Personal Musings on History, Identity, and Heritage

Personal Musings on History, Identity, and Heritage

By Dr. Isaac Amon, Director of Academic Research

Jewish Heritage Alliance, St. Louis, Missouri, USA

November, 2022

Last year, I had the great honor and pleasure of participating in the first ever national cohort of the Sephardic Leaders Fellowship. Graciously hosted on Zoom by Jews Indigenous to the Middle East and North Africa (JIMENA), it was a rather unique and remarkable experience. A few things became apparent to me over the course of this fellowship. 

First was the sense of camaraderie. Fellows came from cities and towns across the USA and Canada, with diverse backgrounds, religious perspectives, and family stories. Yet, from the very first session, we opened up to each other, recognizing our common origin, struggle at times to incorporate Sephardic and Mizrahi identity, and desire to learn from all participants. Second was the scope of topics discussed in the sessions and the quality of educators and teachers. Each session was different and examined a distinct aspect of the Sephardic worldview. 

Third, the Sephardic and Mizrahi experiences have transformed the course of Jewish, and world, history. In the 21st century, with global interconnectedness, we can no longer solely depict the Ashkenazi narrative, even though it may still be dominant. Indeed, forgetting or neglecting non-Ashkenazi ones is not merely an injustice but negates millennia of lived experiences of Jewish communities around the world. 

I was privileged to know my grandparents of blessed memory; at least one grandparent lived in the home for 25 years until they all passed. My paternal grandparents Dr. Rene Isaac Amon and Mrs. Denise Nahmad Amon – from Istanbul, Turkey and Aleppo, Syria – were Sephardi and Mizrahi. My maternal grandparents Mr. Henry Hutkin and Mrs. Lilian Rubin Hutkin – from the USA and Ukraine – were Ashkenazi. Due to this mélange of customs, languages, and cultural expressions, my early life and upbringing was an exceedingly enriching synthesis, especially during holidays and life cycle events when my grandparents gathered together and celebrated with my parents, my brothers, and myself. 

While my brothers and I attended Ashkenazi school and synagogues, Sephardic traditions were emphasized as much as possible in the home. For example, Ashkenazi Jews traditionally do not name grandchildren after grandparents if they are living whereas Sephardic Jews do. Many Sephardic Jews eat kitniyot (legumes) during Passover while Ashkenazi Jews do not. In addition, my grandparents always stressed the classical cosmopolitan nature of Sephardic Jewish history, identity, and thought; Jewishness was something that came naturally like the air we breathe yet we were always open to alternative interpretations and other ideas, believing that all concepts stem from the same source. Out of diversity comes genuine unity; out of many, one (like the American motto). 

These traditions and perspectives (although even my own grandparents respectively differed in these practices) were markers of a distinctive identity in an Ashkenazi community. While my Sephardic background was respected, some customs and values were characterized as exotic or non-traditional. It sometimes left me feeling like an outlier, but that reaction prompted a resolve to learn more about my ancestral heritage. 

I imbibed as much as I could from my grandparents, absorbing stories of their childhoods, daily lives, and families in the former Ottoman Empire. Whether it was making kibbeh or lahmahjin, learning some Ladino words, or striving to synthesize religious and secular knowledge, this intergenerational Sephardic inheritance – transcending time and space – is worthy of being supported and disseminated to the public square; it is an extraordinary story for Jews and non-Jews alike. There is something in the story of Sepharad for all. Being a part of the JIMENA fellowship allowed me to meet people with quite similar backgrounds and to learn new things about my paternal heritage, which stretches back to 15th century Spain. While that way of life has vanished, remnants endure. 

As Director of Academic Research at Jewish Heritage Alliance (JHA), a cultural and historical nonprofit dedicated to preserving and promoting Sephardic heritage, I often give virtual and in-person presentations to synagogues, communities, conferences, and schools. The JIMENA fellowship made me realize how much remarkable work is also being done by my peers and colleagues in keeping Sephardic and Mizrahi memories alive in Ashkenazi and non-Jewish spaces and communities. In this venture, we need friends and allies for Sephardic and Mizrahi history is Jewish history and Jewish history is ultimately human history. 

I’m grateful to JIMENA for the opportunity to have participated in the Sephardic Leaders fellowship, which allowed me to virtually meet with peers across North America who are involved in perpetuating Sephardic legacy. I look forward to future collaboration with my new friends and continuing to share this Sephardic heritage with the world at large. 

Sephardic Leaders

Sephardic Leaders

by Cristina D. Ramirez

November, 2022

For many years after I decided to make the Jewish faith mine, and the Jewish community my community, I found it hard to feel really connected to the community in communal spaces. I was asked, a lot, what I was, where I came from, how I happened to be in synagogue or at the JCC. Why was my name so ‘Christian’. Every outing to participate in services, go to the kosher deli, attend an event was a forced opportunity for me to reintroduce myself, to prove that I belonged. This went on for so many years. I picked up some Yiddish along the way, learned how to pronounce Hebrew with an Eastern European inflection during services, learned the Ashkenazi minhag, learned how to order my sandwiches in a particular way while in a group, and got my elevator speech down pat for introductions and first time conversations. 

Let’s start at the beginning, shall we? Yes, I am Latina. Yes, I was raised Latino Roman Catholic to a Spaniard mother and Mexican American father in the U.S. I knew something was different about me and I asked my parents to not make me go through confirmation classes at 13. I could not confirm or affirm something that I did not believe in. Over the next few years, I was drawn to learning about Judaism, the Hebrew language, studying about Israel, and began attending services at a synagogue. I got to college and as an undergrad, chose one of my majors to be in Philosophy & Religious Studies where I could study academically Biblical Hebrew, Biblical Literature, Judaism, and the Prophets. I then went to study Middle Eastern Studies with a focus on Israeli Politics and Culture for my Master’s degree. There, in Texas, the land of half of my ancestry (when you include Mexico), I asked a Rabbi if I could convert. It took years of study. I spent my time attending all the types of services I could to see the differences. I went to Reform, Conservative, Orthodox, Chabad Lubavitch, Renewal, non-denominational services, but there were no Sephardi/Mizrahi services or resources available to me. So, I converted through an Ashkenazi Rabbi at an Ashkenazi synagogue. 

But something else interesting was happening over those years. I was learning that my father, whose family came from Nuevo Leon, Mexico, was in part, descended from the Crypto-Jews that fled Spain during the Inquisition and settled in another part of the world. Over time, the generations of my family converted to Catholicism. But something remained among some family members, the spirit of our ancestors. I became the first member of my family in over 500 years to formally return to Judaism. But my return was not easy. The constant explanations of why, how, and are you sure followed me. I moved a few times to a few other states and ended up in Richmond, Virginia. Here I started out in one synagogue and even celebrated my Bat Mitzvah as an adult. The COVID-19 pandemic changed my world. 

I was balancing work, staying in and away from people, and trying to find something to ground me, give me sustenance during the stressful time. I did a google search for live streamed services. I dove into Torah study, set up my living room to have my favorite synagogue’s services live stream on YouTube. I then purchased a siddur from a small press in England that created a new Sephardi siddur. As I continued to be one of the few Latina librarians in my region, I also focused on access to Spanish-language resources, programs, and materials for the community. My worlds never seemed to intersect the way I wanted them to, needed them to. One day I stumbled upon Jewtina and applied and participated in the second cohort of the PUENTES Fellowship.

That is when things started to come into focus. The experience of that fellowship, the comradery, meeting and interacting with other Latino Jews made me realize I can integrate, be proud of all parts of me, stop explaining and just be me. I participated in a local Community Leadership Institute program through the Jewish Federation of Richmond. I never felt the need to explain myself. I am here in this space, and I am asking for more resources, representation, and attention paid to diverse Jews, Jews of Color, and Sephardi/Mizrahi Jews. Then I saw the JIMENA Sephardic Leaders Fellowship. I thought well I might not get in but I am going to try. I did and the world has opened up even more. I am able to circle back to my other heritage as well. My mother is from Segovia, Spain, where there were five synagogues at the height of the Middle Ages and were sadly, the Edict of Expulsion in 1492 was crafted just a 15-minute walk from the family home at the Alcazar. My mother, in addition to having Jewish ancestry also has North African ancestry. I feel I can continue to explore all parts of myself. And to advocate for U.S. Jews to consider the rich diversity amongst their ranks and to be more open to learning about the incredible heritage and history of the Sephardi/Mizrahi communities. 

There are so many opportunities for U.S. Jews to embrace the rich heritage of all Jews in communal spaces, in educational spaces, in recreational spaces, and in their lives. I advocate for inclusion of this heritage, history, knowledge, and traditions, to be included in Sunday school classes, as part of programming and events in Jewish spaces, and for these topics to be made more readily available through more comprehensive library collections in Jewish spaces. If Ashkenazi Jews do not know or are unaware of the rich heritage of their Sephardi/Mizrahi brothers and sisters, how can they ever have a complete understanding of their own heritage and history of the Jewish people? And if Ashkenazi Jews don’t realize that by being more open and welcoming to Jews of Color, Jews by Choice, and Jews who decided to return (after a 500-year hiatus like me), then they are missing out on strengthening the community, standing against antisemitism and racism, and diminishing the power of diversity and beauty that all Jews bring to the community. 

Sépharade: Between Refugee and Survivor

Sépharade: Between Refugee and Survivor

by Stephanie Sebag

November 2022

My name is Stephanie, and I am a 51-year-old woman living in New York. I was born in Lyon, France, to parents who emigrated from Tunisia at the age of 19. Their own parents were originally from Livorno, Italy, and Tripoli, Libya. That made me part of the Sephardic tribe, whether I wanted it or not. In addition to being the daughter of immigrants, I was also about to discover what it was like to be the daughter of refugees.

I grew up in France, and for as long as I remember, I wondered why it was mandatory to eat weird stews, why every meal involved a lot of oil and a lot of yelling and why all the dishes were unpronounceable to me. I had two lives, one inside our home idealizing this previous life in Tunisia, and the one in my French reality. All this was happening while my Judaism was craving to escape and be expressed, but we were all trying to assimilate into a country built on a Catholic calendar.

In 1956, Pierre Mendes France gives Tunisia its “freedom”. Tunisia becomes independent from the French protectorate and soon falls into an economic crisis. President Bourguiba, the pro-Jewish Tunisian president is imprisoned by Ben Ali, an extremist, who takes over control of the Tunisian government. From that day forward, every Jew in Tunisia is reminded that Jews have a country, so why not live there? It becomes very complicated to do business if you are a Jew. Many Jews, including my parents and their families, packed up their lives and boarded a boat to “freedom”, to create a new life in France. You were not allowed to say that you were leaving for good, so everyone just pretended they would be returning in the afternoon, took all their jewelry and money, and got on this boat. “Le Kerouan” was traveling twice a week from Tunis to Marseille, France. There are interesting stories that have been passed down about diamonds being hidden in tuna cans or shoulder pads that traveled to France incognito.

During World War Two, one morning, the family of my grandfather woke up to see that the German army was here. Most of the Jews were crying, they knew what to expect. Meanwhile, the Tunisian Arabs started mocking them. One of my Tunisian grandfathers (who later became a refugee), was recruited by the Nazis to work at the airport of Tunis. There he suffered from the Allied bombings against the Germans. His brother, who now lives in a moshav in the Negev, still remembers my grandfather escaping from this place and being requisitioned in an endless daily circle. He would come back scared, pale and a few hours later the Gestapo soldiers would come to take him back to the airport to work with numerous beatings and humiliations. He told his family that the Jews were given only fifty grams of bread a day.

When I entered 6th grade, my teacher asked us to take a piece of paper and write our name, date of birth, address, nationality, and our parents’ job. Logically, I wrote Tunisian, thinking that it would make my parents proud of our origins. My parents asked me right away to go to this teacher and ask for the piece of paper to change it to French nationality. There was a lot of confusion in my head and not necessarily time for answers. My father worked to provide for everyone, and my mother helped him. I think that they wanted to change it because they didn’t want to be associated with Arabs. They used to be friends with Arabs in the past but they just got expelled from their country. They needed some time to process.

They still remembered the henna with all the music from Egypt or Lebanon, the smell of jasmine and the way they were acknowledging all kinds of happy moments with a “lilililili” back then. They had been robbed from the perfect childhood.

When I moved to New York after living 10 years in Paris, my oldest daughter Noa, now 22, became a student at a Jewish school in 4th grade. It was important to me that my children build their Jewish identity from the inside, instead of reacting to their current environment. I grew up in a country where there was a lot of antisemitism and it was common to hear antisemitic insults, I guess that’s how I started to build my Jewish identity.

My daughter had a particular assignment for Rosh Hashana: she had to write a paragraph about how we celebrate Rosh Hashanah at home. The truth is that we were eating a stew made with beef, spinach, and white beans called “Bkeila” and reciting all the blessings for different kinds of food in addition to dipping the apple in the honey. It was like a mini seder. I think that hearing that everyone else in her grade was eating matzah balls and gefilte fish made her uncomfortable, and she asked me if it was ok to put these dishes in her paragraph. She wanted to fit in.

Today my three daughters, 22, 17, and 13, are very comfortable being all of “this.” They are Jewish, French, American, and Sephardic. They enjoy a bagel and lox as much as they enjoy a croissant, a 99 cent pizza or couscous. I think they came to terms with the fact that they don’t need to choose one or the other. They are embracing all of this. It took some time but isn’t it what we are supposed to be? A mosaic of everything we love and want and we went through to discover who we are.

Being Sephardic taught me, from a very young age, that you can create your own mosaic and become yourself with all kinds of tiles in different shapes and colors. 

Being Sephardic is actually fun and yes, it is colorful, but not only that. I am more and more interested in learning about Livorno, Italy and I would love to go there and see what is left of the Jewish past of my family. 

I worked a lot on understanding what were the values and beliefs that were in my system by default and what I could change to be able to build a life and move away from the refugee mode. I basically rewired myself.  That’s why today I am able to coach soldiers leaving combat units in Israel and adjusting to civilian life. I hope that my children will keep on exploring and embracing the Sephardic heritage without the syndrome of the refugee. If they decide not to use my recipe for couscous it will be ok, there is so much more to the Sephardic heritage. 

I hope that Jews will keep on being more and more curious about one another and remember that even though we are all different and unique, we are one.

Stephanie Sebag

The Revival and Reclamation of Sephardic heritage in Israel

The Revival and Reclamation of Sephardic heritage in Israel

In this session fellows explored the current revival and reclamation of Mizrahi and heritage in Israel. The session was facilitated by Barak Loozon, director of the San Francisco Jewish Community Federation’s (SFJCF) Israel office. In this capacity Barak has helped to elevate and support the voices and work of many Mizrahi scholars, artists, activists, and organizations in Israel.  

Prior to his work with the SFJCF Barak worked at the Institute for Democratic Education in Israel and led the implementation of the “Bat-Yam Model for Personalized Education,” a model which was adopted by the Ministry of Education and became the National Education Reform called “New Horizons.”  Barak also worked as the National Education Director & Deputy Director-General of the Israeli Scouts (Tzofim) and as the movement emissary to the United States.  He holds a B.A. from Bar Ilan University in Criminology and Political Science, a Master’s in Education Policy and Administration from Tel Aviv University, as well as a Master’s in Public Administration from the Harvard Kennedy School of Government as a Wexner Israel Fellow. Barak and his wife Keren are the proud parents of five boys, living in Kibbutz Einat, Israel.

Source Materials from Barak’s session

Stop to reflect, but don’t stop there!

Stop to reflect, but don’t stop there!

By Naomi Zipursky

June 22, 2021

The moment I saw JIMENA’s announcement about their first Sephardic Leaders Fellowship, I knew I would do whatever necessary to be part of this learning cohort. I’m an Ashkenazi Jew, who was born and raised in Omaha, went to university in Atlanta, and moved to San Francisco about 4 years ago – not exactly who you’d think you’d find in a Sephardic Leaders Fellowship. I name all of this because in all my years involved in the Jewish world, this is my first experience fully immersing myself in Sephardic, Mizrahi, and Israeli education and culture – WHAT?! How has it taken this long to get here? To me, this illustrates the deep and urgent need for Jewish communities and institutions to fully embrace, promote, and include Sephardic, Mizrahi, and Israeli Jews within our spaces. And it’s on folks like me to do the heavy lifting in making this happen.  

Here’s where I propose we start: 

  1. Stop to reflect, but don’t stop there! In one of our very first fellowship meetings, I heard my cohort members share about the ways in which they felt both unseen and couldn’t see themselves reflected in their Jewish communities. Upon hearing this, I felt so many things at once – a heavy sadness in my heart, deep anger and disappointment in my Jewish community, and a sense of guilt. How have I, as a white, Ashkenazi Jew, perpetuated this within the Jewish community? It’s not an easy question to reckon with, and while I still find myself reflecting on this every day, I’ve kept moving forward. For the past few years, my team at San Francisco Hillel and I make a point of serving Sephardic jeweled rice alongside tzimmes at Erev Rosh Hashanah and strive to facilitate panels that always include Sephardic, Mizrahi, and Israeli voices. These are only two small examples that keep us pushing forward. Inclusion work doesn’t happen overnight; it’s life work. And, until we have more representation in our leadership spaces, it’s incumbent on the existing leaders to make an effort. And to my fellow Ashkenazi leaders – take the time to deeply reflect, but don’t stop there. I believe we all have the strength and obligation to leverage our positional power to amplify understanding and inclusion. Take the time to listen, ask questions, and learn. And then keep moving toward our ultimate goal of embracing those who have felt most erased in our communities.
  2. In order to amplify voices from within our community, they must already be in the room. This feels somewhat obvious, but how many of us reading this have sat through lectures, panels, and events speaking about Sephardic and Mizrahi experiences without a single Sephardic or Mizrahi voice leading the conversation? This is unacceptable and must change if we ever want our Sephardic, Mizrahi, and Israeli friends to actually see themselves within our institutions and communities. Next time you host an event discussing Sephardic Jewish in America, invite Dr. Mijal Bitton. When hosting a seminar on DEI (Diversity, Equity & Inclusion) practices in the Jewish community, invite Rabbi Daniel Bouskila to facilitate a text study on the ancient Sephardic practices of DEI. And, when hosting a panel on antisemitism today, ensure Dr. Sharon Nazarian is a featured panelist. As we uplift Sephardic, Mizrahi, and Israeli voices within our spaces, we get closer to ensuring every voice is heard. 
  3. Let’s celebrate more than food and music. Yes, shakshuka is my ultimate comfort food and yes, A-WA is my favorite Israeli band, AND, my celebration of Sephardic, Mizrahi, and Israeli culture cannot stop there. To fully embrace Sephardic, Mizrahi, and Israeli Jews in our Jewish institutions and communities, we must do so authentically and holistically. How are we utilizing resources like HeHaCham Hayomi (The Daily Sage) to ensure our text studies are diverse and representative of sages from across the Jewish world? When we teach our students, friends, and community members about Jewish life cycle events, are we incorporating lessons on la fijola or las fadas, the Sephardic baby naming ceremony where the newborn’s family gathers to sing songs, wish her blessings, and announce the baby’s name? What about when we teach about Passover – are we ensuring Mimouna is as essential in our lesson plans as the 10 Plagues? And when are we creating a petition for Duolingo to add Ladino to the languages you can learn on their app? When we incorporate the full richness of Sephardic, Mizrahi, and Israeli Jewish culture, history, language, and customs, we will see a true sense of belonging. 

I am beyond grateful for this opportunity to have learned with and from an incredible cohort of Sephardic, Mizrahi, and Israeli educators and leaders, and for organizations like JIMENA that do the hard work of amplifying and uplifting our community every day. You all inspire me to be a better Jewish professional and community member. May we soon see the day when our friends, family members, and loved ones no longer feel erased by their Jewish community but instead, fully embraced. 

May We Never Stop Rolling Up Our Sleeves

May We Never Stop Rolling Up Our Sleeves

By Vicky Sweiry Tsur

June 1, 2021

I was born in London. My parents were born in Bahrain. My grandparents were born in India, Bahrain and Iraq. My great grandparents were born in Iran, Bahrain and Iraq. I grew up in London, where we belonged to a Spanish and Portuguese synagogue. I spent my formative years surrounded by a cacophony of grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins, speaking Judeo-Arabic and eating Iraqi-Bahraini-Indian-Persian food at family gatherings. What does that make me? I have always felt like an ‘other’. 

Fast forward a few years, and I find myself teaching 10 year olds Jewish Studies in a Jewish day school in the San Francisco Bay Area. Given the freedom to look at the school’s long standing curriculum with a critical eye, I began to examine the materials to which our students were exposed. To my surprise and delight, I saw that the 5th grade school year would start off with the students learning about the Rosh HaShanah seder, traditionally held by Sephardi and Mizrachi Jews. I opened the booklet and these words, the opening words, jumped out at me: A seder for Rosh Hashanah? Have we lost our minds? Are we talking about the correct holiday? My heart sank. I was not about to teach a classroom full of 5th graders that this centuries old tradition of my family and half the world’s Jewish population was an oddity born either from insanity or ignorance! I rolled up my sleeves and got to work. 

I was fortunate enough to attend the JIMENA conference in San Francisco in January 2019 and learned about the very-soon-to-be-published JIMENA curriculum for Jewish day schools. I grabbed it with both hands, adapted it to suit my 5th graders, and built a month-long unit of study with JIMENA’s 12 part curriculum as my foundation. Our learning in 5th grade was varied and meaningful with lessons on the geography of Sephardi and Mizrachi Jews; their expulsion from their homelands and the creation of 850,000 Jewish refugees from Arab lands; the symbolism and meaning behind the khamsa and its connection to tzedakah; traditional Sephardi and Mizrachi folktales; and yes, we made moufleta for Mimouna but we also learned so much more. 

During the last lesson of the unit this year, having taught it successfully for the second consecutive year, I patted myself on the back for exposing my students to Jewish culture, traditions and history that they had never heard of and supporting such rich and diverse learning. One of my students raised a polite hand and asked if we were now going back to learning about “regular Jewish things”. And just like that, it hit me. I had done it all wrong. I had squashed the Sephardi/Mizrachi Jewish experience into a single month of my teaching year. I was setting it aside and making it ‘other’. I was devastated. That well-meaning 10 year old brought my spirits crashing down, but I picked myself up and resolved to do better next year. 

Next year, I plan to break my month-long unit of study into mini-units, dispersing them throughout the school year and teaching them between the “regular Jewish things” on my curriculum. Next year, my students won’t start and then finish their learning of the Sephardi/Mizrachi experience because that experience is an integral part of the Jewish story, not a sub-unit. Next year, I will weave all those elements together. Next year… I’m rolling up my sleeves again. 

My Name

My Name

By Leah Marquis

May 24, 2021

I spend a lot of time thinking about names. Sometimes that’s due to my lifelong interest in pop culture and my sense of curiosity, is that their stage name or their real one?  Other times, it’s linked to introspective personal development. I remember, when I was younger I thought about my name, in particular, how I was the only Leah in my grade – public kindergarten through high school and Hebrew school all the way through post-confirmation. Somehow, my other friends were given more common identities: Amanda, Alyssa, Kevin, Rache(a)l, Jeremy. Coming from a plentifully Jewish community, now I think about how we got here. In this Fellowship, those thoughts and questions turned into Dr. Devin Naar’s session on structural racism playing a huge role in the development of what we today call “Ashkenormativity,” or the stereotypical practices of Judaism in the United States. Even if my childhood friends’ family’s deepest roots come from Spain, the Mediterranean, or North Africa, they might not even know it because of how we intentionally assimilated out of Sephardic Jewish America into predominantly Ashkenazi Jewish America. 

At the beginning of the Fellowship, we were tasked with bringing a “cultural asset” to the community. While most of this cohort shared family recipes or garments of clothing, I talked about my name and why this is my core identity to my Sephardic heritage. I’ve always known that I’m a mutt with my mom’s side bringing an Ashkenazi background and my dad’s side contributing a Sephardic half, but growing up in the mid-Atlantic East Coast, I never knew anyone else who wasn’t purebred Ashkenazi. I’ve also always known that when it came to naming my older sister and then eventually me, my parents wanted to celebrate both traditions. In Ashkenazi communities, babies are named a deceased family member, but in Sephardic tradition, the opposite is true. In order to make both ends meet, my sister’s first name is for our Sephardic half and her middle name is for the Ashkenazi half. Of course, my first name is for our Ashkenazi half and my middle name is for the Sephardic. 

Names are just as important on a large scale in Judaism as they are to me on an individual level. Most well-known is in Genesis 32:29 with the name change of the patriarch Jacob to Israel. Globally and historically, names carry a lot of power in Judaism, and I have always taken that responsibility very seriously. Additionally, in the Jewish diaspora, many people have their common name (for me, my English name) and a Hebrew name (the one used when I am called to the Torah). I shared this as my cultural asset before our Fellowship kicked off, and I left our first session overwhelmed in shock at how many of my co-Fellows had non-Ashkenazi names. 

While the Fellowship has been entirely online due to the pandemic, Zoom has been our greatest asset. For logistical purposes, we all post our identities (first/last name, sometimes professional association, and gender pronouns) to create a space where we can see who is on the call. For the first time, I was surrounded by a community of non-Aaron’s, non-Marissa’s, non-Alex’s. There are no Goldbergs or Silvermans. This cohort looks like me and sounds like me, and finally, I don’t feel so unusual. It’s common practice for me to put my first name spelled phonetically on Zoom (Lee-uh) because I’m so used to having it mispronounced. This Fellowship makes me feel like I don’t have to, because ironically or maybe unfortunately, I’m with people who are accustomed to having to correct others. It’s beautiful and exciting to be in this space – even virtually – with other people who really understand. 

I’m grateful for the community that JIMENA built between all of us. As a young professional who is new to the Bay Area, it’s made a world of difference to me that I know that I am surrounded by like-minded and similarly named Jewish mutts. I’m energized to continue exploring my mixed identity, especially now that I have the resources and relationships for lifelong learning. JIMENA and this cohort is the foundational toolkit for what has yet to come. Much like how names are passed down and honored, so too is my Ashkephardi (a word my friend used to describe my ethnic fusion) resilience.

(Re)Discovering My Sephardic and Mizrahi Identity

(Re)Discovering My Sephardic and Mizrahi Identity

By Leehi Yona

April 10, 2021

I didn’t realize just how much I needed a space like this. I am a Mizrahi Jew: my grandparents are from Tuz Khurmatu, Iraq; Tripoli, Libya; and Cairo, Egypt. They all moved to Israel in the twentieth century, which is where my parents (and I) were born.

Going to school in the United States (by way of Canada), I was active in Jewish communities on university campuses. But most of the time, I was in the minority. In college, I might have been the only Mizrahi Jew. I felt oftentimes unsure of how to relate to communities where Ashkenazi traditions were the norm (a term I recently learned to describe this is “Ashkenormative”).

Being a part of JIMENA’s Sephardic Leaders Fellowship was such a reminder of what I’d been missing. For the first time, I was in a room with people unrelated to me whose families came from similar countries. In sharing customs and cultural stories, we see our shared heritage reflected in each other’s lives. I didn’t know how much a space like this would make me feel welcomed and seen.

One of our first speakers, Dr. Mijal Bitton, addressed some of the Sephardi invisibility in American Jewish communities. When it comes to Sephardic and Mizrahi identity in Jewish studies, she said, “it’s not that there’s so much debate. It’s that there’s not any debate.” Within an Ashkenormative culture, Sephardi Jews – though we represent a sizable portion of the American Jewish population – are often made invisible. (Of course, this would be an even more excluding experience for Black Jews and Jews of Color.)

Dr. Bitton discussed how Sephardi and Mizrahi Jews are, at best, treated as a monolith in the Jewish community, when in reality, we represent different nationalities, political views, and traditions. And, Dr. Bitton shared, in the United States, Mizrahi is usually a term used by others to describe Sephardic Jews – but not by these communities themselves. Diversity, equity, and inclusion principles (DEI) require that we engage with all of the different identities in the Jewish community.

So much of what Dr. Bitton said resonated with me – and a lot of it surprised me. I do in fact identify as Mizrahi – but I also know that my aunts and uncles would never refer to themselves in that way. They are Iraqi, or Tripolitai, or Masri. Realizing this gave me pause, as I wondered how I might identify myself in a way that honors all of these truths. It also made me reflect upon the ways in which I might contribute to a Jewish community that is diverse, equitable, inclusive, and just.

Dr. Bitton’s talk deepened my perspectives on both my own Mizrahi identity, as well as Sephardi identity in the U.S. at large.