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Elite Me

Back from vacation, with thoughts about the visit from my Israeli house-guest, whom I will now refer to as Daphna so as to avoid awkward Internet searches in the future.

My main takeaway from hosting Daphna was the sometimes disorienting feeling that resulted from being on an unfamiliar side of a class divide.

You see, I grew up middle, middle class. My dad was a pharmacist, a profession that did not bring in the kind of salary in the ’70s that it began to when shortages hit in the mid 80s. If you were a wealthy or upper-middle-class pharmacist, it’s because you owned your own business, something that rarely happens these days, but was more common when I was little. We never went without and my parents saved money for college, but our house was small and located in an unfashionable neighborhood, vacations were close to home, our cars were old, our clothes came from discount places and sales racks, and our meals were home cooked.

Had I been gentile, I probably wouldn’t have been that class conscious. But I wasn’t: I was a Jewish kid in a city with a small Jewish population that skewed heavily to the upper-middle-class. Surrounded by the sons and daughters of accountants, doctors, business owners, and lawyers who drove nice cars and lived in either big old houses in the Highlands or big new houses in the East End, I was low ranking and made to feel it at the synagogue, at school, and within the Jewish social clubs I joined in middle and high school.

My awareness of class started when I was around 11 and was a source of discomfort until I was 18 and left home for college. At UNC, I was surrounded by plenty of bright, scrappy kids from backgrounds a lot like mine. During my year at Oxford, I was an alien who could not be placed in the local class system other than as an outsider. At the University of Michigan, I was too busy to notice or care.

And then there was San Francisco, another place where, for the most part, no one cares where you are from. No one that matters, anyway. Half the city is there to escape from some aspect of their past or to reinvent themselves one way or another. And compared to gay runaways, kids that grew up in various sub-cultures, and the children of immigrants, my little story of sale-rack woe would have rightfully invited all kinds of scorn.

So after seven years of intense class consciousness, I haven’t given much consideration to my own position on the class hierarchy for the last 25. Then Daphna arrived and turned all my assumptions on their head. Daphna is a Sephardi Jew, the granddaughter of Turkish and Egyptian immigrants. That makes her second generation, like me, except that all my grandparents are European. In America, we don’t think much about the Ashkenazi vs. Sephardi ethnic split. Heck, we might not even be aware of it! The vast majority of American Jews are Ashkenazi, and the few Sephardi Jews that crop up are regarded as slightly exotic creatures.

It could not be more different in Israel. In Israel, the Jews of Middle Eastern descent arrived with a very different educational background than their Ashkenazi brethren, a discrepancy that put the Ashkenazi population at the top of the socio-economic ladder.  The head rabbis in Israel are also all Ashkenazi, creating a situation in which Sephardi religious practices are often considered second class illegitimate. Add in the darker skin of many Sephardi Jews and some lingering racism among (some) lighter-skinned Ashkenazi, and you end up with a class divide in which the Ashkenazi are the elite and the Sephardi disproportionately make up the working class.

You would think that in the 65 years since Israel became a state, these class distinctions would have evaporated. You would be wrong. Even today, every single Israeli prime minister has been Ashkenazi. The Ashkenazim are more likely to attend university than Sephardim, they hold more high paying jobs, they are more likely to live in nice neighborhoods, they are more often elected to high political office, and they are disproportionately promoted into high ranking offices in the IDF (Israeli army).

In Israel, the divide is very real and very serious. I got my first hint of this back in 1995, on the eve of my first ever trip to Israel. A friend advised me before I left:

“For God’s sake, Jessica, don’t use any Yiddish when you are there. It will call you out as Ashkenazi and immediately make a bunch of people think you are a snob and hate you.”

Really? I obeyed, but didn’t delve deeply into the source of this advice. I was in grad school and only had time to think about dead languages and cultures.

As I got to know Daphna during her stay, I became increasingly aware of all the hallmarks of elite status in my background. They include:

  • The fact that my forebearers all immigrated from Europe.
  • The fact that 3 of my 4 grandparents were Yiddish speaking and Orthodox.
  • That my father is a college graduate.
  • That my siblings and I all went to university, two of us away from home.
  • That one of my brothers and I hold graduate degrees.
  • That every member of my family has traveled out of the US (not when I was little, but from my late teen years on)
  • That I grew up in a house with a yard.
  • That I learned to drive when I was 16.

As the days went by, certain things started to make me feel self-conscious. All the doctors in my extended family? Awkward. How scattered my family is across the country? Ditto. The Yiddish that sprinkles my language without my even thinking about it? More of the same. Even my skin, hair, and eyes, marked me as different from Daphna, who informed me that I could pass as half-Sephardi, but no more. My mom, on the other hand, with her fair complexion, green eyes, and Germanic maiden name is Ashkenazi through and through.

Since Daphna’s visit, I’ve been reading more about the class divide in Israel. It’s uglier than I would have imagined or hoped. And what I keep coming back to is the utter strangeness that the same background that keeps me out of the social elite in the US is the same one that would open doors for me in Eretz Yisrael. I’m still trying to wrap my head around that.



One Response to “Elite Me”

  1. blg says:

    I never knew that Sephardic was regarded as second class in Israel.

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