NEW YORK — I had only known my girlfriend for a few weeks when she invited
me to a friend’s house for Shabbat dinner on the Upper West Side.
44-year-old secular Israeli who had moved recently to New York City after my
divorce, I didn’t have much experience with American Jews.
were great: educated, liberal traditional Jews who seemed genuinely interested
in getting to know me. While their religious rituals were new to me — I never
saw people washing their hands and not speaking before making blessings on the
challah — it was the conversation that shocked me.
“Are you Sephardic?”
one of the guests asked me. Everyone stopped talking.
“I have some
Sephardi friends,” another guest offered.
I froze, my fork midair. They
weren’t really inquiring about my origins — my dark skin was a dead giveaway.
What they were really asking me was, “How come you don’t behave Sephardic? We’re
not in Tel Aviv anymore, Toto.
In Israel, when people wanted to know
where my family was from, the answer was easy: Both my parents came to Israel in
1951 as part of the “Iraqi Exodus,” where they quickly assimilated into the
Israeli melting pot. I was a first-generation Israeli and proud
second-generation “Iraqi” — shorthand for urbane, even keeled and good with
But in Israel we hardly ever used the term Sephardic, lumping
together all Jews from Arab lands. Moreover, the literal term Sephardim — i.e.
from Spain and Portugal — does not apply to Iraqi Jews who, like most Mizrahi
Jews from other Arab countries, were never persecuted and exiled during the
Spanish Inquisition. The Iraqi experience was different from the Moroccan,
Tunisian, Yemenite, Egyptian, Spanish and Greek ones.
Jews of European
descent used the term Sephardic to denote anyone who wasn’t like them: the
non-Ashkenazi. The category may have been helpful for religious Jews, who
followed either Ashkenazi or Sephardi customs in prayers and Jewish law, but it
had no relevance among the secular.
Moreover, the discrimination in
Israel against the non-Ashkenazi immigrants from the 1950s through the 1970s was
a thing of the past. The older generation, like my mother, loved to make
distinctions between ethnic groups.
“We’re Iraqi,” she would exclaim
proudly, even though her blond hair would have people believe otherwise. “Iraqis
are like the Ashkenazim of the Sephardim,” she would add, explaining how her
people were educated and modern, not like the others — implying how backwards
other groups were.
I’m sure that somewhere out there, a Moroccan or
Tunisian or Egyptian mother was making the very same boast.
Yet I never
heard people my own age make these differentiations. We tended to categorize
people by their socioeconomic class: Were they educated, artists, upwardly
mobile, yuppies or creative types? After that initiation on the Upper West Side,
I discovered many American Jews used this terminology. My girlfriend’s friends
would describe a date as “too Sephardic,” which I learned meant pushy, sleazy,
aggressive. What they termed Sephardic was what Israelis often termed “Arss,”
Arabic for “pimp” — a derogatory term for the type of guy who opens his shirt
buttons to expose his chest, sporting a large gold Chai, and has dice hanging
from his souped-up BMW.
Over time I discovered that things are different
in America: There’s the “Syrian” community – comprised not just of Syrians but
Egyptians, Moroccans, Israelis and anyone who lived in the tight-knit Brooklyn
and Deal, N.J., communities where family was paramount and outsiders hardly
welcome. The “Persian” community in Great Neck on Long Island, the New York City
suburbs (and Los Angeles, where my girlfriend lived before she met me) had
Often when someone in America would say Sephardic, they
would be referring to someone from one of those communities, where the women
marry young — usually older men who work in cash businesses such as shmattas or
electronics — and the men look for a traditional “girl” to be a stay-at-home
Little did I know that my girlfriend was just as bad. After we
started dating, we both got to wondering how we’d never connected through JDate?
We showed each other our profiles and I was appalled that she had unchecked the
“Sephardic” box on the Jewish dating website (another American institution
perpetuating the divisive stereotype).
“I didn’t want to date a Persian
guy — they are too traditional for me,” she said.
She had left her
Orthodox upbringing because she found it too paternalistic for her feminist
“Anyway, I never even saw your profile – you saw mine and
rejected me,” she said. It was true: I’d discounted her because her profile said
she was “traditional” and kept kosher in her house. As a secular Israeli who
fought the stranglehold of my country’s rabbinical institutions, it was
something with which I could not live.
“It’s not the same,” I told her.
“I discriminated against you, personally, and you discriminated against a whole
race of people.”
Who is worse: Her for discriminating against Sephardim
as a group, or me for discriminating against an individual that doesn’t share my
religious beliefs? We’ll have the rest of our lives to figure it out. We
recently married and settled on a semi-kosher household (read: we don’t have
bacon for breakfast).
But I have the last revenge: According to Jewish
law, because she married me, she’s Iraqi now. And I don’t mean