What’s In a Nick­name?

Do You Re­ally Need To Ashki?

Forward Magazine - - FOREGROUND - By Ari Feld­man Ari Feld­man is a staff writer at the For­ward. Contact him at feld­man@for­ward.com

In 2018, brevity is the soul not of wit, but of iden­tity pol­i­tics. Fem­i­nine is “femme.” Mas­cu­line is “masc.” And Ashke­nazi is “Ashki.”

The term, some­times a dig and some­times a diminu­tive, is pop­ping up more fre­quently on so­cial me­dia. Like other internet-era terms for Jewish sub­groups — “Ortho” for Orth­dox, “OTD” for those who used to be Or­tho­dox — “Ashki” and its cousin, “Sephi,” are eth­nic iden­ti­fiers in short. The con­no­ta­tion de­pends on the user. Some Ashke­nazi Jews use it as a sim­ple de­scrip­tor. But for many Sephardic Jews, “Ashki” is a way to poke fun at the idio­syn­cra­sies of Jews whose an­ces­tors im­mi­grated to the United States from Eastern Europe — Jews who, in this place and this time, greatly out­num­ber them.

“Groups come up with nick­names for other groups,” said Sarah Bunin Benor, a pro­fes­sor of Jewish stud­ies at Los An­ge­les’s He­brew Union Col­lege-Jewish In­sti­tute of Re­li­gion. “Es­pe­cially when they’re in a mi­nori­tized po­si­tion, they tend to come up with some­what of­fen­sive nick­names for the dom­i­nant group.”

There’s noth­ing new about Sephardic Jews mock­ing Ashke­nazi Jews. That’s been go­ing on for at least 100 years, and prob­a­bly longer, ac­cord­ing to Benor.

As the memes have it, Ashki Jews are wor­thy of ridicule for a va­ri­ety of of­fenses. They daven, or pray, too quickly, and pro­nounce the prayer book’s He­brew in the heavy di­alect of Eastern Europe. They can’t han­dle spicy food; they think salt is a spice. They hold lib­eral po­lit­i­cal po­si­tions on the Is­raeliPales­tinian con­flict. Also, they’re ob­sessed with gefilte fish.

In the United States, Ashke­nazi Jews have long held power over the largest in­sti­tu­tions of Jewish life, lead­ing some nonAshke­nazi com­mu­ni­ties to feel marginal­ized and, in some cases, to cre­ate their own par­al­lel in­sti­tu­tional struc­tures.

But as Benor ex­plained, through their lan­guage, Sephardic Jews have been able to get re­venge on their Eastern Euro­pean cousins. In the early 20th cen­tury, Ashke­nazi Jews were some­times called vusvusim by Sephardic Jews. The “vus” is a ref­er­ence to the Yid­dish word for “what.” Benor says the term arose be­cause when Ashke­nazim couldn’t un­der­stand a Sephardic Jew’s ac­cent, they would re­spond: “Vus? Vus?”

Benor, who main­tains an on­line lex­i­con of Jewish terms, said an­other pop­u­lar term, es­pe­cially among Amer­i­can Syrian Jews, is “JDub,” as in an ab­bre­vi­ated spell­ing of the word “Jew.” They also liked to call Ashke­nazi Jews “itchy,” be­cause of their ubiq­ui­tous beards.

Benor said that the term “Ashki” fol­lows some­what in this tra­di­tion: It car­ries the con­no­ta­tion of mock­ery, but with­out step­ping over the line into an out­right slur.

“It al­most seems like it’s slightly pe­jo­ra­tive, but not nec­es­sar­ily,” Benor said. “There’s power dy­nam­ics there.”

But for some, the term doesn’t hold any key to un­der­stand­ing Ashke­nazi/Sephardic power dy­nam­ics. “I just use it as a short­ened form of ‘Ashke­nazi,’ the same way I say ‘black’ in­stead of my whole her­itage,” said Vic­to­ria Gagliardo-Sil­ver, a writer. “It’s just shorter.”

The his­tory of “Ashki” it­self and the word’s cor­rect spell­ing — some peo­ple have it as “Ashkie” — are harder to pin down. Steuart Hutchin­son Blue, a pro­fes­sor of for­eign lan­guages at the Univer­sity of Kyre­nia, in Cyprus, said he heard the term while grow­ing up in Lon­don.

“As far as I can re­call, Ashkie & Sefi were used, but not com­mon cur­rency,” Blue, 50, wrote in an email. Blue said nu­mer­ous other terms made the rounds then, too: “Fru­mie” for re­li­gious Jews; “Jewie” for Jews with glitzy taste.

But the term seems to have made it to the internet in only the past couple of years. And if the term did in fact come out of New York’s non-Ashke­nazi com­mu­ni­ties, that would ex­plain its more com­mon us­age in the New York City area.

“I didn’t hear the term ‘Ashki’ un­til I moved to New York,” said Ariel Tid­har, an Is­raeli-Amer­i­can fash­ion and Ju­daica de­signer. Tid­har, 24, said the first time she heard it used was by a Per­sian from Great Neck, New York.

“When they said it, I don’t think I took it in a neg­a­tive,” she said. “I just think it’s cutesy.”

NIKKI CASEY

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