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“Jewry’s Stepchildren”? Sephardi and Mizrahi Jews and the Boundaries of Modern Jewish History

Mon, December 17, 10:30am to 12:00pm, Seaport Hotel & World Trade Center, Beacon Hill 2 & 3

Session Submission Type: Roundtable

Abstract

An Ottoman-born Jewish leader of New York’s Sephardic community, Joseph Papo lamented in 1949 that Sephardic Jews remained “Jewry’s stepchildren.” That sentiment transferred into the academy. While Iberian Jews have featured prominently in narratives of medieval Jewry, and figures like Spinoza and western Sephardim in early modern Jewish history, the sense that eastern Sephardim as well as North African and Mizrahi Jewries have not yet achieved full recognition within the broader framework of modern Jewish history has persisted for decades. That sense of marginalization led several scholars to create the Sephardi/Mizrahi Studies caucus at the AJS twenty years ago, in 1998, in order to advocate for the recognition and integration of Sephardi/Mizrahi Jewry into the field of Jewish Studies, and, in turn, to challenge the field to expand its geographic and conceptual boundaries.

This round table brings together one of the founders of the Sephardi/Mizrahi studies caucus, Aron Rodrigue, along with other leading scholars in the field—Sarah Abrevaya Stein, Daniel Schroeter, Julia Phillips Cohen, Devi Mays, and Devin Naar—to reflect on the past, present, and future position of Sephardi and Mizrahi Jews within the fields of modern Jewish history and Jewish studies, more broadly. To what extent has the goal of integration been achieved? How does Sephardi/Mizrahi Studies compel scholars of Jewish Studies to engage with colleagues and publics beyond the Jewish world (Mediterranean Studies, Middle East Studies, Ottoman Studies, Colonial/Post-Colonial Studies)? In short, what is the future of Sephardi/Mizrahi Studies and how should its fate relate to, shape, and be shaped by the broader trajectory of Jewish Studies?

Devin Naar will begin by interrogating how the categories of “Sephardi” and “Mizrahi” emerged to describe a field of study. How do they complement and contest each other? Were—and are— there other options? Julia Phillips Cohen will explore the historical linkages: When does it make sense to think about both groups comparatively, separately, or as constituting entangled histories? Daniel Schroeter hones his inquiry by asking: to what extent have the fields of North African and Sephardi/Mizrahi studies shaped each other? Devi Mays expands the conversation by asking how the study of Sephardi/Mizrahi Jews aids or hinders conversations with colleagues and publics who have yet to engage with Jewish Studies in their academic pursuits? Sarah Stein returns the conversation to the AJS: what extent should Sephardi/Mizrahi studies remain a separate subfield or be subsumed within the broader framework of Jewish Studies? Drawing on his deep investment in the field, Aron Rodrigue responds.

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