Jewish food that’s neither Ashkenazi nor Sephardi
The Jewish people are endlessly diverse, having spread around the globe over thousands of years. Our food is equally varied. Yet surprisingly, many Jews categorise the foods we eat as one of only two things: Ashkenazi or Sephardi. There are many Jewish foods that are neither of those. And even if one recognises a third grouping (largely seen in Israel) – Mizrachi or “Eastern” Jews – many Jewish dishes still don’t fit into any of those boxes.
Before exploring this in greater detail, an explanation of these categories seems in order.
Grouping Jews together
With a nation that’s as ancient and complex as Jews are, there are numerous ways of breaking us down into smaller categories. One common way is by religious stream: Reconstructionist, Conservative, Reform, Orthodox, etc. A different breakdown of Jews is by geographic region of origin. (Of course, the “origin” for all Jews is Israel, so here we mean a stopping point at some period of history.) Three specific areas became larger hubs of Jewish life in antiquity and the Middle Ages. First, Mesopotamia (known as Bavel, Babylonia, in Jewish culture) was the dominant region. As it declined in prominence around the 10th century, two Western European areas took over. Ashkenaz was a medieval term applied to the border territory between northeastern France and western Germany. Sepharad was the name assigned to Spain.
So nowadays, when we call someone Ashkenazi or Sephardi, it means their ancestors once lived in medieval France/Germany or Spain. Mizrachi means that one’s ancestors were more connected to the earlier hub in Bavel than either of those latter two regions. Ashkenazim spread through Central and Eastern Europe, while those in Southern Europe were mostly Sephardic. North African Jewry mixed Mizrachi and Sephardic Jews, while Western European Jews may have been Ashkenazi or Sephardi. And the Middle East largely housed Mizrachi Jews, with some Sephardic Jews who entered the mix.
Numbers, however, have power. In the United States, Ashkenazim are dominant (approximately 95%). So, Sephardi has come to mean “everyone else”, even if they’re not remotely Sephardic. An Iraqi Jew, for example, has zero connection to Spain. So why refer to her as a Spaniard (the literal definition of Sephardi)? Since so few American Jews are not Ashkenazim, the country’s Jews ignored those more subtle distinctions. They use “Sephardi” as a synonym for “not Ashkenazi”. And because of the size of America’s Jewish community, their terminology has impacted the mindset of Jews elsewhere.
Beyond Ashkenazi and Sephardi (and Mizrachi)
Subsuming Mizrachim under the term Sephardi is not the only inaccuracy in categorising Jewish people (and food). There are tons of Jewish communities around the world who are not only neither Ashkenazi nor Sephardi, but not Mizrachi either. A great example is the Italkim, the Jews who lived in Italy before the Sephardim arrived there.
Jews have been living in Italy since at least the first century BCE, long before the rise of any of the three hubs, and don’t fit into any of the categories. Similarly, their many unique foods underscore this individuality. We see this best in Roman Jewish cuisine. While cities in Italy’s north absorbed large numbers of Spanish Jews, following the 1492 Expulsion, fewer came to Rome. So that community’s foods largely reflect the Italki community’s heritage.
Deep-fried artichoke, called carciofi alla giudia – Jewish-style artichoke – is one of their classic dishes. Most likely, Italian Jews didn’t eat it 2 000 years ago, since deep frying is a more modern cooking method. But this uniquely Jewish food still can’t properly be called Ashkenazic, Sephardic, or Mizrachi.
The Italkim aren’t the only community that doesn’t match one of the big three groups. Similar communities, typically called Romaniote, existed in Greece and Turkey. In Turkey, Sephardi immigrants overran the local culture, so pre-Sephardic foods have largely been lost. But any special foods that do remain don’t belong to the big three categories. Stronger Romaniote communities remain in Greece, but studying their food remains a challenge because of Greek Jewry’s massive losses during the Holocaust. (One good source is Nicholas Stavroulakis’ excellent The Cookbook of the Jews of Greece.)
What about Yemenite Jews? They are a bit more complicated. They did have some connection to the Mesopotamian community, but not as strong as others, and not continually throughout their history. So maybe we can call their food quasi-Mizrachi. (In fact, some of their foods are similar to those of Iraqi Jews while others are unique.) Ethiopian Jews and the Bene Israel Jews of northwestern India remained fairly isolated throughout history. Their foods are therefore devoid of the influences of the three main categories.
Georgian Jews and their neighbours the Mountain Jews weren’t physically far from Mesopotamia, but were also not in significant contact with that hub. So, they too belong to none of the major categories, as their distinct foods attest.
So where does that leave us?
In brief, the foods of the Jews from around the world reflect the variety in our nation. Putting people into boxes is inherently inaccurate. (Even the foods of different parts of Ashkenazi society are distinct, as are the foods of Sephardic Jews from different regions, making those two labels oversimplifications to start.) But when we go so far as to believe that all Jews can be encompassed by two or three categories, we’re erasing huge parts of our incredible history as well.
Our diverse foods indicate the diversity of our people. When I tell someone that Georgian Jews aren’t Ashkenazi, Sephardi, or Mizrachi, I often get the response, “So what are they?” The answer very simply is: they are Georgian Jews. Let’s just refer to all Jews simply as “Jews”, or we should get specific about where they all come from, even within the big categories. And the same, of course, holds true for the foods that each specific Jewish community enjoys.
- Joel Haber researches, writes, and lectures about Jewish food history. He’s currently writing a book examining the history of Shabbat stews (chulents) from around the world. He will be hosted at Limmud Cape Town (Sunday 20 August); Durban (Monday 21 August); and Johannesburg (Friday 25 to Sunday 27 August).