A-B-C on Sephardic culture

What or Who is a Sephardic Jew?

People have been asking me this question over and over while living in the United States. At times, some American Ashkenazi Jews have had the tendency to compare something “foreign” to their culture with something that is well known to them, thus falling sometimes in stereotypes and cliches that we Sepharadim, do not fit in. Often, I hear people claiming that we are the same -meaning Ashkenazic and Sephardic Jews- while disregarding those differences that indeed make us each unique. Why is it such a sin to be different, within what “seems to be” a monochromatic Jewish world? After some misunderstandings, I feel compelled to clarify some of the most common mistakes our Ashkenazi brothers and sisters seem to unconsciously make; errors which sometimes sting us when our active presence in Jewish communities is acknowledged in a manner see fit, while not totally ignored. Therefore, what ensues is a very short and basic tutorial for Ashkenazic Jews about our Sephardic culture:

  -Our ancestors didn’t live in shtetls but in major cities in Spain, Portugal, the Mediterranean and Middle Eastern countries. So don’t ask us from what shtetl our family came from.

           -Our Adafina or Hamin are not the Sephardic versions of Cholent,            quite the opposite, the addition of beans to the Shabbat stew started in Spain.

 –Ladino is not the Sephardic version of Yiddish. Ladino is a Castilian based language.

-We don’t “Daven”, we do Tefillot.

-We don’t go to “Shul”, we call our synagogues Kal, Snoga or Knist.

-Eating kitniyot (grains) in Pesah, singing Ladino songs and having notorious Moroccan miracle makers are not the only characteristics that we posses, we have a very rich tradition.

-We don’t say Gut Shabbos or Shabbes, besides the generic Shabbat Shalom, we say “Boas entradas de Saba”, in Portuguese, “Sabado dulse i bueno” in Ladino or Sbit Salam in Arabic.

-We don’t have Yarzeiths, we have Meldados and Ereyes.

-We do clearly pronounce the vowels in Hebrew, instead of Parsha, we say Pa-ra-sha, instead of Sfardi, we say Se-fa-ra-di. Instead of Shlomo and Shmuel we say She-lo-mo and She-mu-el.

-What you call Talit, we call it Talet. We do not say Shive, Mikve or Toire; we say Shiva or Enlutados, Mikva or Mikwah and Torah.

-We don’t call the circumcision rite “Bris”; we call it T’hur in Arabic or Berith Milah or just “the Milah”.

-We have a baby naming ceremony “Zeved Habat” or “fadar a las ishas” or just “Las Fadas”, to introduce our female babies to the community.  We revel in both genders getting communal acceptance.

-We do not play dreidel or sevivon in Hannuka, we sing lots of songs and we eat almond pastries and Syrian and Greek sweets, adding a new one every day. Presents imitating Christmas are out of question.

– We have the greatest Jewish sage of all times, Maimonides! He was born in Cordoba, al-Andalus, and everybody should read his “More Nebukhim” or “Guide for the Perplexed”. Some interesting facts about him are that besides a great philosopher and Hakham, he was a physician and among his patients was Sala-hadin, better known as Saladin “The Conqueror”.

-We also have hundreds of other sages, several born in Spain and Portugal and also several born in the Sephardic Diaspora.

-We do not wear “yarmulkes”, we wear kippot and tarbushes.

-We are not Hassidim or Haredim (the Sepharadim who are, is because they abandoned the Sephardic tradition and adopted these particular Ashkenazic ways of life for themselves).

-Our Hakhamim (as we call our rabbis) never used black hats, AKA as Fedoras and Shtreimels but Turbans, Kippot and Fes, those Sephardic rabbis who wear black hats in modern times, have been culturally coerced to adopt them, even if they don’t acknowledge the coercion.

-We have no notion of Reform, Conservative, Orthodox or Ultra-Orthodox; we do not have those denominations within the Sephardic tradition, and we see ourselves as a single nation of Jews with varying levels of halakhic observance, while virtually all Sephardic synagogues and congregations are orthopraxy. There are some individuals that for particular reasons decided to join those Ashkenazi movements. Regardless, we see every reason for Jews to gather under a single roof to engage in tefillot; exclusionary segregation of Am Yisrael is not our way.

Shalom al kol Israel!

About the Author
Carlos Zarur, Anthropologist Born in a Mizrahi-Sephardic Family, he has lived in several countries throughout his life (USA, Morocco, India, Mexico, Israel, Canada, and Brazil). He holds Masters' Degrees in Jewish studies in the areas of: - Comparative Religious Studies - Jewish Studies - Western and Eastern Sephardic Culture, Customs and History - Oriental (Mizrahi) Jewries Culture, Customs and History - Peripheral Jewish Communities - Marranism Studies (Crypto Judaism) As a Professor, he has taught at the University of Colorado in the Anthropology Department and The Jewish Studies Program. Currently he is ending his doctoral dissertation on Sephardic Jews in Syria and Lebanon.