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

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