“On the ‘haredi street’ it’s known that if an Ashkenazi guy marries a Sephardi girl he must have a problem. It’s unusual for Sephardim and Ashkenazim to get married because Sephardim are considered inferior and Ashkenazim are considered more elite. For a Sephardi girl it’s a step up in the world to get an Ashkenazi guy.” This is how Menachem (not his real name) explains the problematic nature of a match with a Sephardic girl in the haredi world.
In this world, marriages between two people from different ethnic groups are almost impossible, and are certainly rare, even today. The official explanation for racial segregation is different approaches to Jewish law. Ashkenazim, for example, tend to be stricter, while Sephardim are more lenient.
The real reason? “The real reason is racism,” says Ya’akov (not his real name), a Sephardi resident of Bnei Brak. On the one hand, he justifies the desire to find someone who is as suitable as possible in terms of Jewish law. “When you build a home you want to continue your ideology,” he says. On the other hand, he is angered by the condescension of the average Ashkenazi guy. “Someone once said to me, When will he be a perfectly righteous man in my eyes? When he wants to marry my daughter,” Ya’akov notes.
Menachem from Jerusalem admits that this approach is not necessarily in keeping with the lofty values of Judaism, but he frankly confesses that “no matter how shocking this sounds, it’s the reality. You can even offer a 30-year old guy a Sephardi girl and he’ll be insulted to the depths of his soul, and won’t understand how you could even dare to suggest such a thing.”
He says that the social stigmas surrounding this issue are so strong that he finds it hard to believe that “anything will change soon. Even my children and even my grandchildren are liable to suffer from this. Right away they’ll start to talk about it behind your back – ‘Did you hear that so-and-so married a Sephardi girl?’ It’s an embarrassment.”
Menachem, an Ashkenazi from a “good home,” knows that at his advanced age, 25, his chances of receiving attractive offers are minimal. He also has a black mark against him because he broke off an engagement three days before the wedding, which makes his prospects less than stellar.
In the first round Menachem expected a “first-rate” girl. “Today they offer you either a divorcee, or an orphan, or someone whose parents are divorced, or they offer you a Sephardi girl. Second- or third-rate girls, every flaw you can possibly think of,” he notes. Despite his situation, he still is not sorry he broke off the engagement, though he knew he’d be forced to pay a heavy price.
In the haredi world you need a very good reason to call off a wedding. “Everything was already prepared,” he explains, “the dress, the hall, the invitations. It was a very great disgrace for the family, and for me it was a very serious emotional crisis whose remnants I feel to this day.”
In the past he was considered first rate, a quality guy from a good “Lithuanian” (mitnagid) home and a student at the prestigious Hebron yeshiva. Today he is a student in the Mir yeshiva. “When you break off an engagement there has to be a very good reason to do that.”
He explains why it is such a serious matter: “It’s serious in terms of the kinyan (a pledge to go through with the marriage) and the obligation you have already undertaken, and also because people don’t know what happened there. They fear that perhaps there was some health problem there or that something serious happened between the couple.”
According to Menachem, nothing dramatic or serious happened, but “there was simply a feeling that this was not appropriate. I felt that this was really troubling me. I wasn’t able to live.”
In the past, haredi couples had barely any privacy before the marriage. Today, with modernization penetrating the haredi world, this has changed. If in the past the custom was at most to correspond, “in today’s era everyone has cellphones and talks a lot,” says Shmuel. “It’s not the way it used to be, and the rabbis are fighting this as much as they can.”
Recently there have been an increasing number of cases in which yeshiva students chose to deepen their connection with their intended more than with the world of Torah would want, and yeshiva heads have warned about that. One of the proposals raised in a number of yeshivas was to order a limit to the number of meetings between the couple prior to the wedding in order to prevent spiritual “mishaps.”
An additional opening to the world of dating is the internet. Shmuel notes that he has even heard of a couple who met online, but he himself belives that “if you want to meet a good girl, you won’t meet her in an online chat.”
Ultimately, Shmuel feels that the haredi system for finding a spouse works in most cases, and that it is very appropriate for him and other members of his crowd. “After all, I can’t go up to a girl on the street and start talking to her, and I also can’t start looking by myself. That way, our method, is the safe way. It’s the right way.”