Global Jewish Heritage Is Neither Extracurricular nor Optional

Almost 30 years ago, I applied to be the director of a major Jewish community center. Despite being in my mid-20s, with a BA in political science, I outperformed numerous experienced Jewish educators with rabbinical and PhD degrees, and was one of the last two candidates being considered for the position. 

I was well-known for my pioneering work in Jewish multicultural education, and toward the end of the final interview, the interviewer asked me, “Will you teach about Ashkenazi heritage as passionately as you teach about Sephardic heritage?” 

I responded by explaining that my work was focused on non-Ashkenazi heritage because we were living in an Ashkenazi hegemony, where Ashkenazi heritage was all that was taught in Jewish schools, synagogues, and community organizations. My work simply balanced out a profound imbalance, I concluded, focusing on where I was needed.

The interviewer looked at me pointedly, as if I had said nothing, and simply repeated, “Will you teach about Ashkenazi heritage as passionately as you teach about Sephardic heritage?” 

I paused. “Yes,” I responded. 

I knew I was lying, he knew I was lying, the dog down the street knew I was lying. I am honest to a fault, and it’s one of the few times I can count on one hand that I have lied. I did it because I thought the question was wrong to ask, that it was wrong to consider as part of my application review, that I should not be denied this job opportunity as a result of such an asinine – and ultimately, unethical – question.

I was not surprised when the other remaining candidate, an Ashkenazi man, got the job. Ironically, he subsequently hired me to provide a Jewish multicultural program to the community center, because – lo and behold – other than the program I was providing, they offered nothing about non-Ashkenazi Jews.

Was that candidate asked if he would teach about non-Ashkenazim at all, never mind as passionately as he would teach about Ashkenazim? I doubt it.

While consciousness is changing, it remains that non-Ashkenazi heritage is considered optional to teach – an extracurricular activity. In addition, when Jewish schools, synagogues, or community centers do offer such programming, they are priased in gushing ways reminiscent of how men are praised for doing basic household chores that women do in our sleep.

Jews from Africa and Asia (including West, Central, East, and South) predate Jews in Europe by 2,000-3,000 years, and in some cases, a few more centuries than that. So why are we considered the exotic ones? 

Judaism is rooted deeply in the Middle East and North Africa – Abraham and Sarah, the Torah, the Talmud, the Hebrew language, the holy day rhythm and ritual…All of it originated in the Middle East, where Mizrahim and Sephardim remained for thousands of years since Biblical times. So why is our heritage excluded from Jewish education – to the extent that Jewish schools and books portray blonde Jews celebrating Purim, when Purim took place in what is today Iran?

In 1990, I pioneered the Jewish multicultural movement. In the decades since, I have developed a plethora of ground-breaking tools for learning about, teaching, and practicing Jewish heritage from across the globe. If you’re a Jew of African, Asian, Chicano/Latino, or Southern European heritage you’ll find yourself reflected in, validated by, and empowered with my articles, books, music, and videos. If you’re an Ashkenazi Jew or non-Jew, you’ll deepen and enrich your understanding of who Jews are, where we come from, how we’re all connected, and what Jewish practice looks and sounds like.

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