Sixteen years ago, when I married my husband, I did not give much thought to whether he was Askenazi or Sefardi. Having grown up in what was then a small close-knit Jewish community, it held little importance; my concerns were focused around whether or not my bashert (intended) was Jewish according to halacha, someone who was upstanding in both ideals and actions, and a man solidly committed to a Torah lifestyle.
In my hometown girls married boys from various ethnic backgrounds, many of who were born and even raised for most of their lives in foreign countries. So marrying a man of Moroccan heritage, who was actually born and raised in Brooklyn, did not seem the least bit unusual to me. In fact I felt that whatever cultural differences we had would add some flavor to our family and great new recipes to my file.
For all intents and purposes there was not much difference in our lifestyles. Our goals and dreams complimented one another. My husband was educated in typical main stream Ashkenazi yeshivot and attended popular yeshiva summer camps, while growing up in what was a primarily Ashkenazi community at that time.
Over the course of raising our family together I have made some changes that have helped me to feel more Sephardic – davening a bit differently, giving up my wig (and wearing other types of headcoverings) and cooking more traditional Sephardic foods for my family. Emotionally, for the females that find themselves in this same position, it may take some time to get used to no longer observing religious rituals she grew up with, and instead running her home according to the religious traditions of her husband.
For most families this is where the story might end. Two people from different backgrounds marry, and according to Jewish law follow the minhagim or customs, of the husband’s family. In fact there are even some mitzvot that are performed differently for Ashkenazim and Sefardim, but over time everyone adjusts. Keep in mind, that although religious customs may be observed paternally, there is so much more that goes into raising a family that most couples may choose to incorporate non-religious based traditions from both families.
For the blended family things can be a bit more complicated. What about the children from the wife’s first marriage when there is a “mixed” Sefardic/Ashkenaz second marriage? My children for instance were born Ashkenazi, as both my ex-husband and I are of European decent. His family may have had slightly different family rituals than mine, but the minhagim and halachot were the same for both.
After I married my second husband I now found myself following Sefardic laws and customs, but what about my children from my first marriage? Who do you even ask direction from: an Ashkenazi rabbi or a Sefardic one? Were we obligated to run our home and family honoring two sets of customs? I was concerned that it would hinder my plans to create one cohesive family unit for my blended family.
Fortunately the rabbeim we sought counsel from, both Sefardic and Ashekenaz, understood our concerns and felt that under our personal circumstances, where my children’s biological father had very limited interaction with the children and no participation in their upbringing and education, my children should be raised and educated in accordance with Sephardic customs.
As our blended family grew, my husband and I raised our motley crew according to Sephardic heritage, until one day my daughter from my first marriage met and married a nice Ashkenazi boy. As the custom goes, she now runs her home based on the customs of her husband’s family; she went back to her birth heritage. My husband and I gave little thought to this fact and were thrilled that the boy she was marrying was a ben Torah and raised in a loving home with wonderful parents.
As most of you can attest, by and large the tradition that prominently stands as being polar opposites between the two heritages is the custom of naming a baby. While Sefardic Jews name after the living – as a way of blessing for a long and healthy life – Ashkenazi Jews have the custom of naming after a relative who has passed away as a means of keeping the name and memory alive, and to honor the deceased.
At the time that I met my husband he already had a son named for his father who thank G-d is alive, healthy and well. So by the time we had our first child together, a daughter, I was used to the idea and we felt privileged to be able to name our baby for my mother-in-law and in turn she felt it a great honor and expression of our kibud av v’eim that we chose to use her name. In the Ashkenazi world this would be completely unthinkable, taboo.
When my daughter’s first child was born, she was named after my son-in-law’s grandmother who had passed away; my daughter is fortunate to have three full sets of living grandparents. Since my daughter was now Ashkenazi we did not even give a moment’s thought that this young couple would even consider naming their child after either my husband or me – it simply was not done. As long as my daughter still enjoys coming over for our special Friday night “Sephardi” fish and pepper salad, we were perfectly fine with that. We had no idea that the customs she grew up with would play such a prominent role in raising her own family.
So it was that they caught us by surprise, and what a precious surprise it was. When our second granddaughter was born, my daughter and son-in-law decided to name her in my honor and out of respect for my husband’s family who accepted my daughter into their lives and into their hearts as one of their own when she was just a young child.
Many of my Ashkenazi family and friends don’t necessarily understand the deep meaning that this event has for me and my husband; they cannot comprehend how an Ashkenazi born woman can have an Ashkenazi daughter name her Ashkenazi granddaughter after her, but quite honestly, for me there is no greater honor. To me this act was not only an honor to me, but a testimonial to the many ways our family has indeed blended.
Yehudit welcomes and encourages input and feedback on issues relating to the Blended Family and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.Yehudit Levinson
About the Author: Yehudit welcomes and encourages input and feedback on issues relating to the Blended Family and can be reached at email@example.com
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