Arabs and Jews: examples of shared cultural practices3 min read

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Finding similarities in cultural practices is an important tool through which we can improve our understandings on the origins of both Arab and Jewish traditions.

Musical practices

Music and musicology professors Margaret Kartomi & Andrew D. McCredie consider the historical ‘Southern Asian-Jewish and the Northern Asian-Jewish Routes’ of the eighteenth to twentieth century colonial period, wherein ‘particular Jewish groups transplanted their musical heritages, maintaining or adapting them to their new home communities’.[1] It is of little wonder, for example, should we now find Iraqi synagogues that now also adopt Iraq’s expressive music genre the maqâm, defined particularly by its “ab/cb” rhyming pattern. The only difference in the Iraqi-Jewish case is that these prayers are expressed in Hebrew as opposed to Arabic.[2] By simply observing these similarities in the present, a whole historical narrative of Arab-Jewish commercial trade begins to unravel.

A group performing maqam in an Arab mosque. Picture taken for educational purposes from iraqimaqam.blogspot.co.uk.

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Culinary etiquette

For a much earlier period, Jewish sociologist Matthias B. Lehmann examines Rabbi Hayim Yosef David Azulai’s travelogue in an attempt to comprehend eighteenth century Jewish identities throughout Tunisia and Western Europe. He finds that the Rabbi ‘was received in Tunis with much honor and respect’,[3] and had even consciously maintained eating with a spoon, in accordance with the Ottoman tradition, as he considered himself fundamentally different as a “Levantino” compared to other Tunisians.[4] The fact that Rabbi Azulai primarily associated himself with the Levant before a strictly Jewish identity speaks for itself, and Lehmann thereby finds that, in all cases, the Rabbi remained ‘to stand somewhere in between the cultures of Tunisian and Livornese Jews … [for] his own table manners arguably were Ottoman, rather than European’.[5] This assimilation of etiquette is hence considered a result of years of cultural exchange between Arabs, Jews and others throughout the Mediterranean.

It is in this respect that Italian Orientalist Samuel Romanelli observed the identical customs of Arab Muslim and Jewish men who both traditionally ate couscous with their hands in segregated rooms in order to celebrate the act of circumcision.[6] Contemporary anthropological studies find that ‘the Middle-Eastern woman […] sees Jewish identity, tradition, law, and holidays in terms of feeding others’,[7] and thus culinary culture remains a generally sacred tradition for Arabs and Jews alike just as it did in the eighteenth century.

A Jewish couscous. Picture taken for educational purposes from sharingplate.com

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As subtle cultural differences may well be proposed as alternative forms of evidence, there remains some truth or lessons that can be derived from the mutual customs explored briefly throughout this passage. Such values and traditions are a consequence of centuries of interaction, cultural exchange and, ultimately, assimilations of identities, albeit to a limited extent.

The question remains: by focusing on similarities as opposed to differences, what exactly can different ethnic communities achieve (and how)?

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Footnotes

[1] M. Kartomi & A.D. McCredie, “Introduction: Musical Outcomes of Jewish Migration into Asia via the Northern and Southern Routes c. 1780-c. 1950”, Ethnomusicology Forum, 13(1), January 2004, p.4.

[2] M. Kartomi, “Tracing Jewish-Babylonian Trade Routes and Identity through Music, with Reference to Seven Versions of a Song of Praise Melody”, Ethnomusicology Forum, 13(1), January 2004, pp.81-2.

[3] M.B. Lehmann, “Levantinos and Other Jews: Reading H. Y. D. Azulai’s Travel Diary”, Jewish Social Studies: History, Culture, Society, 13(3), Spring/Summer 2007, pp.14.

[4] Ibid., pp.14-7.

[5] Ibid., p.17.

[6] Ibid., p.18.

[7] S. Starr Sered, “Food and Holiness: Cooking as a Sacred Act among Middle-Eastern Jewish Women”, Anthropological Quarterly, 61(3), July 1988, p.131.