The Roma – Jewish Relationship
more than just mutual suffering
The uncanny Gypsy – Jewish relationship first caught my eye while a guest of a Gypsy wedding in the Moldavian capital of Chisinau when a pale faced gentleman wearing a yarmulke sauntered into the hall. “Oh my, he’s certainly in the wrong room,” were my initial thoughts until suddenly he was surrounded and embraced by the family like one of their own. A moment later he was out on the parquet dancing the Gypsy style.
I turned to Nicolae Raiu, leader of the band who had been my ticket into the soirée. “How would you describe the Gypsy - Jewish relationship?”
“Very good,” he answered unflinchingly, “we understand one another.”
His words festered in my mind; what exactly did he mean? Was he referring to the centuries of sufferings the two minorities had endured at the hands of a xenophobic Europe? There already was the documented scapegoat connection: countless pogroms shared by both groups – expulsions, ghettoization, and numerous cases of false accusations like baby stealing and cannibalism – that ultimately came to ahead with the Holocaust that the Roma refer to as Porajmos, the devouring.
Yet there was more to this sense of “understanding” then just mutual suffering and which caused Orthodox-Jewish Daniela Krishevsky visiting a traditional Roma family in Transylvania to announce “this family is so much like my own”.
Daniela noted similarities in the dress codes, hair coverings and roles of the family members. There was also an interesting parallel in the tribes formed along the diaspora: Ashkenazi, Sephardic and Mizrachi while the Roma nation has the Sinti, Kale, Vlax Roma, Horahane and Romanichals. Guarding the purity of the races stood the Jewish and Roma legal tribunals headed by rabbinical leaders or respected Roma elderly. The strict laws and traditions acted as filters in keeping contaminations to the culture out of the community. Ethereal dividers separated both the Roma and Jews from the rest; segregating was their preference and which comes forth in the single noun identification of all outsiders as “gajo” in Romani or “goy” in Hebrew, thus emphasizing an “us” versus “them” mentality.
I took this assorted bag of comparisons with me into Moldova region of Romania where until only a couple generations ago large numbers of Roma and Jews lived together. It would be here, if anywhere, I suspected, that the similarities between the groups would be recognized.
The very notion of comparing the two minorities caused Pincu Kaiserman, president of the Iasi Jewish community in Moldova to furrow his brow. He didn’t appreciate the association to a people that are generally identified in these parts as “unclean”, “lazy” and “untrustworthy”. I moved on to Prof. David Sanie, professor of Jewish studies at the Iasi University and author of numerous books on Jewish culture and history whose reaction mirrored the former.
While both men rejected the association, they admitted that their experiences with Gypsies was limited to the “squatter” population that had inundated the area and turned the once flourishing Jewish neighborhood into what some would now call a slum. It was the conspicuous stereotypes and other surface differences that had been concealing any similarities: while Jews generally conjugate in cities and towns, the Gypsies are traditionally found in the unbounded country (it was only during communist era of industrialization and a need of labor that they began massing into the cities). Centering the Jewish community stood the structural synagogue while traditionally nomadic Roma preferred gathering about the tangible “satra” (Gypsy camp); the blazing fire formed their altar. A pronounced 3000 year history identifying the Jews as the “people of the book” deeply contrasts to the analphabetic Gypsies strictly oral traditions that altered with the changing of times.
Another barrier came in the secretive nature of both groups, particularly the Roma, as noted in Walter O. Weyrauch’s book Romani Legal Traditions and Culture. “It is the protective nature of Jewish and most clearly Gypsy that keeps outsiders from knowing about their own affairs that makes it difficult for the outside world to comprehend the Roma ways… It is commonly reported that a Gypsy; when granting an interview to a non-Gypsy; uses the occasion to disseminate wrong information about Gypsy culture. Gypsy names and rituals lose their magical effectiveness if uttered to non-Gypsies. There are, in fact, prohibitions against members of the Roma informing outsiders about their laws.”
The very different origins between the Hindu-Indian Roma and Semitic Jews that would normally deter parallels had a surprising opposite effect. The non-Christian essences of their cultures would keep both minorities “at arm’s length” of the Europeans and it was from these perimeters of society that the Roma and Jew formed a lasting parallel. Other Asian invaders like the Huns, Bulgars, Cumans, Alans, once having let down their guard by accepting Christianity were assimilating into the European melting pot and today little remains of their origin; they are Europeans. Even the Semitic aligned Armenian diaspora found themselves easily accepted through mutual Christian beliefs and thus blended into European society.
Though Roma have accepted the faith of their Christian or Islamic host, the essence of their belief system remains true to their Hindu-Indian roots thus preventing acceptance into the Christian or Islamic majority. They call this link to the past Rromipen.
“The culture is probably my biggest problem,” says Catholic priest Fr. Markos Andras servicing Romania’s largest Catholic Gypsy congregation in Sfantu Gheorghe city in central Romania. “They have their own ways that they brought from India and this culture is filled with superstition and magic.”
“Christ killers” – the deicidal accusations of Emperor Constantine would haunt the Jewish diaspora all across the Christian domain. This murderous accusation is not unlike the slur cast upon arriving Roma as “heathen”, “tatar” or “turk” for an association to the hated invaders of Christendom and slaughter of the martyrs. Though the Gypsies came peacefully, the period of their arrival combined with their Eastern character connected them with the armed invaders, an association and stain they could not shake and which to this day lives on in the European subconscious to now and again rear its ugly head at moment of deep xenophobic passions.
The “Tatar” association would have yet further reaching effect for the vast number of Roma enslaved at the monasteries where the use of their “devilish” language and other “oriental” customs was strictly forbidden. The Romani culture was forcefully “exorcised” from their being until finally degenerating into a shell of the Gypsy. The descendants of these former slaves no longer possess any signs of the Romani culture and as a result they are shunned by other Roma for abandoning the traditions, as the Romani saying goes, “who is ashamed of his language – is ashamed of his mother”.
Anti-Gypsy and Anti–Semitism has been a major part of the Roma and Jewish experience since their exodus – and even before the destruction of the temple and the Muslim invasion of India that sent the early Roma fleeing: the Israelites had been enslaved by the pharaohs while the Gypsies origins align with the lowly untouchables of Hindu-India. The persecutions came to an explosive head with the horrific holocausts and Roma Porajmos where both Roma and Jews were executed in mass for no other reason than who their parents were. A sense of brotherhood by mutual suffering emerged between the two minorities and which would be used in Roma legends to help make some sense of the unjust hatred that they and their offspring endured from place to place, year after year; it was karma or a curse brought on by the sinful deeds of their assumed Semitic ancestry, an ancestry that Roma legends trace back to Cain. Cain, the “father of all Gypsies”, who’s crime of fratricide cursed all future generations to a wandering lifestyle.
Genesis 4:9 Then the LORD said to Cain, "Where is your brother Abel?" "I don't know," he replied. "Am I my brother's keeper?" 10 The LORD said, "What have you done? Listen! Your brother's blood cries out to me from the ground.11 Now you are under a curse and driven from the ground, which opened its mouth to receive your brother's blood from your hand. 12 When you work the ground, it will no longer yield its crops for you. You will be a restless wanderer on the earth.
For some Jews who let down their guard and allowed new ways to creep into the community leading to gradual changes amongst the behavior found themselves engrossed with a new sense of shame and embarrassment brought on by the negative opinions of others. They called this new phenomena “self-hating Jew”. This same ethnic self-hatred has had an even greater effect on the Gypsies, particularly those affected by higher education or improved social status, a rank often acquired through music, a subject which Speranta Radulescu’s raises in her book “Chat’s about Gypsy music.”
“For instance, when the musicians from Morunglav village say “we are not tsigani” (Gypsies), they mean that they do not want to be identified with most Roma which everyone knows as wild, shiftless, misfits, potential delinquents… A bit later during the conversation when they say we are Gypsies they refer to the fact that their ancestors were brought from an unknown locality to a village already populated with Romanians.
In some cases entire communities fell under the spell of the self-hatred syndrome like that of the Lingurari tribe of Moldova that today refuse to accept a Gypsy origin and where this author, after raising the subject, was violently attacked.
Former Stetl Stefanesti
Following my disappointing research with the Jewish leaders in Iasi, I headed north, to the Roma living in the former stetl Stefanesti where a small community of Ashkezani settlers had transformed the agrarian economy of peasants into a bustling center of commerce that had become known as “the Moldavian beehive”. The time was the 18th century; Romania was in the process of breaking away from Ottoman domination towards the West and competitive European markets. It was the time of the enlightenment where these lands of ruling princes and subjugated peasants craved industrialization. A newly forming democracy began enticing Jewish settlers from the east with benefits to bring their knowledge and forge a new start in Moldova
Turning back the clock to the Roma arrival in the 14th and 15th centuries reveals a similar lack of sophistication in the region that was in desperate need of the Gypsy’s skills in metalworking (blacksmiths, tinsmiths) and other manual trades which the Roma had carried from India and improved upon with Byzantium technology. Instead of the more civilized bonuses later offered the Jews, the Gypsies were swiftly awarded steel chains for their hands and neck; the legalized subjugation of the Gypsy was in effect.
“The Roma of Stefanesti are traditionally blacksmiths and musicians,” says Crengutsa Scripcariu, Roma representative at the Stefanesti Mayor’s office. “The Jews had the plan and Roma blacksmith made the product. They also performed music for the Jewish celebrations, and different music for the Romanian celebrations and again a different style the other Romas.”
However, not all Roma in the area could earn a living with the horse-hair bow or hammer driving others towards finding an entrepreneurial niche between the peasant Romanian and Jewish merchant like the grandfather to Radu Hassan who earned his living bartering for fresh fish from area peasants that he would re-sell in town to the Jewish merchants. “The Gypsy was always making business,” says Radu Hassan. “The family was a business. Even the blacksmiths didn’t just do the hammering; they handled everything: they collected the materials, formed the product and then went out and found buyers.”
Marlene Sway, in her book, “Familiar Strangers: Gypsy Life in America” contends that Gypsies belong to the same social status as the Jewish and Armenian diaspora known as middlemen minorities. The economical niche these groups acquired between producer and the masses brought them a higher level of economic and social status and which enabled them the additional freedoms to continue their traditions.
Interestingly, the Roma and Jewish mercantile trade of buying products cheaply and then selling at a higher rate was never well received by the Christian peasant-folk who earned a living off God’s green earth and from the sweat of their brow. They looked upon Roma and Jewish businessmen as dishonest, full of trickery and greed - and which shows up in classical literate as the despicable characters exploiting the innocent and weak like Shylock, Fagan and Voltaire’s greedy Don Issachar.
Envy and distrust of the Jewish business success helped stimulate the levels of discrimination which eventually lead to organized pogroms and ultimately the Holocaust of which nearly obliterated Romania’s robust Jewish population; almost 400,000 Jews perished within Romanian borders. After the streets had been cleansed of the Jew, they came for the Gypsy. Roma genocide in Romania started off as a concealed euphemism for the removal of the “criminal element”. As a result many of Stefanesti’s Roma blacksmiths and small merchants were hauled away to follow the Jews into the land beyond the Prut River where thousands were executed or ultimately succumbed to the elements.
After the war, Jewish survivors fled to Israel where for the first time in 2000 years they found security as the majority. The Roma had no homeland; their origins were clearly Indian but that link had long ago been cut; not only did the Indians not welcome them back but the Roma no longer had the attachment; their legends had instead diverted their origins to Egypt and the holy land. With nowhere else to go, Roma survivors returned to their “tzigania”, the Gypsy quarter. Those returning to Stefanesti went back to their old trades as blacksmith, musicians, and entrepreneurial merchants, but things had changed; without the Jewish talent, the vibrant economy had dried up and in its place sprouted the weeds of a stagnant agrarian economy of which today fosters more bars along the main street then stores. Nevertheless, the opportunistic, business-minded Roma found their niche between producer and the peasant masses by smuggling low cost cigarettes and alcohol from neighboring Republic of Moldova onto heavily taxed Europe.
Majority disdain towards the Roma still stands as a daily part of their daily lives and which this author witnessed in a local farmer’s heated reprimand lashed out over Crengutsa Scripcariu, Roma representative at the Mayor’s office, for the Roma method of buying cheaply and selling at a higher rate which he characterized as “thievery”, “trickery” and caused by “greed”. “I didn’t argue with him because I didn’t want to make it worse,” Ms. Scripcariu commented after his departure.
In Stefanesti I stayed in the home designed for the family of a Jewish tradesman. The front half of the house had been structured for business use while the back of the homestead supported the family. Ashekazai ingenuity had designed a functioning wall of glass around the front porch allowing for a steady stream of warming sunlight, something very unlike the peasant adobe homes of the area or primitive four walls, roof and tiny windows of the Gypsy style home.
The Jewish home had a plan; it was a place of business, protection from the dangers outside while at the same time conforming to their religious regulations. The home acted as the center of the family’s social activity just as the synagogue centered the community. The primitive four walls, roof and tiny windows of the Gypsy style house, however, had been designed for no other purpose than shelter from the rain and warmth from the cold. The Gypsy domain stood under the blue sky and bright stars; a point made adamantly clear in the recorded chat made by 19th century researcher Henry Woodcock.
“You are a wild set,” I observed to a young Gypsy.
“Open air and liberty make us so,” was her reply.
“But would you not like to live in a house?”
“No,” said she. “I would pine away and die, just as would that lark if you put it in a cage. I was born in a tent, I have lived in a tent, and I hope to die in a tent… No one who has a drop of the real Romany blood in him ever yet willingly took up to the life of the house-dweller. No, no.”
The Gypsies. Henry Woodcock. 1895
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One of the clearest signs of any cultural relationship proves itself when endogamic communities intermarry; this came to fruition a half century ago in the Bulgarian capital of Sofia resulting in a Jewish-Gypsy community of “several hundred”, according to Bulgarian Ethnologists Elena Marushiakova and Vesselin Popov. It’s this cultural “understanding” between the Roma – Jewish minorities that has directed the history-less Gypsies towards a Middle Eastern identity. The link appears in numerous legends of numerous tribes including one large group in Albanian area numbering over 10,000 that to this day renounce any Roma, Gypsy or Indian association, instead calling themselves “Egyptians”