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Iranian Jewish Life in Los Angeles: Past and Present

Saba Soomekh, Author

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Stephen S. Wise Temple: Ashkenazi vs. Sephardic

Ashkenazic and Sephardic communities belong to two different subcultures of Judaism. Ashkenazi Jews come from Eastern Europe, Germany, and France, while Sephardic Jews are from Spain, Portugal, Africa, and the Middle East. Most Jews in America are Ashkenazi because of the large population of German and Eastern European Jewish immigrants who arrived in the U.S. between the 1850s and the 1900s. Sephardic Jews are divided into Sephardim and Mizrachi. Sephardim are from Spain and Portugal, and Mizrachi are from the Middle East and North Africa. The beliefs and practices of Sephardic Jews generally tend to accord with those of Orthodox Judaism. To cite one of the differences between Ashkenazi and Sephardic Jews, on Passover, Sephardic Jews eat beans, rice, and corn, while Ashkenazi Jews do not. There are also no clearly-defined individual movements within Sephardic Judaism, as there are in Ashkenazic Judaism. In addition, the physical Torah, the scripture of the Jewish religion, is different for Ashkenazi and Sephardic Jews. For Ashkenazim, Torahs are encased in cloth and wound around two wooden sticks, while Sephardic Jews have a cylindrical Torah case, often plated with silver and gold.

As history shows, Sephardic Jews in their various countries around the world usually tended to be more integrated into the surrounding non-Jewish culture, compared to Ashkenazi Jews. In areas where Ashkenazic Judaism was widely present, there was tension between Christians and Jews. Jews were usually isolated from their non-Jewish neighbors, both through voluntary separation and through imposed exclusion. Additionally, Sephardic and Ashkenazi Jews have different prayer services. Sephardic Jews use different melodies in their services. Holiday customs are also different. For example, Ashkenazi Jews have latkes and Sephardic Jews have jelly doughnuts to celebrate Hanukkah. In addition, the internationally recognized languages used by Sephardic Jews and Ashkenazi Jews are different. For Ashkenazi Jews, Yiddish is most common, while for Sephardic Jews, Ladino is most common.

At the Stephen S. Wise Temple, Rabbi Yoshi is an Ashkenazi Jew. Both Ashkenazi and Sephardic Jews attend services. Rabbi Yoshi discussed the fact that he is able to connect with Sephardic Jews (mostly Persians in this case), even though he an Ashkenazi Jew. Sometimes when a congregant starts speaking Farsi, he might have to ask for an explanation about what is being said. However, he has no objection to this. The main point Rabbi Yoshi emphasizes is that Stephen S. Wise Temple is welcoming to people of all cultures and prides itself on being an inclusive community for all those who would like to practice Judaism.
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