My Sephardic Jewish Practice Doesn’t Need a Label

I am neither Reform nor Conservative nor Orthodox, stuck in a limbo that has always seemed normal to me yet felt entirely impossible to convey to others.

For years, I was just Jewish. I absorbed this simple fact before I was old enough to formulate any other identity, internalizing it from countless Sundays spent in Hebrew school and Shabbat lectures from my parents.

As I got a bit older, I learned that my Jewishness was a little more complicated than that: There were Ashkenazi and Sephardi Jews, with different ethnic backgrounds and traditions, and I was the latter — Bukharian Jewish, specifically. I also learned that there were various religious denominations of Judaism — Orthodox, Conservative, Reform, et cetera — but I never consciously gave thought to my own denomination because my family’s Jewish practices did not seem explicitly affiliated with any group.

My perspective began to change in high school, when I studied among Jews who were vastly secular or Reform. I remember explaining my lifestyle to them, that I couldn’t go to Friday night parties or order the shrimp tempura at their favorite sushi spot, that my parents held certain traditional expectations that I was expected to abide by. When they asked me which denomination I belonged to, I said that I was Conservative.

It made sense to me; my family was highly traditional but didn’t necessarily abide by all the laws of Shabbat and kashrut, a sort of middle-ground approach somewhere between Orthodox and Reform. But I only seemed to confuse them, most of all when they learned that my synagogue did not accept female rabbis and that I did not have a bat mitzvah which involved reading from the Torah.

So I decided to switch up my narrative. I began telling friends that I was Modern Orthodox, which I supposed would resolve my family’s traditionalism with some of the leniency with which I observed Jewish laws. It seemed to prompt fewer follow-up questions than my previous claim, so I stuck with it.

But in my first month of college, I grew close with a community of students that strongly identified as Modern Orthodox; they kept Shabbat and kashrut, had attended Jewish day schools growing up and most of them had spent gap years in yeshiva or seminary after high school. I struggled to see how I, a product of the public school system and not nearly as strict in my observance as they were, could fit into their religious mold. I eventually concluded that I didn’t — I was not Modern Orthodox — and they agreed. “So you’re Conservative then, or Reform,” they half-asked, half-told me, but I indignantly denied it.

It seemed that I was out of options: I was neither Reform nor Conservative nor Orthodox, stuck in a limbo that had always seemed normal to me yet felt entirely impossible to convey to others. Unable to resolve the conflict in my own head, I dug further into the origins of denominations until I found the explanation that I could never quite articulate before: Unlike Ashkenazi Jews, Sephardic Jews never developed the concept of denominations in their practices of Judaism. I didn’t have to reduce myself to a label; my Bukharian heritage alleviated me of that burden.

A quick Wikipedia read told me that the inception of denominations in Ashkenazic Judaism was largely a reactionary process — the Reform movement formed in order to integrate Judaism with Enlightenment values, and Orthodox Judaism formed in opposition to it. Later, Conservative Judaism was founded by Reform Jews who felt that the movement was deviating from tradition too quickly.

Sephardic Judaism is different: While some of us are not as observant as Orthodox Jews, we generally believe that the Orthodox interpretation of halakha, Jewish law, does not need to be modified in modern times, and we respect this interpretation in our synagogues and at major Jewish gatherings.

Of course, we are not a monolith. Some of us practice little to no Judaism in our daily lives, while others observe the laws to their fullest extent. But many of us, including myself, fall somewhere in the middle.

My religious background resembles that of most of my Sephardic friends: The kitchen in my family home is kosher to the highest level of stringency, but I frequent non-kosher restaurants when I’m out of the house; Shabbat meals with my family are non-negotiable and feature overwhelming amounts of delicious food, but I’ve never abstained from using electronics during those 25 hours; I attend synagogue services in modest skirts that fall beneath my knees, but I change into my Levi’s and v-neck tees as soon as I get back.

To those who were raised with a strictly denominational approach to Judaism, my practices may seem puzzling — neither here nor there, a coalescence of contradictions offering no indication as to where my true beliefs lie.

But to me, it makes perfect sense. I accept the presence of blurriness and ambiguity in all aspects of my life, including religion, because it allows the different facets of who I am to coexist and build on one another in a constant cycle of self-evolution. I don’t preach that the way I observe is “right,” but it is the most right for me at this moment, regardless of what others might think of it.

After years of spinning false and simplistic narratives while trying to sum up my Jewish observance in a single word, I have finally gotten comfortable with giving the longer, more complicated but considerably more authentic answer. I truly hope that people are willing to hear it.

Rachel Pakan

Rachel Pakan (she/her) is an undergraduate student on the pre-medical track, with additional interests in English literature and journalism. She seeks to integrate these interests as she progresses in her education and career, all while continuing to explore Jewish culture and history.

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