Ashkenormativity in the Jewish Community

Definitions and Background

"Our frame of reference begins in the late seventeenth century with two groups conventionally known as “Sephardim” and “Ashkenazim.” In recent centuries, Ashkenazim have been understood to comprise two subgroups, both of whom ultimately trace their roots back to “Ashkenaz,” the medieval Hebrew word for “Germany”: Jews of Central European or Germanic origin, who spoke German or a western form of Yiddish, and Eastern European Jews, who typically spoke Yiddish or Slavic languages. Sephardim—from the medieval Hebrew word for “Spain”—are also divided into two subcategories, both of them of remote Iberian origin: Western Sephardim, who after their exile from the Peninsula settled in various lands in the West, including the Americas, and spoke Portuguese and Spanish; and Eastern Sephardim, Jews who settled in the Ottoman Empire (Turkey and the Balkans) and mainly spoke Ladino, a Jewish language that fused early modern Castilian with Turkish, Greek, Arabic, Aramaic, and French, and developed in the East after the exile from Iberia. A third group, much larger than both of these two Sephardi subgroups combined, are Jews native to Arab and Muslim lands with no Iberian origins, who largely spoke Arabic and Persian languages. Since World War I, these ancient communities, indigenous to the Middle East and North Africa, have increasingly been subsumed under the category of “Sephardim,” itself a process of diasporic Jewish reunion, as we shall see. However, for the sake of geographical and linguistic accuracy, this third group will be referred to in a separate category—for lack of a better term, as Mizrahim (the Hebrew term for “Easterners”)."

-Dr. Aviva Ben-Ur,

Discussion Question:

  • What is your Jewish background? Where would you place yourself on this ethnic spectrum?

"Ashkenormativity is a unique form of eurocentrism that has found its way into Jewish culture. In a twisted way, the “whiteness” that became a hallmark of power due to European colonialism has been able to become a boon for white-passing Jews, in particular Ashkenazim. While in much of actual Europe, anti-Semitism is so deeply rooted that even having white skin doesn’t necessarily enable you with privilege, in the unique case of America, it allows for a situational point of privilege that changes based on the whim of the majority. The same way that in so much of society, we have defined white people as the “default” person, a similar sentiment has translated into defining the Ashkenazi as the “normative” Jew.

For Jews of Color — some of whom are Ashkenazi themselves though still face racism based on the color of their skin — we are not only asking for our fellow Jews to use the privilege they do have in non-Jewish society to better the lives of others; we are demanding to be equal members of our own Jewish communities."

-Isaac Ofiri Solomon, Alma, "Ashkenormativity Is a Threat to All Jewish Communities"

Discussion Questions:

  • Where have you seen examples in your own life of Ashkenormativity?
  • What is situational privilege, and how is it different from "ordinary" white privilege?

Sefardim and Ashkenazim in Israel

"When the Jews of Yemen came to Israel, writes Friedman, they left all their property behind but brought their books, mostly manuscripts and Torah scrolls, many of them ancient. Friedman explains that Ben-Zvi’s associates had a large appetite for ancient Hebrew books from the east, including those of Yemenite Jews. When the latter group immigrated, they were told to deposit their books with the staff of transit camps. Many of them never saw their books again."

Yuval Elbashan, Haaretz

Discussion Question:

  • Is treatment of Sephardim and Mizrahim in Israel surprising to you at all? Why or why not?

Sefardim and Ashkenazim in the United States

"New York may be big, but it is a bubble. So often in the big Jewish communities of the United States, “different” practices get isolated into their own spaces. Sephardim in New York go to Sephardi synagogues or sit through a highly Ashkenazi practice. Note that few Ashkenazim go in the other direction. Simultaneously, ideas of normalcy in Jewish communities — and especially the traditional egalitarian communities I have participated in — hew towards a highly Ashkenazi-centric model. Some point out, rightly, that most American Jews are Ashkenazi. (So are most English Jews.) Others fall prey to racist ideas, claiming that Ashkenazim were somehow more egalitarian, or that Ashkenazi practice is the basis of Jewish achievement. Neither is true — and the self-congratulation allows us to forget that non-Ashkenazi practice has just as much of a place in Jewish worship today."

-Jonathon Katz, The Forward

"What does it mean to be Sephardic in an Ashkenazi-normative Jewish world? As a minority within a minority, every Sephardi act (unless you live in the insular Syrian communities of Brooklyn or Deal, New Jersey) is one of conscious self-other-ing. It is disillusioning to be outwardly Sephardic, even in the most welcoming of Jewish environments. I see this whenever I wrap tefillin “the wrong way,” when I need to justify my interest in learning Ladino or explain my olive-toned skin, and when I have to give a history lesson to clarify that, yes, my Greek side is also my Jewish side. Surely these complaints are insulting to Jews of Color or queer Jews who face pain and discrimination far worse than I ever have. Not to mention those Sephardim or Mizrahim who cannot “pass” for Ashkenazi as I can, due to my own mixed heritage and innocuous last name. But every time I do or think about these things that set me apart, I sympathize with other marginalized minorities as I identify with my Sephardic heritage. Sephardim – a double minority with a history of double exile – are the Jews of the Jewish world."

-Max Daniel,

Discussion Questions:

  • How can people from an Ashkenazi background become better allies in making Sephardi Jews welcome in Jewish communal spaces?
  • How does othering of Sephardim occur in musical aspects of Jewish life?
  • What would it mean to truly include and center Sephardic practices in communal spaces?