culture/multiculturalism · Hispanics/Latinos · jews of color · Jews/Jewish/Judaism/Orthodox Judaism · language

Dear Aliza: Ashkenazi Jew or Sephardic Jew or Just Jewish?

Dear Aliza:

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?

Just Jewish

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!

6 thoughts on “Dear Aliza: Ashkenazi Jew or Sephardic Jew or Just Jewish?

  1. Regarding “Just Jewish's” question of whether or not all Sephardim have the same questions: NO, they definitely do not. My husband is Spanish-Sephardic and holds by eruvim, keeps 3 hours between milk and meat, and eats kitniyot on Pesach. A French Sephardi told him the other day that 'real Sephradim' don't use any eruv. (?)There is no such thing as a 'real Sephardi or 'real' anyone! We all have different customs, just like Yecky (German) Jews have very different minhagim from Polish Ashkenazim. Moroccan-Sephardim don't eat kitniyot like us, and they have different candle-lighting customs than other Sephardim. Different family customs don't divide, they beautify. Like R' Freidman said, you can't have a painting with just one color.


  2. Your answer was interesting. I think it's right, for American Jews. But in Israel, the (halachic) opposition between these two customs is structurally reinforced, with a separate chief rabbi for each tradition.

    In Orthodox Jewry, where minhag often gets treated as equal to or greater than halacha, the differences between these two groups in terms of details of observance can be quite large. Just using your example, an observant Ashkenazi Jew can't eat at a Sephardic house on Pesach, from my undersanding.

    But I'm pretty sure that the standard for individuals is yes, keep your ethnic/cultural customs that don't affect halachic observance, but if you move to a community with consistent, homogenous, different halchic rules (eruv, etc.), you must adapt to follow the community in which you now live.


  3. “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.”

    Ok, off my halacha soapbox, and I think you're right. I hear “just Jewish” from Ashkenazi folk who want Ashkenazi traditions to trump any other kind of Jewish practice.

    But I also hear it from potential converts who are frustrated that before they even join the people, they're being asked to “take sides” on which movements are legitimate. These labels are all about Jewish identity politics. It's only in Israel that they get codified into (secular) LAW.


  4. I'm so happy to live in such a diverse community in NYC. There are Jews from everywhere here and people generally seem open-minded about the backgrounds they're unfamiliar with. Btw, I think Ashkenazim can eat at a Sephardi's house on Pesach, they just can't partake of the kitniyot. We've always had observant Ashkenazim over. I ususally will skip the kitniyot for that meal so as not to tempt anyone (like Aliza!) with beans-n-rice.


  5. I would not take issue with someone simply stating that the person is a Jew. But for the dispersion, according to Judaism, there were just Jews and the nations. Jewish individuality is a by product of Jewish displacement and resulting minhagim, but not the religion. Further, according to Halacha, a convert is metaphysically no longer related to the convert's family. Chazal uses this rationale to justify Jacob’s otherwise prohibited marriage (if post Sinai) to two sisters in their lifetimes. This type of disconnect from a convert's past life is impractical on an emotional level, but none the less reflects the extent to which the religion expects converts to embrace their new identity. I would argue that the prohibition against reminding converts of their past life also supports my position.

    As a quick aside, I think a lot of posts on this blog wrongly blame Judaism for intolerance. The primary root of intolerance in Judaism is largely due to Eurocentric standards, which stem from Ashkenazi Jews. This circumstance is no different from what occurred in countries that were subjected to colonialism. Dominant groups in any culture often impose their social mores on minority groups, which either subjugate the minorities’ individuality or marginalizes those who choose to rebel. The dominated often turn to self hate and/or become victims of Stockholm Syndrome where they identify with their oppressors. However, the noted reflects geo-political reality rather than some unique dynamic of Judaism.


  6. Ramban, I hope you're not suggesting that I stopped being Dominican when I got out of that mikvah because if you are….

    I agree, it's not Judaism that is racist. I try to make that clear in blog posts where I discuss mistreatment by white Jews but I don't always succeed. It's not even ALL Jews (Ashkenazi) that are racist. It's probably (hopefully) not even 50%. I think we're on the same page that the racism I stumble upon in the Orthodox Jewish community has nothing to do with Judaism itself so much as Jews being polluted by the racism that's in the bath water, so to speak.

    A great quote from “The Color of Jews” says: “The Ashkenazi of my generation bleached and shaved, to look less Jewish; the non-Ashkenazi girls bleached and shaved to look more Ashkenazi; more European; less Jewish.” I could take that soundbite and apply it to Dominicans (colonialism did its damage on us) and other Hispanics and I have in different blogs. When I wrote about feeling close to Cuban Jews, some Cubans even came on the blog to assert that they were much more Spanish and better (ie, European) than Dominicans.

    So on the one hand, I'm trying to fight the anti-Semitism I see in Latino non-Jews and on the other fighting the racism I see in white Jews.


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