What’s In a Nickname?
Do You Really Need To Ashki?
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.”