardic tradition but also feel at home in the Ashkenazi world.

This duality exemplifies the two forces that animate the delicate notion of cultural exchange: the comfort of the familiar versus the thrill of discovering the new.

It’s human nature to get attached to one’s customs, especially when it comes to something intimate like prayer melodies. Melodies have the power to bring back cherished memories of years long gone. We feel a deep bond with rituals and liturgies that have been handed down from one generation to the next and have sustained us for so long.

And yet, we are living in radically different times. My ancestors could never have imagined a neighborhood like Pico-Robertson, where more than 40 distinct flavors of Judaism perfume the Shabbat air every week. In the Casablanca neighborhood where I grew up, there was a grand total of one flavor.

Maybe this is the essential point: All Jewish traditions, by the very fact that they are Jewish, belong to every Jew.

For many of us, this modern mingling is bound to disrupt our habits and ignite our curiosity gene. There are Ashkenazi melodies that bring tears to my eyes; Chassidic melodies that stir my soul. I get to taste them anytime I want. Many years ago, I had a group of Ashkenazi friends at our synagogue in Venice Beach who insisted that we pray Sephardic style on Yom Kippur. They couldn’t get enough of it. They were blown away that these melodies were part of their people’s story. They felt as if the melodies belonged to them as much as they belonged to me.

Maybe this is the essential point: All Jewish traditions, by the very fact that they are Jewish, belong to every Jew. Are the traditions different? How could they not be? Sephardic Jews, who are diverse in their own right, have a unique, rich and varied history, with their own cultural, geographical and religious influences. How could the customs and melodies not be radically different?

But walk into any Ashkenazi and Sephardic synagogue and you’ll discover something comforting and also extraordinary: No matter how radically different our melodies may be, the words themselves are pretty much the same. Just ask Rabbi Muskin.