Jaime Kardontchik
Jaime Kardontchik

Ethnic Studies: Sephardi and Ashkenazi Jews

Do not let an ignorant, posing as an “educator”, confuse you: Jews are not divided between the “oppressed” American Jews of Sephardi or Middle Eastern origin (whose status in the latest approved “California Ethnic Studies Curriculum” was upgraded to “Jews of color”) and the “white” oppressing American Jews of Ashkenazi or European origin.

If the fragile equilibrium between “Jews of color” and “other Jews” in the adopted Curriculum was not deceptive enough (Chapter 4, Sample Lessons 30 and 31, respectively, of the “California Ethnic Studies Curriculum”, March 2021), this fiction completely crumbled only two months after the California Ethnic Studies Curriculum was adopted by the State of California, when the San Francisco Teachers Union came with the resolution to boycott and BDS Israel, followed by the Los Angeles Teachers Union promising to adopt a similar resolution in the coming Fall. These are the two largest Teachers Unions in California and they set the tone of what is going to happen de-facto at the schools and what the children will receive. Jews of Sephardi or Middle Eastern origin will, in practice, become the new “dhimmi”, or “protected Jews”, in California, as they were in the past in the Arab states.

Who are the Sephardi and Ashkenazi Jews?

Sephardi and Ashkenazi Jews, together, constitute the Jewish people. Historically, the Sephardi Jews were for centuries the “aristocracy” of the Jewish people in the Diaspora, due both to their higher cultural as well as economic status. The first Jews that settled in America were Sephardi Jews, back in year 1654. They settled in New Amsterdam, what is today part of Manhattan, New York.

I happen to read fluently Ladino, the daily language of the Sephardi Jews: the classic Spanish Literature course I took in High-School in Buenos Aires, included reading original works by Spanish writers and poets from the 14th and 15th centuries. Theirs was the daily language spoken by the Jews in Spain, before they were expulsed in 1492, creating the Sephardi Diaspora (“Sepharad” is the Hebrew name for “Spain”). A few years later, in 1496, Jews were expelled from the adjacent Portugal. Jews whose origin can be traced back to Spain and Portugal are called collectively the Sephardi Jews. The Ladino Jewish songs and melodies are beautiful and share the sensuality of the old Spanish culture. Sephardi Jews had also their great scholars and philosophers, like Maimonides and Baruch Spinoza. Closer to our times, we have Noble Prize Physicists like Claude Cohen-Tannoudji and Serge Haroche. Cohen-Tannoudji was born in Constantine, Algeria. His family had moved to Algeria in the 16th century after having fled Spain during the Inquisition. Cohen Tannoudji won the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1997. Serge Haroche was born in Casablanca, Morocco. He came from a Jewish family with mixed Sephardi and Ashkenazi origins. He was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics in 2012, for his work on the fundamentals of Quantum Mechanics. His experiments succeeded in bringing alive the famous “Schrodinger cat”.

Whereas Sephardi Jews originated in Western Europe (Portugal and Spain), Ashkenazi Jews came from Central and Eastern Europe. And both branches originated from the ancient Jews living in the Land of Israel, dispersed initially along the Mediterranean [and Middle East countries, if we want to be more accurate and include a third branch, the “Mizrahi” or “Oriental” Jews] by intermittent wars with the large imperial powers of the old era: Babylonians, Greeks and Romans first, and then, from the 7th century, Arabs spreading originally from Mecca, Saudi Arabia, to the Mediterranean countries in Africa, and conquering everything in their way, up to Spain. One could say that, being a small people, the Jews were carried by the wind, and some of these winds were quite strong and they ended up everywhere.

Yiddish was the daily language spoken by the Ashkenazi Jews. It was the language spoken at home by my parents. And, as other Jewish kids in Argentina, I learnt Yiddish too. When I was a teenager, I enjoyed reading the hilarious stories of Sholem Aleichem in their original language, Yiddish. Everyone knows today Sholem Aleichem’s story of “Tevye and his daughters”, made famous by the Broadway production of “Fiddler on the Roof”.  Ashkenazi Jews have also had their share of great scholars. One of them was Jonas Salk. Salk was born in New York city, a son of Ashkenazi Jews. He developed the first successful polio vaccine that helped eradicate poliomyelitis from the world. Another famous Ashkenazi Jew was the Physicist Albert Einstein, born in Germany. In 1933, with the rise of Nazism, he left Germany for good and moved to the US. Everyone knows Einstein because his equations of General Relativity predicted the Big Bang origin of the Universe and the existence of Black Holes.

For centuries Ladino and Yiddish were the daily languages spoken by Sephardi and Ashkenazi Jews in the Diaspora. Both Sephardi and Ashkenazi Jews shared a third language, Hebrew, which was used for sacred matters: prayers at the synagogues and religious studies.

There is one interesting difference between Ladino and Yiddish: whereas spoken Ladino is “old spoken Spanish language from centuries ago” and spoken Yiddish is “old spoken German language from centuries ago”, they differ essentially in the written language: written Ladino just uses the letters of the Spanish alphabet (which makes Ladino plainly identical to the old Spanish language, both spoken and written) whereas written Yiddish uses the letters of the Hebrew alphabet. This made it easier for Yiddish speaking Jews to mix sacred and other original Hebrew words with secular old-German words during their daily common life conversations: Ashkenazi Jews used to “spike” Yiddish in their secular conversations with plain Hebrew words. Words like “chutzpah” (audacity) that you frequently hear from Ashkenazi Jews made even their way into the gentile English-speaking people, like when one says: “You can’t help but admire the sheer chutzpah of the man”. “Chutzpah” is not a Yiddish word: it is plain original Hebrew!

Ladino and Yiddish literature are part of the great Jewish culture, as well as it is the modern secular Hebrew literature renovated and created by writers and poets in Israel, like Aharon Megged and Amos Oz. Megged and Oz were both Ashkenazi Jews. I still remember the misty atmosphere of Jerusalem, the city in the mountains, described by Amos Oz in his romantic novel “My Michael” (“Mijael Sheli”, in Hebrew, as pronounced in Spanish), and the disappointing feeling of seemingly vanishing pioneering and sacrificing spirit within the Israelis when life went back to “normal”, after Israel’s 1948 independence war was over, described in Aharon Megged’s short story “Bountiful rain” (“Gueshem Nedavot”, in Hebrew, as pronounced in Spanish). I read both the novel and the short story in their original Hebrew when I lived in Argentina. One of Israel’s past Presidents, Yitzhak Navon, was a Sephardi Jew. Navon was born in Jerusalem, and belonged to a Sephardi family living in Israel since the 17th century. He composed two musical plays based on Sephardi folklore: “Sephardic Romancero” and “Sephardic Garden”. And, of course, we have the novelist Agnon, who in 1966 was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature. For understandable reasons, both the Yiddish and Ladino usage in Israel declined, in favor of the unifying Hebrew language, known to both Sephardi and Ashkenazi Jews.

It is estimated that more than 95% of the Jews living in the US fall into these two categories: Sephardi and Ashkenazi. Their integration in the US society, a long process that began in the 17th century, with the first Sephardi Jews arriving in New York and accelerated massively at the end of the 19th century, with the arrival of the Ashkenazi Jews fleeing the pogroms and the extreme poverty in Eastern Europe, is quite complete: both Sephardi and Ashkenazi Jews feel that the US is the land where – if you work hard enough – your dreams will come true, and is the place where Jews and their children can feel safe (until quite recently, of course). Less can be said about the integration of the tens of thousands of Sephardi and Mizrahi Jews that lately arrived from the Arab countries following the 1948-1967 Israeli-Arab wars. Perhaps, they – as many other new immigrants from many other countries to the US – would prefer to be defined as “people of color”, with the advantages that this category lately offers to their advancement in the US education system and society. Some in this community might believe that the present adopted “Ethnic Studies Curriculum” benefits the Jewish people. They are naïve and wrong: it only makes the Jews more vulnerable, by separating and trying to differentiate between a minority of recently arrived “Jews of color” and all the “other Jews”, Sephardi and Ashkenazi, long integrated in the US society [1].

A Jew is a Jew, and it does not matter whether he/she claims to come from Spain, Germany, Russia, Morocco, Libya, Syria or Israel. Antisemitic people do not care about these minor details.


[1] Marc D. Angel, “The Sephardim of the United States: An Exploratory Study”, 1973

Note: The above article is a chapter from my recent book “Boycott of Israel is Wrong: How to fight it”, published this month, June 2021, through Amazon.

For easy of accessibility, the complete book is available in various formats:

1) You can download it for free in pdf format. Go to the ResearchGate website, search for “Jaime Kardontchik” you will find my book there. The pdf version is easy to read in your computer.

2) If you want more formatting versatility and prefer to read the book in your Tablet or Smart Phone, or just using Kindle, go to Amazon and get the electronic version (Kindle) for just $1: this is the minimum price that Amazon allowed me to set for the electronic version. You could even get it for free if you are already subscribed to “Kindle Unlimited”.

3) Finally, if you want a printed copy of the book, of course you could use my pdf version to print it using your printer, once you download it from the ResearchGate website. However, from my experience it is actually cheaper and simpler to buy the paperback edition of the book directly from Amazon, at $3.95. It comes with cover included and already nicely bound. Give the copy to your kid when he goes to the compulsory “Ethnic Studies” class in California, so he/she can confront the teacher head-on when the teacher begins his diatribe against Israel. Tell your kid to request the teacher to make this book available to the class as reading and discussion material.

About the Author
Jaime Kardontchik has a PhD in Physics from the Technion, Israel Institute of Technology. He lives in the Silicon Valley, California.
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