Are We Post-Sepharadim?

A conversation with scholar Devin E. Naar about what meaningful Sephardic representation might look like in the wake of near-total erasure.

Arielle Angel
October 20, 2020
Angel’s grandparents, David and Stella Angel, in Athens circa 1947.

I know that if I’ve recently participated in an interview or conversation, I can expect a call or an email from Devin E. Naar, professor of history and Sephardic studies at the University of Washington, with whom I share Ladino-speaking Salonican heritage on my father’s side. When Jewish Currents held a roundtable on Seth Rogen’s An American Pickle, for example, in which the staff dissected the mythologized Ashkenazi history portrayed in the film, Naar contacted me to point out instances of what he calls “dissimulation,” moments when I’ve missed an opportunity to assert a Sephardic or Mizrahi perspective (my maternal grandfather’s family came from Palestine), thus erasing myself—and those like me. 

When Naar reaches out, I’m sometimes defensive: What if my Sephardiness is not the point in a given exchange? And besides, I’m a quarter Ashkenazi! Still, I appreciate Naar’s provocations, which have often resulted in sprawling, intense conversations that get to the heart of my reluctance to represent myself not just as a Jewish public figure, but a specifically Sephardic one. 

It sometimes feels as if Naar is carrying all that’s left of Ladino and its former center, Salonica, on his shoulders. Today, the Judeo-Spanish language has a dwindling number of speakers, but at its height it was spoken by more than half a million Jews—descendants of those expelled from Spain during the Inquisition, who settled primarily in the Ottoman Empire. My paternal grandparents, now deceased, were Ladino speakers from Salonica, two of only 2,000 survivors of the Nazi liquidation of the once majority-Jewish city. Ladino was my father’s first language, but he endeavored to become completely American, and no longer speaks it; needless to say, he did not pass it on to me. This is a common story. Naar, bucking this trend, has spent the last two decades learning the language, teaching it to others, and diligently rescuing the Ladino-speaking world from the abyss of history. He speaks primarily Ladino at home with his young children.

I’m amazed by Naar’s efforts. I’m also grateful to him for making my grandparents’ world a bit more accessible to me, and for helping me situate their experiences—and my own—within larger frameworks of marginalization in the Jewish world. And yet, I’m skeptical about the possibility of recovering a meaningful Sephardiness in the face of a very thorough destruction. At a time when questions of representation loom large, I spoke to Naar about what it might mean to make Sephardic representation genuinely meaningful in the contemporary Jewish world. This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

Arielle Angel : Maybe you can talk a little bit about why you’ve been mad at me.

Devin E. Naar: [Laughs] It’s not about you; it’s about the system. The public Jewish conversation has really been an Ashkenazi- and white-oriented one in terms of its cultural, historical, and literary references. So I’ve been trying to figure out whether there’s space for Sephardic and Mizrahi perspectives in that framework. What can those voices look like if they are actually articulated? If they’re not just presented as tokens, but if they’re actually part of an attempt to change the discourse? I don’t expect you to come up with a set of fully articulated Sephardic or Mizrahi perspectives overnight. But you could start by just identifying when those perspectives are missing. They need to be there for you to bring your full, undiminished Jewish self—Sephardic, Mizrahi, and Ashkenazi—into the conversation. I am a Sephardic and Ashkenazi person; my Ashkenazi mother has been a great supporter of my efforts to recover and uplift Sephardic perspectives. So I’m also thinking about how to capture this complexity, recognizing, of course, that one “side” is well represented and the other hardly at all.

AA: I’ve been telling you how I don’t always feel comfortable speaking in that voice—or even putting in my Twitter bio that I’m Sephardi/Mizrahi, as some people do—precisely for that reason. It would feel like claiming something even as I’m not sure what it means, something that affords the appearance of diversity and a measure of protection to Jewish Currents without accounting for how a lot of the attendant cultural and ethnic markers have been erased through very strong currents of assimilation and Ashkenormativity. In the case of my family, Ashkenazi Jews in Brooklyn just didn’t think they were even Jewish, and so they were kept out—when my aunt started dating, she was accused of being a Puerto Rican pretending to be Jewish to land a rich, Jewish man. Once, my grandmother literally brawled with her Ashkenazi neighbors. 

Part of what frustrates me is that we’re not accounting for how a certain level of erasure and assimilation has already happened, and is still happening. Which raises the question: How much work do I need to do personally to represent myself as this thing that I am?

DEN: The first step would be to begin to articulate these stories. What has been transmitted in the face of erasure? Just telling these stories about individual or family or community experiences, in Greece or Algeria or Brooklyn, and forcing people to confront them, becomes an act of resistance. To acknowledge this is an opening—the aperture increases, and you can enter in and try to explore that occluded world.

AA: So what does that actually look like? You and I both come from a very specific lineage, from Salonica, or Thessaloniki, which was totally destroyed in the Holocaust. There are so few people representing this particular lineage—if you weren’t doing the academic work, I don’t know who would be. In a situation where this obliterative process has already happened, what does it mean to do the work of uncovering that history, of forging an authentic relationship to it that isn’t just about bourekas or whatever? Does it mean I have to become an academic? To learn Ladino? It seems that would require making it my whole life.

DEN: The first step would be to recognize that we’re not alone. I have now met hundreds of people who have emailed me after reading something I wrote to say, essentially, “I thought I was the only one—I thought there was nobody left from my world.” There are people who are also grappling in different ways with this sense of rupture, of loss, of discontinuity, of assimilation, of evaporation. You don’t necessarily need to be learning Ladino, delving into the archival materials, but you can find community among people with similar backgrounds who haven’t had a space to come together for an exchange of these stories in 70 years. Then maybe a few of those people will delve further into the historical record. They will go to Salonica or Djerba or Baghdad, and they will track down the houses and the newspaper references. They will go to the rabbinic responsa and try to understand how the leaders of that world understood and adjudicated questions. There’s a lot that can be done between “nothing” and dedicating your whole waking life to this work.

AA: This raises the leftist dimension of all this, as being a leftist in Sephardic and Mizrahi communities is a barrier to “finding your people,” so to speak. A few years ago, I joined the young professionals group at a Sephardic synagogue. There was a moment when I had to come out to them about my politics, that I’m not a Zionist. The organizers were young, and pretty understanding. But still, you know, there are Israeli flags up everywhere, and at the time they were talking about having [the right-wing former Consul General of Israel in New York] Dani Dayan come and speak to us. And of course, to go there to pray with my husband, we had to sit separately, which is one of the reasons my family wouldn’t have gone to a Sephardic or Mizrahi shul growing up. 

DEN: Part of the problem might be that you’re calling them shuls. Kehila! Or kahal! 

AA: [Laughs] You’re right. Anyway, building community is even more difficult when that community is so invested in appearing monolithically conservative—in pushing left-wing histories out of the purview, or casting them as Ashkenormative in themselves.

DEN: There’s nothing necessarily Sephardic or Mizrahi about what you’re describing; these dynamics parallel those in the general Jewish establishment.

AA: Except that having bigger numbers, as Ashkenazi Jews do, means there is a greater diversity of spaces.

DEN: That’s true. Another part of it is the way that counternarratives to the Jewish establishment narrative developed, going back to Yiddish socialism, which has not made room for non-Yiddish Jewish socialists. For all the good that movement may have done, its monoculturalism has been very exclusionary. And there hasn’t been an accounting of the damage.

There was a moment during World War I when the Sephardic socialists tried to get together with the Yiddish socialists in New York, and they had some kind of relationship for a few months. But it became clear to the Ladino-speaking socialists that this was not their space. None of these leftist Jewish institutions made space for participation by other kinds of Jews.

AA: Right. But the Yiddish left staked out a space for themselves that was hard-won, and was itself repressed by forces in the Jewish community. Meanwhile, in addition to all of the structural oppression we faced—which you’ve documented very well—it seems we also just didn’t have the numbers or the financial resources to create the institutions that would have spoken to us in our language. To play devil’s advocate for a moment: What would the Yiddishists have had to give up to accommodate us? Would it have meant not speaking Yiddish? Should they have been willing to make that trade to include a small group of Ladino-speaking Jews?

DEN: It’s a very good point. I think we have to think about power and access to resources. The institution that has access to more resources needs to be ready to deploy those resources to accommodate and welcome smaller groups—otherwise it just replicates the pattern of exclusion. 

I don’t think of it as a zero-sum game. Or at least it doesn’t have to be, under certain models. For example, Ladino socialism in Salonica was federative. The plurality of the Socialist Workers Federation of Salonica were Ladino-speaking Jews, but they also came together with Greek-speaking Christians, Bulgarian-speaking Christians, and Turkish-speaking Muslims. They gave speeches at their meetings in all these languages. They had what we might call “caucuses” that would break out and do their own thing, but they could come together under shared terms. I suppose those meetings were very, very long, but I don’t know why that couldn’t have happened in the Jewish community. 

AA: I want to give you a chance to talk about doikayt—the Bundist idea of “here-ness,” which asserts that Jews belong wherever it is they live—because I know you’ve expressed discomfort with it.

DEN: Look, I like the concept of doikayt. But my question is whether there is room for additional concepts drawn from other strains of Jewish thought. Doikayt speaks to me, this idea that we can focus on our struggles here and strive for more complete liberation here. But I do wonder about the dichotomy this sets up between “here” and “there.” When we hold onto the Israel/diaspora dyad, we actually perpetuate the idea that Israel is the center and we are dispersed from the center—even as we attempt to assert that that former periphery is a new center. Thinking of Israel as “there” rather than “here” still gives it pride of place; it still occupies half of the entire framework. The other problem is when New York becomes the only “here”!

There are many more nodes in our contemporary experience than “here” and “there,” and I wonder if a Sephardic approach can give us some ways to think about that. There is a famous French philosopher, born Edgar Nahoum, who took the surname “Morin” in the French Resistance during World War II. His family was Ladino-speaking Jews from Salonica who received a French education in the part of the Ottoman Empire that became Greece; they had Italian passports and distant converso roots. Reflecting on the multiplicities of his family experience, he coined the concept of “poly-enracinement,” or “multi-rootedness.” For me, the idea of multi-rootedness has a lot of potential, because it brings us out of the dichotomy between “there” and “here” by saying that there can be multiple “heres.” We should think about the multiplicity of spaces and communities that we’re connected to—if that can help us make sense of the multiplicities of the Sephardic experience, and the Jewish experience in general. 

AA: Recently, a bad-faith right-wing critic accused Jewish Currents of neglecting discrimination against Mizrahim while scrutinizing Mizrahi advocacy groups. In response, I tried to highlight the cultural and political work we’re doing on Sephardic and Mizrahi topics, while publicly claiming my own identity. This was met with a lot of backlash because of the magazine’s leftism. People were saying that I was tokenizing myself, that I was “chosen” by the Ashkenazi establishment as a shield, which is obviously ridiculous, but instructive.

DEN: Part of this process of reclamation is acknowledging the wide range of perspectives and political orientations that people bring. Anybody who tells me that Sepharadim or Mizrahim are only conservative, I tell them it’s a wonderful myth they’ve invented. I don’t want to get into a war of words over whether left- or right-wing is more “authentic” in Sephardic or Mizrahi communities because that fetishizes authenticity in a way that’s counterproductive. There was no one static way of life in Morocco or in Baghdad, which was once 25% Jewish, or in Salonica, which was half Jewish. To say, for example, that they were “traditional” and didn’t believe in women’s rights or egalitarianism or radical politics is actually to enforce an Orientalist, static vision of what were in reality dynamic societies that included people whose positions we would now say put them on the left. In Salonica in the 1920s, almost 40% of the Jews voted for the Communist Party. And there were influential Jewish leftists in Morocco and Baghdad and elsewhere in Sephardic and Mizrahi contexts. A multiplicity of perspectives and political positions that were active in those communities got written out and effaced. 

AA: I see a lot of talk about representation. But I do wonder: What is representation without decolonization? Meaning: I’m a Sephardi and Mizrahi person in this position at Jewish Currents—that’s representation. But I feel like until I do the work of unlearning this hegemonic Jewishness and rooting in my own heritage, it’s somewhat meaningless, no? 

DEN: We need to have an understanding of what we mean when we say “decolonization.” One of the processes this can involve is a peeling off of the layers of externally imposed ways of thinking, epistemologies, practices, and ideologies—not to find an authentic core that was there before it was polluted by colonization, but to begin to hear the multiple voices that have been violently erased. It requires collaboration—coming together and taking the time to share stories and to learn to move beyond one’s own particular story.

Spending time with texts and with languages is really important. So is the task of recuperating literature. Who is the Ladino Sholem Aleichem? People don’t know. Most people think it’s a crazy question to ask, because Ladino literature has been written out of the canon: Sephardic Jews, we are told, are good for food and music, not literature and politics. If you enter into the literary realm in Ladino, you get a very different image of what Jewish life was like. There is no shtetl in Ladino literature and there’s no sense of isolation. There are cities, a sense of connectivity, an urban fabric, movement. There are multiple languages in play all the time. There are interactions—some playful and cooperative, others violent and aggressive—between Jews and Greeks and Armenians and Muslim Turks. The Ladino language has much more to say to the American experience, I would argue, than Yiddish does.

AA: How so?

DEN: Spanish has been a language of the Americas since the 15th century. It’s a language of colonization, of immigration, of indigeneity. It has a lot of different political vectors.

AA: That relates to the California ethnic studies dust-up. Right-wingers think that left-wing Jews don’t want Jews in an ethnic studies curriculum. But actually, it seems many on the left do think there’s an opportunity for an ethnic studies curriculum to relate to Arab Jews, to the history of colonization, to the Spanish language—all of these things that you’re talking about.

DEN: The figure of the “Arab-Jew” is so powerful because it destabilizes basic terms of discussion about Israel and the Middle East. As a Spanish-based language spoken by Jews from the Muslim world, I think Ladino can serve as a connective tissue.

AA: I tried to learn Spanish for ten years, and my Spanish is okay. It’s actually the way that I communicated with my grandparents, because I didn’t speak Ladino, especially as they got older and forgot their English. To learn Ladino seemed insane, because who else spoke it? When I look at Yiddishists, I’m often like, “What is this project? How is it going to live?” I recognize all the amazing, beautiful things that they are creating in this “post-vernacular” context—where Yiddish is an identity marker if not a primary spoken language—but it really feels like there’s a hard limit there in terms of how it can be passed on moving forward. I know you speak Ladino with your children . . .

DEN: I speak a reconstituted, 21st-century American Ladino, based on what I acquired from my nono [grandfather] and his siblings, from living in Salonica, reading newspapers and archival sources for 20 years, interacting with members of the Sephardic community in Seattle, going to dictionaries, and bringing in influences from the Spanish that we hear more often. It’s been a family decision: Andrea, my Ashkenazi spouse, who also speaks Spanish and is involved in immigrant advocacy work, is deeply invested in our experiment in reclaiming Ladino. We make up new words—my kids call the trash collectors “basuradjis,” which is the Spanish word for trash, plus “dji,” which is the Turkish-origin suffix used in Ladino to describe somebody who does something. This is an invention, but that’s how language grows and evolves. It’s not so different from a century ago when the first Ladino-speaking Jews came to the United States and coined new words, like “shine-djis” for bootblacks, a job many of them did. 

We’re trying an immersion, but I don’t expect other people to do that. Here in the Seattle area, we have the Sephardic Adventure Camp that builds this practice of infusion into its curriculum—it increasingly brings terms, expressions, proverbs, and prayers into the campers’ worlds, and helps them to bring them back into their own family and community spaces.

AA: Not so different from the way that many American Jews grow up with some Hebrew.

DEN: Right. The difference is here it requires more intentionality. It will not happen organically because of the low value that has been placed on this culture and this language, the way it has been marginalized. It requires a concerted effort to do that. 

AA: What do we get when we do that?

DEN: First of all, you get enjoyment! You get access to slightly different ways of thinking about things through some of these small expressions. One Ladino refran [proverb] goes like this: “Rova pita, beza la mezuzah.” This is about someone who steals pita bread and kisses the mezuzah. This is the concept of the hypocrite, in this image. That’s a very interesting way to talk about hypocrisy!

AA: I’ve been thinking a lot about something you wrote to me in response to Emily Lever’s review of When We Were Arabs. You wrote about the conversos, those who had been forced to convert during the Spanish Inquisition and secretly kept their Jewish identity. When they were finally allowed to come out as Jews, they had to recreate themselves—not as they were before, but as they were at that point. That’s a very useful way for me to think about what we’re doing here. What does it mean to recreate ourselves as Sephardic or Mizrahi Jews in this moment in full view of everything that we’ve lost?

I have a lot of desire to figure this out for myself, and also a lot of skepticism about what’s possible. I do feel hard structural barriers to me being able to do this work in terms of the paucity of spaces where it’s happening, the political barriers, the sense that in order to really do it I would have to devote my life to it, and then the sense that if I don’t do it I’m just tokenizing myself . . . Sometimes I think that perhaps the most important thing to do is just to make room to grieve this heritage that has been taken from us. 

DEN: The grieving is very important. In my house, every Shabbat morning we make “challah tostada a la franka,” challah French toast. That’s what we call it. We made that term up. And afterwards, I recite parts of the Shabbat morning tefilah for (and increasingly with) my kids, the Salonican way that I learned from my family, from my great uncle, a hazan born in the Ottoman Empire. And I cry every time. Whenever I try to talk about it with my dad or my mom or anybody in my family, it’s just immediate tears. Because it’s like . . . God, I feel like my Shabbat morning is a big Kaddish. My whole work is a big Kaddish, a big Ashkavah. It makes me think: Are you—are we both—post-Sephardic Jews? You know, maybe we are. 

AA: So this ends with both of us crying.

DEN: I guess it probably couldn’t end any other way.

Arielle Angel is the editor-in-chief of Jewish Currents.