While there is no denying that Sephardim have lived in the Land of Israel for close to five centuries, dating almost to the expulsion of the Jews from Spain and Portugal, the truth is that for more than half a century before the establishment of the modern State of Israel, and for the most part of half a century afterward, there was Ashkenazi hegemony.
Admittedly there have been two non-Ashkenazi presidents of Israel (out of a total of ten); there has yet to be a Sephardi prime minister, although there have been two Sephardi foreign ministers; and there have been four non-Ashkenazi defense ministers of which only one is a Moroccan-born Sephardi.
Until the advent of Culture and Sport Minister Miri Regev, other than mayors of peripheral towns and cities, there were only token Sephardim in high positions, including in the world of entertainment.
Regev became the national Sephardi booster, and suddenly the Ashkenazim began to feel as if they were being put out to pasture.
Letting the ethnic genie out of the bottle, certainly put far greater focus on North African and Arabic culture.
But the ethnic genie is not confined to a single bottle.
There is also an Ashkenazi ethnic genie whose interests are being protected by an organization called Forum 21.
Forum 21 wants to create a platform for research into what it calls “authentic Ashkenazi contributions” to Israeli culture and to Jewish culture in general.
This is somewhat problematic because the word Ashkenazi in Hebrew means German, and Ashkenazim are not represented by German Jews alone, nor are all members of Ashkenazi communities and congregations necessarily Ashkenazi by lineage.
Spanish and Portuguese Jews, who initially went to other parts of Europe and did not assimilate or convert, were not always in refugee cluster communities, and so joined the communities in the villages, towns and cities in which they settled, becoming members of Ashkenazi congregations simply because they were Jewish and there was no Sephardi alternative.
Forum 21 was established by Israelis of diverse backgrounds and ages, whose common denominator is their Ashkenazi identity.
Due to the variety of different ethnic and religious groups in Israel that have built or are building their own museums, the members of Forum 21 assert that there should also be an Ashkenazi Museum.
The Forum 21 executive says that there is not a single museum in Israel that adequately gives expression to Ashkenazi contributions to literature, art, music, dance, medicine, philosophy, politics, and so much more during a thousand years of dispersion around the globe.
Ashkenazi cultural creativity continues to this day, says Daniel Galay – a Yiddishist who directs Leyvik House-Yiddish Center in Tel Aviv and who is also a composer and musician. Galay, who is one of the founders of Forum 21 was born in neither Europe nor Israel, but in Buenos Aires, Argentina.
Though aware that Beit Hatfutsot, the Museum of the Jewish People deals to a significant extent with the history and creativity of Ashkenazi Jews, Galay speaks of something more comprehensive in terms of content, and specifically, a museum that is dedicated only to the Jews of the west, to the exclusion of those from the east who have their own museums.
Congregations of Ashkenazi Jews in Central and Eastern Europe date back to the ninth century says Galay, adding that according to Rabbinic literature they began to move from Germany to neighboring countries such as Bohemia, Austria, Northern Italy, and England. In the 14th century they began to move in greater numbers to Eastern Europe, especially to places such as Lithuania. In the 19th century, there was mass migration out of Eastern Europe, primarily to America and Israel, but to many other countries as well.
The Ashkenazim made great contributions in many fields in their host countries, and many brought their skills and talents to Israel.
The Ashkenazi prayer book differs from that of the Sephardim, and the general preference, still prevalent among the ultra Orthodox is to converse in Yiddish rather than in the Holy tongue that should be reserved for prayers and Torah study.
The museum would contain examples of the Ashkenazi mode of dress in different countries, against a backdrop of Yiddish songs, Holy Books, photographs of Ashkenazi Jews who achieved renown in America, and their life styles compared to those of their forebears in pre-Holocaust Europe.
A special gallery in the museum will be dedicated to Jewish suffering, resistance and heroism during the Holocaust and the absorption of Holocaust survivors in the various countries in which they settled after the war.
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