Since immigrating to the U.S. in the early 20th century, Sephardic Jews have struggled to gain acceptance as both Americans and Jews. In the Ashkenormative American Jewish society, where Ashkenazi culture is the norm, their Sephardic roots were often a source of embarrassment. Even today, at Jewish day schools and college campuses, Sephardic students say that they feel marginalized because of the absence of Sephardic minyanim and programming or acknowledgment of their cultural and religious heritage—and even when it is recognized, they feel patronized because the context is often limited to food, rather than Sephardic contributions to Jewish literature, philosophy, and the arts, or rabbinic approaches to contemporary Jewish issues.
“Sephardic Jews were a minority in their places of origin, and also in some American communities they were a minority within a minority,” explained Sarah Abrevaya Stein, a historian of Sephardic Jewry, UCLA professor, and author of the book Family Papers: A Sephardic Journey Through the Twentieth Century.
Over time, Sephardic Jews have integrated into American society, but preserving their identity has become more difficult as younger Jews become many generations removed from the immigrant ancestors who directly passed along their history and traditions.
In recent years, though, a new generation of Sephardic Jews—from college students to young professionals—has stepped up to reclaim its heritage and ensure its continuity in an America that celebrates different cultures and heritages. “This is a moment where diversity is being embraced in the wider American landscape,” said Stein.
Young Sephardic Jews are trying to disentangle the umbrella category of Sephardic Jews that often refers to all non-Ashkenazi Jews, and give more specific content and meaning to their own family trajectories, such as Ladino-speaking, Moroccan, Syrian, and Persian backgrounds, explains Devin Naar, 38, who chairs Sephardic studies at the University of Washington.
To ensure the future of the Sephardic tradition for many generations to come, today’s young generation of Sephardic Jews must be prepared to confront these challenges—and also garner the support and financial resources of mainstream Jewish institutions. “It’s time for Sephardic Jews to stand up for themselves, start a Sephardic movement, and be recognized that we have a unique voice and needs, and a unique identity in the American Jewish experience,” said Marcus. “Only through our generation will it happen.”
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