There is nothing about smoked fish in the morning that sounds appealing to me. My go-to order from Western Bagel (LA Jews, IYKYK) consists of an egg bagel with cream cheese, sliced tomatoes, and a very large iced coffee. No matter how many times I’ve tried it, lox will never be a part of my diet. Yet, I am constantly asked, “Why don’t you don’t like lox? Aren’t you Jewish?”
I know these comments are meant as mostly innocuous, but I’ve come to resent the deeper issues they bring up, especially when it comes to questioning my Jewishness. Not all Jews grew up with, or enjoy, deli culture. In fact, I have non-Jewish friends who know more about deli food than I ever will (seriously, I tried a black and white cookie for the first time this past December).
Unlike my Ashkenazi Jewish peers, my family fled Spain during the Inquisition, made their way to Morocco, and stayed there until the 1970s. This makes me a Sephardic Jew, meaning from “Sepharad” — Hebrew for Spain. Essentially, what this boils down to is that I have to get my thick eyebrows threaded regularly, and my family makes spicy food.
I am immensely proud of my Moroccan Jewish heritage. My beautiful Ema (mom) was born in Casablanca and immigrated to Israel at the age of 5. She grew up in Tel Aviv, skipping school to tan on the beach, and eventually became a lieutenant in the Air Force. She made mufletot (a crepe-like pancake, sometimes spelled mofletta) with her parents for their end-of-Passover Mimouna parties. At Friday night dinners, she ate spicy fish — not matzah ball soup. She regularly made harissa and schug hot sauces with her dad, Henri.
Eventually, she came to Los Angeles and made a family here.
Like her parents, my mom made my sister and I spicy fish for Shabbat dinner, prepared mufletot, and hosted Mimouna parties. I feel so lucky to have these traditions in my life, though they are not ones that my Jewish friends in LA grew up with or were even aware of before meeting me. It is certainly not something that I have seen represented on TV.
But I am determined to share my identity with you all.
Going from a Jewish high school to the University of Southern California, I quickly learned that not all of my friends would know the Jewish terminology and cultural references I was constantly making. In fact, I have been pleasantly surprised when my friends who aren’t Jewish want to come to Shabbat dinner or indulge in some challah together. But what I have overwhelmingly come to realize is that the “Jewish culture” that my non-Jewish friends are familiar with is exclusively Ashkenazi. Don’t get me wrong — shows like The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel and Curb Your Enthusiasm are fantastic, hilarious, and make me proud to be Jewish. Yet, it is important to recognize that not all Jewishness looks the same, and there is certainly more diversity to American Judaism than the predominantly Ashkenazi representation that popular media implies.
My version of cultural Judaism might not be the one we see in TV and movies — it is not delis and Yiddish and matzah ball soup — but it does exist. The closest I came to feeling represented as a kid was actually watching My Big Fat Greek Wedding, a film in which the protagonist has unmanageable curly hair, bushy eyebrows, an insane extended family, and hard to pronounce lunches. As an elementary schooler, I wanted more than anything to be sent to school with a standard PB&J. Maybe even some potato chips! I didn’t know where to hide myself when I was sent to school with elaborate North African tuna salads with preserved lemon. I completely understood how Toula, the protagonist, felt when the other kids teased her for her ethnic lunch.
But now that I’m older, I have nothing but pride in my culture. One day, I would love to see a Moroccan Jewish heroine on the big screen boldly eating tuna salad on the playground. She would learn how to put on kohl eyeliner from her grandma. She would snack on fried sfinge doughnuts and guzzle fresh mint tea. She would go to Morocco (á la Sex and the City 2) and take pride in the babouche slippers, argan oils, henna lipsticks, and the Jewish community that still exists in Casablanca. And no one would make her feel any less Jewish than she is.
Not all Jews are Ashkenazi. Not all Jews are white. Not all Jews wear Tevas (I wear Chacos!). Not all Jews went to Jewish sleepaway camp. Not all Jews understand or speak Yiddish. Not all Jews have gefilte fish on their holiday dinner tables. And yes, it’s true, not all Jews like lox.
Header image design by Grace Yagel.