A VOYAGE AROUND THE DIASPORA - By Carrie Hughes


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The story of the Jewish people is a story of a search for a homeland.  The Old Testament narrates the struggles of a small tribe first forced into slavery in Egypt, who then wandered homeless in the desert, before finally arriving in their promised land, which would itself ultimately prove to be a fleeting refuge.  King Solomon’s First Temple was destroyed by the Babylonians in 586 BCE.  After the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 CE, the unifying feature of Jewish life was destroyed, and a gradual dispersal of the Jewish people began.  The conversion of the Roman Emperor to Christianity in 313 CE, and the establishment of Christianity as a state religion, made the Roman Empire even less hospitable to Jews, and their migration accelerated.  Much of that early migration was directed towards the Mediterranean, particularly what is now Spain.  Ancient trade routes along the Red Sea, to Yemen and possibly as far as Ethiopia or India, were dotted with Jewish settlements that also provided sanctuary for the dislocated.

The Diaspora has continued steadily over the intervening centuries, with exile and oppression often further scattering already displaced populations of Jews.  As a result, Jewish communities can now be found all over the world.  Although many commonalities of belief and tradition still link these diverse groups, unique customs have also developed within each group in response to its surrounding cultural environment.  The Mad 7 celebrates the diversity of the Diaspora through its storytellers, each of whom embodies a different cultural realm in which a Jewish community has developed. 

To learn more about the background and unique practices of some of the international Jewish communities from which the Mad 7 storytellers originate, read the descriptions below.  These descriptions explore a few of the many Jewish communities throughout the world.  It is important to note that there is often as diverse a range of practices within various communities as there is between them.  These descriptions are meant to give a sense of some of the traditions historically associated with the groups discussed, but do not necessarily reflect the full diversity of Jewish culture in these regions or around the world.

ASHKENAZI—
Comprising the largest and most well-known community of the Jewish Diaspora, Ashkenazi Jews are descended from medieval Jewish people who arrived in the Rhineland and northern France around 800 CE.  Members later migrated eastward, and in the tenth to nineteenth centuries their presence expanded to Germany, Poland, Hungary, Russia and throughout Eastern Europe.  A large number also immigrated to the US in the nineteenth century.  Though geographically scattered, they were united in their common language, Yiddish (now much less prevalent).  Much of what Americans think of as “Jewish culture” is Ashkenazi, including Klezmer music and dance, along with foods like bagels, gefilte fish, and chopped liver.  The Hasidic movement has its roots in Ashkenazi Judaism.

SEPHARDIC—
The second largest Jewish cultural group, the Sephardic community originated in Spain and Portugal. While initially tolerated there, the conversion of the Visigoth rulers to Catholicism in the sixth century led to aggressive persecution of Jews.  This was alleviated between the eighth and eleventh centuries, when Spain fell under the rule of Muslim Moors.  During this “golden age,” Jews were allowed to practice their religion, participated in secular education and business, and made many artistic and scientific contributions.  In the late fifteenth century, however, King Ferdinand V and Queen Isabella I (in Spain) and King Manuel I (in Portugal) ordered all Jews expelled from their respective countries. Some were absorbed by communities in North Africa and the Middle East; others founded communities in Europe—in Venice, Amsterdam, London and Hamburg, for example.  Still later, many of the first colonial Jewish immigrants to the United States were Sephardic.

Sephardic Jews share a common language, Ladino (derived from Old Castilian with Turkish influences), which many consider the Sephardic equivalent of Yiddish.  The Sephardic tradition is characterized by a unique style of liturgy, with variations in the form and order of the prayers as well as in the Hebrew pronunciation.  Some of the best known Sephardic traditions concern holidays: the Sephardic Hanukah menorah is often an oil lamp instead of a candelabra, for example.  Sephardic Jews are also permitted to eat rice or beans at Passover (forbidden for Ashkenazi Jews), but eating fish and milk, which is permitted in the Ashkenazi tradition, is prohibited.

YEMENITE—
Tradition states that there have been Jews in Yemen from the time of King Solomon, even before the destruction of the First Temple.  A significant population arrived in the second century CE, and the powerful third-century king Abu-Kariba Asad-Toban converted to Judaism, spreading the religion throughout the region.  The situation for Jews deteriorated in the seventh century with the advent of Islam, and continued to decline in the centuries to follow.  In the twentieth century, Yemenite Jews faced harsh persecution, and by 1949, the situation was dangerous enough (following a 1947 Pogrom) that “operation magic carpet” evacuated most Yemeni Jews to Israel.  By 1976, when an American diplomat encountered a remote Jewish community in the north of the country, they were believed to have become extinct.

Yemeni Jews read the Torah in both Hebrew and Aramaic Targum, and worshippers sit on the floor in the synagogue, in contrast to most other Jewish communities.  They also continued to practice prostration well beyond its post-Renaissance decline in popularity among other Jewish traditions.  Because of their tenuous status in a generally Islamic country, they sometimes worshipped in homes rather than synagogues, and their ritual objects, rather than the buildings in which they worship, are more likely to be decorated and embellished even today. Yemeni Jewish tradition also includes the use of Henna for decoration of brides. 

ETHIOPIAN—
Also known as Beta Israel, tradition suggests that Ethiopian Jews are descended either from a group of Moses’s followers who separated after the Exodus, or from members of the tribe of Dan who arrived around the tenth century BCE, at the breakup of the Kingdom of Israel.  Other scholars have proposed that they are descended from Yemeni immigrants who intermarried with a local population, or from Ethiopian Christians who assumed a Jewish identity.  For centuries there was some dispute as to whether or not this group was really Jewish; in the sixteenth century the Chief Rabbi of Egypt proclaimed definitively that they were, and by the nineteenth century most European authorities agreed.  After another period of dispute, Ethiopian Jews were granted “right of return” to Israel in 1973.  Most of the population (85%) resettled in Israel between 1984 and 1991.

Certain unique practices adapted by the Ethiopian Jews have allowed them to preserve their culture and religion despite their isolation from the rest of Jewish society. In the fifteenth century they developed a monastic tradition, which served them in preserving the tenets and practices of their faith until the twentieth century.  Also around the fifteenth century a strict rule of purity called “attenkuan” arose, which required members who had been in contact with outsiders to purify themselves before returning. Restrictive laws prohibited Jews from owning land, so many concentrated on crafts such as masonry, pottery, smithing, carpentry and weaving. 

The Beta Israel liturgy focuses heavily on the Psalms, and is not in Hebrew, but in an earlier Semitic language, Ge’ez.  Traditionally their services occur in small, three-chambered, round prayer-houses.  Prayers are sung, and accompanied by a five-beat rhythm on a drum and metal gong. Ethiopian Jews have a unique holiday, Sigd, celebrated on hilltops outside the villages and involving bowing and prostration.  It celebrates the giving of the Torah, the return from Babylonia to Jerusalem under Ezra and Nehemiah, and Ezra’s injunction against taking Babylonian wives.  Traditionally, Ethiopian Jews are required to confess to a monk or priest once a year, and before death. 

IRANIAN/PERSIAN—
The book of Ezra credits Persian kings with permitting the Jewish return to Jerusalem and the reconstruction of the Temple.  It also indicates that there was, by the late sixth century BCE, a significant and influential Jewish community in Persia (with settlements in what is now Afghanistan, Pakistan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan).  Perhaps the most famous of the Persian Jews is Esther, heroine of the story of Purim, who hid her Jewish identity and married the King of Persia.  When the King’s evil advisor Haman plotted to kill the Jews she revealed her identity, and her people were saved.

As the story of Purim demonstrates, some Persian Jews achieved high rank in the third through seventh centuries CE. During this time the Jews of Iran wrote the Babylonian Talmud, one of the most important documents of Jewish law and commentary. While the introduction of Islam in the mid-seventh century did not significantly affect Persian Jews, the early sixteenth-century establishment of Shiitism and the foundation of the Safavid Dynasty was the beginning of a harsh period for Jews, which lasted until the Constitutional revolution at the beginning of the twentieth century.  The Islamic revolution in 1979 led once again to hardships for the Jews, though Iran still holds the second largest population of Jews (outside of Israel) in the Middle East.

Iranian Jews have a tradition of carefully blending in to the larger society.  For example, they typically hang their mezuzahs on the inside of the doorframe, rather than the outside, and give their children Arabic, Persian, or even Islamic names.  They have also proved instrumental in the preservation of certain elements of Persian culture.  Because of strict prohibition of secular music by Shiite authorities, the preservation of Persian music fell to religious minorities, including Jews, as did the process of wine-making. 

INDIAN—
There are several distinct Jewish communities in India.  The community depicted in The Mad 7 is the Cochin Jews, who live in the Southern part of India.  Jews came to live in Cochin in several waves.  The first arrived during the time of King Solomon and after the destruction of the Second Temple.  Later immigrants arrived over the ensuing centuries from Holland, Portugal, the Middle East, North Africa, and Spain. 

Under the protection of a Hindu Raja who granted them land for a town, the Jews found Cochin to be a relatively safe place.  In fact, Cochin Jews have experienced an uncharacteristic degree of tolerance and freedom from anti-Semitism over the course of their history.  However, the community also has a tradition of Zionism, and the promise of economic opportunity, the ability to lead a more religious life, and the chance to build a Jewish state inspired many to immigrate to Israel.  Now most members of the community have moved west, where they continue to have a vibrant community.

Worship among Cochin Jews contains a combination of Sephardic, Yemenite and Baghdadi elements, with unique ancient melodies and prayers.  Unlike other Orthodox Jewish communities, they have no prohibitions against women singing in public, and so prayers and narrative songs are often performed by women.  Many women are also taught to read Hebrew and follow the ritual in synagogue. Even in the nineteenth century, girls were registered in the Jewish schools, and the Jewish population had a much higher literacy rate than their non-Jewish neighbors.