June 16, 2024
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June 16, 2024
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There are many ways to categorize Jews. In biblical times, Jews were divided into the Twelve Tribes of Israel, hence the colloquial expression “Member of the Tribe.” During Temple times, Jews fell within one of three groups, Kohanim, Levites and Israelites, the latter of which sounds more like a Jewish weight loss product. Nowadays, Jews often are categorized based on levels of observance including but not limited to Orthodox, Conservative and Reform. There is, however, another way to categorize today’s Jews: Ashkenazic and Sephardic. (Yes, technically speaking, the Mizrahi Jews of the Middle Eastern are a third category of Jews but for purposes of this article, we will lump them together with Sephardic Jews just like you might lump Yerushalmi and Shavfka together when talking about non-Ashkenazic kugel. The point is that neither is lokshen.)

You will not find these designations, Ashkenazic or Sephardic (or Mizrahi), on a birth certificate, driver’s license or passport yet the distinction can be rather pronounced and significant. For example, if your name is Heshy Goldberg and you have never eaten Tabbouleh or Kibbeh, then you likely are Ashkenazic. In contrast, if your name is Shlomo Benaroya, you are Pharsi fluent and you have a couscous addiction, then you likely are (or at least you should be) Sephardic.

Fundamentally, the distinction between Ashkenazic and Sephardic Jews is based on geography. Ashkenazic Jews typically hail from Eastern Europe whereas Sephardic Jews usually trace their roots to areas around the Mediterranean Sea including Spain, Portugal, Northern Africa and the Middle East. Of course, such geographic distinctions do not account for the possibility of Jews originating in other parts of the world. While there are plenty of Jews living in places like China, Japan and Vietnam, most scholars do not refer to them as Asianic Jews. There also are Jews in South Africa but most scholars do not refer to them as Africanic Jews. Admittedly, there are few if any Jews living in Antarctica because no Jewish mother would allow it: “Shana Tati, I absolutely forbid you to move to Antarctica. It’s way too cold for me to visit and if I don’t visit, who is going to nag you into returning home for an arranged marriage with a nice Jewish girl who you don’t necessarily love but who comes from the kind of family I can proudly brag about to all of my friends?” (Is that why there is no Chabad house at McMurdo Station? Discuss.)

There are many things about Sephardic Jews that make them unique. For example, in shul they read from a Torah that stands in an upright position. The reason is that Sephardic Jews subscribe to the notion that a mezuzah on a door-post should be affixed vertically (not on a slant like the Ashkenazic hang them) and therefore Sephardic Jews also keep their Torah scrolls in vertical positions. Rest assured, this concept is not extended to other aspects of life. For example, Sephardic Jews do not sleep standing up. When doing yoga, Sephardic Jews do not perform a Downward Dog pose standing up. When competing at the Winter Olympics, Sephardic Jews do not luge standing up.

Another unique characteristic of Sephardic Jews is that they name their children after those who are still living, while Ashkenazic Jews do not. For that reason, Ashkenazic Jews often find themselves deciding among grandparent names that may have once been popular decades ago but are no longer in vogue, like Eleanor, Herman, Irene and Eugene. On the flipside, Sephardic Jews often must contend with names that have a few more vowels and consonants than the average name. Here are some examples: Ibrahim Bensousan, Sahadia Abravanel, Hasdia Toledano and Salamon Abecassis. These certainly sound a bit different than an Ashkehanic name like Ben Stern, which in Sephardic would be something like Benaroya Sternoval.

When an Ashkenazic Jew marries a Sephardic Jew, it can lead to unexpected issues based on the culture clash:

Child: Mom and Dad, I’m happy to report that I’ve met my bashert. My soulmate.

Parents: That’s wonderful. We are so happy for you.

Child: But there is one catch.

Parents: Oh no! What is It? Tell us. Does this person have a checkered past?

Child: No.

Parents: Is this person running from the law?

Child: No.

Parents: Does this person have an unusual personality?

Child: Not exactly.

Parents: What does that mean? Just tell us already!

Child: O.K., fine. I’m in love with… a Sephardic Jew.

Parents: It’s a miracle! This truly is wonderful news!

Child: Really? I’m so relieved to hear you say that.

Parents: Yes, because now all of us can eat kitniyot on Pesach!!!

Child: I’m pretty sure that’s not how it works.

Parents: Sure it does. Matzah and rice, it sounds so nice!!!!

Child: Oy vey.

Final thought: At a Sephardic restaurant, Morrocan cigars are not for smoking and Baba Ghanoush is not the name of a Talmudic scholar. (But it should be.)

By Jon Kranz 

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