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What’s in a Name?

January 18, 2013 4:06 am 13 comments

Mizrahi rabbi Ovadia Yosef.

I spend a fair amount of time with Persian Jews here in New York. I really enjoy their warmth and joie de vivre. But the quickest way to offend them is to suggest that they are Sephardi! Actually, you’d get a similar reaction if you suggested that a Muslim Iranian was an Arab!

The Persian Jewish community existed long before Spanish Jewry, which is the etymological origin of the term “Sephardi”. The Jews of Persia have been in the same place since 586 BCE, longer than any other Jewish community. But after the great expulsion of Spanish Jewry, and the consequent wave of Iberian Jews returning east, the term “Sephardi” (“Spanish”) came to refer not just to Jews of Spanish origin, but rather loosely to apply to those living mainly under Islam who follow the ancient liturgy and rabbinical influence of Mesopotamia and eastwards. As opposed to the term used for Europe, which came to be known as “Ashkenaz”, which originally referred only to Jews from the Rhineland but then incorporated all European Jews, even if they came from beyond the Caucasus. To complicate matters even more, when Eastern European Chassidic Jews turned adopted the ecstatic Lurianic version of mysticism, they called their style of prayer Nusach Sefard!

Ethnic Italian Jews started in Israel, moved to Rome, and thought themselves neither Ashkenazi nor Sephardi. And those Iberian Jews who migrated to Ashkenazi lands were called “Spanish and Portuguese”. Nowadays in Israel the term “Mizrachi” refers to Jews from Oriental (Sephardi?) countries. But my late father used to be the president of the Mizrachi Movement in the UK when it meant religious Zionist (he resigned when it went into politics in Israel).

Words and names change in their usages and connotations over time. But we do seem to need names and categories and we get so easily offended by them. Haredi Jews are upset if they are called ultra-Orthodox. Orthodox Jews who appreciate aspects of Western culture detest being called Modern Orthodox, and many other Orthodox don’t like to be called Orthodox altogether because it has different connotations (like Russian Orthodox).

Amongst the faithful, there are all the different Chassidic sects who battle to preserve their special identities and shut out anyone who does not conform to their specific rituals and dress. The Haredi world itself is full of Yiddish distinctions, a Sheyner Yid (a fine Jew), an Ergerer Yid (a distinguished Jew), a Chasidishe Yid , a Heimisher Yid (One of Us) and of course a Kosher Yid. All this is without venturing towards Egalitarian, Conservative, Masorti, Masorati (yes, they are different), Reconstructionist, Reform, Liberal, Secular, Cultural, Intellectual, and whatever.

But, you know, I really detest these labels. They are divisive and destructive. Nowhere does Moses differentiate between good Jews, religious Jews, or common and garden Jews. We are all in it together. Some are more into it and some less.

Indeed are we Jews, Israelites, Hebrews, Judeans, or Kikes? Does it make any difference? Are we a People, a Nation, an Ethnic Group or a Religion? And let us not go down the “race” path, because I’d love to know what racial characteristics all Jews have in common, even with all this genetic stuff that we have in common (with rats and vegetables as well). A lot of people are playing with genetic traces, trying to prove we are all descended somehow from Moses. Meanwhile post-Zionist secular theoreticians like Shlomo Sand (and Palestinian rejectionists, of course) are trying to persuade us that we are no more than a rag tag collection of converts and have no connection with Abraham or the Land of Israel. Which only confirms my view that academics will say almost anything to get published.

My Judaism is an existential, phenomenological expression of me, my specific background, education, and experiences. If people think they can categorize me, or think I care, they are sadly mistaken. Though it is true I am British by citizenship, American by residence, Jerusalemite by passion and Jewish by soul.

Surnames are relatively late inventions. As the European population began to expand in medieval times, and there were too many Johns and Williams, they needed to add some other characteristic, like occupation, features, or location to distinguish. And women, in the main, were simply “the wife of”. Jews had their own system, Moshe or Miriam, the son or daughter of. Surnames caught on very slowly, and in the end it was non-Jewish legislation that forced the issue. Then Jews adopted names based on location, occupation, or characteristic. It was the same under Islam and in some countries such as Iran; Jews were only forced to take on surnames in the twentieth century. So you can tell an Iranian surname from, say, a Moroccan or a Syrian name a mile away. No Syrian is going to be named Kashani and no Iranian, Aleppo. A Cohensedgh will be a Cohen from Iran, while a Dwek will be from Damascus.

So why do Iranians not like to be called Sephardim? It has to do with discrimination. Jews from Poland, Lithuania, Ukraine, Hungary, and Germany all looked down on each other and thought they were better than the others. When different groups of secular Jews started arriving in Israel in the nineteenth and twentieth century (religious groups had always been coming to Israel whenever the political climate allowed it) each group made the next one suffer. A bit like schoolchildren, the newcomers are picked on, so when they get to the top they make the next generation suffer the way they did.

The Russian socialists came first. By that I mean amongst the secular pioneers, for pious Jews had been coming all the time when they could. The Russians discriminated against the Germans, who in turn took it out on the huge amounts of immigrants from Arab lands in 1950, who eventually turned on the post-Glasnost Russians, who felt better taking it out on the Ethiopians. It wasn’t until Menachem Begin that Sephardi pride began to turn the tables on Ashkenazi arrogance. There still does exist a layer of prejudice and discrimination against Sephardim in some small, petty minded and usually corrupt sectors of Israeli society, which is precisely why Iranians do not want to be called Sephardi. As if anyone else makes such fine distinctions. But here’s the rub. Many Iranians discriminate against other Iranians. Is a Mashadi better than a Kashani, and is a Teherani just an out and out assimilationist?

I am often asked about marrying across these internal Jewish ethnic varieties. And I always say that if you have Torah in common, the rest is secondary. But it’s certainly good for the genes!


    I was dispersed to this corner to spread the love and variations of scharma recipes although only slight.

    I am thinking of migrating to chicago and taking my accent along with me. My aspirations is to be president of the United States. I applied to a community organization and volunteered bringing my street wise and business wise experience with me.

    Do you think they will accept a sephardic Jew whose parents arefrom aleppo syria living in Brooklyn to run the country? Should I tell them about the universal Noahide laws of morality?

    What are the requirments to be president?
    What are the requirments to be a Jew
    Why do ashkanaz have the love for a language that(..editted out..)
    whats a cochin whats a palsitinian arab
    whats a benie meneshe whats a democrate party
    Is a Jew really a jew is a Jew is a Jew?


    • You IS what you IS!!!!!

      • You IS what you IS!!!!!
        I told just that to my ex wife.

        she replied:
        ‘its time to change’

        I asked ‘change to what?’ her answer was
        ‘I dont know, just change’

        so I moved to New Jersey….alone…

        • Dacon 9

          Either you are painfully but beautifully honest…or just crazy!
          But to throw another cliche at you ” A man’s gotta do what a man’s gotta do.”

            She told the judge pointing at me in a tone last heard by the cackling witch in the ”wizard of oz”.
            LOOK AT HIM ,HE’s A CRAZY MAN!

            The more crazy I was,
            the cheaper the divorce payments

            (9 = soft gematria, EMET)

  • It’s worth to mention that Purim, the joyous festival that commemorates the survival in King Ahasuerus kingdom of Persia, stretching from India to Ethiopia/Eritrea, (“Hudu” to “Kush” in the Book of Esther), meaning the ancient Red Sea, is the syncretic festival of colors celebrated in India, called Holi, which falls in the same full moon or “Purnima” of the lunar month of Adar.

    • Akfredo and Wati

      Legends are fascinating but should not be confused with fact. We know from archeological evidence that there were Jewish mercenaries in Elephantine on the Nile during the first Kingdom before the Babylonian Exile and we might extrapolate that were in the east too.
      We might also extrapolate that remnants of the 10 exiled tribes found their way along the silk route and into India. But there is no record of continuous contact with mainstream Judaism and its rabbinic traditions further east.
      That the present State of Israel recognizes some of these eastern communities is something I am happy about but it is not evidence of continuity of Jewish identity in the same was as for example the Yemenite or the Afghani communities.


      • There is DNA evidence, which hints at the continuity of the “Nefesh” the blood, which is the soul. Contrary to this, there is the reverse, the scarcity of Jewish blood and the lack of Jewish soul in the West, even within mainstream Judaism and Rabbinic traditions. After the destruction of the first temple, the Kohanim went eastwards to Persia, India and South Asia and their blood’s frequency is higher in the East, whereas in the US and Europe, their DNA and blood frequency is at record low. There were Hebrews before the Torah was given at Sinai. Moreover, the State of Israel is an Edomite (Western State) where Asian Jews are in Galut Edom. What happened to all the Jewish immigrants from Malabar and other regions of India who made Aliyah right after the creation of the state. They were given crashed by Galut Edom in Israel who replaced their Jewish Hebrew identity with an Edomite Israeli identity.

      • Jeremy, coming to truth through facts is Edomite (Western); we come, perhaps, to the same truth, but through stories and faith.

  • The Jews of Cochin (India) have been living continuously in the same place longer than Jews in Persia or any other Jewish community. Before the destruction of the first temple, India gathered the purest remnant of Israelites directly from Judea after the Kingdom of Israel split in two. Earlier, they settled as traders in Kerala during the times of King Solomon. Like Yiddish or Ladino, they spoke their own Judeo-Malayam tongue. And even earlier, as they say, they were Jews before the Torah was given in Sinai. The “Red Sea” was reduced to it’s actual size only after the “Arabian Sea”, the whole Indian Ocean was the “Red Sea” in Ancient Greek, Ἐρυθρά Θάλασσα , Maris Erythraei in Latin or Erythraean Sea.* Philologists have identified several Sanskrit and Tamil loan words in the Hebrew Bible, dating from as early at the Book of Exodus through the Books of Kings, indicating direct or indirect trade between India and ancient Israel.** Today, there is certainly more Jewish blood in India than in Persia and this is also true for the Cohen Modal Haplotype frequency among Indians. Whether they speak Hindi, Judeo-Malayalam or Marathi, none of these languages has a word for anti-Semitism. They became among the first Israeli citizens after the creation of the state of Israel, but since they were a minority most of them worked in blue collar jobs, as gardeners etc., and never gained political power.

    *For the author of Sefer Hayobelim (included in the Dead Sea Scrolls) the Erythraean Sea or Red (erythres) Sea was a big and mystical sea that included the Persian Gulf and the Indian Ocean in the West of India.
    S Jub. 8:21; 9:2, 4. Casson, Periplus Maris Erythraei, 94. Periplus of the Erythraean Sea or Periplus of the Red Sea, 1.1.1.; 20

  • Jewish legend (first recorded in Shevet Yehuda, a historical work written by Shlomo ibn Virga at the turn of the 16th century) claims that Spanish kings were allies of Nebuchadnezzar and were actual participants in the siege and destruction of Jerusalem and the First Temple.

    Legend also has it that, as a reward for their help, Nebuchadnezzar transported Jews to Spain as slaves to serve the needs of the Spanish conquerors. These Jews were Kohanim as well as members of the royal family of David. as possible confirmation of this, a Biblical verse (obadia 1:20) speaks explicitly of the “exiled [community] of this great army of Jews who were traders, even to Tzorfat, and the exiled [community] of Jerusalem which is in Sepharad.”
    Rashi, following the opinion of Yonatan ben Uziel, defines Tzorfat as France and Sepharad as Spain. However, many Biblical commentators assume Tzorfat and Sepharad to be names of Phoenician or Elamite cities. nevertheless, from the early Middle ages onward, the words came to mean France and Spain exclusively. As you can see The Sefardi predate the Iranians. I am Seprardi and Spanish. We are not converts…we descend directly from the Jews that David sent to Spain.

  • Evelyn Dean-Olmsted

    A nice introduction to the politics of contemporary Jewish labeling, thanks! I’m a linguistic anthropologist and I write about these issues among Jews in Mexico:

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