Is it proper to say “I am a Ashkenazi Jew” or “I am a Sephardic Jew”, the truth is you are a Jew, just a Jew?
Ashkenazim and Sephardim are practices of culture, so no one is Ashkenazi or Sephardic. They just have the customs of those particular cultures. If an “Ashkenazi” Jew went to Spain, he would most likely be practicing Sephardic then he would respectfully be considered Sephardic or at least his children would. There are other Jewish cultures around the world but not as recognized.
If I went to Ethiopia, would I be Ethiopian? I would practice Ethiopian Jewish customs eat their food (no gefilte fish). So, are these (Ashkenazim and Sephardim) authentic labels for what Judaism is or the practices that come from distinct cultures?
Do Sephardic Jews from Spain, Turkey, and North Africa all have the same practices? Should they all have they’re own distinct or specific names? Or should we just get rid of the labels and call ourselves Jews and nothing else?
Dear Just Jewish
I think I am Ashkefardic (kinda like Lisa Alcalay Klug
). I follow Ashkenazi customs but (Spanish) Sephardic customs literally call out to me (and it’s not just because I want to eat beans and rice on Passover). I’m also a Dominican-American Jew (Jewmincana for short). I’m also Hispanic. I’m a woman, a writer, a blogger. Oh, I’m also an afro-Dominican…when my hair is especially tall and I look quite fab-ly tanned.
Saying someone is Ashkenazi or Sephardi usually simply identifies that someone is linked to a certain background (Eastern European, Spanish, Turkish, Greek and more), traditions and practices. It doesn’t say anything about what kind of Jew they are.
I have friend who is a black Jew (neither Sephardic or Ashkenazi, another who is a (Ashkenazi) Cuban Jew, another is a Sephardic Jew from Mexico. Of course, people need to get a clue that there are more Jewish customs than can be labeled simply “Sephardic” or “Ashkenazi” as the Jewish community extends to the far reaches of the world.
(By the way, Ashkenazim and Sephardim and other Jews have managed to move and live in places all over the world and they’ve kept their cultural traditions from their native countries. So, even in Ethiopia, if you were Sephardic, you’d keep your customs. Maybe, sure, you’d go to the local Ethiopian shul or start your own Sephardic one. You wouldn’t neccessarily just adopt Ethiopian minhagim
These are not labels people use to separate themselves from each other. Except in the case of that Israeli school that actually segregated Ashkenazi from Sephardi students because they thought the later were subhuman or all the other hate crimes that take place between Ashkenazim versus Sephardim and even the Jewish people who don’t fall into those categories.
They’re “labels” (and I hestitate to use that word because you gave it negative connotations but also because it’s a misinterpretation) that people use to CELEBRATE where they come from and I wouldn’t take that away from anyone and say, “No, you’re JUST JEWISH.” These aren’t just “labels,” we’re talking about. These are a person’s cultural traditions, heritage, native countries, language, etc. that we’re talking about.
Every time someone has told me I’m “JUST JEWISH” after I’ve identified as a Dominican-American Jew (Jewminicana for short) it’s felt like a slap in the face. As if they were saying, I couldn’t celebrate being Dominican and American as well because that somehow took away from being Jewish or even, for some people, threatened Jewish identity. It’s a denial of parts of my identity.
And sadly, more often than not, it was these kinds of people, “JUST JEWISH” people, who told me very early on after I converted to learn Hebrew and Yiddish but not bother with Ladino or teaching my children Spanish. Some even said “You’re Jewish, you’re no longer Dominican.”
I once joked on Twitter “Am I afro-Dominican because I have an afro?” And a white Jewish friend replied, “Who cares?” Can’t say it didn’t sting. Who cares? Me. It’s my identity we discussing. But I’m familiar with the “Just Jewish” refrain because I hear it really often when I identify as a JOC, a Jew of color.
Should we get rid of the labels male and female, too? Is that too confusing for people? Is it too confusing for people that our president is half-black and half-white. It seems like that sometimes. Maybe people have a hard time handling mixed identity, diverse identities, etc. But that’s not my problem.
You can go ahead and call yourself “JUST JEWISH” but just don’t tell me what I can identify myself. And what happens when we pretend everyone is “JUST JEWISH,” do we force every Jew in Manhattan to follow Ashkenazi customs (even though Sephardim were here first!) and every Jew in South American Sephardic customs (because they speak Spanish!)? It can get hairy to walk down that road of either ignoring/downplaying or misinterpreting someone’s cultural pride, instead of respecting and understanding the home cultures, traditions and customs of all the Jewish people.
How would you feel if you said you were Jewish and someone said, no, you’re “Just American”? Posed to me, I would say, “Why can’t I be Jewish AND American?” I am after all the girl who wishes she could tattoo her forehead with a sign that reads “Dominican American Jew, born New York, has fibromyalgia” so people will stop asking me stupid questions. Probably, they would ask more.
The cultural identites of Jews are vast and diverse and wonderful, a testament to how far reaching Judaism is. That’s what I’m proud to call myself a Jewminicana. But as a Jew, I’m connected to Persian Jews and Greek Jews and Columbian Jews and African-American Jews and so many people from all over the world, from all different backgrounds talking completely different languages…just by virtue of being Jewish. (I’m also connected to non-Jews from the Dominican Republic and America. Pretty neat!) That’s why when my American (Russian/Polish) Jewish husband in France, he can find a French Jew who speaks Hebrew. In Italy of all places, I did pretty well finding Italian Jews who spoke Spanish. My Italian and Hebrew weren’t so good.
My homelands are still the Dominican Republic (via my parents), America (via my birth) and Israel (via conversion) but being Jewish connects to places I’ve never even heard of and can’t even find on a map: Uzbekistan? Uganda? Guatemala? Laugh at the last one but I really suck at Latin American geography! I am, after all, American…and worse, a New Yorker who thinks the whole world revolves around New York City (which I’m trying to get over). I’m also someone who is deliriously proud of her Jewish and Hispanic connections.
P.S. If you’re asking Is Diversity Good for the Jewish People? Rabbi Tzvi Freeman and I agree that the answer is yes!