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My dad is a Moroccan Jew and I think of him as Arab. But is he really?

From its start in 1906, A Bintel Brief was a pillar of the Forward, helping generations of Jewish immigrants learn how to be American. Now our columnists are helping people navigate the complexities of being Jewish in 2020. Send questions to bintel@forward.com.

Dear Bintel,

Okay, what’s the deal — are Moroccan Jews Arab, or is my dad white? I had to fill out a survey about whether I thought I was included in diversity metrics at my company, and I told my (white, non-Jewish) boyfriend that I grew up in a multi-racial household and he was like: Did you though? Because I guess Sephardic Jews came from Spain, which is European?

I’m confused. My dad was born in Casablanca, and his parents met in Morocco but I don’t know anything beyond that about his grandparents. My mom is a white, Jewish Ashkenazi woman. So is my dad Sephardic or Mizrachi, and are Sephardic Jews Arab? Also, what is the difference?

Signed,
Who, Where, What Am I?

In further correspondence, the letter writer elaborated that her father moved to the United States from Morocco as an adult, currently lives in Israel, and that she has many Moroccan family members.

Dear What,

I don’t want to rag on your boyfriend if that is not what you came here for, but my goodness, yes, of course Moroccan Jews would be part of any survey definition that asked about Arab ancestry. So would any Jews who come from the Jewish communities of Iraq, Egypt, Yemen, Syria and countless other communities in the region. The heritage of Moroccan Jews encompasses the traditional language, foods, dress, and culture of the country. These communities are ancient, part and parcel of the history of this region. Your father might have a distinct identity as a Moroccan Jew, but this does not make him any less Arab, nor any less Jewish. Your boyfriend seems too clever by half, but we’ll get to that in a moment.

Now, I’m definitely not the person to parse what should count as a multi-racial versus multi-ethnic home, or the ethics of claiming that you think you were perceived as diverse – though, for what it’s worth, the stakes here seem pretty low. If I understand correctly, the survey is asking if you thought you were included in the diversity metrics of your company, not if you think you bring diversity to the workplace. (It’s a strange, complicated concept in of itself to inquire whether a person is “diverse.”)

But let’s talk definitions. In the simplest form, most Jews today use the terms Sephardic and Mizrachi interchangeably to refer to Jews with origins in the Middle East, North Africa and Central Asia. The term Sephardic technically refers to the religious traditions of Jews from Spain and Portugal, while Mizrachi is a broader geographical term, and refers to the ancient Jewish communities in Arab lands.

There are Sephardic families today who take great pride in tracing their lineage back to the Jewish communities of Spain, but the term originated back when Spain was a Muslim country, with more frequent movement between other Arabic-speaking and Muslim-majority countries.

Later, when Spain became a Catholic country, and then expelled its Jews, the Jews of Spain escaped to many different countries, such as Holland, the Americas, and — more to the point — North Africa and the Middle East, taking their specific Jewish traditions with them. This is how Sephardic Jewish practices spread across the world, and why they are associated with Jews that have ancestry is in the Arab world.

But Mizrachi Jewish communities actually have many of their own, distinct Jewish traditions, separate from the Sephardic traditions that were brought to the Middle East after the Inquisition, so it is important to note how much diversity exists within these terms as well. As a Moroccan Jew, your father would be considered both Mizrachi and Sephardic, unless he identifies otherwise for some reason.

Then again, what might be clear-cut for a survey definition is not always so simple in lived reality. As a religious minority, and especially since the creation of the State of Israel, the relationship between many Arab Jews and their countries of origin have been fraught, to say the least. If you are interested in learning more, this seems like an ideal time to reach out to your father and ask him more about his own identity. This is part of your heritage, and it might be the right time to learn more about this means for him, and for you.

Shira Telushkin lives in Brooklyn, where she writes on religion, fashion, and culture for a variety of publications. She is currently finishing a book on monastic intrigue in modern America. Got a question? Send it to bintel@forward.com.

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