Several years ago, I had a conversation with a college professor. We were discussing the Muslim conquest of Spain, when I mentioned that I was a Sephardic Jew. The professor quickly interrupted noting that “Sephardic” was basically Spanish. His intent, while not demeaning, was to emphasize that Sephardic Jews did not really represent any “ethnic or racial” difference from non-Jewish Iberians.
Jews of the Iberian Peninsula were effectively the same as their Celtic-Romano-Visigothic neighbors. The only point of differentiation was their religion. By extension, the implication was that Sephardic Jews were different from Ashkenazic Jews who represented a recognizable ethnic and/or “racial” difference with their non-Jewish residents.
Following this line of thought, a German Jew or a Polish Jew was not really German or Polish. They were “Jewish” ethnically, racially, and religiously. In contrast, a Spanish Jew or a Portuguese Jew, was really Spanish (or Iberian) though their religious identity was Jewish.
That this type of thinking was not simply espoused by my college professor has been proven to me many times over the years. Conversations with Ashkenazic friends, many of whom are nominally religious, bears this out. They see themselves as ethnically and/or racially Jewish (despite the many problems with assuming that Jews are a race). They note the adjective “Russian”, or “German”, or “Polish” only to denote that these represent cultural differences (or differences in religious rite, i.e., nusach) between Jews of Eastern European origins.
When they think of Sephardic Jews generally however, and more specifically Jews from Crypto-Jewish backgrounds many Jews from Ashkenazic backgrounds quickly raise the question as to how it is possible to be “Hispanic” and Jewish. As one congregant at a local synagogue asked my wife, “Are you really Jewish?” My wife, who is, for lack of a better term racially, white said yes. The point was clear. In this case, “race” was not the issue. It was the perception of “Hispanic” identity as an exclusive marker of non-Jewish identity. The same questions are raised for Jews of other “ethnic/racial” groups i.e. Ethiopian Jews, Indian Jews, Arab Jews, etc.
How can Sephardic Jews and especially Crypto-Jews really be Jewish since they may (or may not) look different from Ashkenazic Jews and of course have surnames which often do not sound Jewish. They are not Russian Jews for example who have simply emigrated to Argentina. Interestingly, the same question has been asked by Hispanics who are not Jewish. Because of cultural or linguistic commonalities they question how it is possible for someone they identify as Hispanic to be Jewish.
All this raises the ultimate question. What is Jewishness? What or who is a Jew? There were and are real differences in how Sephardic and Ashkenazic communities responded to their environment in the medieval period reflective of the greater cultural and political milieu they lived in. That being said, is being Jewish a religion? Is it genetic? Is it a matter of blood as many descendants of Crypto-Jews often assert? Is it a people?
These issues are very important. I hope to delve into these questions in subsequent posts.