Being a Sephardic Jew Means Existing in the in Between

My identity is more than nationality, race, language or cuisine. It comes from within myself.

When I was maybe 8 years old, my grandmother told me the story of how she met my grandfather. My grandparents met in 1953 at a Jewish singles event in the Catskills of upstate New York, sometimes called the Borscht Belt. They had been set up by mutual friends, and their first date consisted of some combination of chatting, drinking and pool (I’ve never been able to imagine either of my grandparents playing pool). As they were chatting, my grandfather offhandedly mentioned that he was Sephardic; his family had come to the U.S. from Izmir, Turkey and he grew up speaking Ladino at home. In response, my grandmother looked at him for a second, laughed, and replied: “That’s ok, I’m sure it’s not a serious condition.”

My grandmother (who’s now almost 92) has both a great sense of humor and a tendency to be a bit hyperbolic, so I’ve always taken that story with a grain of salt. However, I do think there’s some truth at the heart of it. Despite having some Sephardic ancestry (she has a mixed Sephardic-Ashkenazi background), she didn’t have any real exposure to Sephardic culture as a kid and grew up in a primarily Ashkenazi neighborhood with Ashkenazi friends.

Growing up in rural western Massachusetts, diversity didn’t feature much in my own childhood either. While I attended Hebrew School at my local synagogue and had a number of Jewish friends, Judaism as it was presented to me was homogenous and relatively uniform: Every single Jewish person I knew (besides my family) was Ashkenazi, and queer and POC Jewish representation was basically nonexistent.

I was aware quite early on that my conception of Jewish culture was different from that of my peers. I didn’t grow up hearing my family speak Yiddish, gefilte fish and chopped liver were nowhere to be found at holiday gatherings, and I was dolmas and olive-obsessed from a young age (and still am). Whenever I would visit my grandparents in New York, I’d inevitably end up sitting next to my grandfather in the living room while he snacked on walnuts and figs and made the occasional attempt to teach me common Ladino phrases. Truthfully, I never paid as much attention to the lessons as I did to attempting to unravel the mystery of how an 80-something-year-old was able to crack open walnuts using nothing but his hands.

To me, these traditions, foods and phrases were Jewish culture, just as much as Ashkenazi traditions, foods and sayings were Jewish culture to my peers. But growing up in an environment where Ashkenazi culture and Jewish culture were treated as essentially interchangeable, I often found myself wondering where my cultural identity fit into the equation, or if there was room for it at all.

Even after learning more about my family’s history and the history of Sephardic Jews writ large, things didn’t fall into place for me. Starting around the time I was 10, I decided that the easiest way to explain my background was just to say that I was Turkish (after all, my grandfather’s entire family was from Turkey and spoke Turkish), and I stuck with this explanation even after going away to college. In the broadest sense, 10-year-old me wasn’t wrong, but it doesn’t take much digging to understand that there are differences between Sephardic Jews living in Turkey and ethnic Turks. Perhaps more importantly, my grandfather never once referred to himself or his family as Turkish.

I went through a similar process trying to connect with Spain. Many Sephardic Jews trace their origins back to medieval Spain and Portugal — in my family’s case, Córdoba, Spain — and to this day you can find a strong Iberian influence in Sephardic culture. This is especially true when it comes to language: Ladino bears a strong resemblance to Spanish and Portuguese and was even considered a dialect of Spanish at one point. In fact, most of my comprehension of the Ladino phrases my grandfather taught me growing up came from having taken Spanish in school. If calling myself Turkish didn’t feel quite right, I thought, maybe it was because my family was actually Spanish.

A few months ago, I took a trip to Spain with my girlfriend. It was my first time visiting the country, and we split our time between Madrid and Sevilla. Visiting Sevilla, and Andalusia in general, was a priority for me — this was where my ancestors had once lived, and I hoped that in some small way it would help me come to terms with my identity. As our train passed through Córdoba, I pressed my face against the window (what germaphobia?) and tried to imagine what life there was like some 800 years ago.

In Sevilla, in the shadow of the city’s massive cathedral, we walked the narrow streets of the old Jewish quarter, now called Santa Cruz. Amidst colorful buildings, orange trees, souvenir shops and cafes, there was nothing whatsoever to indicate that Jews had ever lived there — no monuments or statues, not even a plaque. A sign for a Catholic school bid us farewell as we left. Sevilla’s Jewish community might as well have never existed.

One day, I’ll go back to Spain and visit the Córdoba Synagogue, one of only a handful of pre-Inquisition synagogues that still exist in the country. And I’m sure one day I’ll travel to Izmir and see the neighborhood where my great-grandparents lived, and maybe even Alexandria, Egypt, where my great-great grandmother was born. Regardless, though, what I saw (and didn’t see) in Sevilla’s old Jewish quarter will always stay with me. In my journey to find my place in the world, walking the narrow streets of Santa Cruz provided clarity about how I define myself.

Being Sephardic, I’ve often felt like I exist in a space between: not Turkish, not Spanish, not Arab, not Ashkenazi. The truth is, my identity isn’t made any less meaningful because I didn’t see it reflected in my peers growing up, or because I didn’t find it inscribed on a plaque in Sevilla or because my grandmother might have thought it was a medical condition. The value of my cultural identity doesn’t come from the external features of my life; it comes from within myself.

My Sephardic identity is more than nationality, race, language or cuisine. It’s more than the countries my family came from, the languages they spoke or the food they ate. These are certainly important aspects of my identity, but they’re not what’s at its center. My Sephardic identity is memory — a collective understanding of the struggles, accomplishments and upheavals that shaped my people and took them from Córdoba, to Alexandria, to Izmir, to New York and finally to a rural town in the far flung reaches of Massachusetts. It exists in learning Ladino phrases, smelling tabbouleh in the kitchen and eating figs stuffed with walnuts with my grandfather (I will figure out that walnut-cracking technique). And most importantly, my cultural identity is unique to me, just as yours is to you.

We all walk our own path in figuring out our place in the world. I wish you good luck for whatever your journey holds. Kaminando kon buenos.

Jesse Habif Rogers

Jesse Habif Rogers (he/him/his) graduated from Tufts University in 2020 and currently lives in Cambridge, MA, where he works as a communications and social media manager at a local nonprofit. His greatest loves include live music, spending time outside, and kalamata olives.

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