People rarely assume I am Jewish. I’m a Mizrachi Jew.
I’ve had people tell me I’m not Jewish even after I told them that I am. It is sort of a mind-boggling experience to have to defend yourself and your identity, merely because you don’t fit the assumed stereotype.
Even so, I consider myself a lucky Jewish girl. I was raised in a fairly religious community, surrounded by Israelis, on Long Island, New York. At my local public high school, most people would tell you the population of students is at least 20% Jewish, but you can still be surrounded by your faith and feel under-represented. I was a rare Mizrachi Jew there, with my family’s origins in Morocco and Tunisia.
Mizrachim are Jews originating from the Middle East and North Africa. Besides from my customs at home, my summers in Israel visiting my grandparents, uncles, and cousins, were some of my connections to my Mizrachi traditions.
It wasn’t clear to me until college that Mizrachim and even Jews in America are such a small group.
In 2021, I moved from New York to the Midwest to attend The University of Chicago as a freshman. It was a culture shock. I went from having six kosher supermarkets down the block from me to having to drive up to Skokie every time I wanted kebab. I didn’t know a single other Mizrachi, or even Sephardic Jew on campus.
My 2022 Passover celebration was a wash. I felt outside of the customs of the Ashkenazi Jews on campus. I grew up celebrating Passover in a wildly different way. We would literally go to the bathroom and flush the wine representing the 10 plagues, while ululating (howling) aloud. Yes, that’s a custom! My father would sing Had Gadya in Aramaic, and most importantly of all, we ate rice.
I grew up marking the end of Passover with Mimouna, the Moroccan tradition ending Passover by eating chametz. Specifically, we made pancake-like food known as moufletta. It was a celebration every year! Yet that celebration did not come with me when moving to university. It was unfortunate to be disconnected from my traditions and be the only one referencing them at the dinner table.
I came to Chicago to see what life was like outside of New York. I’ve learned so much about myself and other traditions. I’m grateful for this journey, but also grateful to be a proud Mizrachi Jew.
Belle Nahoom, 19, is a 2023 journalism intern with the Wisconsin Jewish Chronicle. The Chronicle works with students who have an interest in journalism, from both Wisconsin and elsewhere. Belle is attending The University of Chicago.