Sephardic, Mizrahi Jews forge multicultural revival

A Sephardic Jew in America is a little like a newlywed.

After the vows, the bride and groom magically assume a joint identity. Then they speed off in a car with clanking cans trailing behind as if to remind them that not all will be harmonious on the road ahead.

Melding identities is never so simple, according to Sephardic journalist Jordan Elgrably. Like the dissonant clanking of wedding cans, he says, Sephardic, Crypto- and Mizrahi Jews have lived their American Jewish identities with the echoes of different cultural traditions resonating inside.

In recent months, those echoes have resonated louder than ever as hundreds of American Jews with roots in Spain, North Africa and the Middle East have reclaimed their languishing traditions and languages through the arts, literature and scholarship.

This cultural renewal, begun a decade ago, was in recent months culminated in a multicultural Jewish renaissance, according to some Sephardic ethnographers and artists.

About 100 recently made their movement official by declaring themselves the National Association of Sephardic Artists, Writers and Intellectuals, or NASAWI. The Los Angeles-based nonprofit promotes films, performing and fine arts, musical releases, periodicals, books, ideas and spirituality by and about Sephardic, Crypto- and Mizrahi Jews.

They also sponsor multicultural Jewish and Arab-Jewish events and oversee the Endowment for Sephardic Stories foundation.

The showcase of their work is a tabloid magazine, NASAWI News, soon to become a bimonthly glossy called Ivri Magazine, named for the Hebrew word that means both "Hebrew" and "crossing over."

The just-released publication will feature personal narratives, book and music reviews, cultural events calendars, commentary and profiles of the hippest on the Ivri scene. Most importantly, the magazine shows contributors and readers that there are others out there like them — and does it with style, says Elgrably, who is editor-in-chief and co-founder of NASAWI.

For Ron Elkayam, 27, that kind of identity is a source of pride and spiritual connection.

"It's good for people to see this other Judaism, which is not what we know in the States," said the Berkeley resident. He adds that traditional "Ashkenazi Judaism can have a certain nebbish quality, [while] for a lot of people Mizrahi culture is vibrant and inspiring."

The son of a Moroccan Jew, Elkayam contributes to the revival by playing in a six-member Middle Eastern band called Mizrachi. Accompanied by a Jewish dancer from Baghdad, the band brought down the house at its Berkeley Hillel debut last month.

And Jaleh Pirnazar, 49, says the multicultural magazine is reinforced by a handful of new literary and scholarly periodicals on Iranian Jewish life. The U.C. Berkeley professor of Persian literature is herself a regular contributor of fiction and Judeo-Persian history to three such publications.

Cultural expression, she says, "contributes to the forging of identity that the younger generation is thirsty for. [Mizrahi] undergraduates especially want to find out more about their backgrounds."

NASAWI News brought less visible artists and writers out of the woodwork when it hit newsstands around the world this summer, its editor says. And letters from readers flooded NASAWI headquarters in Los Angeles. A Sephardic university professor called to say how excited he was to see it.

"We are constantly associated with Ashkenazi cultures," Elgrably recalled the professor saying. "It's about time we got recognized. We do exist."

But while its readers are more visible than ever, NASAWI News/Ivri Magazine speaks to little more than 550,000 Sephardim and Mizrahi Jews nationally, about twice the number of Bay Area Jews and but only 10 percent of the total U.S. Jewish population, Elgrably said, noting that there may be many more who do not congregate in Sephardic communities.

"Sometimes, Sephardim are good at hiding their identities. It comes from the age of the Marrano [and Crypto-Jew] when you had to hide," he said, referring to Jews who converted to Christianity as an attempt to remain in Spain after the Jewish expulsion of 1492.

After converting, Crypto-Jews secretly practiced their Judaism while many Marranos gave up their Judaism entirely. The expelled Sephardic Jews managed to keep their Jewish identities intact in the diaspora.

Elgrably's heritage also endured for a time underground. The 39-year-old assumed an American Ashkenazi identity as a youth after his Ashkenazi mother and Sephardic father split. That identity survived well into his early adulthood.

He recalled a conversation he had in 1984 with a Jewish American journalist in Paris.

"We agreed that we didn't have much to contribute to our identity as American Jews. Roth, Bellow and others pretty much had covered it.

"Didn't I have blinders on?" he joked.

By the late 1980s, he and others were no longer content to ignore their heritage by assuming mainstream Ashkenazi traditions. Most felt compelled to explore their Mediterranean roots after having an identity crisis, Elgrably said.

Younger generations, in particular, have indulged in artistic and scholarly expression of their cultures despite some of their parents' disinterest, he added. The parents — eager first-generation Americans — had abandoned their immigrant parents' culture and pursued assimilation through professional careers.

In Berkeley, NASAWI co-founder and Sephardic ethnographer Victor Perera attributes the cultural rebirth in part to the 500th anniversary of the Spanish Inquisition. The Inquisition only recently ended its reign of terror in the mid-19th century.

But the fear lived on for several generations, Perera, 63, says. Sephardim now in their 30s and 40s are the first generation to be born without that fear.

"The new activity by younger writers is just beginning. They are trying to carve out their own identity."

Others are not as optimistic about the renewal.

Sephardic researcher Rebecca Fromer, also a co-founder of the Judah L. Magnes Museum, considers the renaissance to be just "a phase." Much of pre-war Sephardic culture, she contends, is gone and slipping away daily, never to return to its former glory.

"We are so few now that most of us are devoting a lot of time to recapturing moral tales, proverbs, the essence of what [eventually] will be lost."

Fromer, 70, says younger Sephardim cannot claim a culture that they have not directly experienced.

"It's like sending bubbles into the air. For a brief moment you catch a glimmer of a rainbow. But as the climate changes, it's gone."

Lori Eppstein

Lori Eppstein is a former staff writer.