The great divide

Moshav BorgataMoshav Borgata

"Kapara sheli"(a term of endearment that literally means ''my sacrifice'') she yells out, shoving the head of the young child she adores so far into her generous bust that I fear he might suffocate. The little boy gives his aunt a quick hug and runs back to conquer the bright coloured plastic playground equipment, leaving her sipping on her diet cola, clutching at her straw with her long shiny squared off nails which have been lacquered, polished and glued.  Her honey coloured skin glows with Mediterranean warmth, her blonde hair, streaked, straightened, stripped and coloured expose her tribal ancestry only by the slightest suggestion of darker roots that lay beneath the surface.

"Sephardi" he says. "Moroccan."

"And what about her?" I ask, pointing to a mother sitting on the bench in a pair of loose fisherman''s pants, a toddler at her feet.
"Ashkenazi" he replies, "for sure, for sure."                                                                                
"How do you know?"  I ask. I can never tell.                                                                                   
"She''s not waving her arms up in the air and shouting. She sits quietly in her corner and says ''come to mummy, come to mummy''."                      
I am fascinated by the cultural cholent of this country, where Arab-Afro tribalism meets post Renaissance Europe in the park.                                                                                                           
"So do you have any Ashkenazi friends?" I ask, wondering about the ''melting pot'' I expected to find amongst the children of migrants.
"Just you" he replies.
I thought so.

I remember an old sepia photograph my mother showed me of a great-great aunt in a slim long cream wedding dress. The woman was small and dark of skin, hair and eyes. I immediately concluded that we did have Sephardi blood in our family line after all, but my mother was quick to correct me. She pointed out that the prejudice in those days was so great that no self respecting Askenazi family would have allowed such a union to take place. I was a little disappointed. Now I am a little surprised to come across the opposite situation, where I find amongst the Sephardim of my generation a certain inverse judgement. 

Driving through a small moshav near Kfar Yona, Gadi reads out family names engraved on wooden decorative signposts to illustrate that this is dominantly an Ashkenazi moshav: Sigal, Tzinger and Rotenshtein, to name just some. He pronounces the names slowly, mimicking the methodical ways of the Ashkenazim.  I feel like I am back home in the Polish-Hungarian enclave of Sydney''s homogenistic Jewish community. These are names I am innately familiar with, and I imagine inside these cottages live people whose cultural norms are the same as mine; macaroni and cheese for lunch, chicken soup and roast chicken on white linen table cloths for Friday night dinner. 

Sitting around with friends later I ask about the differences between the Ashkenzi and Sephardi cultures and communities in Israel today. We generalize and conclude that the second generation of Israeli Sephardim look to ''cool down'' the overexcited heat and passion of the vibrant, sometimes aggressive family homes in which they grew up. They deny their tribal roots by dying them blonde as it were, and dressing them in designer labels. The Ashkenazi children who grew up in the ''cooler'' culture of European homes, look to add  colour, warmth and passion - the missing ingredients in the controlled, formal, often suppressed and sometimes depressed homes in which they were raised. They search for their tribal roots by embracing foreign cultural and religious styles and practices often found along their post army travels, in places like India and South America.  

When asked, my friend Hagit refuses to give away her Yemenite origins, she simply replies "I am Israeli." Hagit knows more about Chopin and Bach than I do, she speaks three languages fluently, one of which she teaches to the crop of Israeli officers, and her children are students of medicine and law. Her cultural family life is a far cry from the home in which she grew up, caring for her younger eleven siblings when her parents arrived with little from Yemen some sixty years ago. At the age of twelve, Hagit was offered a place in an Israeli institution where she would be schooled and housed, because her parents simply couldn’t afford to keep her at home, and because she was clearly a brilliant student - a potential asset to the country. She was duly schooled on an Ashkenazi diet of classical music, manners and literature, and she married an Ashkenazi. Her children are not alone in having parents from two sides of the great divide, and it is here in this third generation that I find the union of cultures I seek. Hagit''s children are neither Ashkenazi nor Sephardi, they are in many ways both, they are the cultural melting pot of this country, they are Israeli.