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Mizrahi culture was suppressed, Ashkenazi culture is simply forgotten

Since the founding of the State of Israel, the Ashkenazi elite has suppressed the Mizrahi culture Jews from Arab countries brought with them. But almost without us noticing, those who led the Zionist project also erased whatever was left of the Ashkenazi traditions from Eastern Europe.

By Edan Ring

A Ukrainian klezmer wedding band, ca. 1925 (Menakhem Kipnis/Yivo Encyclopedia)

Family Day was no different from any other holiday. On this day, too, we received an assignment from our daughter’s kindergarten teacher. Only this time, we were slightly embarrassed. As part of the Family Day (formerly known as the Israeli version of Mother’s Day) celebrations, the kindergarten hosted a big meal, in which every parent was asked to bring an “ethnic dish” that is traditionally made in each home. At first thought, no “ethnic dish” came to either my nor my partner’s mind. After some more thought, we came to the conclusion that neither of us has any culinary tradition that was passed down to us from our grandparents’ homes. Of course, when I was young I ate gefilte fish, matzo breit and kugel on holidays. After my grandmother’s death, however, very little was left of this tradition, which, in any case, took place only once or twice a year. Tradition cannot be summarized only in terms of food, but also in other areas: most descendants of Eastern European Jews will have a hard time finding ways of reconnecting to their past.

I see young Mizrahim around me celebrating and reviving their ancestral cultures. Shortly after the events of Family Day at the kindergarten, I took part in the launch of the new Cafe Gibraltar website. The young Adi Keissar moved me with her words:

“My grandmother loved me with her heavy accent, with her Yemenite talk which I could never understand. As a girl I remember how I feared being alone with her, concerned that I would not understand what she was saying.”

I always understood my grandmother, but mostly because she did not talk much. She was a simple woman, the mother of my father, who, as everyone always said, “could not speak three languages.” As a young Pole, she fled Europe before the Holocaust and arrived in Montevideo, Uruguay, where she was married and had three boys. She wasn’t really able to properly learn Spanish, since she was a housewife. She cooked marvelously, but her children and grandchildren were not smart enough to document her tremendous culinary knowledge and pass it on.

This is how I found myself with sweet potatoes in the oven during my daughter’s Family Day meal. My grandmother moved to Israel with a mix of Yiddish and Spanish and was never able to properly learn Hebrew (she mixed up the gender pronouns until her very last day). Since she spent most of her life on the move, she didn’t have a clear cultural identity. I have no idea what songs were sung to her in her childhood or which stories she told my father. When she moved to Israel with my Zionist grandfather, they were once again considered “immigrants,” and passed the remainder of their lives in a struggle of livelihood, language, identity – and all against the neighboring Mizrahi immigrants.

And what was left for me? If I wanted to go back in time and search for the traces of my Jewish identity and culture, what would I find? Like many other Israelis whose ancestors lived outside of Europe for a generations or two before arriving in Israel, my family also warmly adopted the culture and identity of their intermediate station – in our case Uruguay. Ironically, our need for finding whatever cultural roots we could, turned us into quasi-Uruguayan patriots despite the fact that our Zionist parents traversed half the globe in order to raise us here. When you have no idea how and where your grandparents grew up, you are resigned to being satisfied with the achievements of Uruguay’s soccer team in the World Cup.

Since the founding of the State of Israel, the Ashkenazi elite has suppressed the Mizrahi culture Jews from Arab countries brought with them. But almost without us noticing, those Ashkenazim who led the Zionist project also erased whatever Eastern European Ashkenazi traditions that were left after the Holocaust. In an interview to Haaretz, Attorney Yifat Bitton said that for Asheknazi Jews in Israel,”classical music is also an issue of identity – thus doubly gain: they enjoy the music and they feel at home.” Tell that to my grandmother, who like many other Poles, Romanians and Russians, never heard of Beethoven or Brahms.

The Ashkenazim were on the winning side of the cultural struggle in Israel, and perhaps it is because of this that they did not feel the need to struggle to maintain their cultural identity. But on the losing side remained Ashkenazi culture, which is for the most part, very different from the white, European culture that came to define the new Zionist. These are the last moments in which we can save an Ashkenazi tradition that has nearly disappeared, although it is unclear if there is anyone who will do it.

Edan Ring is a Herzliya-based media consultant for political and social organizations. This piece was first published in Hebrew in Café Gibraltar.

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    1. Aaron Gross

      I don’t know the history, but I thought Ashkenazi culture was actively suppressed by Zionists as well, not just forgotten.

      This was just pure destruction in the name of revolutionary, nationalist ideology. The State of Israel was founded on an ideology that was really pathological in a lot of ways. Luckily, Israelis today don’t really care about those ideological wars their grandparents fought.

      Reply to Comment
    2. Amos

      In the past two decades, a sizable body of scholarship has grown around the idea that “Zionism” or the nascent state of Israel suppressed parts of the diaspora Ashkenazi heritage, most notably the Yiddish language. There is some truth to this, but it does not explain why the preservation and continued use of this culture and language experienced an even greater decline in America. In fact, Yiddish and various parts of Ashkenazi diaspora culture are in much better shape in Israel today than anywhere else in the world.

      Reply to Comment
      • Oriol2

        I think it has much more to do with societal change. Yiddish could survive for centuries in Eastern Europe where Jews practically lived in segregation, but there never was a true Yiddish-speaking country. Even if the Holocaust had never happened, it is highly probable that Yiddish would have gradually faded away in Poland or Lithuania with the modernization of their respective societies. The State of Israel is a different case, of course, because there was some possibility of establishing a Yiddish-speaking country in Palestine. But Zionists, for many reasons, preferred the revival of Hebrew (I think Ber Borokhov actually wanted a Yiddish Israel, but I am not sure, and anyway his point of view was in minority). I think it is fortunate and unfortunate at the same time: fortunate, because now we can enjoy the sounds and the feeling of Modern Hebrew -which in itself constitutes a remarkable linguistic experiment-, but unfortunate because, for the same reasons, another beautiful language like Yiddish became almost extinct.

        Reply to Comment
        • Kolumn9

          Yiddish is nowhere near extinct. It is just almost entirely isolated to the Haredim (both in Israel and the US). As a language it is about as beautiful as Bavarian German.

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          • Oriol2

            Yiddish is supposed to have almost two millions of speakers. Of course it wouldn’t be a nearly extinct language it Yiddish speakers lived all together in a country of reasonable size. But you also have to count with how many people really use it in their day-to-day casual conversation with other people outside their family and close friends, how many young people use it at the same level than their elders, how many are not changing continuously to another language which use exclusively for many functions in life (like English in the USA, Hebrew in Israel), etc. I am pretty sure that the number of people that some linguists would call “normal” speakers of Yiddish is much smaller than two millions. Not that I like it, it is simply a reality. Of course the survival of Yiddish inside socially isolated Haredi communities is a guarantee that the language will survive for a time, but no more than that. Though I know it is not the best comparison, think of Occitan. It is supposed to be spoken by approximately two millions of people -like Yiddish, more or less-, but you could spend many days in South France without overhearing a single conversation in Occitan, except if you stalk old people from rural areas.
            About the beauty of Yiddish, what can I say? All languages are beautiful in some way, and I think that with the decline of Yiddish we have lost something important in European culture. Bavarian German is also beautiful, but I think I prefer Yiddish.

            Reply to Comment
          • Kolumn9

            There are at least 300,000 day-to-day speakers of Yiddish among the Haredim in both Israel and the US including vast numbers of children for whom it is their mother tongue. Occitan and dozens of other languages (Scottish, Welsh, …) can only dream of being in this position. So, the language is nowhere near extinction and that is all I meant by my comment.

            However, you are right. Compared to the nearly universal cultural use of the language in Eastern Europe (literature, theater, radio, etc.. ) before the war its current use is very limited and isolated to a relatively culturally poor section of Jewry. It has survived and will continue to survive but it is a pale shadow of its former glory and there doesn’t appear to be much likelihood that it will make a comeback.

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          • B. Hunt

            Yiddish is spoken at home by only about 19 thousand people. The Yiddish spoken at Yeshivas (men only of course) is of very poor quality and is therefore commonly referred to as ‘Yeshivish’.

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      • Aaron Gross

        Partly because Ashkenazi culture was suppressed in America, too. Not so much by the state, as in Israel, but by society. Immigrants were expected to become “American,” as Israeli `olim were expected to become “Israeli.”

        Reply to Comment
      • Serge

        First, the article is a little odd. There are a bunch of restaurants and cafes in TA and elsewhere which are all about reviving Ashkenazi cuisine and culture. That said, to be clear, Eastern Ashkenazi culture was suppressed because Eastern Ashkenazim suppressed it. They suppressed it because that was what 20th century Western culture was all about — wearing suits and doing western things. This wasn’t just an Ashkenazi thing, it was an everywhere thing. The Persians were doing it. The Turks were doing it (ever heard of Ataturk? the Roman alphabet?). Everyone was doing it. But the Eastern Ashkenazim were especially doing it because, along with that larger 20th c. trend, their culture had always been picked out at as one to be embarrassed about — in Western Europe, in America, and so on — and then, in the biggest pogrom of them all, the Nazis went and killed most of them.

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    3. XYZ

      Although the cultural suppression mentioned here was real, I can find some sort of weak justification for it at the time….Ben-Gurion and the MAPAI-MAPAM-General Zionist establishement saw Jews coming from all around the world, speaking many different languages, many with a rich Jewish cultural and religious background (even if they rejected it when they became adults) but others without. IT was feared that it would not be able to create a national ethos and identity which is VITAL for a nation struggling with so many internal and external challenges. The fact is that they did create a strong national identity, far stronger than the surrounding Arab countries have and it succeeded in holding the people together in very difficult times. The problem was they went too far, were ham-handed about it and didn’t realize that a certain amoung of cultural pluralism can be healthy (e.g. the US) and can still allow the development of a strong national ethos.

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    4. NIZ

      I like 972 because of such articles…but what I didn’t understand is, if mizrahi culture was suppressed and so did the ashkenasi culture…what was the new cultural paradigm. Just a mix of all? Or just American culture?

      Reply to Comment
      • Kolumn9

        There was a strong ideological and cultural push for Israeli Hebrew-speaking sabra new Jew culture disconnected from the countries of origin.

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      • The Trespasser

        These days there is a rather definite Israeli cultural paradigm which includes arts, music, dance and social behaviour.

        A rather wild mix of Ashkenazi, Mizrahi, Russian/Soviet, Ladino and of course USA cultures from different epochs – from 1st Aliya.

        Now, for example, both mizrachi and electronic music are natural to Israel – most widely produced and consumed by people of all origins.

        There was rather distinct cinema, but is nearly extinct these days due to numerous reasons.

        I’m not expert in arts, but they say that Israeli contemporary art is cool.

        Industrial design and hightech, by the way, are among the best, and BDS people would shit bricks if only the would have known the magnitude of Israeli presence on world market. I would not disclose names of companies and schemes, of course.

        Social behaviour… ehm…
        It took worst of all it’s founding cultures, and nearly a century of existential wars haven’t made it any better.

        Reply to Comment
        • Oriol2

          Leaving aside politics, I think Israelis are somewhat prejudiced against their own, as Trespasser puts it, “social behaviour”. Perhaps I am a lucky guy, but during my stays in Israel I always got the feeling that people on the street were much nicer than in your average European country. Be aware that I didn’t write “mannered” in, say, the British meaning of that word, but “nice”.

          Reply to Comment
    5. David

      It’s funny watching Israelis become Americans. When an Israeli asks me where my family is from – I can only say “the US”. “Yeah, but where are they from” they will likely continue.
      Since they came to the US in the 1800s, there is almost no point in specifying the various ancestral inputs, since none are as meaningful as “American”.

      Very shortly this will fully be the case in Israel, with two cultures “dominant” and “minority”. Hell, even at this point, many Israelis don’t really know the differences between Arab Jewish foods and Arab Palestinian foods (obviously +972 readers do – no insult intended).

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    6. Dima

      Hey 972mag, how long are you willing to tolerate such racist slurs by “The Trespasser” on your website?

      »Well, since “non-Whites” invested about 0.001% in modern science and culture, I would not call it “racism”«

      »Since you won’t be able to prove that entire modern civilization was not created by Whites (including Ashkenazi Jews), G-d is unlikely to curse me for telling the truth.«

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    7. ToivoS

      I am puzzled about something. Every town that I have lived in here in the US has had what we called a Jewish Deli — basically serving food that had Eastern European peasant origins that were imported by Jewish immigrants. This is food like smoked white fish, gefeltefish, latkes, borsch and schav soup. Are these not popular foods in Israel today?

      I do notice that that thing called “Israeli cuisine” is indistinguishable from “Arab cuisine” at least to my tastes.

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      • The Trespasser

        >I do notice that that thing called “Israeli cuisine” is indistinguishable from “Arab cuisine” at least to my tastes.

        That is because you have no idea of what you are talking about.

        Arab cuisine of N. Africa is NOTHING like Arab cuisine of Yemen, and there is no gefiltefish in either.

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    8. Dave Boxthorn

      Has it occurred to you that the fact that non-Haredi Ashkenazi culture is dying is because actual non-Haredi Ashkenazis want it that way?

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      • The Trespasser

        No. Because no-one needs this galut cultures anymore.

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    9. Nir

      Here’s the difference between the suppression of European Jewish culture and Oriental Jewish culture:

      In Israel, in 2014 (and for some time now), any one who pays to study at one of the six major Israeli universities can choose to study Yiddish, as a language and as a civilization, of the Jews of Eastern Europe. This includes descendants of European Jews from Pale of Settlement, Poland and other areas in Eastern Europe, who want to rediscover the culture of their countries of origin. No such program exists, as far as I know, for the study of Judeo-Arabic of countries such as Morocco, Syria, Lebanon, Algeria, Egypt or other countries of the Orient.

      If this is not de facto state recognition of one ethnic group’s cultural hegemony over another, I don’t know what is. Yes, Zionism won, but the “mizrahim” are the biggest losers in the game.

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    10. Lynn Hirshman

      Yiddish survives in American English, where many words have been adopted into this eclectic, expansive language. While only a few, like the Haredi, speak the entire language, most Americans not only eat “Jewish” food, as one poster pointed out (bagels, however awful, are ubiquitous) but routinely use Yiddish words in daily conversation — bolstered by their use by ever-popular TV talk-show hosts.

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