Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Am I Sephardic?

Jillian Amely Cogan... my name doesn't scream Sephardic, but I have a sneaking suspicion that my family roots do trace back to Sephardic culture. My mother, born and raised in Philadelphia and New Jersey, both very Jewish areas, has roots that trace back to Eastern Europe. My father, on the other hand, was born and raised in Cuba. After reading about and discussing Sephardic Jews today in class, I cannot help but wonder if there is any trace of Sephardic culture in my family tree. 

My dad's side of the family is comprised of, what I lovingly call, crazy Cubans. Last semester in "What Makes it Jewish?" we learned about crypto-Jews, and I felt an odd connection an familiarity with some of the stories of these people lighting candles on Friday nights and having tops that resemble dreidles. A few years back, I remember an interesting discovery that I made with my dad. We were sitting around in my house, and for one reason or another, got on the topic of Jewish songs. The tune to "Heiveinu Shalom Alecheim" always reminded my dad of a song his family used to sing in Cuba called "Las Pazas De Con Nosotros"-- both songs have the same meaning. At first I thought he was kidding, trying to play a joke on me or something. However, I was surprised at our next big family get-together, when my Grandmother, Grandfather, and Aunt all broke out into the Spanish version of this hebrew song that I had been singing my entire life! It turns out that the woman I am named after, Amely David (My great-grandmother) was born in Jerusalem to a Syrian woman named Nagib Alit. I have to do more research about their backgrounds and how they ended up in what was then Palestine, and Cuba... but I think I may be on to something.

This little story of mine definitely seems to relate to what we talked about today. It is possible that this hebrew song of my childhood is also sung in spanish by people in the Sephardic tradition. Overall, Sephardic Jewry is hard to define. I was unsatisfied with the "official definition" of who is Sephardi that was given in the FAQs of The American Sephardi Federation. The information does not help me determine whether or not my family is Sephardic. My immediate family is affiliated with the Reform movement, and carries all of the typical Ashkenazi traditions that are found in North American Jewish life. I am curious, however, to explore the traditions and culture of Sephardic Jewry and see what else my crazy family has in common with them.


Becca Waxman said...

Hi Jill.

What a fascinating story! I am beginning to believe that if anybody searches hard enough, they too will find familial roots in Sephardic Judaism. In response to your comment, the definition of this term is quite perplexing, but I’m wondering why the definition of Sephardic Jews is entirely ambiguous while nobody seems to grapple with the defining characteristics of Ashkenazic Judaism. What is it about the different heritages of these two groups of Jews that allows for one branch to completely embody an identity crisis, while the other (more dominant in relation to the American Jewish context) runs around like a happy child without any anxiety infringing upon their identity? I’m open to any interpretations you may have regarding this issue.

A short anecdote that seems appropriate to share – when studying in Jerusalem last semester, I learned with a conservative Jewish rabbinical student each week as we engaged in Jewish text study. When introducing ourselves to one another, he shared that he was the only convert in his rabbinical class. He was born in Columbia to a Catholic family, but at age 16, his grandfather informed him that his grandfather’s family had fled from Portugal in the 15th century to escape the Jewish persecution. He did not take this information that he came from Jewish blood lightly, so he began to meet with the only rabbi in his town weekly. In time, he moved to New York, converted to Judaism and is now studying in NY to become ordained in a few years. Interesting…huh?

Mara Weiss said...

It seems funny that almost all Jews share in the Ashkenazic traditions when there are Sephardic Jews too! I hope you are able to find out more about your background. It seems like you already know quite a bit. I never really thought about this before class, but I am almost positive I am full Ashkenazi Jew. I know both of my mother's family is from Eastern Europe, but I feel as though my father's family might have been from Western. Either way, one comment from class hit me particularly hard. It may seem trivial, but it made sense to me. Professor Cohen brought up that Ashkenazic Jews have flat feet. I probably have the world's flattest feet, and never understood why. Considering my entire family shares my "problem," I think this is a good beginning to my understanding of my background. Good luck on your quest for more information!

bajito said...

im goin thru the same thing
i cant tell if my family on my mothers side is sephardic or ashkenazic my dads from a mexican or latin descent also

XicanArt said...

HI Jill!

My Family is Mexican Spanish and Mexican Indian. While we've got some straight haired dark lookers people like me have olive to fair skin and what my Jewish friends call a Jew Fro. When exploring the family true we found some proof that we may be Sephardic and that our family comes from the region of spain and has the correct name recognized as Sephardic in the catholic surveys f the age. Which is funny because I was raised catholic but always was drawn to the Jewish faith and traditions and made a lot of Jewish friends and was given the titles 'Jew Groupy or Jew wana be' Any how I want to convert and dont know how to begin. I am also learning conversational Hebrew and plan on learning how to read it. I am very excited.

Molly said...

Hello! I have the same story. I was so sure my family was Ashkenazi and just had strange Spanish-sounding names on my fathers side- like Marmor and Kalos and ate food that was for some reason spicier than your average gefilte fish. Then I began researching and found out that the names are in ladino, the language of the Sephardi Jews, and that the area of South Eastern Europe where my family came from was part of the Ottoman Empire, a safe haven where most Sephardim settled after the expulsion. My suspicions were confirmed when I spoke with my great aunt, who is 97, who told me how our family came from Spain, settled in Turkey, and made their way to other parts of the Empire, eventually learning Yiddish and adopting many cultural aspects of Ashkenazim. Also, intermarriage between Sephardim and Ashkenazim in that area was so common that there is probably no Jew their without both heritages.
But be proud of your Sephardi heritage. For me it opened up a treasure trove of some of the most beautiful music, literature, language, and cuisine that I have ever experienced.
This thread is beginning to sound like a support group. I propose we start one: Sephardis Anonymous!