Wisdom of Sephardic Sages

Sephardic wisdom and tradition is largely left out in many Jewish institutions. When people think of Sephardic tradition, they often know the food or the music. But Sephardic tradition is so much more than what we eat or sing. It is a vibrant canon of teachings that are incredibly relevant to our modern times. 

Tamar Zaken is working to change the discourse in the Jewish world through teaching the wisdom of Sephardic ritual, culture, and teachings. Based in Oakland, she translates Sephardic texts into English and advocates for inclusion of Sephardic voices.

As the Chief Program Officer at HaMaqom, an organization that creates inclusive communities through Jewish learning and practice, Tamar uses her platform to illuminate Sephardic tradition. She teaches courses such as “Sephardic Sages Bringing Peace to the World,” and in the spring Tamar and I  will be speaking together on The Racial Identity fo Sephardi and Mizrahi Jews

“Growing up, I knew I was Sephardic. I felt special, I have cool traditions and it’s different from everyone else. It took time to realize how forgotten and erased the history of Sephardi Jews is. The process of awareness was a long and slow one. It took time to realize what was happening to my culture and identity,” she says. 

It took time to realize how forgotten and erased the history of Sephardi Jews is.

Tamar’s extended family in Israel faced constant racism, like many other immigrants who moved to Israel in the 1950s and lived in the Maabarot, Israeli transit camps for immigrants and refugees. Her father’s family came to Israel in 1951 from the town of Zacho in Iraqi Kurdistan. “It’s in between the lines in how people talk about Mizrahim. There is a lack of awareness about racism” Tamar says. 

Tamar identifies as a Sephardic Jew because she rejects the other term “Mizrahi” that was coined by the Ashkenazi Zionist leadership upon Israel’s inception to describe the Jews immigrating from Arab and Muslim lands. Although her family is not from Spain, she embraces the term “Sephardi” because this term was also used to describe these Jews and has a more cultural and religious connotation.

One Kurdish tradition that Tamar is working on reviving is the celebration of Seherana, a Kurdish holiday that falls on the 16th of the Jewish month of Nisan, Chol Hamod (secular, non-holy days) of Passover, and celebrates the springtime. Traditionally, people would sleep outside and go camping with a community. They would rejoice with food, such as kuba, balls made with spiced ground meat, onions, and grain and yaprah, stuffed grape leaves and enjoy Kurdish dances and performances. Tamar lectures on Seherana and other aspects of her Kurdish and Sephardi identities and aims to incorporate these Jewish holidays and traditions into mainstream Jewish American life. She is currently working on a program called Jewish Holidays and Traditions 101 at HaMaqom for this purpose. 

Tamar as a baby with her grandmother, Zilpha

Tamar as a baby with her grandmother, Zilpha

While many of her community’s traditions are getting lost or assimilated into Israeli or Ashkenazi culture, some traditions live on. Tamar reflects, “I don’t speak Judeo-Aramaic and won’t pass it on to my kids and that is sad. But I can pass on traditions and stories. My grandma Zilpha used to share Kurdish folktales and I pass those on. When I think about the work that I do, I think about my grandma Zilpha and her strength. She had 11 children and raised them all by herself. I am inspired by her work and legacy”.

The breakthrough for Tamar came when she started working at Memizrach Shemesh, the Center for Jewish Social Activism based in Jerusalem. This center was started by a group of students who were frustrated that Mizrahi and Sephardic studies were largely not included in Jewish institutions, religious or academic. They started to meet once a week to learn their traditions together. This evolved into a Beit Midrash (space of learning) whose mission is to use Sephardic rabbinic and modern texts to teach about social change. Khakhamim, Sephadic sages, have beautiful wisdom to share about how to build a healthy society. 

Tamar finds comfort in these teachings. Her favorite sages include Yosef Messas and Abdallah Somekh, teacher of Rabbi Yosef Chaim, also known as the Ben Ish Chai. “As a Masorti Jew, I don’t have to choose between religion and secularity, God is always connected to me and I have a choice about how to live.” Because Tamar’s perspective integrates traditional teachings with modern life, she shares, “I don’t feel a sense of belonging in many of the Jewish communities in America, because they are strictly regimented with many rules about who is in and who is out. This is true for all denominations, from Orthodox to Reform.”

In her spare time, Tamar finds moments to revive her tradition through technology. Whether through connecting to a WhatsApp group that shares the weekly Torah portion chanted in Kurdish trope, or translating texts from HeHakham HaYomi, The Daily Sage, a website that shares Sephardic wisdom daily, Tamar is bringing Sephardic wisdom to a wider audience. She also worked with JIMENA (Jews Indigenous to the Middle East and North Africa) to develop a curriculum for Jewish day schools and high schools on Mizrahi and Sephardic traditions. 

“No one is investing in Sephardic teachings. Jewish educators don’t realize that they are missing out on a large part of Jewish tradition and culture. My goal is to share these pninim (pearls of wisdom),” Tamar shares.

Learning in Sephardic communities is very different from the Ashkenazi communities. “The way you learn in Sephardic synagogue is you sit across from your grandfather and you watch his mouth move in uttering the prayers and that is how you learn the prayers.” Sephardic teachings are very familial and relational. In Sephardic culture, there are Rabbis and leadership but people claim their traditions, they do what their parents taught them. They are not dependent on leadership for their Judaism. It is empowering.” 

“What gives me hope is being connected to other Mizrahi activists,” she says. “We are not alone, we have this Otzar, treasure. We are not on islands trying to make the ice not melt, we can revive and sustain our lineages.”

Hadar Cohen is a multimedia artist, educator and healer. She is the founder of Feminism All Night. To learn more about her work visit hadarcohen.me.