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Tuesday, November 21, 2006

In which David shares sweeping cultural generalizations and also gets telepathic barbs from his wife

Nothing like a bunch of broad, terribly-flawed generalizations to get the day off to a nice start, right?  So here we go...

A couple of nights ago on my way home from work I stopped off at a home in Beer Sheva to visit a woman from my community who was 'sitting shiva' (the 7 day mourning period) for her recently departed father.   This woman is of Moroccan descent and is (IMHO) the 'alpha mom' in an enormous Moroccan family that has branches all over the center and south of Israel.  She is one of about 11 siblings who, between them, have around 90 kids (and even a few grandkids already!).

This shiva house was like nothing I had ever experienced before.  Every room (I lost count how many rooms there were in this modest-sized home) was crowded with chairs for the visitors and mattresses on the floor on which the mourners reclined. 

Dozens of women, children and pre-teens constantly circulated throughout the house with trays of pastries, as well as hot and cold drinks. 

Unlike the Ashkenazi shiva homes I have visited where everyone sat around in one or two rooms talking in hushed tones to the mourners, there was a constant buzz of activity throughout this home as people entered and left.  What was even more surprising to me was that my friend and her sisters were constantly popping up and making introductions and trying to make all the visitors feel welcomed and at home.

I have to admit it was rather off-putting to have a grieving person I had come to comfort ushering me around and introducing me to her extended family like an honored guest. 

Tradition forbade her from serving me directly while she was in mourning... but she constantly gestured to this cousin or that nephew to bring food and drink in my direction, and she didn't visibly relax until I had accepted refreshment.

I have always understood that there is often a distinct cultural difference in roles (especially gender roles) between traditional Sephardi households and the typical Ashkenazi homes with which I have more experience.  However, even that basic knowledge didn't prepare me for this Moroccan shiva house.

By and large the men among the mourners remained reclined on the mattresses and the male guests were seated and served.  The female mourners were also sitting or semi-reclined on the mattresses, but they somehow also seemed to be in constant motion... popping up to greet someone, gesturing for one of the kids to bring a tray of food or drink to someone who didn't appear to be eating or drinking enough, or standing and talking with women guests who had come to visit.

When it was time to leave I was shocked to find the woman I had come to visit walking me all the way out of the house and thanking me for coming.  It may very well be that this is not typical and she was simply unable to switch off her 'hostess/uber-mom mode' long enough to properly mourn, but it seemed to me that she wasn't the only woman among the mourners who was also busy acting as hostess.  Her mother (the matriarch of the family) was really the only woman in the room who, like the men, remained seated and was completely doted upon by the others present.

On the way home, all I could think about was a politically-incorrect observation a friend once shared with me during our dating days. 

He said, "I don't believe in just one perfect match for each person... but I do believe in certain combinations of culture/personality that are more likely to succeed than others.  For example, in my opinion the perfect match is an Ashkenazi man and a Sephardi woman.  She probably comes from a home where the women are more attentive to the comfort and needs of the men... basically a patriarchal tradition, while he likely comes from a matriarchal tradition where the men basically do as they are told.  In such a match, both the husband and wife will feel as though they have won lotto because their spouse treats them like royalty."

"However", he went on to say, "the worst match is an Ashkenazi woman and a Sephardi man   He is used to his mother and sisters being attentive to his needs, and she comes from a home where the men take much more direction (to put it lightly) from the women.  Both of them end up feeling as though something is terribly wrong but will have a lot of trouble articulating what is bothering them." [ed. note: In fairness I've seen with my own eyes many, many cases that prove this is not necessarily so].

Now obviously my friend and I were speaking privately at the time, and his comments were - at best - a terrible over-generalization... and at worst, an unfortunate ethnic slur.  But my experience last night at this Moroccan shiva house stirred up the memory of that long-ago conversation and left me wondering at the incredible cultural nuances and distinctions that exist within the global Jewish community.  I am not writing any sort of cultural dissertation here... and certainly not passing any sort of judgment.  I'm just sharing my observations and passing thoughts.

Oh, One more thing.  While I was sitting there in the shiva house watching in wonder as the women scurried around serving refreshments and the men reclined comfortably on the mattresses, I could feel my wife communicating with me telepathically, saying "Yeah right, cowboy... in your dreams!".  :-)


Posted by David Bogner on November 21, 2006 | Permalink


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You must have heard of a generalized saying "the blacks always get scre*ed"… in a typical rural setting in Africa it’s the wife that gets it, not literally and directly of course, but they do everything… If you happened to visit some communities it would be more verbal than telepathy (she wouldn’t hold it back). :-)

Posted by: Rami | Nov 21, 2006 3:51:17 PM

I don't know Zahava, but being an ashkenazi wife myself I'd bet this post will generate more han "telepathic barbs" from your wife.
You are on a roll this week! :-)

Posted by: Shifra | Nov 21, 2006 5:34:13 PM

lol, im going to say this isnt true, because my sephardic boyfriend wouldnt appriciate it otherwise... surprisingly our issue seems to be the opposite. i want to be the "female" and do all the cooking and taking care of him, but he wants to help! it drives me nuts sometimes

i guess if thats our worst issue, its ok.

but still, some of the sephardic traditions throw me off when im not expecting it. and as an american, ive had to argue some things... like celebrating thanksgiving, which is something i wont give up, and something he just doesnt understand

Posted by: sf lisa | Nov 21, 2006 6:17:15 PM

Traditional roles Sounds refreshing. ;)

Posted by: Jack | Nov 21, 2006 6:23:40 PM

I seem to notice that you have more patience for "male chauvinist behavior" when it is done by people from Morrocon descent, than you have for "male chauvinist behavior" when it is done by those who wear black hats and coats (previous post) or is this just my imagination?

Posted by: westbankmama | Nov 21, 2006 7:09:46 PM

Good for you Zahava. Stop those thoughts before they even have a chance to fully form.

David, I was very close to an Israeli Yemenite woman who was married to a Yemenite man and then remarried an American Ashkenazi. She always said she hopes her son marries an Israeli Yemenite woman and her daughter marries an American Ashkenazi male because she 'wants to see her children treated well'. (I am not giving an opinion here, just repeating what she said.)

Posted by: Chedva | Nov 22, 2006 1:31:36 AM

I recently visited a Sephardi shiva house in a suburb of Atlanta Georgia. I've never been treated as well in an Ashkenazi home. The mother of a friend I sit nex to in morning Minyan had passed. I was the only non Iranian in the house and was treated like royalty. I don't think their hospitality was because of shiva, but rather their every day attention to a guest. I wasn't familiar with much of the food and enjoyed anything I tried. I especially remember platters of delicious almonds and other nuts. Beats cookies and bagels any day.

Posted by: Mickysolo | Nov 22, 2006 3:52:27 AM

An interesting contrast of shivahs. My ex-boyfriend was over at our place after my grandmother passed away, and was very surprised by how noisy and cheerful the shivah seemed, with a lot of people coming and talking and with my mother trying to make everybody comfortable. Now, my mother happens to be a very hospitable person in general, but I have to say that's also at least somewhat of a cultural tradition in FSU, though we're all quite Ashkenazi. He then told me that American Ashkenazis tend to be much more solemn and quiet during shivas. Which certainly makes sense... but for some reason, doesn't seem to work that way with people in my community. Of course, there weren't as many people (our families don't tend to be so large), and we all set at the table rather than on the floor, but other than that... a Russian Jewish gathering at shiva is probably more like te one you described than a typical Ashkenazi one. And I am still trying to understand why.

Posted by: Irina | Nov 22, 2006 4:14:43 AM

as an ashkenazi wife married to a spharadi husband...canada/kurdistan!!!let me point out that one it has never been boring and two the kids are tfu tfu tfu...pessach was a shocker the first year...and i missed kol nidre cuz i didn't recognize the tune...but do i know how to cook!!! stay safe great blog...ps may your friend know no more sorrow

Posted by: marallyn | Nov 22, 2006 8:27:20 AM

Regarding Moroccan shivas: I once had the very unfortunate job to drive my 8 year old son and two of his friends to the shiva of their classmate who had just lost his mother to cancer. On the way, I quietly explained to them that it would be a tough experience, and people would be sad, and we should do our best to make the poor boy feel a bit better. But when we got there, it seemed to the kids I brought that a party was going on: lots of people, lots of noise, food, soda, and a pile of presents for the boy sitting shiva. They had a great time. Lo aleinu (not on us).

Posted by: Josh | Nov 22, 2006 9:39:25 AM

How interesting... i've never attended a traditional shiva, so the whole idea is refreshing and fascinating. Time to mourn... not exactly an American concept, you know?

Posted by: mercurial scribe | Nov 22, 2006 1:47:05 PM

Rami... I should really pay you for the comparative culture lessons I get from your comments. :-)

Shifra... So far so good. [ducks]

SF Lisa... you two will be juuuust fine. :-)

Jack... Yeah, to the guys. :-)

Westbankmama... I think that is rather unfair. The Moroccan men aren't calling meetings to discuss how to force their wives to be attentive. As the father of a pre-teen-aged daughter, I happen to like the fact that the Haredi community puts such a premium on modesty. But when a bunch of Rabbis call a meeting with a bunch of men and tell them to get their wives in line... my circuits trip. If you are having trouble telling the difference between me... an American/Israeli/Ashkenazi... finding certain community norms among sephardim to be worthy of comment, and my finding specific behavior of certain Rabbis in another community to be just out of bounds... then I really don't know what to say.

Chedva... I was wondering what had happened to you! As to your disclaimer, I toyed with posting a similar one, but let's face it... there is still a cultural taboo about noticing (and mentioning) different norms. I figured no matter what I wrote people would think I was either being racist or condescending... so I decided to just let it rip (so to speak).

Mickysolo... I think you and I may be suffering from 'greener grass on the other side of the fence' syndrome. :-)

Irina... Even with all the former Russians I work with on a daily basis, I still haven't gotten a handle on them culturally. You really need to come for a visit so I can ask you about a gazillion questions I would never ask one of my coworkers.

marallyn... Thanks. I knew there were at least a few marriages such as yours out there among the regular visitors and I'm glad you didn't take offense.

Josh... It's good that they see other cultures at an early age. I didn't get much exposure when I was younger and as a result feel like a bull in a china shop whenever I bump into something knew or exotic.

mercurial scribe... The whole concept of forced period of mourning is (IMHO) very healthy. No denial... no putting it off. You have to sit and look death in the face for a solid week.

Posted by: treppenwitz | Nov 22, 2006 4:43:38 PM

"... and she comes from a home where the men take much more direction (to put it lightly) from the women."

So all those men who were at the meeting learning about modesty will go home and tell their wives what to wear and their wives will laugh at them. Problem solved!

Happy Thanksgiving to you all!

Posted by: Alice | Nov 22, 2006 6:22:49 PM

I am a Sephardi of Moroccan origin and I have never experienced a shiva like the one you describe. I am not passing judgement on your observations nor do I think you are lying or being insensitive but I just don't have experience with what you described. I don't remember mattresses on the floor or huge noisy parties. It was usually a somber affair with people pretending to be sad or
emotionally affected. Moroccan Jewish traditions vary depending on where people lived or how religious they were. Also depends on class,education,sophistication,etc. Could be an Israeli thing. I don't know.
Re gender roles:
I married an Askenazi(Canadian, secular)and to add insult to injury was quite the chauvinist pig, and so were his brothers. Their mom waited on them hand and foot and they expected the same from their wives. They married seemingly submissive Asian women who in reality were the ones who wore the pants in the family. I know, poetic justice. My point some men are neanderthal it is not the exclusive domain of some groups. I also experienced a Shiva with my Askenazi in laws. The women sat on low stools and visitors brought trays of food.After a few hours the whole thing looked quite jolly. I was shocked.
I do agree with you that traditional Sephardic mothers are quite attentive to their family members, males and females. Aren't most mothers?
I don't have any objections comparing traditions but I am afraid that your audience is not diverse enough to allow for an honest exchange. I thank you however for trying to present the differences in a positive way but I still find myself mildly irritated. Go figure.
Sometimes I find myself defending Jewish males to non Jewisih females because they have the reputation to be philanderers. I never make a difference between ashkenazi and sephardi when I bust people for stereotyping. As a matter of fact, I hate this ashkenazi/sephardi BS. We are more the products of our family histories and cultural environments than of Jewish
tribal divisions

Posted by: Rachel | Nov 23, 2006 12:14:16 AM

Comparing this post to the one about haredim, David wrote:
The Moroccan men aren't calling meetings to discuss how to force their wives to be attentive.
- - - - - - - - -
... because their Morroccan fathers-in-law have alredy done the work of cultural education.

But the Jews occupying the exotic/third-world/"people of color" slot are given a pass because "it's just their culture" - which must be respected - while those tagged as Western/"white" folks are fair game: their "culture" can be ridiculed with impunity.

Amazing to see this particularly nasty PC double standard worm its way into an INTRA-Jewish topic....

Posted by: Ben-David | Nov 23, 2006 8:26:53 PM

I wonder how much of it was cultural norms and how much was personality. I know a number of women of Ashkenazi descent who I imagine would also have a tough time breaking out of their hostess with the mostest role in a time of mourning....

Posted by: mcaryeh | Nov 28, 2006 7:46:34 AM

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