TORONTO — Growing up in New York, Kalman Weiser learned Ashkenzi customs and language.
However, Weiser, Silber family professor of modern Jewish studies at York University where he also teaches Yiddish, would go to events with his mother’s family, who were Romaniote Jews, a tiny religious minority from Greece.
He attended a Sephardi synagogue, though, and was baffled as to why certain congregants did not wear a tallit or why they wrapped their tfillin in a different way.
“When you’re a kid and you haven’t thought about these things, it’s quite shocking,” Weiser said.
“It was good for my educational enlightenment, but it was confusing. All this led me to always be curious about that stuff."
Weiser said his fascination with these cultures helped inspire him to be a scholar.
His father’s family were Ashkenazi Jews from Poland and eastern Europe, while his mother’s family was from Greece. His father’s side spoke Yiddish, while his mother’s family spoke Greek. This gave the young Weiser a feeling that many kinds of Judaism could survive side by side.
There is a divide in a ritual sense between Asheknazi and Sephardi Jews, but not in an ethnic sense, he told congregants at a talk at the Lodzer Synagogue in Toronto on Feb. 23.
Weiser spoke about his parents, who married despite some hesitation from their parents.
His parents were teachers, and met when they worked at a New York public school together. His father did not want to ask his mother out originally because her last name did not sound Jewish and he assumed she was Italian. His father thought that this would shame his mother, he said.
“When they chose to get married, my father’s parents were suspicious so they investigated,” he said. “They couldn’t believe there was such a thing as Jews from Greece and Turkey… and had names that ended in vowels.”
Even though New York’s Jewish community is largely Ashkenazi, Weiser said he has noticed more interest in preserving Sephardi and Romaniote cultures among the Jews there.
“The Romaniote synagogue in New York has become a museum, and people [go to weekly services there],” he said.
Ashkenazi and Sephardi Jews pronounce Hebrew words differently, have distinct customs when it comes to reading the Torah and often have different holiday traditions. Some Sephardi communities eat peas, rice and peanuts during Passover, for instance, while several tend to use metal Torah covers and read scripture by holding the Torah up vertically, he said.
“At every turn, there was something that was taken for granted by the Ashkenazi society as being Jewish, as being normative, that was going to be challenged by the other side in some way,” he told the congregation.
There are still places around the world where Sephardi Jews outnumber Ashkenazi Jews, such as Latin American countries and France. In Israel, there is almost a 50-50 split between the groups.
Even though there is intermarriage between some Ashkenazi and Sephardi Jews in North America, Weiser said that the Sephardi community will not die out. Couples that intermarry often fuse their religious cultures. “You get Ashkenazi Jews who take on Sephardi practices in the synagogue, and vice versa,” Weiser said.
In Toronto, a city with roughly two-thirds of Canada’s Jews, there are small communities of Jews from India, Morocco and North Africa, he said.
“[Toronto] has a much greater diversity in Jewish communities than I think you get in most North American cities. These people often live side by side.”
One way to get Canadians more interested in other Jewish communities is to have more Sephardi studies in universities, Weiser said.
At York University, he often gets complaints from Sephardi students, who tell him that he is marginalizing their stories, history and way of life. The courses at York are focused heavily on Judaism through an Ashkenazi lens.
“There needs to be more positions for people who can teach about these things,” he said. “We can always learn more and enrich the field.”