When I was little, I didn’t often think about my mixed Sephardic and Ashkenazi Jewish family. I loved partaking in my father’s Moroccan Sephardic traditions and my mother’s German and Hungarian Ashkenazi traditions, and never reflected on my experiences as unique. But they were, and are. I realized this when I started to notice many of my Jewish peers—who were very much immersed in Ashkenazi culture—were not always interested in discussing or learning about other traditions.
Although I am half Sephardic and half Ashkenazi, because of my fair complexion and light brown hair, many assume that I am only Ashkenazi. Upon learning otherwise, many would attempt to pressure me to solely embrace my Ashkenazi heritage since I already “look the part.” When I attempted to share my Sephardic heritage, I was often met with disinterest and sometimes disdain. These experiences discouraged me from comfortably sharing and discussing my Sephardic identity.
Upon entering university, I met many other Jews like me, who had had similar experiences. Encouraged by our commonalities, I began to reconnect with my mixed heritage and felt that I could embrace both sides of it.
It was not until I got involved with StandWithUs, a non-partisan international Israel education organization, that I learned the importance of sharing my unique heritage and upbringing with others. During university I became a StandWithUs Emerson Fellow and had the opportunity to attend two training conferences in Los Angeles, California. At these conferences, we learned about the importance of embracing our personal narrative. We were empowered to be proud of who we are and where we come from, and to share that pride with others. It was these experiences that gave me the push I needed to tell my story. Once I began to share, I noticed how little people inside and outside of the Jewish community knew about Sephardic and Mizrahi Jewry. Many would mistakenly use the term Sephardic and Mizrahi interchangeably, or had an expectation of what someone of these backgrounds should look like. These misconceptions made me realize our stories, histories, and traditions need to be exposed to more people in and outside of the Jewish community.
Now, as the StandWithUs Senior Campus Strategist, I am provided with the platform to educate and inspire others to be proud of their heritage. At StandWithUs, I am thankful to have connected with other like minded Sephardic and Mizrahi Jews who share my passion for telling our stories and teaching others about our respective heritages. Through our discussions, we discovered a common tradition we share: family tea rituals. Tea is an integral part of so many of our family gatherings and social occasions, and many Jewish communities from different parts of the Middle East and North Africa have their own unique tea traditions. Discovering and celebrating how wide ranging these traditions are is how the StandWithUs program Spilling the Tea was born.
A few years back, StandWithUs created an innovative new form of Israel education called Experiential Israel Programs (EIPs). We developed interactive displays about Israel that are engaging, visually appealing, and relevant to the personal lives of participants. Since COVID-19 hit we have shifted to create virtual versions of our existing EIPs and develop new ones, including Spilling the Tea. We strive to educate our attendees by exploring the traditional teas of Sephardic and Mizrahi Jews, and the stories that come with them. Through Instagram live, students interview a guest speaker of Sephardic or Mizrahi heritage about their family’s tea rituals, history, connection to Israel, and more. They also enjoy the guest speaker’s traditional tea together as the guest “spills the tea” about their story.
We’re proud to have teamed up with JIMENA, an organization dedicated to advocating for justice for and recognition of Mizrahi and Sephardic Jews. They have provided many of the speakers for our programs. We were extremely lucky to have Justin, a JIMENA board member and Moroccan Mizrahi Jew, share his experiences growing up. While we sipped sheba tea he spoke about how he connects with other MENA communities in the diaspora. One of our other speakers, Aviv, a Mizrahi Jew living in Israel, and StandWithUs Pacific Northwest High School Coordinator, shared his family’s journey from Iraq to Israel in the 1940s. Sharing his family’s tough experience with us emphasised the importance of learning about history, and the power that lies in telling it. For anyone who visits our page and “spills the tea” with us, we offer a beautiful digital recipe book with tea recipes and personal stories from Sephardic and Mizrahi community members, showcasing some more Spilling the Tea speakers.
Spilling the Tea has created a positive and inviting environment for people to share their stories, learn from others, and break down misconceptions about Sephardic and Mizrahi Jewry. Our Instagram page alone shows people of Sephardic or Mizrahi descent do not look a certain way. My colleagues and I have been overwhelmed and amazed by all of the supportive and appreciative messages from viewers sharing with us what they have learned.
Since the creation of Spilling the Tea, I have been able to further embrace my identity, tell my story, and learn more about the beautiful heritage of my peers. This experience has shown me that when we can let go of our expectations and preconceived notions, we will be surprised with what we can learn and accomplish.
Whether you want to learn more about our communities, or you are a Sephardic or Mizrahi Jew with a story to share, I hope you will join us and “spill the tea”.
Header design by Orly Zebak.
Elisa Alloul hails from Toronto, Canada and is a proud Sephardic and Ashkenazi mixed Jew and one of the creators of StandWithUs’ Spilling the Tea. When Elisa is not “spilling the tea” with fellow Sephardic and Mizrahi Jews she works as the Senior Campus Strategist at StandWithus.