Romancing the Sephardi

Bourekas. Delicious, but not the sum of Sephardi identity. | CC via Wikimedia Commons

There’s been a bit of news about Sephardim lately. Although the  attempt began a few years ago, the Spanish government recently announced a more concerned effort at paving the way for Sephardim – ancestors of those Jews expelled in the Inquisition of the 15th century – to acquire Spanish citizenship. The ways of determining who is Sephardic is somewhat vague; whether it’s mainly based on ancestral language (Ladino), family surname, or rabbinic certification (whatever that means) remains unclear. Spain’s renewed efforts come a few weeks after Joshua Nathan-Kazis’ excellent long-form appeared in The Forward, in which he recounts his travels to Spain in search of both his Sephardic roots and a curiosity in pursuing Spanish citizenship. Nathan-Kazis was left unimpressed by Spain and more perplexed with his Iberian heritage than when he began – what was intended as a journey to strengthen his Sephardic identity ended up withering it, concluding that “blood is fiction.” His article even elicited an affirming response by The Forward’s editor-in-chief, Jane Eisner, in which she adds that actions and behavior define us, and not necessarily our heritage or bloodline. To me, especially in an age that looks with disgust at inherited power structures and nepotism, this seems like common sense.

On the other hand, Nathan-Kazis and The New York Timesrecent blurb about Spain’s actions quote a few Sephardim in America and Israel who express a desire to acquire citizenship, either as a symbolic act or right, a business opportunity, or because of the numerous benefits of having a European passport. I can’t argue with the latter two, and as a Sephardic Jew, I understand the emotions involved in being welcomed back to Spain, despite all its complications. Is this a Sephardic ‘Balfour Declaration’ that confirms Iberia as a homeland for the Sephardic nation? Do we even need external validation for our Hispanic roots? Why are so many Sephardic Jews – thousands, and certainly more if the legislation succeeds – interested? Why am I so intrigued by the possibility of, if not returning to Spain, seeing my name on a Spanish passport?

In typical Jewish fashion, let me answer those questions with another: Who else affirms Sephardic heritage in such a grand gesture? Sure, we have the American Sephardi Federation, synagogues across the country, and a small but growing field of Sephardic Studies in the academy. In Israel, although I’m less familiar, Sephardim occupy important political positions (religious parties and not) and you’re often more likely to find a boureka than a bagel in many marketplaces. Sephardic musical traditions blend with those native to the Middle East. But none of these are like a Nobel Prize for a Ladino Isaac Bashevis Singer, or a Tony Award for a Moroccan Fiddler on the Roof. We have been shown that Ashkenazim matter. But how do we know that Sephardim do? What is there to connect us to our Iberian and Mediterranean roots?

We shouldn’t be surprised by the overwhelming response by Sephardim looking to reconnect to Spain – opportunities for positive Sephardic identity formation are seldom found elsewhere. History has also shown that Sephardim have not always been fully welcomed as members of the larger, Ashkenazi-majority societies in which they’ve found themselves in the past century. Sephardic immigrants on the Lower East Side were often humiliated at having to prove their Jewishness to their disbelieving Ashkenazi co-religionists. In the early years of statehood (and even today), the treatment of Sephardim – often lumped together with Mizrahim and other “oriental” Jews – in Israel often smacked of racism and condescension. In the Jewish imagination, Sephardim are often portrayed as ambiguously Jewish (did they really give up their Christian ways? how can we trust Jews who speak Arabic?) or middlemen on the route to modernity (without Maimonides or Spinoza, how would we get to Mendelssohn?). No wonder Sephardim are so attracted to Spain’s offer. It’s an affirmation that no film festival, cookbook, or token inclusion of “Ocho Kandelikas” in a Hanukkah concert could ever give them, no matter how comprehensive, well meaning, or sincere. The Law of Return saw the renewal in a general sense of Jewish pride in the new Israeli nation. But for a long time, the Jewish state was in many ways an Ashkenazi one. Can Sephardim finally find a long-sought affirmation in Spanish citizenship?

As Nathan-Kazis and Eisner state, and as I tend to agree, the short answer is no. Lo b’sfarad hi. [“it is not in Spain,” a play on the Talmudic “It is not in heaven”] But if it is not there, then where? Eisner gives a misleading answer via a statement about identity formation in general – it is achieved through actions and beliefs. She claims that Nathan-Kazis and his family have “chosen to maintain their allegiance to and support of a stream of Jewry today” in order to keep their Sephardi-ness alive, but without going into any details of what that means. In order to answer the questions that have been ignored, we need to look at specifics of Sephardic life.

What does it mean to be Sephardic in an Ashkenazi-normative Jewish world? As a minority within a minority, every Sephardi act (unless you live in the insular Syrian communities of  Brooklyn or Deal, New Jersey) is one of conscious self-other-ing. It is disillusioning to be outwardly Sephardic, even in the most welcoming of Jewish environments. I see this whenever I wrap tefillin “the wrong way,” when I need to justify my interest in learning Ladino or explain my olive-toned skin, and when I have to give a history lesson to clarify that, yes, my Greek side is also my Jewish side. Surely these complaints are insulting to Jews of Color or queer Jews who face pain and discrimination far worse than I ever have. Not to mention those Sephardim or Mizrahim who cannot “pass” for Ashkenazi as I can, due to my own mixed heritage and innocuous last name. But every time I do or think about these things that set me apart, I sympathize with other marginalized minorities as I identify with my Sephardic heritage. Sephardim – a double minority with a history of double exile – are the Jews of the Jewish world.

Spain might define a Sephardic Jew by blood, surname, or language, but who has bothered to ask, define, or care about what Sephardic actions or beliefs are? If we agree with Nathan-Kazis and Eisner that it cannot be found through land or blood, where can one find Sephardic identity? Is it in the powerful philosophical works of Maimonides or the illuminating Biblical commentaries of ibn Ezra? Is it in the remarkably sublime poetry of ibn Gabirol and Judah Halevi? Or perhaps we can look toward the diaspora: Is it in the incredible history of Jewish Amsterdam? The mellahs of North Africa? The coplas sung in Salonika? The role Istanbul’s Jewish elite had in shaping the Ottoman sultanate?

Or could it even be closer? Is it in the liturgy of Sephardic synagogues, like the one that Nathan-Kazis’ family has belonged to for generations (but which he himself does not belong)? At the tiny number of Sephardic studies courses offered at college campuses around the country? At a Sarah Aroeste concert? While eating a boureka?

The answer to all of the above is a resounding yes. But are Sephardim – let alone Jews in general – even aware of these things? If they are, then why haven’t the thousands of applicants for Spanish citizenship also picked up a volume of Golden Age poetry? If they aren’t, then who is at fault?

Everyone. Maintaining a distinct identity among Sephardim is a losing battle, belied by many of our own defeatist attitudes and perhaps subconscious self-hate. Most Jewish communal, religious, and cultural organizations have other things to worry about than the fading and foreign culture of 2% of American Jews. It seems like nobody cares – but those like Nathan-Kazis and myself, and I’m sure countless others, are still searching for something meaningful in being Sephardic.

Spanish citizenship is a welcome, but illusory gesture. The extant Sephardic organizations and synagogues, however committed, have limited resources to reach those whose interests lay elsewhere. So what can be done? If identity is not in blood, but in our actions and beliefs, the solution seems clear – more Sephardic culture. For everyone.

Make a stronger push for the inclusion of Sephardi (and other Jewish minority) cultures in Jewish education and cultural institutions. If we agree that an identity based on bloodline is nebulous at best, especially in an America that is increasingly proud of being multi-cultural, it becomes hard to hide behind the excuse that “is not my heritage,” which is something I hear more often than I’d like. The benefits that come from emphasizing and embracing the Sephardic element abound. In embracing internal Jewish diversity, in addition to healing our own internal divisions, we can help create a native Jewish model to apply to interfaith and interracial relations outside the Jewish community. By bringing Jews closer to a Spanish-Jewish heritage, we can foster greater feelings of kinship with the growing Hispanic community in the United States, estimated to constitute 30% of the population by 2050. If we learn a few Ladino songs or prayers, we will come to see part of ourselves in the Puerto Rican woman on the bus or the Dominican family that lives down the hall. (Imagine the possibilities in upper Manhattan’s Jewish and Dominican neighborhood of Washington Heights!) It would provide access to a trove of Jewish culture and patterns of life that have not only been badly ignored, but offer invaluable lessons to contemporary Jews. The struggle between religion and science and the problems of ethnic particularity in a multicultural society are issues that have been addressed throughout Sephardic history and ring particularly true in 21st century America.

Spanish citizenship is quite an appealing offer if it ever comes to fruition. But no matter how affirming such an act is to the legitimacy of Sephardic history and peoplehood, it will only serve to place Sephardim further away from the larger Jewish community – a group that still has yet to appreciate the benefits that Sephardic cultures can offer. Spanish citizenship only serves to further alienate an already marginalized part of the Jewish experience. If being Sephardic – or the ideal of a diverse Jewish community – matters to anyone, Jews and other interested parties need to engage with and take seriously a community and history that has been ignored for too long.

Max Daniel is a student at Columbia University and editor in chief of The Columbia Current.

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