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Road From Damascus

Struggling to maintain a Mizrahi heritage in an Ashkenazi-dominated culture

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A Jewish family in Aleppo, Syria, circa 1910. (Library of Congress)
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I don’t have a Hebrew name. As a preschooler in Hebrew school, this was confusing and humiliating. “What do you mean your name is Bolisa?” my teacher asked. “That’s not Hebrew. Pick something else.” Her name was Faigy, which is Yiddish, but at 5 I didn’t know enough to point that out.

How could I pick something else? As a Syrian Jew, I am named after my mother’s mother. Unlike Ashkenazi Jews, Syrians name their children after their parents, living or dead. Bolisa is an Arabic name that goes back generations in our family, as is Shefia, my mother’s name.

Had the preschool incident been an isolated one, I probably would have forgotten it by now, but as I’ve grown into adulthood, I’ve found it indicative of the general state of Judaism in America, which is overwhelmingly dominated by Ashkenazi tradition. My Ashkenazi in-laws have a collection of Jewish books on their coffee table, books on Jewish humor, cooking, and tradition. I peruse them and find no trace of my culture. Recently, my mother-in-law added a book titled The Sephardim to the pile. While I appreciate her intention, it saddens me that Sephardic Jews (and here I use the term loosely, describing all Jews who lived under Muslim rule) need their own book—that we have to exist outside of the norm rather than as part of the whole.

It’s not enough to define myself as not being Ashkenazi; defining oneself against something means, really, being defined by it. The definition must lie in the presence: I am Mizrahi, literally a Jew from the East, a product of Arabic culture, and I must find a way to know and own my story and preserve it for my children.

Even today, in New York City, some people are shocked when I say I am both Syrian and Jewish. They imagine intermarriage, an illicit love affair, elopement perhaps. I find myself explaining my past and having social conversations that turn into history lessons, especially when I relay all the details: My mother’s grandparents emigrated from Syria in the 1910s. My paternal grandfather escaped to pre-1948 Palestine from Aden, Yemen. There, he met my grandmother, the Iraqi-born daughter of a Turkish mother and a Kurdish father. She and her family had been stuck in Iraq for several years until they could save more money, because the cost of being smuggled into Jerusalem had risen considerably.

Despite this mixture, I identify most with my Syrian side, a result of my parents’ decisions. When I was 9, my mother enrolled me and my three siblings in a Syrian-Jewish day school, where there were two Ashkenazis in my grade. When I was 12, we moved from the mixed Israeli-Sephardic and American-Ashkenazi neighborhood where we lived into the heart of Syrian Brooklyn.

To live in the Syrian community is to be immersed in its traditions, to eat its tangy-sweet meats slow-cooked in tamarind sauce, to speak its Arabic-inflected Hebrew, to sing its Middle Eastern melodies, to dance to the music of the oud, to revere family, and to always have a home open to guests. But it is also to marry young and often forgo higher education to start a family. It can be stifling, and as a young, independent, headstrong girl, I left for college thinking I’d never look back. But as a grown woman, living on the Lower East Side with my Ashkenazi husband and our 2-year-old daughter, I wonder if I’ve lost something. How I can infuse my home with what I love about Syrian culture even as we physically reside outside of it?

If maintaining the heritage is hard, transmitting the history is even harder. At the Syrian-Jewish high school I attended, the Jewish history curriculum—aside from a passage on Maimonides and another on the Damascus Blood Libel—concerned itself with the lives of Jews in Europe, reducing the millennia-old history of my people to a mere footnote. What I know of Sephardic and Mizrahi history is self-taught, the product of months of research while writing a novel. At the same time that I am grateful for all I was able to learn, I’m angry about how far outside the Jewish canon I had to go to find it.

How have Mizrahi Jews fallen so far into oblivion? Where is the record of millennia of history, of Jews who lived in the Middle East and North Africa since biblical times? The community in Aleppo traces its roots to the time of King David. Documents in the Cairo Geniza prove an unbroken Jewish presence in Egypt for 2,000 years. Until 1948, when Israel was founded, 800,000 Jews lived in Arab countries, and another 200,000 lived in Turkey and Iran. About half later moved to Israel, and the other half were scattered around the world. When the veteran reporter Helen Thomas ended her career by telling Jews to go back to Germany and Poland, I wanted to remind her of the thriving Jewish community that once existed in her beloved Lebanon.

Mizrahi Jews, like my grandparents, started leaving the Levant well before Israel’s creation, and those who arrived in the United States were often shocked by what they found. Ostracism of non-Yiddish-speaking Jews was so pervasive in the early 20th century that it’s noted in an exhibit at the Lower East Side’s Tenement Museum. In a tour called “Living History,” visitors are invited into the home of the Confinos, a Greek-Sephardic family who lived in the tenements in 1916. There, a costumed interpreter portraying 14-year-old Victoria Confino answers questions about her old life in Greece and her new life in New York. When I ask her how she feels about Jewish life on the Lower East Side, she sighs and shakes her head. “They treat us like we’re not real Jews because we don’t speak Yiddish,” she says. “And their food,” she shudders. “They don’t use any olive oil; they fry everything in chicken fat.”

In his excellent book The Magic Carpet: Aleppo-in-Flatbush, Joseph A.D. Sutton recounts the tale of the first Syrian Jews to arrive on the Lower East Side in 1910:

During a mid-week prayer service in an Eastern European synagogue, my father, ritually clothed in taleet, a prayer shawl, and tefileen, phylacteries, was approached by an Ashkenazic congregant. Since he did not understand what was being said to him in “plain Yiddish” the man who had spoken to him asked in evident amazement, “Bist du a Yid?” (“Are you a Jew?”). Similar experiences were common.

Sutton details that Syrians weren’t welcomed to worship with their Ashkenazi co-religionists and soon set up their own congregations on the Lower East Side, first in the basement of the Educational Alliance on East Broadway, then at 48 Orchard Street. As they prospered, and as families grew, they left Manhattan for Bensonhurst, Brooklyn.

It’s little wonder, then, that Syrian Jews stick to themselves. The community, now in Midwood, Brooklyn, is often described as an insular enclave. In widely used slang, Syrians play off that early experience by calling Ashkenazi Jews J-Dubs. It’s short for J-W, or simply, Jew, as if to say, “Yeah. We got it. You guys are the real Jews.” They call themselves SY and draw sharp distinction between ours and theirs: language and food, behavior and culture.

Ironically, after eight years of marriage to my husband, and my mother-in-law’s patient insinuations, I probably know more Yiddish than I do Arabic. And though I want to preserve my daughter’s Sephardic heritage, she is also half-Ashkenazi, and that side of her should be celebrated as well.

For now, I think of ways I can keep Middle Eastern tradition alive for her. I’ll show her how to dance to Arabic music at parties, flicking her wrists and shimmying her hips. I’ll feed her grape leaves stewed in apricots, a dish of rice and lentils with caramelized onions. I’ll teach her to stuff filah dough with sautéed spinach and walnuts, folding it into triangles topped with sesame seeds. When Passover comes, she’ll join me in helping my mother and grandmother prepare. We’ll spread grains of rice on the table, inspecting them for hametz, passing them from one woman to the next until they’ve been checked three times and are ready to be served at the seder.

I’ll explain the amulet I pin on her clothes, the hamsika hand-pendant that wards off the evil eye. I’ll recount the story of the Arabic-inscribed Ottoman coin I wear around my neck, the one my great-grandmother took with her before she was smuggled out of Iraq, on foot, at night, through the mountains. I’ll tell her about another great-grandmother, who was employed as a seamstress before marrying in Aleppo. After a long day’s work, she would sit beside her family’s large pool, smoking her narghile. I may worry that mainstream Judaism’s institutions will not teach her her history, but I will tell her the stories of these women, teach her to dance the way they did, to cook their food, and express intense emotion in the handful of Arabic phrases I know. I’ll keep her traditions alive for her. And hope that will be enough.

Paula Sadok, a writer living in New York, has recently completed a novel.

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Steph F. says:

Lovely and poignant. I know a descendant of the Confinos — you might be saddened to hear that at least one branch of the family decided to make themselves more recognizable as Jews (so to speak) by “translating” the surname into German.

shualah elisheva says:

kol hakavod. beautiful piece – and something my students should certainly be reading. thank you for sharing such apricot.sweet memories.

Really beautiful and educational. Thank you.

Judah K says:

Fabulously written and speaks beautifully to the overall loss of culture when the melting pot forces a brown homogeneous stew where flavor is indistinguishable from bite to bite.

Amir Hussain says:

What a lovely piece! Hard to think after all these years I never knew all your history! The rice and lentils with caramelized onions sound like a particularly tasty dish! Hope you and family are well :-)

Ruth Gutmann says:

It may be cold comfort, but the Ashkenazi Jews were or are no more united than the Ashkenazi and Sephardim. My early years were spent in Germany, the child of Hungarian Jews who were faced by a different kind of discrimination, not unlike that faced by the Polish Jews in Germany.
I find it interesting in Paula Sadok’s case but dismaying in mine how much we all learned from the cultures in which we Jews found ourselves.

Nachum says:

Why do you have to assume malice? It wasn’t that Syrians weren’t “welcome” (I know examples of Syrians from that era who were, indeed, welcome in Ashkenazic shuls), it’s that Syrian and Ashkenazic tefillah is very different and so, naturally, the Syrians made their own Batei Knesset and thus their own communities. (More controversial has been the question of whether the established Spanish-Portuguese Sepharadim of New York welcomed the Syrian newcomers.) “J-dub” is a joke on the fact that “Jew” is a European word- Syrians never used that word, even though they are just as much “Yehudim.” (And it’s part of a pattern that includes SY, LB, and EG.)

I find it hard to believe that Ashkenazic Jews in America (except perhaps for the most assimilated) are surprised by the existence of Sephardic Jews today. Certainly no one is in Israel, where at least half the Jewish population isn’t Ashkenazic.

    Don’t be so naive. Instead of doing the most they could to welcome their Jewish brothers in they shunned them. This is happening in Israel now too. This is nothing new. Ashkenazim have always bullied sefardim and looked down upon them as second class citizens that are “uncultured”. This I have heard from the “horse’s mouth” so to speak.

Jeannie says:

Beautiful piece…thank you.

Joey S says:

Awesome piece. Thank you for exploring this topic in such a delicate way. These days the history Arab Jews is too often invoked as a “gotcha” rhetorical weapon in modern Middle Eastern politics rather than for more sincere purposes like trying to understand what the history actually is and what it feels like to have actually lived it.

Miriam G. says:

Really enjoyed this piece and am happy to say that here is one Ashkenazi who writes on history and has made a history list in which I try to give considerable expression to Sephardic and Oriental Jewish history (I realize the difference between the two unlike 99% of most Ashkenazim…)
I was also in contact with a few historians writing for the chareidi market and in each case I asked them to correct the failure of most history books to mention Sephardic and Oriental Jewish history.
I remember asking a Syrian teenager guest if she had learned Syrian history in her Syrian day school and remembered how stunned I was when she said that she almost only learned Ashkenazic history. She said her teacher apologized but that was all she had learned in her history classes. One would hope for a little more initiative and research when teaching in a Syrian school!
I believe part of the reason for the failure to teach Oriental and Sephardic history is because at the turn of the 20th century, the S/O were not even 20% of the Jewish population and they lived in the more backward Arabic / Muslim countries while most of the action and progress was going on in Europe/US. (Coming from the Midwest, I only met my first Oriental Jew when I went to study in England!) Their level of secular education was usually below those of the Ashkenazim and their access to printing, etc. was also far less. Sephardim (descendants from the Spanish exiles) in the west were usually more assimilated and not as religious as East European Jews. In the last century, though, things have changed.

mosaicj says:

Guess what it’s 100 years later and the Syrians themselves finally understand that the real Jew is the “bist du a yid” guy rathen than the the tallit and tefillin wearing everyman. Last night I attended a wedding of 2 pure Syrian families – nary an apricot in sight, more “uy-yuy-yuy”s than ululations, and a sea of black hats. Just one scene out of many that point to the probably inevitable, and voluntary, erasure of Syrian Jewish culture.

Miriam G. says:

Today the S/O are rapidly reaching 50% of the Jewish community, and with the world rapidly becoming a global village, they are everywhere and are beginning to interact and intermarry with Ashkenazim in large numbers. Things will change even more as time goes on as different groups of Jews become more familiar and comfortable with each other.
Nevertheless, I must take the author to task for her complaint that the Ashkenazim don’t roll out a “welcome mat”. In fact, if there is any group of Jews who are not welcoming to others, it is the Syrians. Some Syrians will virtually sit shiva if their child marries an Ashkenazi, and of course their unyielding takana not to accept gerim (alone among all Orthodox Jewish groups) is well known.
Personally, I am not an afficionada of the “welcome mat” philosophy. If the Syrians want to maintain their kehilla unity by strict in-marriage, by all means let them — just as I want my own children to in-marry with our own group and wouldn’t want them to marry with, for instance, Satmar chassidim and others with a different orientation to my family.
Remember, the Jewish people was created as 12 different Tribes, which shows that there is room in Judaism for everyone.
It is despicable when one group tries to ape or force integration to another group. Take pride in your hoary traditions, wherever you are from and whatever your traditions are.

    your very ignorant of what actually happened. The syrians came off the boat and were met with hostility. The ashkenazim shut the doors in their faces. What were they to do? Cry on the doorsteps? They moved on, set up a life. This was before the Edict of the converts you mention. That was set up in 1935 only after the kehillah realized they were losing their own people to intermarriage. And in an effort to protect their already fragile community, did they enact it. And no, they do not “sit shiva” if one of their own marries an ashkenazi. You are perpetuating a disgusting myth. Being the product of such a marriage I can tell you I find it more disgusting that the two cultures can’t seem to put their differences aside and realize there is so much more at stake for the survival of the Jewish people, that together, the children produced from such marriages would be the embodiment of ultimate ahavas yisroel, that both have so much to give towards avodas Hashem, yet people like you are too blind to see it, or too stuck in your own conventions to even want to make a change that would benefit all Yidden.

“hoary traditions”? Don’t even wanna go near that one…

Great piece, really interesting.
I have to agree with the author though, I am also Syrian and find it so frustrating when Ashkenazi people speak to me in yiddish and expect to me understand. When I don’t they ask me why I don’t speak “Jewish”. Yiddish is not Jewish. I do speak Jewish, it’s called Hebrew.

It’s really sad that this type of thing is so little discussed. There’s this view in the US that there is one way to be Jewish. I’m Ashekenazic, but I actually prefer a lot of the Sephardic traditions.

Nachum says:

“Today the S/O are rapidly reaching 50% of the Jewish community”

In Israel, yes, but worldwide about 80% of Jews are Ashkenazim.

I would like to recommend a wonderful book on this very subject. It is the novella “Perfumes of Carthage” written by Teresa Porzecanski, a Uruguayan writer, the daughter of an Ashkenazi-Syrian marriage. Published in English in 2000 by the University of New Mexico Press.

Bennett Muraskin says:

OK, so who are the Syrian or other Mizrakhi Jews that have contributed to the development to American Jewish life and to American history in general?

I am not talking Sepharim, i.e. Jews whose ancestors came from Spain or Portugal, but the Jews who were native to Arab/Muslim lands>

Charly Zarur says:

Awesome, I totally identify with your experience here in America!

Marian says:

Glad to see this article. Validation of the Mizrahi traditions is long overdue in the U.S.! The children in my family are half Iraqi and half European. We cook with Iraqi recipes on Friday nights, some from my mother-in-law and some from friends or the internet, and use the Iraqi liturgy and tunes that my husband grew up with in Bombay. The Iraqi (Bavli) musical tradition is far more authentic than the European-derived Ashkenazi melodies (see the Between Two Notes DVD by Florence Strauss). Iraqi Jews were exiled from Israel to Babylon in 586 BC or 70 AD and were based in Iraq for 2000 years. Their music is probably the closest to the original, ancient tradition. When our kids were at the CES Jewish day school in Rockville, MD, I made many requests to include Mizrahi elements, and they finally added a Mizrahi minyan. We had the kids learn to read Torah in the Iraqi zaraka for their bnei mitzvah training; it can be done even in an Ashkenazi synagogue. It’s more work, but worth it. With the food and music come the stories; See Pearl Sofaer’s book, Baghdad to Bombay.

Another book recommendation: “A Fistful of Lentils”, author Abadi. It’s a great combo cookbook/family history of Syrian Jewish traditions. I can’t recommend it highly enough — simply beautiful and rich with stories and recipes coaxed from her grandmother.

Just a little anecdote – some years ago I found myself at a Friday night “tish” in Mea Shearim in Jerusalem, seated next to a young woman from the community. (I’m a totally secular Jew). I spoke to her in fluent Yiddish, asked about herself, she willingly answered, then said all of a sudden asked me if I’m Jewish. I said – “I’m sitting here in shule with you, speaking Yiddish, what else could I be?” She didn’t know what to answer, because since speaking Yiddish was natural to her, that didn’t give me, an obvious outsider, any points in my favor.

Outstanding!!! If I knew nothing of the Sephardic heritage & traditions vs Ashkenazim & growing up in a melting pot of both…I do now.
True, WE ARE ALL JEWS, but the differences between Sephardim & Ashkenazim are endless. She expresses her true experiences of growing up in an atmosphere of
two different Jewish ways of life, including all the frustrations that can go
along with it. She cherrishes her past, acknowledges & enjoys her present &
plans on continuing traditons for the future with her daughter.

From beginning to end…A GREAT PIECE.

Rachel says:

This was a fantastic piece. I was aware of the Syrian community (they’re a proud and mighty one!) but the repercussions of being a minority within the Jewish community never occurred to me. Thank you for sharing this.

hadi Madwar says:

Such a rich yet tragic memory. As a Syrian in modern-day Syria – I have never met a Syrian jew; yet through the stories of my elders, through research, and through visits to Haret al Yehud (the ancient Jewish quarter) I can only imagine a beautiful history. Reviving such memories of cultural grandeur and peaceful coexistence is essential to reviving the real Middle East. Best of luck with all your endeavors. Should anyone wish to visit Syria ( though I live in Canada now) please do not hesitate to give me a shout at hadi,madwar@mail.mcgill.ca

naomi sutton neustadter says:

This was a pleasure to read. My late father wrote Aleppo in Flatbush. It is amazing how little the Ashkanizi world knows about Syrians. The assumption, by and large, is that all Jews are Ashkanazi and those who are not are “camel jockeys”. Even educated friends of mine harbor prejudices that are subtle, but reflect the idea that the only real Jews are Ashkanizim.

wtf, commentators? There’s a huge difference in taking pride in one’s culture and saying “Hebrew is more Jewish than Yiddish” (which, if you’re talking about modern Hebrew, is just a huge fallacy) or Iraqi tradition is more authentic than a European one (as if the Iraqi tradition stayed the same since the destruction of the second temple?). You just turned a debate about underscoring hierarchy into one proclaiming your own superiority.

And where’s the shout-out to Forest Hills, Queens???

Jacqueline says:

Great article – what is the name of the author’s book? I’d love to read more.

Thanks

Chana Batya says:

I semi-enjoyed reading this. I did learn quite a bit, particularly about anti-Mizrahi prejudice here in the US (although truth be told, the Educational Alliance was founded to have German Jewish ladies teach the ignorant Eastern European Jews how to (a) be American and (b) not embarrass them, so it’s not a unique story, really. I do get tired of us Jews showing our dirty laundry in public all the time. It’s not enough we have Time Magazine?

And by the way, for those who think they don’t know a Syrian Jew, you’ve never heard of Jerry Seinfeld? His mother is SY all the way. His father, is, of course, not.

Hannah says:

excellent article ..thank you Paula..

It was enlightening for me to hear it from your respective…
The culture you described is beautiful and should be celebrated in Jewish history ,,

But I have to be honest- I have worked with SY’s for almost 20 years..And I have quite a different perspective…

I am an executive in the Children apparel industry …
Most of the companies today that are privately owned are owned by Syrian Jews..
As a Liberal – reform Jewish women – I have felt insulted by this community for many years…
Because I was a reform Jew – they would say things like – “oh that church you go to”

when they learned that I was very active in my temple – and kept Shabbos/Shabbat- they would be surprised and say “are you religious “??

as if my way of observing ” our Faith ” was not the right way..

I am not saying that 100% of the SY community was like this – but many were …enough so –

oh the racism & sexism that was rampant from these men..

all women were the “G’s…which was said in a not positive way…

I was also shocked at how they could be so religious /observant ..but at the same time – leave their wife’s in the hotel in Hk – and meet hookers in their in the next Asian country they want to…

Marian says:

Lane-Sending a cheer to Forest Hills… and hope you’ll watch the film Between Two Notes and give some thought to how a minority within a minority within a minority can preserve one of the oldest traditions… leaving the debate on “authenticity” for Between Two Notes.

On the 131st night, the Jewish physician’s tale is related by Shahrazad. He had studied medicine in Damascus. Read his tale in the Everyman’s Library edition of The Arabian Nights. Sic transit gloria mundi.

Not impressed. time to grow up and get over it. I am a Russian Jew (Ashkenazim) born in Kentucky, where the Jews are mostly of German stock. Plenty of Antisemitism and plenty of put downs by the other Jews. Blah blah. Get over it and grow up. You are what God made you and there will always be someone putting you down. Life is what you make it. Excuse me now I have to go and bully my Egyptian Jew son in law.

    Well, that’s a mature, compassionate response, huh? It would be one thing to “get over it” if the problem were an isolated incident, unfortunately it persists today. Would you be so easy to get over it if some bullies were teasing your kid?

My family supposedly originally came from India, moved to Turkey, the Ukraine, the U.S….I am blond blue eyed…the only thing I am sure of is I am a Jew.

Dani Levi says:

great article , thank you.

Just a Thought says:

I do get tired of us Jews showing our dirty laundry in public all the time.

Amen. And leftist Jewish publications like Tablet seem to take a twisted peasure in doing so.

Just a Thought says:

The preceding post was a reply to Chana Batya’s, above, in which she commented, “I do get tired of us Jews showing our dirty laundry in public all the time.”

i think it is remarkable that the author Paula Sadok actually wrote the book that she never read as a child. what a gift to the next generation. i was raised in flatbush/midwood brooklyn, and my parents enrolled me in public school. my classes were full of both European and Syrian Jews, and because we were from largely assimilated families, i never felt more Jewish then they. oddly enough, the more assimilated we were, the more similar we were. i had to become religious to really learn about my roots in Europe (which, I discovered, were originally Sephardic on my father’s side … i wish there was more information on this, too … but much of it has been lost …).

this generation, regardless of origin, has a lot to uncover. it’s a tremendous gift that Ms. Sadok brought her Syrian heritage to her readers, and to her daughter. even though Askenazi books may be more plentiful, sometimes it feels like a miracle to discover one’s heritage, regardless of how plentiful or limited the sources might be.

rose o says:

great article. I would love to talk to you about a project…so email me plz.

Dani Levi says:

Mizrahim girls are the pretties by far. Soooo beautiful. And nobody beats their attitude, don’t mess!

Joanne says:

Wonderful article about being proud of one’s heritage. I learned a great deal about Jewish culture that I never knew. I am southern Italian and we face the same types of prejudices and assumptions by northern Italians. We also love lentils! By the way, Paula taught a wonderful writing course to my teen group at the New York Public Library. She is terrific. Good luck with your book, Paula.

Sophia says:

Paula-
This was fantastic!!! I really felt the flavor and heart here- I loved it!!!
Sophia

HadiBahra says:

Very nicely expressed and it did touch my heart, being a Muslim Syrian from Damascus, I feel that we share the same love to the life and traditions of Syria. I hope that one day soon you will be able to come back to your home country (Syria) with your daughter to spend a vacation and maybe you would feel its love to you and think to stay longer and maybe move back. We are proud of our Syrian ethnic and religious mix, and I think that Damascus misses its Jewish community. I hope that peace will be achieved in the Middle East and our children will have the chance to live together in love and harmony.
Best Regards,
Hadi

Marty DuShey says:

I find this article very refreshing in fact any information is very rare regards to Syrian Jews especially from Aleppo. I can only relate to my own personal experience. On my father’s side most of them came from Aleppo Syria, Damascus,s, and were well-off financially. As usual Jews throughout diaspora were persecuted and driven out from the lands which they lived. Leaving everything behind them their homes their wealth and yes sometimes even their culture. But that was only the beginning of what was going to be lost when they came America. My father, beginning his quest to find the American dream defined by materialistic success, though it would be a natural to do, a young man family, starting out. From the East side of Manhattan to Bensonhurst, Brooklyn, New York. It was difficult for him to earn a living during the depression years. So he uprooted his family, went to west across the United States. That was the beginning of a family with lost identity for me as well as my brothers and sisters. It was hard enough to adapt at a young age in places like Indiana, Salt Lake City Utah and finally the West Coast as a young man with a Brooklyn accent. But even harder when I said I was Jewish and Gentile world. I need not go into the prejudices or altercations that I had. I love my Jewish roots but did not know where I fit in as a young boy? I wanted to know more. I will never forget the day that my parents decided to get us involved in a Reform synagogue on the West Coast, its members were all Eskenazi Jews. Didn’t take but two days to feel the total rejection of our family because of our Sephardic background. They made me feel like I wasn’t good enough to go to temple. And because of their lack of compassion and understanding left lasting impact on me. Outwardly I stop being a Jew inwardly never. Our genealogy is the closest to the seed of Abraham. Who do you say that I am? I am proud of my Sephardic heritage, but it doesn’t make me more or less a Jew.

Yasmina says:

Thank you for your beautiful article .
Although I have never been to Syria, I am sefaradi of Aleppo from my father’s side. I love to hear from jews of Sirya because all have been swept from their country many decades ago and those who remain are hostage of the terror .
My granfather’s sister name was BOLISSA ,she was from Aleppo. Everybody would ask “what is that name? That is not a name in Argentina”. Now I understand how terrible that have been for her.

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Nice article!! I can relate, to an extent. I haven’t experienced many issues with Ashkenazi Jews believing that we’re not “real” Jews, but many American Jewish AND especially non-Jewish people don’t quite realize that Jews can be “real” Middle Eastern or North African people…Even though they’ve been in the region for as long as anyone else. It’s like saying that only Christians can be real Americans. I know they just aren’t educated on ‘Sephardic and Mizrahi’ Jewish history, and aren’t aware of the personal connection that people like you have to Middle Eastern culture. It would be cool if Jews from other regions could also be aware of these rich Middle Eastern/North African cultures and could make them more known. (And some already do!!) :)

Marisa says:

This rings so true! I grew up to Syrian/Moroccan parents going to a Hebrew day school that was primarily Ashkenazi. Now, I’m 28 and married to an Ashkenazi guy. He identifies with the Ashkenazi melodies (which I am more than comfortable with from years of yeshiva) from his conservative youth and we go to a chabad, but I seriously miss the Sephardic melodies of my childhood synagogue where Jews from Yemen, Morocco, Iraq, etc would mix! As off key as it can sometimes sound, there is something so comforting about it. Like you plan to teach your daughter, I will keep up our traditions mainly through food! I recently read Lucette Lagnado’s second book and while fabulous, it got me so sad to think about all the rich culture that will be lost. I don’t identify with Syrian-Brooklyn, particularly not educating woman and getting married so young, but there is something about Sephardic culture that is so sacred and colorful and deserves to be a part of the larger Jewish historical dialogue. Proud to be a Sephardi!!

    Right on Marisa. While I also question some of the things the American/Syrian community holds on to the fact is the community has gotten a lot right, especially when it comes to instilling children with righteous Jewish values traditions. I hope our families will share some sephardic infused meals and we can figure out how to pass along the spice.

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Road From Damascus

Struggling to maintain a Mizrahi heritage in an Ashkenazi-dominated culture

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