Temple Beth Israel hosted Rabbi Rifat Sonsino, a Turkish Sephardi, for a weekend of hands-on learning about Sephardic Judaism
Dinner, Shabbat service, a Torah reading. In some ways, it was a normal weekend at Temple Beth Israel.
But it was not. The congregation of TBI stepped out of its comfort zone to learn more about the customs and history of Sephardic Judaism, welcoming Rabbi Rifat Sonsino, a Sephardic Jew from Turkey, for its Scholar in Residence program.
Historically, Jewish people have been classified into three main groups. The ancestors of Sephardi Jews came from the Iberian peninsula before leaving for lands such as North Africa and Anatolia in the late 15th century, around the time of the Spanish Reconquista. However, the vast majority of American Jews are considered Ashkenazi, which means their ancestors hail from central and eastern Europe. (The third group is the Mizrahi Jews of the Middle East.) TBI Executive Director Isaac Azerad, who was born in Egypt, said he is the only Sephardic Jew in TBI’s congregation.
This means that Sonsino essentially had a blank slate with which to teach the congregants. Some of that exposure came through the three presentations Sonsino gave about topics relating to the history of Sephardim as well as differences between Sephardic and Ashkenazi customs and culture. Questions were encouraged and the views of many who had grown up learning about Judaism through the lens of their own personal experiences were challenged.
But it also permeated into the most essential of Jewish traditions, such as the different melodies and intonations Sephardi Jews use when reading the Torah at Shabbat.
And of course, the weekend kicked off Friday night with over 100 people in attendance for a Sephardi-style feast. Those in attendance were also treated to Sephardic music, featuring guitar, harp, finger-cymbals and more, from Juan De la Sierra, who dressed the part in garb that would have been worn by Sephardis in western Turkey about 100 years ago.
De la Sierra, who has been performing for about 60 years, played some songs that many in attendance were familiar with, to which they sung along. But he also played songs that were completely foreign to the audience, though he urged them to echo his wailing chorus of “Sueños de España” (which translates to “Dreams of Spain”) all the same.
Sonsino said he felt it was important for the congregants of TBI to learn about and be exposed to Sephardic Judaism so they can fully understand that Jewish people come from a wide variety of backgrounds and cultures. Sonsino learned that lesson himself when he had to adapt to a new style of worship after traveling from Turkey to Cincinnati to learn at Hebrew Union College while in his 20s.
“There is no area in which Sephardic Jews and Ashkenazi Jews did not disagree,” Sonsino said. “On theology, on religious practices, languages. Primarily language, because Sephardic Jews speak Spanish, Ladino, and Ashkenazi Jews come with Yiddish.”
Sonsino said just as the differences between Catholics and Protestants or Shiites and Sunnis make it impossible (among other reasons) to generalize Christians and Muslims, so too there are dangers in generalizing Jews.
“People who belong to a certain group sometimes are not aware that there are other ways of practicing Judaism,” Sonsino said. “And when they experience the other type of Judaism, they tend to say, ‘Well, that's not Judaism.’ Well, who's to say that? It's important to learn about each other and learn how to respect differences.”