How do we define Sephardic and Mizrahi?
The categories of Sephardic and Mizrahi are broad umbrella terms that include many populations. ‘Sephardic’ is used to describe Jewish populations which originated in the Iberian peninsula and Jewish communities which identify as operating within the framework of Sephardic law and custom. More recently, the categories of ‘Sephardic’ and ‘Mizrahi’ are increasingly used as pan-ethnic identities of non-Ashkenazi Jews around the globe. For this research project, we privilege self-identification and include in our purview of Sephardic and Mizrahi Jews those Jews who self-identify as such.
We know that ethnic, religious and social categories have different meanings at different times and in different contexts – simply put, they evolve and change. The category of ‘Mizrahi,’ for example, emerged in Israel throughout the 20th century to refer to Jewish immigrants from the Middle East and North Africa. And some U.S. based communities, which did not use the term ‘Sephardic’ to identify their institutions in their countries of origin, now do so in the North American context.
While existing literature helps us explore how these categories have been used, there is little research to aid us in knowing how self-identified ‘Sephardic’ and ‘Mizrahi’ Jews understand these categories in the contemporary United States.
The Sephardic Jewish American Research Study will explore the ways in which self-identified Sephardic and Mizrahi American Jews describe what these categories mean to them. We aim to formulate a more precise and data-driven working definition of ‘Sephardic’ and ‘Mizrahi’ based on these findings.
Are Sephardic and Mizrahi Jews, Jews of Color?
Self-identified Sephardic and Mizrahi Jews have diverse backgrounds, skin color, and national origins. With regards to American racial and ethnic categories, some identify as Jews of Color, some as non-white, and some as white.
Because of this and due to all we know about the extensive diversity of Sephardic and Mizrahi Jews, we treat these categories independently from each other. In the course of our research we seek to gather more data as to how Sephardic and Mizrahi Jews identify in terms of American racial and ethnic identification.