Maybe you’ve seen it by now, first in New Voices and then in the Forward. Thanks to author Jonathan Katz, the conflation of Ashkenazi with Jewish is no longer the problem with no name. Now it’s the problem with the really, really awkward name: Ashkenormativity. In ‘Learning to Undo Ashkenormativity,’ Katz urges us to uncouple Jewish from Ashkenazi. Further, Sephardic culture, he writes, is suppressed by Ashkenazi hegemony and Ashkenazim justify this suppression by claiming their culture to be more progressive and more egalitarian than the presumably retrograde Sephardim. Now, these are some pretty big claims. But Katz’s thesis seems to have resonated with enough people to make it worth a closer look.
Katz’s analysis draws on the ubiquitous language of critical theory. For example, I assume the newly coined Ashkenormativity is a nod to ‘heteronormativity’, a term coming out of early 1990s Queer Theory. Heteronormativity is a discourse which enforces the naturalness of heterosexual male-female pairings and excludes the possibility of that which is non-heterosexual. Presumably, it follows that Ashkenormativity is a Jewish discourse in which Ashkenazi is the default, one enforced by media, education and other communal institutions.
If majority white, European Jewish institutions have done a piss poor job of recognizing that not all Jews are white or European (a gross understatement), at the same time, non-European, non-white Jews have developed vibrant, independent networks of their own. I’m thinking of the Syrian community of Brooklyn and Deal, NJ and the Persian community of Great Neck and Los Angeles, just to start. Heteronormativity is a discourse with state power behind it, one which resists non-heterosexual agency, often violently. The Jewish American scene today is so much more complicated and diffuse than such an analogy would permit.
Katz could have just as easily framed his argument around the even more topical ‘check your [ ] privilege.’ The new vocabulary of power and ‘privilege’ has been incredibly successful at creating dialogue around some of the thorniest questions facing us today. Are there structural advantages and disadvantages accruing to different races, classes, and genders? How does history inflect the individual experience in the world? How can an individual with more privilege use that privilege to be an ally to those with less? The answers to many of these questions require sensitivity to history and awareness that events of even hundreds of years ago continue to shape our present reality.
Katz exhorts his fellow Ashkenazim to learn about Sephardi and Mizrahi history “and … not in the ‘heroic Ashkenazi savior’ mode.” I’ve never heard anyone refer to ‘heroic Ashkenazi savior mode’ but I’m quite familiar with the problematic figure of the ‘white savior’ discovering the Other; think of Bono in Africa. The White Savior discovers people and cultures which have existed for centuries. He presumes to speak on their behalf, often imposing culturally inappropriate solutions rather than listening to those he claims to help.
Rather than critically interrogate, Katz reifies socio-racial binaries like Ashkenazi-Sephardi. But if we’re dismantling cultural hegemony, mustn’t we also be building a discourse with room for the global multiplicity of Jewishness? Nowhere does Katz propose an alternative framework that would make visible traditionally marginalized communities, communities swallowed up in monolithic concepts like Sepharad.
I don’t doubt his good intentions, but Katz is too eager to critique without first defining terms. By doing so, he comes perilously close to becoming what he warns against. Indeed, Katz critiques the supposed erasure of one culture by another with an argument itself predicated on erasing cultural differences and ignoring the way one group historically used the other to construct its own Whiteness.
In order to understand that, however, we have to unpack a couple things, starting with Ashkenaz. The word Ashkenaz is found in the Tanakh and eventually came to be applied to the medieval Jewish settlement in the Rhineland area. As the Jews moved east, they took Ashkenaz with them. And though Ashkenaz came to refer to an enormous area, from the Rhineland to Russia, there was always a tremendous cultural diversity within its boundaries, the most important boundary being between the Jews of Eastern Europe and German language identified Central European Jews. Beginning in the early 19th century, with the advent of the Jewish Enlightenment, the relationship between German Jews and their Eastern co-religionists has been one in which German Jews constructed an identity explicitly predicated on the Otherness of Eastern Jews, an identity which elevated German Jews in contrast to the primitive Ostjudn.
If German Jews were to distinguish themselves from those other inhabitants of Ashkenaz, they needed to look outside for a new cultural model. And where they looked was (a highly idealized version of) medieval Spain. The great historian Ismar Schorsch describes this historical phenomenon in his classic essay, The Myth of Sephardic Superiority. It’s no surprise that a giant picture of Maimonides appears at the top of Katz’s article in The Forward. The figure of Maimonides was, and apparently still is, among the most evocative in this turn toward Sepharad. One example from Schorsch’s The Myth of Sephardic Superiority should suffice:
Between 1794 and 1795, a German maskil named Aaron Wolfsohn published a Hebrew language satire called Siha be-Eretz ha-Hayim (A Conversation in Paradise.) In it, the founder of the Haskalah, Moses Mendelssohn, arrives in paradise. There he is welcomed by another Moses, the medieval Sephardic philosopher, Moses ben Maimon– Maimonides. Maimonides is relieved at Mendelssohn’s arrival, saving him, as it happens, from the uncouth badgering of a Polish talmudic scholar who is demanding that Maimonides test his learning. The Polish scholar cares nothing for philosophy; he’s only concerned with “matters of import– the laws governing sacrifices, family purity, and financial affairs.” As for theology “he firmly believed that lightning was created to punish the wicked and personally warded off its destructive force by placing salt on the four corners of his table and opening the book of Genesis.”
Maimonides asks Mendelssohn to explain what has brought Ashkenazi Jews to such a vulgar state. In this way Wolfsohn, the author of the satire, is able to place a typical maskilic critique of Eastern European Jews into the mouth of the great emancipator himself.
At the close of the story, Moses (no last name needed) appears to welcome Mendelssohn to Paradise. It’s a powerful, if crude, encapsulation of a new cultural dynamic ushered in by the Haskalah. As Schorsch writes: “Collapsing the Moses of Egypt and the Moses of Dessau into the Moses of Cordoba rendered the philosophic strain of Spanish Judaism both pristine and normative.”
The imagined Sephardic tradition was so appealing to German Jews because of its ultimate connection to Greek learning and its “implicit univeralism”- one perfectly suited to the new goals of integration and assimilation. The imagined Sephardic tradition was everything the little Polish Jew of Wolfsohn’s story could never be. As Schorsch demonstrates, the self-conscious emulation of an imagined Sephardic Golden Age found expression in, among other things, architecture, literature, and normative Hebrew pronunciation.
If you think the 19th century obsession with an imaginary Sephardic ideal has no political or cultural implications today, try speaking Ashkenazi Hebrew in the 90% of the Jewish world where the havara sefardit is now normative. I’m always amazed at the strong emotions – anger, disgust, pity—aroused by the mere sound of a final sof. Forget about arguing for the inherent value of Yiddish. Disgust at the mere sound of Ashkenaz is itself bound up with the history of Zionism, also a product, in large part, of an ideological repudiation of Eastern Europe.
So, if history is more complex than an Ashkenaz-Sepharad binary, and the cultural dynamic is, among other things, a product of hundreds of years of rhetorical negation of one group to the benefit of another, why does this idea of Ashkenormativity have so much traction? What’s it really getting at?
When I probe people about what they think Ashkenormativity is, and why it’s problematic, what comes up is the presumption of Jewish whiteness. (For the sake of argument, I’m going to ignore the reality of Jews who are both non-white and Ashkenazi.) American Jews are largely of European descent. (Though one of the tragic failures of the latest Pew survey was a total lack of inquiry into the linguistic and cultural affiliations of American Jews. We’re lacking in hard numbers as to how many American Jews identify as Ashkenazi, Mizrahi, Sephardi, etc.)
In any case, white, European Jews still make up the majority of the American Jewish demographic. And the flip side of cultural and racial homogeneity is the uncomfortable possibility that encounters between white (largely European) Jews and Jews of color will be defined by a kind of self-absorption that plays out as dismissive, exclusionary or condescending.
The exclusion of Jews of color from American Jewish discourse is a problem and we (desperately) need to define and talk about. But we already have a word for it: Racism. With a big dollop of ignorance. I’m all in favor of building a Jewish community which is less racist. Halevai! But does that racism really spring from something unique to ‘Ashkenazi’ culture? Indeed, what unites Jews everywhere is the smug certainty that real Jews look like (and pray like and eat like and vote like) they do. I have Syrian friends whose families would rather die than allow them to marry one of us (Yiddishy Yids). And when white elites in Israel use state power to create permanent underclasses of North African, Arab and Ethiopian Jews, yup, that’s racist. (Really fucking racist.) But to imagine that somehow Yiddish, that reviled, shat upon yerushe of millions of Israeli and American Jews, bears responsibility as cultural oppressor, it really beggars belief.
The problem isn’t too much cultural specificity on the part of one group, it’s not enough for everyone. Though I often complain about the marginalization of Yiddish, at the same time I emphasize that I am a linguistic maximalist. The health of global Jewry depends on access to the multiplicity of Jews and Jewishness. The future of Jews everywhere depends on inculcating an understanding of one’s history and culture, and that can only come through a respect for cultural specificities.
Katz complains that Ashkenazi and Sephardi institutions exist separately. But it is making room for those cultural differences, and honoring their boundaries, which is what we really need to be fighting for.