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.