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Judaism (Sephardic rite)
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Mizrahi Jews or Mizrahim (Hebrew: מזרחים), also referred to as Adot HaMizrach (עֲדוֹת-הַמִּזְרָח) (Communities of the East; Mizrahi Hebrew: ʿAdot(h) Ha(m)Mizraḥ), are Jews descended from the Jewish communities of the Babylonian era in the Middle East and parts of the Caucasus (the Mashriq, meaning "East" in Arabic) as defined during the Middle Ages). The term Mizrahi is used in Israel in the language of politics, media and some social scientists for Jews from mostly Arab-ruled geographies and adjacent, primarily Muslim-majority countries. This includes descendants of Babylonian Jews from modern Iraq, Syria, Bahrain, Azerbaijan, Iran, India, Uzbekistan, Kurdish areas and Jews from Afghanistan and Pakistan. Yemenite and Georgian Jews are usually included within the Mizrahi Jews group. Today, some also expand the definition of Mizrahim to Maghrebi and Sephardic, though both the latter have a different historical background. Hence, Sephardi and Maghrebi Jews with roots from Morocco, Algeria, Northern and Eastern Sudan, Tunisia, Libya or Turkey are erroneously grouped into the Mizrahi category for various reasons.
Despite their heterogeneous dispersion, Mizrahi Jews generally practice rites identical or similar to traditional Sephardic Judaism, although with some differences among the minhagim of the particular communities. This has resulted in a conflation of terms, particularly in Israel, and in religious usage, where "Sephardi" is used in a broad sense to include Mizrahi Jews and Maghrebi Jews as well as Sephardim proper. Indeed, from the point of view of the official Israeli rabbinate, any rabbis of Mizrahi origin in Israel are under the jurisdiction of the Sephardi Chief Rabbi of Israel. Today Sephardic rite make up more than half of Israel's Jewish population, and Mizrahi Jews proper are a major part of them. Before the mass immigration of 1,000,000 from the former Soviet Union, mostly of Ashkenazi rite, followers of the Sephardic rite made up over 70% of Israel's Jewish population.
"Mizrahi" is literally translated as "Eastern", מזרח (Mizraḥ), Hebrew for "east." In the past the word "Mizrahim," corresponding to the Arabic word Mashriqiyyun (Easterners), referred to the natives of Syria, Iraq and other Asian countries, as distinct from those of North Africa (Maghribiyyun). In medieval and early modern times the corresponding Hebrew word ma'arav was used for North Africa. In Talmudic and Geonic times, however, this word "ma'arav" referred to the land of Israel as contrasted with Babylonia. For this reason many object to the use of "Mizrahi" to include Moroccan and other North African Jews.
The term Mizrahim or Edot Hamizraḥ, Oriental communities, grew in Israel under the circumstances of the meeting of waves of Jewish immigrants from the Europe, North Africa, Middle East and Central Asia, followers of Ashkenazi, Sephardic and Yemenite rites. In modern Israeli usage, it refers to all Jews from Central and West Asian countries, many of them Arabic-speaking Muslim-majority countries. The term came to be widely used more by so-called Mizrahi activists in the early 1990s. Since then in Israel it has become an accepted semi-official and media designation.
Interestingly, most of the "Mizrahi" activists were actually originated from North African Jewish communities, traditionally called "Westerners" (Maghrebi), rather than "Easterners" (Mashreqi). Many Jews originated from Arab and Muslim countries today reject "Mizrahi" (or any) umbrella description and prefer to identify themselves by their particular country of origin, or that of their immediate ancestors, e.g. "Moroccan Jew", or prefer to use the old term "Sephardic" in its broader meaning.
Today, many identify all non-Ashkenasi rite Jews as Sephardic - in modern Hebrew "Sfaradim", mixing ancestral origin and religious rite. This broader definition of "Sephardim" as including all, or most, Mizrahi Jews is also common in Jewish religious circles. During the past century, the Sephardic rite absorbed the unique rite of the Yemenite Jews and lately the Ethiopian Jewish religious leaders in Israel have also joined the Sefardic rite collectivities, especially following rejection of their Jewishness by Ashkenasi and Hassidic circles.
The reason for this classification of all Mizrahim under Sephradic rite is that most Mizrahi communities use much the same religious rituals as Sephardim proper due to historical reasons. The prevalence of the Sephardic rite among Mizrahim is partially a result of Sephardim proper joining some of Miarahi communities following the 1492 expulsion from Sepharad (Spain and Portugal), though deeper historical reasons include the adoption of the Babylonian Talmud by both Mazrahi Jews and Sephradic Jews, as compared with the Jerusalem Talmud among the Ashkenasi (also Hassidic) and to some degree Mustaarbi Jews. Over the last few centuries, the previously distinctive rites of the Mizrahi communities were influenced, superimposed upon or altogether replaced by the rite of the Sephardim, perceived as more prestigious. Even before this assimilation, the original rite of many Jewish Oriental communities was already closer to the Sephardi rite than to the Ashkenazi one. For this reason, "Sephardim" has come to mean not only "Spanish Jews" proper but "Jews of the Spanish rite", adhering the Babylonian Talmud, just as "Ashkenazim" is used for "Jews of the German rite", whose ancestors spoke the Judeo-German, Yiddish language, adhering the Jerusalem Talmud.
Many of the Sephardic Jews exiled from Spain resettled in greater or lesser numbers in many Arabic-speaking countries, such as Syria and Morocco. In Syria, most eventually intermarried with and assimilated into the larger established communities of Arabic-speaking Jews and Mizrahi Jews. In North African countries, by contrast, where the Sephardim came to outnumber the pre-existing Maghrebi Jewish communities it was some of the latter who assimilated into the more prosperous and prestigious Sephardic communities. In Morocco a distinction remained with the purely Sephardic Gerush Castilia of the Spanish-speaking northern strip who kept their Judeo-Spanish language known as Haketia. Either way, this assimilation, combined with the use of the Sephardic rite, led to the popular designation and conflation of most non-Ashkenasi Jewish communities from the Middle East and North Africa as "Sephardic" rite, whether or not they were descended from Spanish Jews, which is what the terms "Sephardic Jews" and "Sepharadim" properly implied when used in the ethnic as opposed to the religious sense.
In many Arab countries, older Arabic-speaking Jewish communities distinguished between themselves and the newer arrivals speaking Judeo-Romance languages, that is, Sephardim expelled from Spain in 1492 and Portugal in 1497. The established Arabic-speaking Jews called themselves Musta'arabim (Arabic for Arabizers), while the newer Sephardi arrivals called them Moriscos (Ladino for Moorish).
Most of the so-called Oriental Jewish or Mizrahi communities spoke Arabic, although Arabic is now mainly used as a second language, especially by the older generation. Most of the many notable philosophical, religious and literary works of the Jews in the Orient were written in Arabic using a modified Hebrew alphabet.
Among other languages associated with Mizrahim are Judeo-Persian (Dzhidi), Georgian, Bukhori, Kurdish, Juhuri, Marathi, Judeo-Malayalam and called by some Judeo-Aramaic dialects. Most Persian Jews speak standard Persian.
Neo-Aramaic is a Semitic language closely related to Hebrew. It is identified as a "Jewish language", since it is the language of major Jewish texts such as the Talmud and Zohar, and many ritual recitations such as the Kaddish. Traditionally, Aramaic has been a language of Talmudic debate in yeshivoth, as many rabbinic texts are written in a mixture of Hebrew and Aramaic. As spoken by the Kurdish Jews, Jewish Neo-Aramaic dialects are descended from Jewish Babylonian Aramaic, also known as "Assyrian lettering" (Ktav Ashurit), the "square-script", by Ezra the Scribe, as could be seen from its hundreds of reflexes in Jewish Neo-Aramaic. The Assyrian language is still spoken by Assyrian people.
By the early 1950s, virtually the entire Jewish community of Kurdistan—a rugged, mostly mountainous region comprising parts of Turkey, Syria, Iraq, Iran, and the Caucasus, where Jews had lived since antiquity—relocated to Israel. The vast majority of Kurdish Jews, who were primarily concentrated in northern Iraq, left Kurdistan in the mass aliyah (emigration to Israel) of 1950-51. This ended thousands of years of Jewish history in what had been Assyria and Babylonia.
In 2007, a book was published, authored by Mordechai Zaken, describing the unique relationship between Jews in urban and rural Kurdistan and the tribal society under whose patronage the Jews lived for hundreds of years. Tribal chieftains, or aghas, granted patronage to the Jews who needed protection in the wild tribal region of Kurdistan; the Jews gave their chieftains dues, gifts and services. The text provides numerous tales and examples about the skills, maneuvers and innovations used by Kurdistani Jews in their daily life to confront their abuse and extortion by greedy chieftains and tribesmen. The text also tells the stories of Kurdish chieftains who saved and protected the Jews unconditionally.
After the establishment of the State of Israel and subsequent 1948 Arab-Israeli War, most Mizrahi Jews were either expelled by their Arab rulers or chose to leave and emigrated to Israel. Roughly half of Israeli Jews are of Mizrahi or Sephardi origin.
Anti-Jewish actions by Arab governments in the 1950s and 1960s, 25,000 Mizrahi Jews from Egypt left after the 1956 Suez Crisis, led to the overwhelming majority of Mizrahim leaving Arab countries. They became refugees. Most went to Israel. Many Moroccan and Algerian Jews went to France. Thousands of Lebanese, Syrian and Egyptian Jews emigrated to the United States and to Brazil.
Today, as many as 40,000 Mizrahim still remain in communities scattered throughout the non-Arab Muslim world, primarily in Iran, but also Uzbekistan, Azerbaijan, and Turkey. There are few Maghrebim remaining in the Arab world too. About 5,000 remain in Morocco and fewer than 2,000 in Tunisia. Other countries with remnants of ancient Jewish communities with official recognition, such as Lebanon, have 100 or fewer Jews. A trickle of emigration continues, mainly to Israel and the United States.
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Refuge in Israel was not without its tragedies: "in a generation or two, millennia of rooted Oriental civilization, unified even in its diversity,” had been wiped out, writes Mizrahi scholar Ella Shohat. The trauma of rupture from their countries of origin was further complicated by the difficulty of the transition upon arrival in Israel; Mizrahi immigrants and refugees were placed in rudimentary and hastily erected tent cities (Ma'abarot) often in development towns on the peripheries of Israel. Settlement in Moshavim (cooperative farming villages) was only partially successful, because Mizrahim had historically filled a niche as craftsmen and merchants and most did not traditionally engage in farmwork. As the majority left their property behind in their home countries as they journeyed to Israel, many suffered a severe decrease in their socio-economic status aggravated by their cultural and political differences with the dominant Ashkenazi community. Furthermore, a policy of austerity was enforced at that time due to economic hardships.
Mizrahi immigrants arrived with many mother tongues. Many, especially those from North Africa and the fertile crescent, spoke Arabic dialects; those from Iran and Central Asia (Uzbekistan and Tajikistan) spoke Persian; Baghdadi Jews from India arrived with English; the Bene Israel from Maharashtra, India arrived with Marathi, Mizrahim from elsewhere brought Georgian, Judaeo-Georgian, Tajik, Juhuri and various other languages with them. Hebrew had historically been a language only of prayer for most Jews not living in Israel, including the Mizrahim. Thus, with their arrival in Israel, the Mizrahim retained culture, customs and language distinct from their Ashkenazi counterparts.
The cultural differences between Mizrahi and Ashkenazi Jews impacted the degree and rate of assimilation into Israeli society, and sometimes the divide between Eastern European and Middle Eastern Jews was quite sharp. Segregation, especially in the area of housing, limited integration possibilities over the years. Intermarriage between Ashkenazim and Mizrahim is increasingly common in Israel and by the late 1990s 28% of all Israeli children had multi-ethnic parents (up from 14% in the 1950s). It has been claimed that intermarriage does not tend to decrease ethnic differences in socio-economic status, however that does not apply to the children of inter-ethnic marriages.
Although social integration is constantly improving, disparities persist. A study conducted by the Israeli Central Bureau of Statistics (ICBS), Mizrahi Jews are less likely to pursue academic studies than Ashkenazi Jews. Israeli-born Ashkenazim are up to twice more likely to study in a university than Israeli-born Mizrahim. Furthermore, the percentage of Mizrahim who seek a university education remains low compared to second-generation immigrant groups of Ashkenazi origin, such as Russians. According to a survey by the Adva Center, the average income of Ashkenazim was 36 percent higher than that of Mizrahim in 2004.
Also, almost all the elite is Ashkenazim. The only high-ranking politician of Mizrahim origin has been President Moshe Katsav, who has been impeached and given a long prison sentence.
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