When I was growing up in 1950s Bensonhurst, in Brooklyn, NY, my identity as a Jew was often called into question. “You mean you’re Jewish? And you don’t know about gefilte fish?” my best friend’s Eastern European (Ashkenazi) Jewish mother asked, shocked to discover that our family ate stuffed grape leaves rather than stuffed cabbage. “What kind of a Jew are you?” schoolmates challenged. When I answered “Sephardic . . . from Egypt,” they would reply. “But all the Jews left Egypt a long time ago, isn’t that what Passover is about?” “No,” I would say, having been taught the words by my father. “Some Jews returned to Egypt when they were expelled from Spain.” [Later I would learn that some Jews actually lived in Egypt for millennia, never having left.] “There are no Jews in Egypt,” my little friends would retort. “We never heard of any Jews in Egypt. You can’t be Jewish.”
It was puzzling, I knew, but I could find nothing further to say. Aside from a handful of relatives, I did not know any other Jews from Egypt either. An Egyptian Jew. To my neighbors, it seemed a contradiction in terms, an oxymoron. To myself as well. What was the Egyptian part, what the Jewish? How did they fit together? Maybe I wasn’t really Jewish. Later, when acquaintances continued to wonder about my identity, I was similarly stymied. “You mean you don’t speak Yiddish?” they would ask after I had painstakingly explained that my grandparents spoke Arabic and French.
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