Cultural crossroads: Exploring Sephardic and Ashkenazi communities


What does your cultural heritage mean to you? Join Mijal and Noam for a personal discussion about the differences between Sephardic and Ashkenazi Jewish communities. They explore topics like prayer, religious traditions, and the unique experiences of Sephardic Jews in America and Israel, addressing the challenges of maintaining a strong sense of identity while integrating into wider communities.

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Noam: Hey everyone, welcome to Wondering Jews with Mijal and Noam.

Mijal: I’m Mijal.

Noam: And I’m Noam. And on this show, we grapple with big ideas and we ask questions and we wonder together. It’s what we do.

Mijal: Yeah, we try our best. 

Ben Ezra Synagogue, Cairo, Egypt, 2011. (Photo: Faris Knight/Wikipedia Commons)

Noam: We love hearing from every one of you. You could reach out to us at or you could reach out to us on phone, right?

Mijal: Yeah, you could call us. You could call 1-800-WON-Jews.

Noam: That’s not it.

Mijal: No? Shoot.

Noam: It’s 1-833-WON-Jews for the win, okay? Got it for the win. I’m sorry. It’s a hard thing to memorize, that’s for sure. It is.

Mijal: Yes, please call us, ask questions, disagree. Anything under 30 seconds, we’d love to hear from you.

Noam Yes, disagree in under 30 seconds, please.

Mijal: Noam, it’s nice to see you in person. It’s great to see you in person. It’s funny and weird to see you in person.

Noam: You’re lying.

Mijal: Why?

Noam: Because we’ve seen each other in person for four straight days. Yes, it’s been a lot. On a scale of one to ten, how sick are you of me? You can’t say seven though.

Mijal: I was gonna say seven.

Noam: I was hoping for something under seven.

Mijal: Maybe seven and a half. You know what I mean?

Noam: Okay, fair enough. Fair enough. But it’s been great hanging out with you and great to do this live with you in person, IRL, as the kids say. So we’re going to get into it. But before we get into it, what I want to do is share a question from a listener. And this is a question that I don’t know what to do with. This is a question. What is your favorite New York Times word game?

Mijal: My favorite New York Times word game.

Noam: Yes. I know what you’re going to say to this. I’ll give you options. Crossword. Mini-crossword.

Mijal: My gosh, mini-crossword.

Noam: Connections. Or Wordle?

Mijal: All of these questions at the beginning make me feel really, really judged.

Noam: Judged? You feel judged by our listeners?

Mijal: Not by our listeners, by the questions. And the assumptions underlying them.

Noam: Okay, gotcha.

Mijal: No, I don’t do New York Times games. That’s not really my subway stuff.

Noam: What do you do in the subway? You listen to Wondering Jews?

Mijal: That’s all I listen to. By the way, you know what I did find out, when I’m with my kids in the car and I need them to be a little bit quieter, I’ll be like, guys, we’re going to listen to mom. And I just play Wondering Jews. And weirdly, it soothed them. They’re not actually listening, but it’s like…

Noam: Are you calmer on this podcast than you are with them in general?

Mijal: Is that what you took out of my story?

Noam: That’s what I understood. Because I hear a toned down version of you.

Mijal: You’re like, you’re a terrible parent.

Noam: No, I would never say that. I would never say that.

Mijal: Just kidding.

Noam: But I’m not shocked at all that you do not play New York Times word games.

Mijal: Why? Do you play? What is your favorite?

Noam: What do you think?

Mijal: I don’t think so.

Noam: No, zero. Absolutely zero. So this listeners are going to be very proud.

Mijal: But you don’t feel judged either.

Noam: I don’t feel judged.

Mijal: Yeah. I know, it’s not judged. It’s almost like, I didn’t live up to your expectations.

Noam: All right, Mijal. So now that we just totally let that listener down.

Mijal: I’m so sorry.

Noam: We will engage in our serious conversation. Serious conversation is about the world of Sephardim and the world of Ashkenazim. So that’s the topic that we want to explore today and wonder out loud together.

Now, you’re a huge scholar in this area. You wrote your dissertation on it. You know so much about the history. So we’re not going to do that, the whole historical thing together.

Mijal: Oh shoot. I really want to do it.

Noam: You really wanted to.

Mijal: That’s all I wanted to do. Like, press the monologue button.

Noam: Mijal.

Mijal: Yes. You’re Sephardic. Yes, I am.

Noam: You got confused for a second there.

Mijal: No, no. I am Sephardic, yes.

Noam: What do you think I am?

Mijal: Trick question. You’re Ashkenazi, Noam.

Noam: I’m Ashkenazi.

Mijal: Yes, you are.

Noam: Okay, so here’s what I wanna do. You’re Sephardic, I’m Ashkenazi. I’m not gonna ask you what the differences between the two are, because there are lots of differences between the two. Do you have a sense of, first of all, the statistics, in the world, of, what percentage of the Jewish world is Ashkenazi, what percentage of the Jewish world is Sephardic, like roughly?

Mijal: Yeah, but let’s just give them loose definitions and just give myself the disclaimer that we could make it more complicated, we’re going to give like that Wikipedia first entry definition. So let’s just say that broadly, colloquially Ashkenazi Jews tend to be Jews who most recently came from Europe, especially Central and Eastern Europe. Fair?

Noam: Yes.

Mijal: Okay. And let’s just say colloquially, broadly, we’re going to take Sephardic and Mizrahi and put them together. All right?

Noam: Because you just added a new term, though.

Mijal: I know. I had to, though. Because you asked me about the world.

Noam: Okay. Okay. Fine. So let’s say Sephardic and Mizrahi together for now.

Nijal: I know. Together for now. For now. Jews who came from the Iberian Peninsula originally or most recently from the Middle East or Northern Africa. So broadly, we can think about them as following different Jewish practice and customs that develop differently. Okay. All right, fair? Fair.

Noam: So far we’re good.

Mijal: Great. So you asked about numbers.

Noam: Roughly.

Mijal: Roughly. In Israel…the Jewish population in Israel is over 50% of Mizrahi or Sephardic heritage.

Noam: That’s like three and a half million Jews who are Sephardic and Mizrahi.

Mijal: Yeah, but some of them are mixed. So I’m just saying those who in a survey would also choose that in some way, a little bit over 50%. In the US, we don’t have the best stats. My educated guess is that it’s roughly 10%.

Noam: 10%?

Mijal: Yep.

Noam: That’s it. Because I thought the number was closer to two-thirds of American Jewry was Ashkenazi.

Mijal: Where do you live, Noam? Is that why?

Noam: Is that wrong?

Mijal: No, no, I’m saying like you lived in Los Angeles and in Florida. That’s probably why you think.

Noam: Well, a lot of people around me are. Yeah. And that’s why maybe I have part of my wannabe attitude.

Mijal: Okay, so Pew says 7% actually.

Noam: 7%?

Mijal: Yeah, I think it’s a bit higher than that. Again, my educated guess is as close as 10%.

Noam: That’s a problem.

Mijal: Oh my gosh. You know I got into a fight with somebody who told me it was a problem?

Noam: What? Do you want to get in a fight with me?

Mijal: Well, first tell me why you think it’s a problem.

Noam: I don’t want to say the wrong thing.

Mijal: It’s okay, go for it. Why is it a problem?

Noam: You just told me you got in a fight with someone who said that.

Mijal: But because of the reason. So tell me why is it a problem. 

Noam: Well, tell me what the person said.

Mijal: What the person said?

Noam: Yeah. By the way, I have your back. I promise. I’ll fight the person also.

Mijal: We’ll find out. Okay. So when Pew came out and Pew said, and by the way, I disagree with how Pew asked the question around this is why I think those numbers are not great, but whatever. When Pew said 7% of US Jews identify in some way as Sephardic or Mizrahi, this person said like, this cannot be correct because it’s not inclusive enough.

Noam: Of Jews of color?

Mijal: No, of Sephardic, for him it was like, no, we have to be inclusive, which means there’s for sure more of them. It was almost like saying…

Noam: Like we have to have… There has to be a way to get it to 12, to 15%, to 20%.

Mijal: I think he was being influenced by people who say part of inclusivity is recognizing all that hasn’t been uplifted until now. He was saying it as though that was supportive of Sephardic and Mizrahi Jews. And I actually got into an argument with him because I said, well, what if we are 7% or 10%? Should that stand in any way in tension with the project to be more inclusive? I actually really believe that we have to separate between our desire to be more inclusive and between rigorous research. And we shouldn’t make one dependent on the other.

Noam: I get what you’re saying.

Mijal: But you were saying something else. You were saying your experience.

Noam: Yeah, I was saying, maybe it’s because I lived in LA for 11 years. And surrounded by a lot of Sephardic Jewry. And I live in South Florida and a lot of Sephardic Jewry. And so the numbers just are surprising.

That’s probably one of the challenges when people look at world, US Jewry specifically, then they see Ashkenazim and they think Jews are European and that’s our descent. And you’re like, that’s because that’s who surrounds you and that’s what you see. So that’s for me, I have the opposite problem where I’ve lived in cultures where it’s been deeply Persian or been around a lot of Syrian Jewry or whatever it is.

Mijal: Well, I think there’s two other examples that could be helpful here. Orthodox Jews, according to Pew, depends which Pew you look at, are roughly 10% of American Jewry. And some people in some communities, you’d be like, no, it feels like there’s way more than 10%. You know what I mean?

Noam: Is this episode sponsored by Pew?

Mijal: No, it’s not.

Noam: It sounds like what it is.

Mijal: I don’t think we do that.

Noam: Pew, pew, pew.

Mijal: But the point I’m trying to make is that…We often assume the communities are bigger or smaller than what they actually are. Just think about what people assume how many Jews live in America, for example. That’s a great question. Like 20% of Americans are Jewish or something like that.

Noam: So people, that’s an example, people like it’s 100 million people. The number is closer to depending on how you’re counting between 5 .7 to 7 million Jewish people. That’s the number in America. Yeah.

So, I want to go into differences. I think that the Sephardic tradition that I’ve seen in Sephardic, based on the Sephardic people that I’ve been around are, is it, can I do wide sweeping generalizations or no? I think that, and I struggle with this, I really do. I think that Sephardim are much better at prayer.

Mijal: What do you mean by that?

Noam: I think they take it much more seriously. I think they believe what they’re saying…

Mijal: Do you have an example?

Noam: I have an example of when I was the principal of a high school and seeing the students that were from Sephardic backgrounds and students from Ashkenazi backgrounds. The students from Sephardic backgrounds, when it came to prayer, everything stopped, everything stopped, and there was focus on the prayer. There was fervent prayer. With the Sephardic students. There was an awareness of the words. They were saying the words out loud. There was a meaning behind it. Now, what they did after prayer is what they did after prayer. But it’s prayer time, they run. They run.

Ashkenazim didn’t have that to that degree. Wide sweeping generalization. I know I’m doing that. I’m telling you what I saw for nine years. Is there anything there?

Mijal: I think there is something there. But by the way, I really like what you said at the beginning, which is I’m saying this from the people that I have seen.

Noam: Yes, it’s important.

Mijal: And that could be other communities.

Noam: Yeah. There’s not a dissertation. This is like my experience.

Mijal: Yes, we hate dissertations. Just kidding.

Noam: Yeah. The two of us really hate dissertations.

Mijal: Really. Yeah, I would say the following. Well, two things. I think that you’re touching on something there, that there is a certain, I don’t know, maybe it’s like reverence. Maybe it’s like feeling comfort with like the world of your grandparents and great grandparents and not having internalized too much of like the modern disdain, you would say.

Noam: For the intergenerational.

Mijal: Yeah, for the things that your grandparents believed in. I think there’s something in modernity, not just, you know, that it’s like there’s almost like a disdain for what people believed in 100 years ago, like automatically, doesn’t matter what.

Noam: Look down upon it.

Mijal: Yes. Because of the way that Jews, especially in the Middle East and North Africa developed, they didn’t go through some of the ruptures around like enlightenment, emancipation of like actually developing that disdain and they maintain much more reverence for the world of their parents and grandparents.

You know, I actually wrote an essay about this trying to explain my relationship to Israel and Zionism and all that. We can put it in the show notes. And I started the essay talking about a prayer book party that my son had in a Sephardic school. You know, all the parents are sitting there enjoying the kids. I’m sitting there like taking notes about like philosophy and existential questions based on what the kids are doing, of course. And the teacher said, you see this prayer book?, she’s telling the kids. And she said it so much more beautifully. And she basically said, the reason you’re going to love it is because your parents and grandparents and great grandparents and great, great, great, great, great grandparents prayed from a prayer book like this one. And I found that beautiful. Yeah, doesn’t mean, by the way, that there aren’t people with questions. Like I myself…

Noam: I was gonna ask you, is part of what I just said a pejorative to the Sephardic world?

Mijal: Why is it a pejorative?

Noam: Well, you were starting to get into it. I’ll tell you the flip side. The flip side of this is that some would say that if the Sephardic world takes prayer more seriously, the Ashkenazi world takes Torah study more seriously.

Mijal: That’s not what people say though. I’ll tell you the pejorative.

Noam: Give me the pejorative, okay fine.

Mijal: I actually have this memory, my early 20s, being in like a very like Ashkenazi, modern Orthodox environment, not gonna say where. I remember the moment of them turning to me and they weren’t trying to be mean, but they were like, yeah, I know like Sephardic Jews just are not so intellectual. Your Judaism is more emotional and not intellectual. Now this is where I have an issue with that.

Noam: So that’s the pejorative to, that’s the flip side to what I was just saying.

Mijal: Yeah, but before we get into that, I will say a couple more things. There’s always exceptions, of course. And also I would say like, I’m thinking of a lot of Sephardic Jews where prayer is very serious, but not so much because people know what they’re saying, it’s more like a communal experience. So you learn to sing in the same way. You know what I mean? Like especially in the Syrian community in Brooklyn. The prayer experience there is so, especially for men, it is gendered. But for men, it is so much part of what it means to be a good citizen in the community that you can sing with everybody else at the same time.

So I also just, Noam, I must say, like, I struggle with making big distinctions between, like, the social and the spiritual because to me they’re really intertwined. Do you get what I’m saying with that or no?

Noam: Well, that’s what you’re talking about, prayer.

Mijal: Yeah, to me they kind of like collapse into each other. I got into an argument with somebody, like this lovely, well-intentioned Ashkenazi person recently who was just trying to prove to me that Sephardic spirituality was all about like God and mysticism. And I was like, that’s interesting, but it’s all tied to family and community. And it’s hand in hand with like reverence to my grandparents. And I can’t think about them as totally distinct from each other.

In the same way that I never think about prayer and synagogue as only being about God. I actually think the social component and the God component are like tied to each other. So a lot of Sephardic synagogues are built in a way that the socializing part is like very, very important and very much part of what you’re doing. You know what I’m saying?

Noam: I do, but I don’t think that the Ashkenazi experience is that different.

Mijal: I’m not even comparing and contrasting right now.

Noam: Because what I’m trying to figure out with you is why would the Sephardic prayer experience be so different than Ashkenazi one? Because the social component of the Ashkenazi prayer experience is heightened. It’s a 10 out of 10.

Mijal: Now, let me explain what I mean. And then I want to go back to the intellectual versus emotional, whatever part.

Noam: I have so many other questions for you, though, Mijal.

Mijal: OK, Noam, we’re going to keep chatting, okay. No, but listen for a second. So history is so important here because part of Ashkenazi religiosity developed in reaction or parallel to Western European enlightenment and emancipation. And the certain Protestant ideas, for better and for worse, like were in the air.

Noam: What’s an example of a Protestant idea?

Mijal: So I’m going to get to it, a Protestant idea is that you actually have different spheres. One sphere, like the separation of church and state.

Noam: Right, that is, right.

Mijal: Okay. That’s like a European Protestant idea. And that assumes that you can actually kind of like… Separate the two. You can separate God and society. You can separate religion and politics. Right, you can actually talk about them in very distinct ways. So my communities didn’t go through the same processes.

Noam: Is it much more individual?

Mijal: What do you mean?

Noam: The Protestant experience.

Mijal: Oh, yes. Yes. It believes that you can be, like, you know, do your religious thing, like at home with your faith, whatever. And I’m not saying that all Ashkenazi communities follow the Protestant idea. I’m just saying like you develop when that was in the air, in the milieu . When that was in the air, right. So I do think that in some, like if you were to ask somebody, like when some people go and they sit in there and they’re with their families, like that’s a spiritual experience. Now Ashkenazi Jews might feel this as well because Judaism is not a Protestant religion on its core. But I think there’s a bit more of it in Sephardic communities that are emerged in the Middle East. But okay, but I want to go back to what you were saying before like the emotional versus the intellectual.

Noam: You were saying that.

Mijal: No, you said that actually.

Noam: You were telling the story about that.

Mijal: Well, in reaction to you saying…

Noam: Because that was the pejorative, that’s the potential pejorative.

Mijal: No, Noam, you were the one who insisted that Sephardic Jews are emotional and not intellectual. That’s a quote by Noam Weissman. No, just kidding, you did not say that. No, but that is an assumption. And by the way, like I’ve had so many people like…oh, wow, like you guys are so warm. Like you’re so exotic, you’re so emotional, you’re so this.

Noam: I don’t think you’re so warm. No, people are not going out there being like, Mijal, you are so…

Mijal: I’m actually very warm.

Noam: But that’s not like, that’s like the first thing in your bio.

Mijal: I’m gonna change my bio. I’ll have you know, okay, you know what, I’m not gonna get into this. I’m not gonna get into this, but…but the point I was trying to make is that in many different places, I have heard this assumption. Sephardic Jews are emotional, have reverence, and Ashkenazi Jews are like the intellectual cerebral ones. Yeah, fair?

Noam: Yes. Okay.

Mijal: I have a lot of issues with that, but I’ll just mention one very individual issue for myself is that, in my own family, I have inherited multiple Sephardic traditions that kind of like challenge this binary. So what do I mean by this?So one part of my family, for example, comes from like a very Spanish, Moroccan, more mystical, more emotional, more reverence, all of the things that we just mentioned, kind of tradition. All right. And when I think about my abuela Norti, like my grandmother of blessed memory who shaped me in incredible ways, she to me represents a lot of that. Okay? The kind of, if you would have seen her pray, nothing like it. And I have a lot of faith in her faith.

Noam: That’s key, by the way.

Mijal: Yeah. Okay. But then another part of my tradition, and I’m actually like, I’ve written about both parts in different places, but I’ve also inherited what I would call like an Andalusian. I’m using like the, you know.

Noam: Andalusian, yeah.

Mijal: Andalusian. Andalusian. Okay. Like I’ve inherited a very, very strong Maimonidean, rationalist, hyper-intellectual humanist Sephardic tradition from a different part of my family that developed in many places. And like this is a tradition. Like, I actually grew up with like a sense of Sephardic intellectual tradition that has what to say to the world and to the Jewish community and that has like sages and rabbis and intellectuals and doctors and astronomers and like physicians and like…

Noam: Right, and many of the great medieval rabbis that we quote, Nachmanides, Maimonides…

Mijal: Nachmanides and Maimonides, by the way, to me, they represent two different Sephardic traditions, right? Maimonides, I’m not going to only call him like a rationalist, but he was like this systematic, highly rational thinker, and Nachmanides had much more of like a mystical…, what I’m trying to say here is like I feel personally that I am the inheritor of multiple Sephardic worlds.

Noam: Yes.

Mijal: I feel very grateful for that actually. And I would agree descriptively that many of like the Sephardic communities today, contemporary communities in existence, have been more shaped, I would say, by a more, I don’t want to call it emotional. I’m going to call it like mimetic.

Noam: It’s a tradition from your parents and their parents.

Mijal: Yeah, yeah, yeah. And again, like the academic word for that, like you can talk about mesoratiut or traditionalism. So I would agree with that. But what I really don’t like, and I’ll just name it here, we shouldn’t be essentializing, you know what I mean, like communities and people. And it’s often used as like an insult, like you guys are not like smart or like whatever. And I’m like, that is like…

Noam: Right, or you guys don’t know how to pray.

Mijal: I have never said that.

Noam: No, I’m not saying that you said that, but that is part of this Ashkenazic experience that there is a self-reflection that we don’t take this seriously enough or know how to do it well enough. And when you were talking about that you were the result of two different worldviews within the Sephardic world.

Mijal: I inherited that.

Noam: That you inherited that. I would say that on my end, I don’t think about my identity that way, which is interesting. I don’t think that I’m the inheritor of a specific tradition.

Mijal: What do you mean?

Noam: I wouldn’t be able to say that about my parents and my grandparents and my great grandparents. I just don’t have that… as someone who’s Ashkenazi, I don’t have that connection.

Mijal: But the only point I’m making, it might be like a personality thing, I’m not saying it’s a Sephardic thing.

Noam: Right, so let me give you what I’m trying to say. What I think a personality thing that I have inherited is not even, if I’m unaware, is this distinction between Chassidut and the Litvaks, right?

Mijal: Which, can you translate?

Noam: The Lithuanian world, the Litvak world would say that they’re much more about the intellectual, the curiosity, the Talmud study, the exploratory, all of that is part of the Lithuanian Jewish experience. That’s part of the Ashkenazi world. So you have the Litvaks, then you have the Chasidim, or the Hasidim, or the Hasidism, however you want to call it, Chasidut. That’s much more about the spiritual ecstasy, the religious fervor, less about the specifics and the exploration of Talmudic ideas and Torah study, and much more about what’s called in Hebrew, dveikut, connection, cleaving to God. And that’s much more of a spiritual, emotional experience. It could be also intellectual. And then within all of that, there are so many different streams. So the Ashkenazi world also has multiple different elements to it, just like the Sephardic world. And we both have this polychromatic society that exists.

Mijal: Big word, polychromatic.

Noam: Multiple different flavors that help identify us all, right? And then that’s who we are.

I want to ask you a question about like real talk.

Mijal: A real talk. Real talk. 

Noam: Do you think that there are racial issues between the Ashkenazi and Sephardi worlds?

Mijal: What do you mean by that?

Noam: Well, do you think that there is… I’m going to list for you top three difficult moments in modern Israeli history as it relates to a difficult dynamic between Sephardi and Ashkenazi. Okay?

Mijal: But can I, before you do that, the experience of Sephardic and Ashkenazi Jews in Israel versus, let’s say, in America is radically different. So if we’re going to…

Noam: What’s the difference? Tell me.

Mijal: You want to hear?

Noam: Yeah, tell me the difference.

Mijal: Well, the main difference is that when the state of Israel was established, and I say this as somebody who views that as a blessing and loves that, but when the state of Israel was established, the political founders were mostly Ashkenazi Jews from Eastern Europe, and they did view Jews from the Middle East and North Africa in a discriminatory way, and there was state-sanctioned discrimination for decades in the creation of the state. Jews who came from Morocco to Israel experienced that kind of discrimination. Jews who came from Morocco to France or to the US experienced totally different dynamics. So I actually think it’s very hard to mix them all together.

Noam: So let’s talk about the US for a minute. Let me tell you from my experience and then ask you what you think. So I used to run a Jewish high school in Los Angeles and there was Sephardic students or Ashkenazi students. And sometimes they all hung out. Like you wouldn’t necessarily even know who’s Sephardic, who’s Ashkenazi.

Mijal: Wow, people do that?

Noam: Yeah, they hung out. But there was sometimes this tension, I heard this at times, from different students who would say things like, you know, that the Ashkenazi students are favored. And I saw this idea play itself out in different nonprofit contexts as well, that there’s overrepresentation of Ashkenazim in leadership positions and that sort of thing. So I don’t know if that’s what I just said is accurate or not. I don’t know.

I want to know, I’m not looking for numbers from you, but is there a general feeling that that’s true, that that’s not true?

Mijal: Okay, so let’s take almost like a step back to zoom out. I think that there are certainly a lot of assumptions about Sephardic Jews, Ashkenazi Jews have. Some of them, I think, reflect a difference in culture. Some of them can be just bias.

Noam: You think it’s implicit bias, potentially?

Mijal: Sometimes it’s implicit bias, sometimes it’s explicit, and I’ve heard both, actually. And very often, it’s just a matter of like homophily, which basically means like you like people who are like you or you connect to people who are like you and sometimes that can also translate to something more structural. Like there’s institutions that actually have quotas about how many students they want from whatever background. You know what I mean? I’ve never seen that but that’s–

Noam: you’ve heard it.

Mijal: Yeah, but let me say one thing now I’m here. Okay, I want to say like there’s so much I want to say here.

Noam: By the way, I’m not saying it’s not true. I’m just saying that’s not a big deal.

Mijal: No, no, I hear that. I want to say, but there’s so much I want to say here. Number one, the experience of Sephardic Jews today in America specifically cannot be fully disentangled from them being more recent immigrants. So what do I mean by this? It’s not only about bias because you come from a different place.

Noam: You came after.

Mijal: It’s like, not just you came after, like, you know, your parents have an accent and you have also immigrants tend to sometimes act differently. There’s often like different cultural and moral ways of approaching things because you are a more recent immigrant. So to me, it’s very natural that if you have institutions that were founded and run by let’s say fourth generation Ashkenazi Americans, that when you have growing populations of students who both come from different countries and also are just much more recent immigrants, there’s going to be tensions there. And there is going to be discrimination. It makes sense. There’s no question to me that that exists.

Now I want to give a couple of caveats or a couple of pointers, okay? I get very frustrated when I hear people, most often from the left, come and basically give this big headline that Sephardic and Mizrahi Jews are oppressed by Ashkenazi Jews, both in Israel and in America.

Noam: It bothers you.

Mijal: It bothers me so much. I just don’t think it’s true and I don’t think it’s honest. 

Noam: It’s a big statement.

Mijal: Yeah, I don’t think it’s true. Yes, not true, not honest, not helpful. Well, first of all, because what I said, you can’t assume that Israel and America are the same at all. It’s so different. But the second reason is that Sephardic Jews in America have had…

Noam: It’s different, but I was just thinking about what you said just out loud right now. It’s just about your first distinction about the immigrant experience that one came before the other.

Mijal: Well, the majority.

Noam: Right, I know. Can you also apply that to Israel?

Mijal: I wouldn’t apply them the same way to Israel, but but we can I just finish what I was saying? Okay, sorry I even forgot

Noam: We almost named this podcast interrupting Jews by the way.

Mijal: And then who didn’t like the title?

Noam: You didn’t.

Mijal: Exactly. Okay, but one second, the reason that it annoys me number one is because it makes a very I would say like cheap or ignorant comparison between Israel and America well-intentioned, ignorant. But the other reason it bothers me is that Sephardic and Mizrahi Jews around the world, especially like in America, Canada, France, other countries, many of them have actually succeeded in creating their own communities where they are the majority and where they run their own institutions, where they have tremendous cultural power, and when they don’t have the same dynamics.

Noam: Yeah, like Montreal.

Mijal: Montreal, I mean, Brooklyn, the Syrian community in Brooklyn. Brooklyn, Montreal. The Persian community. In LA, yeah. You have all of these communities that basically many of them, so yeah, if you go to a majority run by Ashkenazi institution, as a natural thing, there’s gonna be tensions that you have to work through and there’s ways to work through them. But then you have the Sephardic communities that are strong and powerful and confident and they are so proud in their own heritage and very often they build their own institutions.

So that really bothers me because I’m like, it’s just not true that you can generalize in this way. The other reason it bothers me is that I think…

Noam: But I want to say something about that one.

Mijal: Yes. Yeah. Yes. I was just going through a list of grievances.

Noam: I know.

Mijal: Yeah, but go for it.

Noam: I want to tell you about something that you made me think about in your list of grievances.

Mijal: Yes, go. And then I have two more grievances.

Noam: And that’s it or you have more?

Mijal: For this. Okay, go. Yeah.

Noam: I think that sometimes people can then look to these enclaves that have been created like Brooklyn and Deal in New Jersey or big parts of the LA community and be intimidated.

Mijal: Of course. Yeah, but that’s the point I’m trying to make. And by the way, I love that. I love that. I send my kids to a Sephardic school. You know how people ask, what does it mean to be Sephardic? They ask, what is an Ashkenazi Jew? It’s adorable for me to see my children. I derive nachas. How do you say that in English?

Noam: Nachas.

Mijal: Yeah, that’s like Ashkenazi. When they’re like, Ima, we heard of Ashkenazi Jews. Like, this is so cute. Or when they’re growing up learning prayers in the way that their grandparents prayed. And to me, I’m like, this is their normative Judaism. That’s beautiful.

Now, I believe in the Jewish people writ large, so I don’t want them to ever have this separation. I prioritized a sense of Jewish peoplehood over differences in communities. But that’s why this description is so off.

Now, I want to just say two things here. Two other things that I’m adding to my grievances, but they’re constructive grievances, which means I’m sharing them in a constructive spirit.

Noam: And you’ll let me know if I could do anything about them.

Mijal: OK, Noam, it’s all on you. Number one. I think it’s matched, but this grievance is about diversity efforts in general and diversity discourse. So far the Jews are one example, but I could speak as a Hispanic woman, a non-white Jew, all of those things, a Jewish person of color. I think it’s much easier to complain that the institutions don’t include you than to actually be like, yo, let me just create something. Let me just do things. And part of me gets annoyed.

Noam: You’re always creating new things.

Mijal: I’m not always creating new things. But I don’t believe in the victim mentality of like, you have to include everybody in every single decision that you make… I’m like…If it’s a school that a bunch of Ashkenazi just started, let them have Ashkenazi prayers. Now, if the student body changes so much, then you need to include and shift things. But that also requires two things. It requires majority groups to want to be inclusive and it also requires people from minority communities to stand up and say, I wanna be part of this and I wanna help shape this. And I’m gonna take responsibility for it and not just blame you. 

Noam: So that’s a grievance that you have within your own community.

Mijal: Your language is interesting. You asked me, is there a feeling about this, that this is true, of Sephardic Jews being excluded? And I was going to say, in traditional Sephardic spaces where people don’t talk about this so much. Sephardic Jews are not… Most Sephardic Jews, okay? I’m not talking Sephardic Jews in DEI spaces, and I’m not talking Sephardic Jews in certain whatever spaces, but most Sephardic Jews are not walking around and being like, poor us.

Noam: Woe is me.

Mijal: Yeah, like that’s just not the culture, that’s not the mindset. So when you ask, is this a feeling there? I’m like, not really.…

You know where I do think it tends to be a feeling and it’s important to name it? So some Sephardic Jews end up being like the only Sephardic Jew in an Ashkenazi community. Or they end up, you know, the only Sephardic Jew working in a Jewish Ashkenazi run organization. And there, I think, you develop this sense of grievance and challenge because you might feel excluded or not represented.

Noam: Because you’re a minority within the group.

Mijal: Yeah, and because some Ashkenazi Jews are clueless when it comes to Sephardic Jews and inclusion. So yeah, we need both to do better. But I think if we’re going to make things better, we need to actually understand what’s going on. And we need to have honor agency, and encourage agency around these issues.

Noam: Amen.

Noam: And I love the other.

Noam: What else is on your mind?

Mijal: I don’t know. It’s not even like my dissertation. It’s just like the grievances that I didn’t get to write in my dissertation. I’ll also say like I, and I just want to give credit to my parents actually. I love my parents for so many reasons. But one of the things that my parents did with me is before we moved to the States, so I’ve lived in Argentina, in Israel, in Uruguay. But my formative memories in Uruguay were actually in an Ashkenazi community. My father was a chief rabbi. We went to an Ashkenazi synagogue. I went to an Ashkenazi school. Everybody around me was Ashkenazi. But my parents did a couple of things. First of all, they instilled in me such a sense of natural confidence in our own tradition, I never walked around with a chip on my shoulders. Sorry, I’m not blaming those who do, I just walked around with a sense of like, wow, I get to contribute this beautiful traditions to so many spaces.

And there was like a real sense, not like pride, like ethnic pride, when you don’t know where you come from, but you just know you come from somewhere. It was like a pride of knowing like…I am walking around with this and it’s part of me and it’s wonderful.

Noam: I’ll tell you about something that’s very interesting and reflecting on that.

Mijal: Yeah, and I have one more thing and then you can reflect. This was married to a sense of love for the Jewish people. Like absolute love for my communities and the world at large. So it was not pitting one against the other. And also they helped me, I learned how to translate. Like I can walk into different places and contribute and learn.

But that to me, if we can, what I hope for my own children, and right now I think I’m airing, I am nervous right now, Noam, because I’m doing for them something different than my parents, right? No, they are in a purely Sephardic environment right now. And I’m nervous, I’m like, what if I’m not able to give to them this ability to translate and communicate and be part of this like, amazing Jewish world where, I love it so much. We’re a beautiful mosaic with rich traditions. It’s beautiful. And anyway, so that to me is part of the dream of being able to marry a sense of real confidence and love, but not in a way that it could be antagonistic because there’s always bias and issues, but it could also be in an ideal aspirational world, a place in which we get to interact with each other. Believe that we’re part of this beautiful great hall and also hold on to what we have as a way of making it better.

Noam: Mijal, I’ll tell you something that I just started thinking about that you might strongly disagree with, disagree with, or kind of agree with.

Mijal: I don’t know. It’ll be one of them.

Noam: Okay, let’s try. I think that you just spoke very passionately about your own identity. Very passionately about your own identity, about your story, about your parents, your grandparents, what it was like growing up and what you see as your experience within the Sephardic community.

And I’m putting words in your mouth right now. But it’s my experience listening to you is that you, as part of your identity, is you are a proud Sephardic Jew. You’re also a proud Jew, but you’re a proud Sephardic Jew. I would never identify myself as a proud Ashkenazi Jew. It’s just not part of my identity. You might call that privilege. I don’t know what it is. I would say I’m a proud Jew.

Mijal: Yeah, but that’s majority consciousness.

Noam: It might not be, it might not be, it might not just be majority consciousness. It might also be that the identity of being Ashkenazi is not the same identity intergenerationally, the same way your identity is Sephardic.

Mijal: It’s a good question. My kids right now, again, they’re young. But I don’t think they walk around thinking of them as Sephardic because they are in a Sephardic, in a fully Sephardic environment.

Noam: I understand, but I’m saying I don’t, maybe, maybe.

Mijal: So I don’t know, it’s a good question. I don’t know.…

Noam: It’s confidence.

Mijal: Yeah, but it also comes with knowledge. I have tools in my toolkit. I can pull things out. You know what I’m saying?

Noam: I do.

Mijal: But again, I feel, thank God. I am so grateful that I can walk into most mainstream Jewish spaces around the world. And I feel like this is mine too. So that’s the only thing that I wish that any minority community that’s trying to build up internally, there’s always that fear that you become either insular or that you don’t know how to translate or you become so comfortable in your own place you can’t feel as comfortable in other spaces. And to me, that is something that I’m thinking about, about how I manage to hopefully replicate the gift my parents gave me and give it to my kids as well. That might be the most Sephardic thing I’ve said.

Noam: Yeah, I’ve said it. But let’s continue to think about it, to explore it.

Mijal: And we should do one thing on Sephardic food and Ashkenazi food.

Noam: No, we’re not… We are going to.

Mijal: Yeah, okay. We have a bunch of other questions. We should do Mizrahi Jews in Israel. We should do a bunch of those.

Noam: You know what, Mijal? We’ll be doing this for a while together.

Mijal: Okay, all of those. All of it. All right. Okay.

Noam: See you next week.

Mijal: Enjoy your prayers and all of that.

Noam: I’ll do my best.

Mijal Okay, bye.

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