Ashkenazi Jews are the dominant group of Jews in the US and Europe, but I think it’s worthwhile to discuss other Jewish groups, particularly those from the Middle East because Middle Eastern Jewish groups illustrate Judaism in its purest forms. Middle Eastern Jewish groups are quite similar to Ashkenazi groups as they existed in traditional Europe. Among contemporary Ashkenazim, they resemble the more Orthodox and fundamentalist segments of the community.
A good example are the Syrian Jews that were the subject of a previous blog. Despite living in the US for over 100 years, they remain hermetically sealed off from the rest of America, including other Jews. They aggressively police group boundaries, particularly intermarriage. Their business relationships are with other Syrian Jews, particularly family members. Recently, the Syrian Jewish community has been implicated in scandals involving money laundering, drug and organ trafficking, and tax evasion (See here and here). Reflecting practices in traditional Jewish communities, a community member who ratted out other Syrian Jews to the police was renounced by his own father.
A recent article, “The Persian Conquest” describes a more recently arrived group of Oriental Jews who emigrated from Iran since the fall of the Shah and mostly settled in Southern California, particularly Beverly Hills. This is an elite group:
Although dispossessed, the thousands of Iranian Jews who flocked to Beverly Hills … had assets most immigrants lack: advanced education, business experience and, in the majority of cases, some cash in overseas accounts.
The following paragraph gets at the insular, clannish nature of these Jews.
A complaint sounded by Beverly Hills old-timers was that the Persians could be clannish, self-segregating and indifferent to the established norms of the community they were entering. … Thanks to their wealth and numbers, Persians didn’t need to adapt. Instead, they developed a self-sufficient Farsi-speaking enclave, complete with grocery stores, restaurants and even taxi services. And rather than courting the local social establishment, rich Persians stuck to their own social world, which revolved around lavish 1,000-person bar mitzvahs and weddings. “My mother really doesn’t need to speak English, although she does,” says Nazarian.
The comment on lack of concern for established norms recalls the behavior of Lubavitcher Jews in Postville, Iowa: No concern for even trivial things like mowing lawns or shoveling sidewalks. More importantly, it reminds one of the lack of respect for Christian traditions that has been so characteristic of the mainstream Jewish community in the US, as recounted, for example, by Edmund Connelly (see here, here and here).
An informant goes on to say, “Cultural preservation is one part of the experience of being displaced, and as with any immigrant community, we naturally want to associate with one another. Middle Eastern countries also tend to be very tribal.”
This comment on the tribal nature of Middle Eastern societies is right on the mark — a critical difference between Jewish and Western cultural traditions. It’s no surprise then that marriage with another Persian Jew is the norm. In the following quote, notice that marriage is at least as much about fitting into the other person’s family as it is about finding someone who satisfies your psychological needs as an individual — a clear marker of the collectivist mindset:
Likewise, a majority in the younger generation choose to marry fellow Persians—much to their parents’ relief. “They don’t have to marry Persian,” says Jasmine Yadegar, in a tone suggesting that she hopes her two twentysomething daughters—both of whom still live at home—eventually will. “All I want for them is to be happy and find people with the same background.”
“For me,” says daughter Sabrina, an aspiring fashion designer, “I think it’s a lot easier to fall in love with someone who has the same ideas and experiences.”
“I need to love their family, and they need to love mine,” adds older sister Jessica, a documentary filmmaker. “Some of my American friends have told me that you’re not dating the parents. They say you don’t need to meet the parents on the first, second or third date. That’s not my view. I think the longer you postpone the introduction to the family, the longer it takes you to get to know if this is someone you want to spend the rest of your life with.”
If you married an outsider, you would be completely cut off from the intense social life of the community.
It will be interesting to see if this group is as able as the Syrian Jews to remain separate in the American context.