Academic journal article Sociological Papers

Ethnic Synagogues of Mizrahi Jews in Israel: Ethnicity, Orthodoxy, and Nationalism

Academic journal article Sociological Papers

Ethnic Synagogues of Mizrahi Jews in Israel: Ethnicity, Orthodoxy, and Nationalism

Article excerpt


The present paper is about the ethnic synagogues of Mizrahi Jews in Israel. (1) In the following pages I discuss two salient trends in congregational sociology in the "generation of the State," i.e., the second and third generations following the mass immigration from Islamic countries.

The first trend is the ethnic heterogenization of congregations. It stems from geographic mobility, secularization, and the evolution of a Mizrahi discourse that reflects the common sociocultural experience of many Jews from Islamic countries in the environments in which they grew up. Heterogenization has led to a more complex model of an ethnic synagogue, changing it from a place that expresses the culture and heritage of a single ethnic group into a multi-ethnic place.

The second trend is the religious homogenization of the Mizrahi ethnic synagogue in the generation of the State. This trend originates in haredization and Orthodox socialization processes among some of the Jews from Islamic countries, as well as local responses to these processes. This trend has resulted in four types of ethnic synagogues, distinguished not by place of origin but by religious character: synagogues based on traditionalist Jews, spiritual centers of the teshuva movement, batei midrash (prayer and study centers) of Sephardic bnei Torah (haredi yeshiva graduates), and Sephardic synagogues in religious Zionist communities.

Neither of the two trends is always evident to observers. They certainly cannot be seen in a brief visit or discerned from statistics. Therefore, this paper is based on a large number of observations that I conducted in recent years in approximately 34 ethnic synagogues and on changes in the liturgy of Mizrahi synagogues in Israel. From an inductive standpoint, the findings are limited to (1) synagogues that follow the "Sephardic and edot ha-mizrah" rite; (2) urban synagogues; (3) ethnic synagogues founded by Jews who arrived in Israel during the mass immigration of the 1950s and still rely on a fairly active membership. In other words, the paper does not tell us anything about ethnic synagogues of Jews from Yemen and Aden; nor does it tell us about ethnic synagogues in the rural periphery or synagogues that are merely historical monuments whose unique character is being preserved in part by outsiders for tourism purposes or other reasons.

The paper consists of two parts. In the first part I discuss the major trends in ethnic synagogues in the generation of the State--the change from mono-ethnic to multi-ethnic synagogues and from synagogues based on ethnicity to synagogues based in part on religious divisions. In the second part I show how the liturgy, as seen in prayer books, reflects these processes.

1. The sociology of Mizrahi ethnic synagogues in the State of Israel

Mizrahi ethnic synagogues in Israel

An ethnic synagogue is a place of worship organized around the preservation of its founders' cultures of origin. In scholarship on Israeli society, the term "ethnic synagogue" refers to a house of worship for Jews from Islamic countries (Mizrahim) (Deshen, 1969; Shokeid, 1995). Whereas Israeli synagogues established by European Jews (Ashkenazim) are perceived as being organized on the basis of ideology and social support systems, synagogues of Jews from Islamic countries are described as striving mainly to perpetuate the heritage and culture of the community of origin. Although one can disagree with this assertion on the grounds that religious Zionist and haredi synagogues are also ethnic synagogues, I believe that the assertion is true. Nevertheless, it is not part of the discussion in this paper. The discussion here focuses mainly on changes in the sociology of Mizrahi ethnic synagogues (Tabory, 1983; 1993).

Israeli society is a society of immigrants, and Mizrahi ethnic synagogues reflect this trait. The stories I have heard about the founding of ethnic synagogues attest to a commitment to the repertoire of traditions and customs of the ethnic group to which the founders--immigrants in the past or present--belonged. …

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