In “The Beauty Queen of Jerusalem,” a popular novel and video adaptation, decades of drama and trauma begin in pre-state Israel, when the matriarch of the Sephardic Armoza family refuses to let her son marry “that Ashkenazi.” Times have changed. Marriages between Jews of divergent cultural backgrounds are common today. “Almost all observant families have (or will soon have) at least one couple in their family who are of mixed Sephardic and Ashkenazic heritage,” wrote Rabbi Haim Jachter, the (Ashkenazic) Spiritual Leader of Congregation Shaarei Orah, the Sephardic Congregation of Teaneck, in his book “Bridging Traditions: Demystifying Traditions Between Ashkenazic and Sephardic Jews.”
The accepted practice is that the wife follows the husband’s minhagim. But first, the couple has to become husband and wife. When one is Sephardic and the other Ashkenazic, it’s a process to learn about each other’s customs and decide what to include in the wedding. There can be a few bumps along the way.
I eagerly opened a long-awaited wedding invitation when I saw it peeking out from the pile of bills and flyers I took from my mailbox. It was from a close relative who had become engaged to a woman from the Syrian community of Deal after many years of searching for his bashert. We had been talking about wedding plans for the last month. I was happy to see the details in print, a confirmation it was really happening. But I was puzzled when I didn’t see a response card. Did they just assume we’re coming? Was there another part of the wedding to which we weren’t invited?
A call to Glenn and Vicki* cleared up the mystery. Syrians don’t send response cards. Invitations go out, people come (about two hours after the printed start time) and there’s a big buffet and lots of celebrating. Glenn called the others on his guest list to explain. Vicki had lost her mother at the beginning of the COVID pandemic and was fortunate to have cousins helping her with many of the tasks involved in making a wedding. But the cousins had all married within the Syrian community. The one doing invitations had no idea that not including a response card would send Glenn’s friends and family into a panic.
Glenn and Vicki are talking about each part of the celebration to make decisions about what they will do. Glenn will have a traditional Ashkenazic aufruf the Shabbos before the wedding; many Sephardim have the custom of an aliyah the Shabbos after the wedding. Rabbi Eli Mansour of Brooklyn and Deal will officiate at the chuppah, but much of the ceremony will follow Ashkenazic custom. Glenn will wear a kittel, a white robe, and Vicki will circle him seven times—both are Ashkenazic but not Syrian customs. Most Syrians prefer using DJs and recorded music at the reception, but Glenn’s preference is for a live band playing Hebrew and secular music. “We are taking the best of both worlds,” said Vicki.
Andrew Harary’s father was a trailblazer. Both of his parents were Syrian, and he married a girl from a Hungarian family. Her parents passed away early in her life so she was very comfortable adapting the Syrian customs. “I had an extremely eclectic upbringing,” said Andrew in a phone interview. “It was wonderful. I was always able to fit in everywhere.” Andrew became the second generation to marry an Ashkenazic girl, also coincidentally from a Hungarian background. “My customs were so important to me and she saw the beauty in them as well, so she was very willing to learn and adopt them.”
Andrew and Leah’s wedding 21 years ago was a mix of Sephardic and Ashkenazic customs. He had a “Sebet,” a joyous gathering very similar to an ashkenazic “aufruf,” where the groom’s men, family and friends sit together for a lavish kiddush to sing pizmonim (Sephardic style Jewish songs and melodies) and celebrate the upcoming wedding. They also had a “swanee,” a gathering where a tray with gifts from the groom’s family to the bride is on display. Desserts and delicacies are served. Andrew said the tradition has been extended to include presents from the bride to the groom, which is where he got his tallit bag and a few other gifts. The Moroccans also have a henna party for the women, where their hands are painted with colorful dyes, but this is not part of Syrian tradition.
Andrew laughed when I told him about our response-card misunderstanding. Syrian weddings tend to be large, with the whole community invited, he explained. If you send out 1,000 invitations, you expect 500 to come. Response cards would be completely unmanageable. The caterers are familiar with the customs so they know how to estimate quantities of food to prepare. He also explained “Syrian time,” which is the well-known custom of showing up two hours after the time on the invitation. He said he thinks he and Leah sent two different invitations, with the Ashkenazi guests getting one with the time the festivities were really supposed to start and one to Syrians with a start time two hours earlier so they would all arrive together. The food was a delicious mix of Ashkenazic and Sephardic dishes. Leah’s grandfather, a survivor of Auschwitz who passed away 10 years ago, made hamotzi. “It was wonderful that we had that connection to our multicultural heritage at the wedding,” he said.
It took time for Leah to get used to the different style of davening, he recalled. Kol Nidre is chanted, not sung. Some of the pronunciation is different. Many brachot take longer. “I love for Ashkenazim to be at our table and hear the way we do kiddush,” he said, saying he has seen guests surprised at how long it was going on. But they understood. “When you hear someone serious about bringing their heritage into what they read with love and appreciation, you can appreciate it too.”
In Englewood now for 18 years, the Hararys attend the Benaroya Sephardic Center at Congregation Ahavath Torah, where Andrew estimates about half the couples are mixed Ashkenazic and Sephardic. Their two daughters attended the Ben Porat Yosef School, which is very popular among Sephardic families for its emphasis on Hebrew language and culture, and now go to The Frisch School. He hopes that they will retain whatever they can of their Sephardic heritage. “I don’t know if they will marry Sephardic or Ashkenazic, but hopefully they’ll take on some of the customs I hold near and dear to my heart and introduce them to their own children.”
Jeff and Sheila* have been married for 16 years. Eight years ago, they moved to Englewood, where Jeff attends the Benaroya Sephardic Center. Jeff’s father is Sephardic, with Turkish and Greek ancestry, and his mother is Ashkenazic; her great grandparents were originally from Romania/Lithuania. Jeff grew up going to the Sephardic shul with his father, while his mother and sister went to the Ashkenazic shul. He met Sheila while he was living on the Upper West Side. She grew up in a Conservative Jewish family but was becoming more observant by the time they met. They had a mainly Ashkenazic-style wedding. Sheila began learning with a rebbetzin and today follows Sephardic customs. Their children go to Ben Porat Yosef. “My wife jokes that she’s not sure this is what she signed up for,” said Jeff in a phone interview, but with the help of the community, they have become more committed to Sephardic custom.
Rabbi Jachter explores all the halachic and cultural differences between Sephardic and Ashkenazic Jews in his book, and we discussed some of them in a phone interview. For anyone interested in the nuances, the first step is to realize that it is a misnomer to label all non-Ashkenazic Jews Sephardic, although it has become an increasingly common practice. The accurate definition of Sephardic is those whose ancestors came from Spain or Portugal. The expulsion in 1492 sent Jews throughout the world, largely to the Middle East and North Africa.
Marriage between Jews of different cultures underlines that much more unites us than divides us. In “Bridging Traditions,” Rabbi Jachter writes, “Although Sephardim and Ashkenazim do indeed vary slightly in their respective practices, in the bigger picture, these differences amount to only small variations on a much larger and grander theme. We remain am ehad, one nation, following Hashem and His holy Torah, which binds us and maintains us as a nation, unified in our commitment to our Creator.”
*Names changed by request.