Finding My Sephardic Way
I’ve always felt the need to defend myself in Jewish circles because I’m a patrilineal Jew. I’ve heard some of the staunchest Israel supporters say that people like me are not truly Jewish because of Halakha. I’ve even been called “a convert.”
I’ve felt looked down upon. Written off. And at times, embarrassed of my mother’s identity.
What makes it worse is that I’m part of a minority within a minority – a Sephardic Jew. And when I say Sephardic, I mean that I’m part of a Jewish community that flourished in Spain and Portugal after being expelled from Judea, only to suffer the same fate under the Catholic monarchs, Isabella and Ferdinand.
My grandparents spoke Ladino as their first language, a language that comprises 15th century Spanish, Hebrew, and other languages due to our diaspora within a diaspora. After leaving Spain, my family dispersed across both sides of the Mediterranean.
Ethnically I’m Sephardic. My genetic tests say so (Ancestry and FamilyTreeDNA are some of the companies that recognize Sephardic DNA – as opposed to 23andMe) and my heart says that I am. I grew up being told by my father that I’m Sephardic, but because my grandparents immigrated from Turkey, I was confused and didn’t understand what the diaspora was.
I’d tell people that I was half-Turkish, but my father would always correct me and say, “No – We’re Sephardic. Spanish Jews.”
It turns out he was right.
I was given the opportunity to become a fellow for the Sephardi House Fellowship program of the American Sephardi Federation (ASF). Accepting me with open arms, just as Hillel did when I was in undergrad, ASF taught me an incredible wealth of knowledge about the Sephardic and Mizrahi world – often intertwined as one.
Explaining what “Sephardic” is has always been challenging for me. Truthfully, I didn’t even understand it myself until I did my genetic testing and my own genealogy research. Even then, I didn’t feel confident in my ability to explain my people’s history. Where do I begin? Where do I end? The Sephardi House gave me the tools to answer these questions, lifting a huge weight off my shoulder that I’ve been carrying my entire life. By bringing in guest speakers such as Egyptian Rabbi, Albert Gabbai of Mikveh Israel in Philadelphia, the puzzle pieces started fitting together.
I originate from Judea. It’s written in my genetic code and also written in my history. I’ve always been conflicted because to my family – Spain has held a sweet spot in our souls, passed down throughout the generations.
And that’s okay: Spain was our home in the diaspora. It became a part of who we were, just as Babylon did to the Jews exiled there, still crying out for Zion on the riverbanks. When given the option to return to Judea under the Persian emperor Cyrus the Great, some Jews remained in Babylon in what was becoming a flourishing Jewish community. Our immense love for the world knows no bounds: Especially to a diasporic Jew.
There’s a Sephardic proverb that I got tattooed many years ago: Now thinking about it, I get chills. The proverb reads, “Quien no tiene su casa, es vecino de toda el mundo.” In English it means, “He who has no home is neighbors with the entire world.”
Thanks to ASF I feel confident in my complicated history and my complicated now, living in the diaspora – unsure of how to describe where I come from. For me, the answer is starting to become clear. I’m a child of the world – originating from the Levant, spreading my wings in Spain, and learning how to truly accept myself in America.
When people ask where I come from, sometimes I still say Turkey – or just “the Middle East” - to hide my Jewish identity. Even when other Middle Easterners suspect that I’m Middle Eastern, I just give blanket answers.
I feel guilty.
I must remind myself – as ASF did – that I’m a child of the diaspora that originates from the Levant. To accept my ancestral past is to accept the uncomfortable feelings that accompany my diasporic roots and the questions that arise from those feelings. To fight antisemitism is to accept myself and my traumas, and not to be afraid to tell people the truth. Maybe from now I’ll just say, “I’m a Sephardic Jew… a child of the diaspora.”
If there are any other Sephardic and Mizrahi college students struggling with their identity, please check out the Sephardi House Fellowship program at https://sephardi.house. Applications are now open for the 2022/2023 school year.