On a Journey to Deconstruct Labels

It seems that labels are easy to give and hard to receive.

When we meet new people, we want to turn them from strangers into familiars. Therefore, we give them a label, as if to categorize them into something we know and to which we can easily adapt.

However, when we become the labeled, we oftentimes find it more difficult. An initial impression or even a more accustomed impression may lead others to give us a label that aids their understanding of us but sometimes hurts our understanding of us.

That doesn’t mean we dismiss labels completely. We might find ourselves rejecting a label given by others and instead placing another upon ourselves. We do this to feel like we belong to whatever that label means to us.

At the ASF Institute of Jewish Experience we, too, struggle with labels. Who are we trying to represent: Sephardim? Persians? Toshavim? Mizrahim? The Greater Sephardic Community? Jews of Arab Lands? The list could go on and on.

Which is why the late Lucette Lagnado’s expression from a March interview with Matti Friedman at the Center for Jewish History, really struck us.

“I think what is really wondrous about what you have done…. is the enormous Arab Jewish population in Israel, which we have tended to see… through very clichéd terms. The Kibbutznik, whose family came from Russia. Or Holocaust survivor. And certainly there is an enormous number. But there was also us; and we, and I speak as an Egyptian-Jew, were always kind of relegated. And here, in this book [Spies of No Country: Secret Lives at the Birth of Israel] you have created an amazing oeuvre about us…. Even now I was bothered by the use of the term ‘Mizrahi Jews’ I think of myself as a Sephardic Jew. I have always thought of the Jews of the Middle East as Sephardic Jews. And suddenly I’m being told ‘well, you’re not exactly Sephardic, you’re Mizrahi.’ I know it is not supposed to be derogatory, but I sort of experience it with a wince that I cannot even explain.”

Lagnado did not appreciate the label (Mizrahi) she felt was forced on her when in fact she had always labeled herself a certain way (Sephardic) and felt it represented her. The conversation between Lagnado and Friedman continued, revealing Lagnado’s lineage does go back to the Iberian Peninsula, as hinted to by her name. The large Lagnado family came from Spain to Aleppo, Syria, and remained there until her father’s parents moved to Cairo, Egypt. 

Lagnado’s family came from Spain to Aleppo where there was a Jewish population that had been there for hundreds of years before the refugees of the Spanish Expulsion and Inquisition arrived. While Lagnado is classically Sephardi and other Syrian Jews are not, many prefer the term Sephardi even without a genealogical connection to Sepharad (a term undefined in the Tanakh but believed to be the Iberian Peninsula). Deconstructing the Sephardi label and understanding its relationship to individuals tells an entire story unto itself. We may look at Lucette as a Jew born in Cairo and call her Mizrahi, but geography at a single point in time is not necessarily the determining factor.

Without debating whether it’s right or wrong to have labels, we can enlighten ourselves as we delve deeper into the meaning behind the words. Understanding why Lagnado wanted to be called Sephardi opens a world of Jewish wandering and a world of Jewish culture. Some, especially in Israel, prefer the term Mizrahi (even though, as Matty Friedman points out, parts of Morocco are to the west of London) or mista’arevim (literally: “those who live among the Arabs,” even though their ancestors pre-date Arab migrations to parts of the Middle East).

So, it gets tricky. We like giving labels but don’t like receiving them.

But sometimes, if we look beyond the words, if we learn to deconstruct these terms of belonging we’ve created, we may learn a lot – about a person, about a community, about a nation, about ourselves.

At the ASF’s Institute of Jewish Experience we’re looking to unravel labels in order to better understand who we are as individuals and who we are as one Jewish people. By realizing the meaning of the labels that float around in Judaism, especially within the context of origin, we may better understand the connectedness of the Jewish experience. Deconstructing the labels allows us to follow the wandering of the Jewish people and find where the different communities met up along the way and thereby how they remained intertwined. The Jewish experience is made up of many labels: Crypto-Judaism, Yemenite culture, Moroccan Rabbis, Halabi, Greek Jewry, and so many more. I encourage you to join us on the journey to explore the meaning behind the labels that make up the Jewish experience.

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