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My Moroccan/Irish Ashkenazi Jewish Family

Miryam DT Fay | Categories: Features

The biggest problem with creating a legacy is that you can never be sure what will be preserved and passed on.

The biggest problem with following a legacy is that you can never be sure if you’re living up the values that were given to you.

Orthodox Judaism relies heavily on family legacy, from specific minhagim – maintaining the flavor of a family or region of origin – to researching the “yichus” of prospective spouses.

My siblings and I recently had a mildly heated discussion about my new family’s legacy. I grew up the child of a Moroccan Jew who had lost many of his family’s minhagim in his immigration to America when he was in his 20s. My mother is an Ashkenazi woman who had grown up not particularly religious. My siblings and I were sent to Orthodox day schools and high schools, and we brought home more religious practices, which my parents accepted with amazing fortitude and commitment. We practiced Sephardic Orthodox Judaism with a strong basis in the pride of being Moroccan and an Ashkenazi twist that would show up unexpectedly.

As things would have it, I married a wonderful man with his own confusion about his family’s practices and minhagim. His mother, like mine, didn’t grow up religious, and his father had converted from Catholicism.

We’ve been married two years now and want to ensure that our daughter can have a legacy stemming from her origins in Morocco, Ireland, and European Jewry. We want her to know where she came from, where our families came from, what struggles they faced, what strength she has in her from her forebears. We want her to have pride and respect for all of the cultures that came together to produce our family.

Unsurprisingly, we’ve been having some difficulty. I grew up solidly proud of my Sephardic roots and casually dismissive of the Ashkenazi ones which, from my perspective, had little to do with the halachot and minhagim I was practicing. I went to a Sephardic day school for 7 years until it closed, I used an Edut HaMizrach siddur until I could find a uniquely Moroccan one, and I strongly identified with the openness of the Sephardic cultures within which I was raised. I never felt comfortable or welcome in the Ashkenazi world.

My husband had a different dilemma: in religious practice where so many questions are met with, “Ask your father/What does your father do?” he was at a loss. His learning and education in Jewish day schools were vastly different from his father’s learning and he had difficulty trying to figure out what to do for himself. As such, we have an opportunity to create our own minhagim within the walls of our Ashkenazi home, as long as they don’t contradict Ashkenaz halacha*.

Marrying Ashkenaz was difficult for me. Many halachot changed, but I still cling to tfilla, music, culture, and some minhagim from my upbringing. I want my daughter to know that part of her is Moroccan. I want her to understand that there are different ways of practicing Judaism and that one derech never has all of the answers. I want her to have pride in her ancestor’s struggles, to know that she can claim a line into the deserts that go back, as my father claimed, at least to the Muslim conquest of North Africa in the 700s. I want her to feel as deeply rooted in a people and a history as I do. So we sing Shabbat songs with Sephardic tunes, we do Sephardic Havdalah on Motzei Shabbat, and we performed a uniquely Moroccan minhag of waving the Seder plate over people’s heads this Pesach.

Still, as we agreed while dating, our children will be Ashkenaz and brought up as such. Even though I’m still not sure what it means to be Ashkenaz or how to instill a pride and joy in identifying as such.

The last part of the heritage and legacy that we are cultivating in our family is that of my father-in-law. It puts us in a slightly odd position of celebrating a Christian culture and country. St. Patrick’s Day recently passed, which is actually what sparked that “mildly heated” family discussion. If we want our daughter to respect her Irish heritage, do we have to celebrate a day dedicated to the man canonized for introducing Christianity to Ireland? Do we trace our Irish identity to pre-Christian times, focusing on Celtic tribes and the Gaelic languages and ignore the Christian aspects of it? When the country still has little division between Church and State, can we divide the two? To ignore the history that brought along my father-in-law and his conversion to Judaism and blessing me with my husband and daughter seems as far from hakarat hatov as it can get. What we do right now is play her Irish music and culturally identify as Irish. In the same way that many Ashkenazim identify with Germany or Poland regardless of how their practices may reflect that, we say we’re Ashkenazim and Irish.

We are trying to create a legacy for our daughter and, B’ezrat Hashem, any future children we may have. We are drawing from three distinct cultures and two religious identities into a hodge-podge set of minhagim we hope to concretize over the next decades. This is the diversity of Judaism that I find beautiful. What some others see as hypocrisy, I find freeing. There is no one way to be Jewish “correctly.” Between different minhagim, different rabbeim, different understandings of the same source, there are many truths to Torah living.

The forward in one of my siddurim states that Judaism was once practiced differently by each of the shvatim; that each shevet was unique. It continues to say that although we lost the distinction of shvatim, the differences between minhagim should be celebrated. When I first read these words, I identified with very strongly with them. We were never meant to do everything the same way; there have always been differences that were valid and accepted. As such, I don’t have any problem mixing cultures and minhagim. I love being in a “mixed family” that does not and cannot fit into one labeled box. It is still a struggle for me to be separated from the culture in which I was raised and of which I am proud, but I know that Judaism is not a religion of stagnation.

We just hope that the legacy we are trying to create is strong enough to withstand the challenges that will be thrown at it. We hope that in time, our children understand and appreciate that they have a unique legacy with unique beauty and with deep, deep roots in many places in the world.

*According to the Rav we consulted

About Miryam DT Fay

Miryam Fay met her husband in YU and brought him back home to Chicago with her. She is currently working as an editor for a small publishing company and is regularly amazed by how cute her daughter is.

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