Navigating differences within a richly multifaceted group can be an intricate and formidable undertaking. How can an individual hold on to his unique background while remaining in close contact with a broader and more prominent culture?
It’s a complicated venture to negotiate individual difference while retaining membership in a distinct, overarching body. Sephardi Jews make up a heterogeneous subset of the Jewish world. The religious commonalities among different types of Jews are significant enough to provide an umbrella identity, a link through common history, religion, and values, although this broad-ranging identity is largely defined by the more dominant Ashkenazi culture. To make assumptions about what it means to be Jewish is to accept stereotypes represented by Ashkenazi traits and to be gently folded into many broad expectations about what it means to be Jewish.
Yet Sephardim are different enough culturally to warrant a discrete, though overlapping, classification. For many Sephardim, self-identifying as a Jew without cultural qualification can be a gratifying and connecting experience, one in which our commonality breeds deep affiliation. But this same prospect may also carry the risk of divergence and alienation, a gulf in experience that could lead to an emphasis on isolation or estrangement in the symbolic renunciation of difference. This conflict speaks to a question of identity: how can we celebrate our similarities and embrace differences without slipping into an extreme position?
In a very personal way, this theme and variations on it have informed my relationship with religion throughout my life. Sephardi culture and tradition permeated my early experience to such extensive proportions that for some time, their influence remained vague in the way that the most basic things about us remain indeterminate, a shadowy presence as an identity taken for granted in the naive assumption that this is just the way things are. At that time, in an uncomplicated way, the insularity and homogeneity of my family and community life contributed to a strong sense of what it means to be Jewish, and more specifically what it means to be a member of a Sephardi family and community. These circumscribed sensibilities pervaded my day-to-day existence, organizing my experiences, and as such were ingested with the ease and passive receptivity of a child being fed on mother’s milk.
Some of my earliest memories revolve around my paternal grandparents, my Papo and Meme as we called them. Their house was the heart of our family, the hub around which the family gathered. This robust umbilical tie to the old country developed in a sensorial and visceral, rather than explicit, way. It grounded our family, providing a sense of belongingness and safety that pervaded my early cultural identity. For us, family was everything, and being in our family was inextricably connected to what it meant to be a part of a vibrant Sephardi tradition.
As I grew older, I started to be exposed to Ashkenazi culture through my rabbinic studies in an Ashkenazi yeshiva, but this didn’t jeopardize my Sephardi heritage in any way. On the contrary, it made it even stronger. Growing up in the vibrant Sephardi community of Montreal, I created a balance between both traditions, making me into a proud Sephardi Jew.