Cindy Seni
Cindy Seni
Dust off your heels, it's time to change the world.

At First, None of Us Were Ashkenazi or Sephardi

"Pkaila" a festive Jewish Tunisian dish.
"Pkaila" a festive Jewish Tunisian dish.

My whole life I have suffered from the following two words: Ashkenazi and Sephardi. 

As a little girl in France, I had never heard the words “Ashkenazi”, nor “Sephardi”. I had no idea what they meant and believed Judaism to be standalone. Untouched. Powerful. 

But at the age of six when I moved to Canada, all of a sudden things changed. The prayers I had known were not those I was used to. My friends didn’t know what “pbkila” was. My classmates thought I was weird for keeping Shabbat but not wearing skirts. They told me “Jewish food” was “gefilte fish” and “hamantaschen” and that whatever I was doing must be wrong. 

I went home that night and asked my mother what I didn’t understand. She told me our ancestors fled to Spain after the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem. Through their journey they passed through Portugal, Italy, Libya, Tunisia, Djerba, Turkey and Greece. She then told me my friends’ ancestors had fled to the North instead to Poland, Russia, Germany and France. They were called Ashkenazim. And we Sephardim.

My mother and I drinking traditional Tunisian tea for the campaign: Spilling the Tea.

That’s when it all started. It was the first time that I met Jews with different customs from mine. I loved it. I spent the next school year inviting my friends over for Shabbat and showing them what our culture was like. My friends revered my mom’s cooking and some preferred our prayers. Many had never met an Italio-Tunisian-Turkish Jew before. I was happy to be their first. 

Then something happened. I went to my first Jewish camps and Shabbatons (Shabbat programs spent in large groups). Suddenly, people started treating me differently. Peers and rabbis, unfortunately, started telling me that the Judaism from my mother’s house was not “real” Judaism. They started telling me that my prayers were not “correct.” They started telling me that my Halachot were wrong and that I needed to do it “a better way”the Ashkenazi way. 

I doubt these comments came from a place of cruelty, but rather from ignorance. The ignorance in the Ashkenazi Jewish community regarding Sephardim, Mizrahi, Yemenites, Ethiopians, Bene Israel and other Jews is astonishing. The lack of representation and, in my case, opportunities is problematic. 

Don’t get me wrong, the Sephardi community also has its reservations against Ashkenazim. They are said to be cold, reserved, isolated and will never accept you nor love you as their own. We make fun of their food and prayers to cope with not being able to understand them. 

From here, I will not express the hurt and disappointment I felt from my community and some trusted people around me and the years I spent trying to fit in. Now as some of you know, I am now the first to fight for Sephardi/Mizrahi rights. Yet, lately many in Jewish communities online have been ripping each other apart. Ashkenazi vs. Sephardi, Mizrahi vs. Sephardi, Sephardi vs. Sephardi and Ashkenazi vs. Ashkenazi. Discussing problematic issues and discrimination within our community is necessary. However, we must never allow it to divide us, create a barrier and assume we are better than another “type of Jew.”  Ashkenazim have contributed immensely to Judaism. Sephardim and Mizrahim, just as much. 

Yes, we are different in every way possible. But we must never forget the one thing that G-d has given us is to remind us that we are one nation and no matter where we will be dispersed, we will always, always be Jewish. We will always have Judaism and Torah to unite us. This is the glue that has kept us together for thousands of years. While so many others actively try to tear us apart, we must remember not to do the same within our own community. Our truest allies in this battle are each other; our enemies are so much greater than our internal conflicts and if we don’t realize that now, they soon will. 

Sometimes, we have so much anger within ourselves because we need to be heard. We were hurt or ignored and we have a right to be upset. Despite this, we must work on bridging the gaps between our peoples whose love and affection for one another has been withdrawn for all these years. Now that we are reunited in our native land, we must remember that in the beginning none of us were “Ashkenazi” or “Sephardi”we were just Jews.

We must keep our traditions, languages, foods and prayers alive to honour those who came before us.  But we must bridge this gap, before someone rips it apart once and for all.  

So don’t call me a “Jew of Colour” , a “Mizrahi Jew”, a “Sephardic Jew”, an “Ashkenazi Jew” , a “this style of Jew” or a “that type of Jew”. 

Call me a Jew. 

Ask me about my traditions and I’ll gladly tell you. 

Tell me about yours and I’ll happily listen. 

Together, this is the only way we will unite the Jewish world. 

About the Author
Cindy Seni is Alumni of Glendon college, YorkU where she specialized in psychology and trauma. She worked two years for the Israel Ministry of Foreign Affairs in the field of Public Diplomacy. She has worked for Honestreporting, Aish Hatorah, Hillel, and served in the IDF Spokesperson Unit, International Division. But most importantly, she is a fighter for the Jewish army and her country Israel.
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