“While the Ashkenazim hold this way, the Sephardim do it like that.”
Our teacher would finish her sentence and then came the moment when I just wished that I had an invisibility cloak.
The entire class would turn around to look at me, as if to say, “She’s talking to you… you’re Sephardi.”
I don’t mention a specific custom or halacha, nor will I mention a specific teacher’s name or certain grade. This was an ongoing phenomenon attending a majority Ashkenazi Jewish day school.
If I wasn’t the only “Sephardi” in the class, I was definitely the most visible one. There really is no hiding my thick, curly dark hair and olive skin tone.
Except, for with an invisibility cloak.
But I learned to embrace somehow representing ALL that was in taught by Sephardi Rabbis. I didn’t mind being the one who all giddily asked about kitniot. I learned to accept that teachers would ask me about Moroccan and Syrian customs, when Yemenite Jews were disconnected from those communities for centuries.
I took being different with stride.
Quite frankly, I had no choice… because I looked the part.
But others didn’t accept it quite so well. There were some who, well, looked Ashkenazi and chose to be thought of as such. Others who looked the part, like me, but couldn’t handle being different. They’d straighten their hair, apply lighter foundation, etc.
This wasn’t just in the US. It’s something I see in Israel too. So many curly-haired women put chemicals in their hair to make sure it becomes straight to a point of no return.
Because, it’s hard to be different.
But what if we weren’t different? What if we were unique? What if we saw our customs, our complexion, our hair and our style as special in its own way? What if we were one of the colors in the rainbow, rather than an exception to the rule? Would we embrace it and wear it proudly?
What if we looked at our Jewish heritage in this way? What if we looked at the evolution of Sephardi traditions within their physical context and likewise other customs? What if it’s not “us” versus the different “them”? What if it’s the unique us, all of us, within one Jewish heritage?