Us and them

This morning I walked to the nearby shopping center of Ramat Eshkol. That is one of the neighborhoods created soon after 1967. It is technically over the "Green Line" marking the armistice of 1948, but no one in their right mind would consider handing it over to the Palestinians. Originally its population was very much like that of French Hill (which is even further over the Green Line, but well within what the Jews consider to be Jerusalem). Ramat Eshkol was upper middle class with both secular and religious families. However, its fate was to abut the ultra-Orthodox neighborhoods centered on Bar Ilan Street. There the housing is congested and the population poor. Riding the bus through the area evokes images from what Bashevis Singer described Jewish sections of Poland before World War II. Men and women getting on the bus avoid sitting next to one another. Men might  pass their time studying a page of Talmud, and women move their lips as they read from Psalms.

Ramat Eshkol remains upscale, but is now almost entirely ultra-Orthodox. The combination of those economic and religious traits translates into young ultra-Orthodox families who have migrated recently to Israel, disproportionately from the United States and Britain. They may have occupational qualifications not found among Israeli-educated ultra-Orthodox, or are living off the generosity of families who see it as an obligation to support offspring in the Promised Land. 


The atmosphere of Ramat Eshkol is that of a well to do Ashkenazi ultra-Orthodox neighborhood, but I encountered a surprise as I walked past the supermarket. On a poster board was a pashkevil that cried shame on the activity of Ashkenazi rabbis. 





The term pashkevil is itself interesting for what it says about religious discourse in Israel. It is Yiddish for a poster, most often one that condemns what the author considers to be improper behavior. In this case, the poster is anything but a product of the Yiddish speaking (Ashenazi) ultra-Orthodox.


Translation is not easy, insofar as the Hebrew of the ultra-Orthodox has its own connotations. The best I can do by way of conveying its meaning without crossing the borders of what might be viewed as indecent is:




A despicable act was done in Israel in the form of shouting defamation by lowly and impertinent liars against our esteemed Rabbis, Masters and Teachers Ovadia Yosef and Chief Rabbi Shlomo Moshe Amar.




Lithuanian (i.e., Ashkenazi) rabbis convert women for money. They are marginal figures who desecrate the issue of Who is a Jew and the word “Halacha” (religious law). Crime surrounds their activity.


The hypocrites have no right to deliberate the issue of conversion.


We are suffering the results of their abominable cheapening of the word “Halacha.”


The same small, vile and loud group that would dictate their point of view know that they act against the great Hasidim, the important Sephardi judges of the law and great teachers of this generation who do not follow blindly those who wish to dictate.


THE NEXT CHAPTER IS TO EXPOSE... the creatures were converted to Judaism in exchange for money by the impotent Lithuanian rabbi. You will know it soon.


If there is anyone out there who thought of religious Jews as a unified bloc, this pashkevil should correct that impression. The issue involved might reflect rabbinical arguments about the conversions associated with courses of study established for military recruits by the rabbis affiliated with the IDF, or some other squabble in the murky area of conversion. Realize that the quarrels at issue here are not those between Orthodox and Reform or Conservative rabbis about the demands made on candidates for conversion, but quarrels involving Orthodox or even ultra-Orthodox rabbis.


The Sephardi ultra-Orthodox who view Ovadia Yosef and Shlomo Amar as their Rabbis, Teachers and Masters trace their heritage mostly to North Africa, although Rabbi Ovadia is an Iraqi by origin. Ovadia and several other leaders of the community received their education in Ashkenazi religious academies (yeshivot), but have led their followers to protest their lack of full acceptance by the Ashkenazim, and to identify with traditions of the Sephardim. What they have produced is a mixture of Ashkenazi wanna bees, who dress like some of the Ashkenazi communities, but emphasize their own culture. They assert the equality or superiority of their traditions and their learning with those of the Ashkenazim. Ashkenazi ultra-Orthodox may look upon the Sephardim as less knowledgable about religious law and less strict about observing rules of kashrut, Shabbat, and modesty. The Ashkenazim may reject Sephardi children as pupils in their schools, and avoid arranging marriages across communal lines.


The pashkevil posted in Ramat Eshkol reflects this tension between Ashkenazim and Sephardim, and asserts the superiority of the Sephardi rabbis. Yet it does not identify any rabbi as its author. Thus it may result from the enthusiasm of a Sephardi yeshiva bocher (yet another Yiddish term adopted by the Sephardim), or perhaps the work of an Ashkenazi yeshiva bocher who may think he is doing the Lord''s work by inciting tension between his people and those he considers inferior.


Israelis must be sensitive to cultural boundaries that hinder communication, and produce more confusion than clarity in the communication that does occur. While the common view from the outside is that the principal boundary is between Jew and Arab, no less problematic is that between secular and religious Jews, or between Sephardi and Ashkenazi ultra-Orthodox.