U.C. Berkeley group celebrates Jews from all cultures

Sign up for Weekday J and get the latest on what's happening in the Jewish Bay Area.

In America, when someone says they speak "Jewish," they usually mean Yiddish. Jewish food usually refers to Eastern European food, and Jewish people are typically thought of as being of European descent, with white skin. In reality, a large percentage of world Jewry today, including more than half of Israel's population, is of non-Ashkenazi descent.

This diversity among Jews inspired the founding of U.C. Berkeley's Jewish Multicultural Club. The club, which meets weekly, plans to establish a Jewish multicultural resource center on campus. Currently, the club hosts talks and videos highlighting Jewish life in diverse regions, including Iran, Ethiopia, China and South America.

Non-Ashkenazi club members say they often feel "invisible" because they do not resemble the majority of American Jews or because their traditions diverge from European ones.

"We all have traditions and we need to educate ourselves on those traditions and be proud of them," says club member Nava Misrahhi, whose ancestors lived in Israel, Iraq and Iran.

David Esmailzadeh, who is of Persian descent, says the club's two-fold purpose is "to educate Ashkenazi Jews and for non-Ashkenazi Jews to identify with each other and feel Jewish."

He adds: "I feel as Jewish as anyone could possibly feel, but sometimes people don't treat me like I am, maybe because they haven't been exposed to non-Ashkenazi Jews."

Club members say that although it may seem like they are stressing their differences, the point is to come together for unity. Jonathan Seagull, an Ashkenazi Jew, says he would like the club to focus on "looking back historically at where we've diverged and where we are still the same. It's always good to be aware of others and in this case it's others who are really the same."

Roya Yasharpour, another Persian Jew whose ancestors spoke a dialect that was a mix of Hebrew, Farsi and Spanish, thinks Judaism itself is a multicultural concept. "We have something that bonds us and even though historically we've all lived in different parts of the world, we are still one people."

Yasharpour believes it is important to learn about all aspects of Jewish tradition, including Ashkenazi ones. "We are starting with the traditions we know less about, but this doesn't mean we don't love and respect the Ashkenazi tradition. This club is for everybody."