Q: How do you tell the difference between an Ashkenazi and a Sephardi?
A: Show him a chessboard. This, even though Maimonides, arguably the most influential Jewish thinker to ever live, was a Sephardi, and the Sephardim have a perfectly dazzling intellectual history of their own. From the eighth to the eleventh centuries, Spanish Jews served in the courts, served as doctors to the caliphs, and translated all manner of texts, converting Greek and Hebrew into Arabic, and Arabic into Romance languages.
Yet in America, that sense of otherness, which for so long has served as a kind of incentive to strive and achieve, may be dissipating. “I’m no demographer, but I think what’s happened in the U.S. is the normalization of the Jew,” says Leon Botstein, who, as the president of Bard College, has seen all sorts of students cross his field of vision. “They’ve become as complacent and culturally undistinguished as the average, suburban, white middle-class American.”
And maybe that’s the price we pay for our current freedoms. Not, as Seinfeld or Larry David might say, that there’s anything wrong with that.