Jefferson M Fish Ph.D.

Looking in the Cultural Mirror

What Does It Mean to Look Jewish? Part 2—Sephardic Jews

Why do some Americans say that Sephardic Jews “don’t look Jewish”?

Posted Oct 01, 2013

After graduating from college decades ago, I took my meager savings and went off to Paris. I wandered all over the city and happened upon a Jewish district with a lot of ethnic restaurants. I looked over the menus and was surprised that, where I expected to see pastrami, I found couscous instead.

An earlier piece of mine, "What Does It Mean to Look Jewish?" dealt with issues concerning the majority of Jewish Americans who trace their ancestry back to Eastern Europe, and the way they are perceived by non-Jews. Clearly, those Parisian restaurants represented a different culture. 

While the prevalent American images and stereotypes of what it means to look and act Jewish exist in reference to people of Eastern European ancestry, Sephardic Jews come from a different part of the world. They are a minority of a minority in the United States; most non-Jews are not aware of their existence and are unable to conjure up images or stereotypes about what they look like or how they act.

The Inquisition is the key historical event for understanding the different cultural development of the Sephardic Jews. Jews were expelled from Spain in 1492, and many spread out across North Africa and the Ottoman Empire, through the Middle East and into Asia—traveling at least as far as India. Many speak a form of old Spanish called Ladino and often written in the Hebrew alphabet, just as Yiddish is a form of old German, often written in the Hebrew alphabet.

In 1497, Jews were expelled from Portugal, and many wound up settling in Brazil, though in the mid-17th century they were expelled from that country too. In one of history’s bitter ironies, they were permitted to take their property with them, which, for the wealthy among them, included their slaves.

As a result of their history, the customs and foods of Sephardic Jews came to resemble those of the peoples amongst whom they settled—insofar as they didn’t contradict religious practices—in a parallel to the Eastern European flavor of Jewish customs and foods from that region.

Mistaken notions of a “Jewish race” point to slight differences in what people look like and in the genes of Jews and non-Jews in Eastern Europe. These are the result of a process called assortative mating: Jews mate with Jews more than with non-Jews, and non-Jews mate with non-Jews more than with Jews. This is also the case in North Africa, resulting in slight differences there between Jews and non-Jews in what they look like and in their genes.

However, let’s face it: Regardless of taboos and social sanctions, wherever fertile folks live, they find ways to have sex and produce babies. Thus it is that North African Jews look more like and are more genetically similar to North African non-Jews than they are to Eastern European Jews, and Eastern European Jews look more like and are more genetically similar to Eastern European non-Jews than they are to North African Jews.

This history explains why culturally naïve Americans might say that many Sephardic Jews “don’t look Jewish.”