By Illana Ahdout, Staff Writer
When the average person thinks “Jewish,” they think matzah ball soup. Gefilte fish. Kugel. Yiddish words like schlep, schmutz, chutzpah. Last names that are some variation of KleinSchwartzenBergerManSteinowitz.
These words have almost become synonymous with the word “Jew”; stereotypes for what a Jew eats, how a Jew speaks, what a Jew is. They also share one very important commonality: they’re unique to Ashkenazim (Jews of Central or Eastern European descent). Because when the average person thinks “Jewish,” they think Ashkenazi.
It makes sense. According to a 2020 survey, 2/3 of U.S. Jews identify as Ashkenazi. Only 3% describe themselves as Sephardic (of Spanish or Portuguese descent) and 1% as Mizrahi (of Middle Eastern or North African descent). In the face of these statistics, it’s no wonder that the identity of the American Ashkenazi Jew has subsumed that of the entire race.
In America, the Sephardic and Mizrahi Jews tend to keep to themselves. They hunker down in Great Neck, Deal, Miami, where they stick to their insular communities and schools. They feel an outpour of love and support from the people surrounding them; the people like themselves.
But for those outside these communities; those who have no other options but to attend the predominantly Ashkenazi schools of their respective predominantly Ashkenazi communities, the experience is different.
They are surrounded by people who are unlike themselves, are forced to sit in halacha classes that do not apply to them, Jewish history classes that omit their legacies, minyanim that don’t follow their nusach (text of prayer service). Even in schools where Sephardic minyanim (services) and halacha (Jewish law) courses are available, they’re often only as an afterthought.
In such a setting, Sephardic Jews are effectively “othered.” They are made to feel as though they do not belong.
As a result, these students’ relationships with their Sephardic identities often become negative. For Rina Shamilov, a Kavkazi student at Stern College for Women, that is exactly what happened.
Shamilov, who grew up in Brooklyn, began noticing how differently Sephardic students were treated when she began Central High School. “We were never put on any posters or promotional material,” she told me.
“It made me feel like the administration did not care about their Sephardic students. It also made me shirk further away from my Sephardic identity. How could I be proud of an identity that wasn’t celebrated?”
She added, “I just wanted to feel like the administration was as proud of me as they were of my Ashkenazi counterparts.”
Shamilov is not alone in her sentiment. Plenty of Sephardic Jews in similar situations feel the same way. Their experiences being marginalized turn them away from their Sephardic identity, resulting in either resentment or indifference, and often assimilation into Ashkenazi culture. That means the loss of generations of rich, extensive heritage and history.
But that’s not the case for everyone. An anonymous Kurdish Monmouth University student who grew up in the Ashkenazi community of West Hartford, CT, says “I am very proud to be Sephardic… I hold it so dear and close to me.”
She faced her fair share of non-inclusion in West Hartford, where her father couldn’t say kaddish according to his nusach, and her brother was never called up to the bema (altar or platform in the synagogue) since his classmates did not like praying when he led.
Yet, she remains “in love” with her Sephardic identity and culture. When asked why, she told me it was because of the emphasis her family, who are “extremely Sephardic in their being,” placed on connecting with their heritage.
“I had my role models and was showered with love by them and from them all my years,” she said. “Our food is Sephardic; our dress is Sephardic. It’s who we are and who we’ve always been proud to be.”
When asked what could be done to alleviate the feelings of marginalization, both women agreed: Make us feel welcome. Celebrate us. Show us that you are proud of us. That we are not any lesser just because we are different. Talk about our halacha, our history, our culture.
After all, aren’t we all Jews?