Growing up Sepharadi in an Ashkenazi America


Suburbs in South Florida, 90’s.

I was born and raised in a neighborhood in Boca Raton, Florida, where everyone was above the age of 75, and everyone was all too familiar with the horrors committed by Nazi Germany. Sitting by the well-kept pool before their aquacycling classes, they would crack jokes incessantly. Some were innocent– jabs at the Clintons, the Internet, and the length of grass. But others, well others were darker: the jokes about camps and counselors. The jokes about ‘how could a tattooed Jew,’ two of the biggest taboos in WASP culture, ‘end up in a country club?’ These jokes all flew way over my head, standing at three feet eleven inches, when I was younger.

When I was growing up in the early 90s, it seemed like everyone- especially everyone above the age of 75- was Jewish. And all of these Jews, driving their Jaguars to the pharmacy, basking in the sun donning their shorts that were just too short, and clipping coupons, had the best sense of humor I have ever known. These were men and women who had witnessed some of the most severe atrocities of the last century, and there they were, making me laugh until I would cry. This mannerism, perhaps a coping mechanism, so many years later, so imbedded in not only the “old people,” but also in their grandkids, suggests that somewhere, someday, in some yet unknown land, the thing that happened might somehow repeat itself. The possibility of a recurrence is brewing, somewhere, in the same time and space where we dwell, grow, celebrate, and hurt. It is not decisively over. Certainly not for them, my neighbors, and certainly not for me, their yet-unknown prodigy.

But I didn’t know someone had tried to slaughter them. I didn’t know that their families went up in smoke, fell to bullets, and died of starvation.

When I asked Seymour, a man who exists now only in my memory, why he was always so funny, he pulled out another TY beanie baby from his pocket. He seemed always to have an infinite number of stuffed dolls to give me in synagogue and at the Club. Handing me Flitter the Butterfly, there was something, perhaps even sadness, flickering behind his smile.

When I was six or seven, I heard for the first time of those people called Nazis. I remember hearing that those people marched on Paris. Nazis march, I remember absorbing. They also put people on trains. I didn’t understand much else, but I knew these people marched and liked trains.

My generation, the children of the early 90s in Jew-ridden South Florida, lived in a time where information was very accessible, so everything was discussed. People talked about the Yitzhak Rabin assassination. They talked about the fall of the Iron Curtain. They talked about the Clintons. The American veterans whose wrinkles masked their previous handsomeness, talked about their escapades back in ‘Nam. They spoke of their pursuit of the American Dream.  They spoke of their children, their grandchildren.

And we talked about that in my house too. But for some reason, in my house, there was something we never talked about: those ‘summer camps’ that all of my neighbors went to and talked about at the Club. The ‘summer camp’ that left them all with lifelong mementos on their right forearms. The summer camp that evoked that sad twinkle in their expression, the dampness in their eyes.

Why didn’t Mommy, Daddy, or Meme talk about it, I wondered. Years later, in Mrs. Weinstock’s sunlit 4th grade classroom, we read the novels Snow Treasure by Mary McSwigan and Number the Stars by Lois Lowry. “These stories are fiction,” I remember Mrs. Weinstock saying, “but the history happened. There were very bad people, the Nazis, who tried to kill all of the Jews.” I remember getting chills that consumed me from the inside out: how could people be so cruel? Who would want to hurt Mrs. Weinstock? Who would want to hurt the people in my 4th grade class? Who would want to hurt Mommy and Daddy? Who would want to hurt me?

I didn’t remember the marching men who liked trains, nor did it ever occur to me that the villains in the story had tried to murder my friendly, funny neighbors.

Every time we had Holocaust education in school, we were asked to bring in a family story or memento to share with the class. My classmates came in telling their grandfathers’ stories of heroism, of terror, their grandmothers’ tales of home, of family. Everyone had a similar storyteller voice- slow and unsteady at first, and then faster, more excited- children under ten always want to have the best story- and then, eventually, somber. Every Yom Hashoa, Kristallnacht, and Holocaust Remembrance Day of my childhood was spent listening to the sounds of this competitive lament.

But I had no stories to share. The first year, my parents didn’t send me with anything—the story wasn’t ours to tell. I was okay with that. But the feeling of isolation I experienced from being one of three out of twenty six kids who had no stories to tell will never be quite so foreign to me. The second year, my dad told me the story of my great uncle by marriage, a Belz Hassid who had helped smuggle people out of the Ghetto until he was discovered by the Nazis and sent to Auschwitz.

This was an innovative and experiential educational tactic, to be sure: after all, how else can you explain mass murder to an eight year old? It was a way to encourage every student to ask their parents and grandparents about their personal connections to the Holocaust. But I couldn’t help feeling left out. I knew I didn’t have a personal story, but I didn’t have personal stories about other things we learned in history, like the California Gold Rush either. Why was this different?

Only when I was working at the Gibraltar Chronicle, the official newspaper of my family’s homeland, Gibraltar, during my first summer in college, did I get it. Up until then, I had never let it in.

You see, while other Jewish families suffered unimaginable brutality in the Holocaust, my family lived like royalty in the Portuguese paradise known for its wine, Madeira. In 1940, the civilian population of Gibraltar was evacuated because it was being used as a base for the British Royal Air Force, Military, and Navy’s war efforts. The evacuation moved the entire peninsula’s population well out of harm’s way — and well out of the Holocaust’s scope — to Madeira where my family went, and Jamaica, another tropical paradise.

But I never knew this until that summer, when there was a local exhibit about Gibraltar’s evacuated communities. I went to the museum trepidatious but giddy at the prospect of what I might find- I already knew the Holocaust made me feel like an outsider, and now I would know why.

It hadn’t even struck me to ever ask where my grandparents were during the war. Of course they were alive, and of course they didn’t incur the horrors that ensued ‘over there.’ But where were they?

My great-grandfather, David Benaim, who later became the first Israeli Consul General to Gibraltar, led Jewish life in Funchal, Madeira during the war. The community, then lacking a rabbi, treated him as their spiritual guide. His house, which he shared with his wife Esther and his nine children, served not only as his home, but as the ritual and religious home of all Jews in Madeira during the war. The attic served as the synagogue and Jewish communal event space.

Before leaving his family’s home of two centuries, my great grandfather ensured that he could bring Torah scrolls and other ritual Jewish objects, including ritual objects for a berit mila (because yes, lots of babies were born in Madeira). While on the Island, my grandfather made sure there was a minyan three times a day, and communal festivities for Shabbat and holidays. It was difficult, to be sure, to be so far from a homeland, disconnected from your past, but the community just focused on remaining together and maintaining tradition.

But this story doesn’t fit with the American Holocaust narrative. It doesn’t fit with the Israeli Holocaust narrative. Nor does it fit much with the expulsion story of Jews from Arab lands, a story which has only recently started being told. It is not, in fact, a part of the narrative at all. And the Holocaust narrative is pervasive, a rallying cry, for modern Jewish identity. Studies of American Jewry in America are marked as pre-war and post-war. European Jewry as well, naturally. The state of Israel, to a large extent, came into being in the aftermath of the Holocaust.

For people like me, the Holocaust cannot be our rallying cry. The Holocaust cannot be used to guilt us into marrying a Jew. The Holocaust cannot be the reason we continue to/not to believe in God, believe in the sanctity of our age old sacred text.

There is something that unifies us and that unites us, all Jews, together as one, as Jews. And it’s more recent than Sinai, more binding than tefillin.

Ultimately, we as Jews share a primary feeling: that survival was the constant whisper in our national consciousness. That life, even when it was filled with the swirls of aromas from my grandmother’s Mimouna or the sweet dough of my neighbor’s rugelach, and the ‘Mazal Tovs’ that we all chant on joyous occasions, still involved tremendous and perpetual efforts to rise above our anguish and battle on, to overcome.

This carrying on is, no doubt, inherent to the human condition. If we don’t push forward, we perish. That is certainly the case for all peoples at all times. And for us Jews, there has always seemed to be a more imminent threat. Whether that threat is external, or that threat is our universal mindset is unclear; however, either one leaves us with the same void, the same fear of annihilation.

As I grew up, I became acutely aware of the fact that I could not understand myself, my religious identity, my life as a reporter, as a friend, and as a Muslim-Jewish interfaith activist, until I understood how I fit into my broader religious community. How the accent of my grandfather fit their narrative. And the cooking of my great grandmother. And what would have happened had I been in Madeira with them, praying by the beach, and worshipping in the attic.

Namely, what I need to know, is if I had been a Jew evacuated to Madeira, living in isolation in paradise, would I have been passionately and tirelessly trying to uncover why we were evacuated, how we got to this paradise? If I would’ve in fact, discovered that Jews were stripped of their selfhood- their clothes, their possessions, their names, and their faith- if I would’ve discovered that their reality was one where millions of Jews were downtrodden by other human beings, were stomped into a realm of near non-being, where they were treated as nothing more than weeds to be removed from a garden with the utmost efficiency?

The only way I can answer that question is by receding into the depth of my own soul and truly, honestly, sifting through the grains of sand dividing the deep ocean of clarity and the dry land that is the root of my soul. My soul that was carefully molded by the communities that raised me- the American Jewish community, the Modern Orthodox community, the Sephardic community.

Living as a Sephardi in an Ashkenazi dominated culture I learned to be hyper aware. With the Ashkenazi narrative of pain and suffering- the Crusades, the Pogroms, the Holocaust- enshrined as the universal Jewish narrative, where does that leave me, leave us, the Sephardim, many of whom did not experience those evils, Hitler’s evil? (To be sure, many Sephardim perished in the Holocaust, as well. Important Sephardic communities such as Amsterdam, Salonika, Rhodes, Janina, Sarajevo and others, were decimated at the cold hands of the Nazis.)

It is impossible to understand the state of modern Jewry without this traumatic period. But it cannot define the totality of Jewish identity. Language on the other hand- text- gives us the feeling that there is a way to transcend it all, a way to overcome the random patterns that arbitrate our fate. For many, that painful fate was the Holocaust. For others, it was the brutal expulsion from Arab lands. Reading text, sacred texts, Torah, restores our sense of self, our dignity, and our root soul, and our human faces- the faces of mothers and fathers and sons and daughters- that existed before they were faded into our historical pain and will exist once we have risen above our anguish.

Language, a universal string of codes and signs, is a universal rallying point. And Jews, like Seymour and the rest of my neighbors, have another language. A language that incorporates a 2,000 year Diaspora, Talmudic discourse, ritual, and food, to produce quick witted jokes that are bound to make Kanye West smile.

And there is another Jewish language, a language that some might argue actually makes us Jewish: the Torah. That is our rallying point. Humor is the language with which we interact; Torah is the language we speak together.

Whether approached religiously, philosophically, or creatively, language, more than violence, more than history, can be a heritage that binds us all.

[+] Rachel Delia Benaim

2 thoughts on “Growing up Sepharadi in an Ashkenazi America

  1. laser
    4 October, 2017 at 15:31

    Kind of an odd, meandering piece. Obviously, as the author notes, Sephardim were murdered in the Shoah as well, so there’s no real connection between Ashkenazim and the Shoah that erases Sephardim en masse.

    While I agree that a Holocaust-centric narrative is bad for Jewish identity, the author wants to substitute Torah-centrism. Well, not all of us are theists! Some of us have, furthermore, been harmed by organized religion, and similarly cast out from normative Jewish spaces because of obsession with Halacha.

  2. YAS
    5 October, 2017 at 5:13

    I appreciate the message and it’s a really interesting perspective, but why does the author not mention the Spanish Inquisition and Expulsion of 1492? To me, as an Ashkenazi Jew raised in an American Jewish setting, this was always one of the most significant tragedies in Jewish history, perhaps only surpassed by the Holocaust.

    I’m not Sephardi (though many of my Central European Ashkenazi ancestors were descended from Jews who fled Spain between 1200 and 1400), but I imagine that this event would intensely shape my identity if I were. It’s also extremely analogous to the Holocaust. Jews thrived in both Spain and Central/Eastern Europe for centuries until they faced their respective tragedies.

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