“Shamis, halebis and shajatos: Labels and the dynamics of Syrian Jewishness in Mexico City.”

Por Evelyn Dean-Olmsted

When Mexican Jews ask ‘‘what are you?” they are usually looking for one of four answers: shami, halebi, idish or turco.1 These words stand for members of the four main ethnic sub-communities of Mexico City Jews (Damascene, Aleppan, Ashkenazi and Sephardi, respectively). They are also part of a ‘‘distinctly Jewish linguistic repertoire” (Benor, 2008, p. 1068) that distinguishes the Spanish spoken by Jews from that of their non-Jewish neighbors. Most non-Jews are unfamiliar with these labels, even if their social networks include Jewish friends and colleagues. To use them, then, is to demonstrate familiarity with the Mexican Jewish universe. Each term is loaded with indexical values (Silverstein, 2003), including an institutional structure, value system, cuisine and other customs. Each carries with it a homeland and a migration story that continues through the present. To identify as shami, halebi, turco or idish is to place oneself within this narrative.

Yet since the inception of these communal institutions in the early 20th century, the Mexican Jewish social landscape has changed significantly. There are now more friendships, marriages, and other domains of interaction that cross ethnic lines. Once economically and demographically marginalized, the two Syrian Jewish sectors now constitute a dominant presence in inter-communal Jewish relations. Shami and halebi young people are increasingly attending university and entering profes- sions outside of traditional family businesses, further enhancing their status among Ashkenazim. Finally, a surge in ultra- Orthodox sectors, especially among halebis, has laid a layer of religious distinction upon longstanding ethnic ones. In this article, I explore Mexican Jewish labels and categories in light of these shifts. I first demonstrate how religiosity can trump other qualities in defining the categories of shami, halebi, idish/ashkenazí and turco/sefaradí, which I relate to the growth of ultra-Orthodoxy. I then consider the word shajato, traditionally a derisive slur for Syrian Jews, but now sometimes used with a sense of ironic pride. I argue that this more recent, ameliorated use of shajato is made possible in part by shifts in relations between Syrian and Ashkenazi sectors. By analyzing metasemantic talk about these labels, as well as how they are used in interaction, we see the fundamental interrelationships between social and semantic change in this immigrant-descendent community in Mexico City.

2. Labels and stereotypes in language and culture

As Eckert and McConnell-Ginet emphasize, social labeling ‘‘is not simply a matter of fitting a word to a pre-existing category,” but is rather ‘‘a socially significant and contested practice. . .and is part of the continual construction of the catego- ries it designates” (1995, p. 478). These social categories index ‘‘constellations of. . .attributes and activities” (Eckert and McConnell-Ginet, 1995, p. 471) that can become reified or naturalized as stereotypes (Agha, 1998; Reyes, 2009). Irvine and Gal’s (1995) notion of iconicity describes much the same process: behaviors and qualities come to be seen as inherent to a group of people. Labels and stereotypes serve to ‘‘mediate between two pragmatic orders” (Agha, 1998, p. 151) as people use them to guide their own behavior and interpret that of others. They are also rendered discursive objects of conscious reflection:

They become reportable, discussable, open to dispute; they can be invoked as social standards, or institutionalized as such; they allow (and sometimes require) conscious strategies of self-presentation; they serve as models for some indi- viduals, counter-models for others (Agha, 1998, p. 152).

Although stereotypes are usually construed as negative in folk definitions, even the most disparaging can be used crea- tively as ‘‘resource(s) for accomplishing new social actions” (Reyes, 2009, p. 44). The same holds true for slurs (by definition derogatory labels that index a group’s perceived negative qualities (Rappoport, 2005, p. 46)): they are often reappropriated to express pride and solidarity. Slurs are thus inherently polysemous, contested and multifunctional. As such, they are also extremely dynamic and sensitive to changing sociopolitical climes. Close attention to their use provides a window into social processes occurring in the societies in which they circulate. Baugh (1991) and King and Clarke (2002) do this kind of analysis of the political and economic stakes inherent in ethnic labeling among African Americans and Newfoundlers, respectively. Issues of labeling arise time and again in Jewish histories, especially in contexts of encounters of different Jewish immigrant groups. Stakes often involve status and treatment by broader society and distribution of scarce communal resources (see Lehmann (2009) and Ben-Ur (2009) on labeling of Sephardi Jews in 18th-19th century Palestine and 20th century New York, respectively).

In the United States and more generally, Jews are popularly grouped into two ethnic categories: Ashkenazim (sing. Ash- kenazi or Ashkenazic), or Jews with origins in Eastern and Central Europe; and Sephardim (sing. Sephardi or Sephardic), which ranges from denoting only those who trace descent to the Iberian Peninsula, to encompassing all non-Ashkenazi Jews, including groups indigenous to the Middle East. This latter, inclusive sense is the product of a long and contested process of erasure (Irvine and Gal, 1995) in which internal differences are subsumed, often for the purpose of counterbalancing Ashkenazi dominance in many diaspora communities (e.g. Ben-Ur, 2009) and in the State of Israel (where Sephardi/Middle Eastern Jews are numerically equivalent to Ashkenazim but economically and politically marginalized (Massad, 1996)). Mexico City is one of the few examples in which ethno-geographical differences among non-Ashkenazim have been pre- served and institutionalized. Like recent work by Mendoza-Denton (2008) on Latina gang girls and Shankar (2008) on South-Asian teens in the US, I attempt to shed light on these distinctions within a minority group that is often seen as homogeneous by outsiders.

3. Ethnic labels in Mexican Jewish Spanish

As mentioned above, Mexican Jewish labels constitute part of a ‘‘distinctly Jewish linguistic repertoire” (Benor, 2008, p. 1068) within broader Mexico City Spanish. Overall, the Spanish spoken by Mexican Jews is very similar to that of their non- Jewish, middle-to-upper class neighbors. Some of the most salient qualities of Jewish speech are associated with wealthier social strata of Mexico City, including heavy use of English loanwords and certain intonational patterns. Nonetheless, as in Jewish communities everywhere, there are linguistic (in this case, primarily lexical) elements unique to Jewish speakers. The ethnic labels under discussion are part of a repertoire shared by all Mexican Jews. With regards to other items, however, it is more appropriate to speak of Jewish repertoires in the plural. For example, while a certain subset of Hebrew loanwords is known and used by most Jews (for example, names of holidays), others are restricted to more religiously observant speakers. There are also systematic differences in use of Hebrew loanwords between Jews of different ethnic backgrounds. Use of Ashkenazi versus Sephardi/Mizrahi Hebrew phonology can serve as an ethnic marker; for example, using the Ashkenazi pronunciation kosher (‘conforming to Jewish dietary laws’) versus the Sephardi/Mizrahi pronunciation kashér. Finally, loanwords from ancestral languages – Judeo-Arabic, Judeo-Spanish and Yiddish – are part of the repertoires of shami/halebi, turco, and idish speakers, respectively. The role of these and other linguistic and discursive phenomena in Mexican Jewish social life is the topic of the larger project from which this article is drawn.

Shami and halebi, the Arabic words meaning ‘of Damascus’ and ‘of Aleppo,’ are not unique to Mexico but are used in Syr- ian Jewish communities around the world. Turco is used in many Spanish-speaking countries to refer to those from Turkey or Middle Easterners/Arabs in general, often derogatorily (Alfaro-Velcamp, 2007). As is the case more generally, among Mexican Jews the word Sephardi (sefaradí in Mexican Jewish Spanish2) is a shifter (Silverstein, 1976), sometimes used in the latter, broad sense to encompass shami, halebi and turco Jews, and sometimes to refer specifically to members of the Comunidad Sefa- radí, as I discuss below.

Shami and halebi are frequently lumped together as árabes (Arabs) and people often refer to themselves, their food, or their customs as such. However, sometimes árabe is used as an antonym of ‘Jew,’ or ‘Jewish,’ especially in talk about the state of Israel. (Most Syrian Jewish Mexicans maintain strong ties to Zionism and Israel through travel, activism and philanthropy.) The conflicting duality of the word árabe reflects globally circulating discourses surrounding the conflicts between Israel and Arab nations, which serve to polarize the Jewish and Arab identities once complementary for Middle Eastern Jews. The challenge this presents for those who identify as Arab Jews has been discussed widely by authors such as Alcalay (1993) and Shohat (1999), and the Mexican case merits further attention. In this paper, however, I only discuss the use of ‘árabe’ to refer to shami and halebi Mexican Jews (as opposed to non-Jewish Middle Easterners).

With the exception of the slur shajato, the labels I discuss are generally not subjects of open debate in the way that ‘‘African–American” and ‘‘Black” have been among African–Americans in the United States (Baugh, 1991). They are still used to refer to members of one of the four ethnic communities as they have for nearly a century. What is contested, however, is the ranking of these labels’ indexical properties; that is, which qualities emerge as most important in distinguishing the labeled social categories.

4. Methods

My data come from over 15 months of dissertation fieldwork conducted during the summers of 2006 and 2007 and a year in 2008–2009. Myself an American Jew of Middle Eastern (Baghdadi) descent, I participated in the Syrian and other Mexican Jewish Communities as a sort of ‘‘legitimate (and temporary) peripheral participant” (Lave and Wenger, 1991), a status I negotiated by forming relationships during the first two research trips. In addition to ethnographic field notes and recorded interviews with around 40 individuals, I analyzed recordings of people talking in settings like religious classes, communal youth events, and a university class that included Jewish and non-Jewish students. My focus was on Syrian Jewish young people, but my activities brought me into contact with people of all ages and ethnic backgrounds. I recruited most of my research subjects from among those I met in communal events and gatherings, where I introduced myself and explained that I was doing research on language and identity among shamis and halebis. In this article, consultants are given pseudonyms and their quotations are transcribed from recordings except where indicated. As much as possible, I follow local orthographic conventions for transliteration of Arabic and Hebrew terms, including /j/ to represent an unvoiced velar fricative (IPA [x]). Except where indicated, the grapheme /h/ is used to represent IPA [h] as it is in English and occasionally in Spanish orthography (although it is more common that /h/ is silent). I do not capitalize ethno-religious labels, as they are not capitalized in Spanish. All translations are my own.

5. Changing demographic and religious landscapes

In order to understand these (and all) semantic changes, it is necessary to appreciate the social context in which they occur. In the following paragraphs, I provide background on the demographic, economic and religious trends most relevant to the evolution of Mexican Jewish labeling practices.

Syrian and Lebanese Jews first settled in Mexico in the early twentieth century, when factors related to the decline of the Ottoman Empire compelled mass emigration and created global shami and halebi diasporas (Zenner, 2000). Syrian Jewish immigration to Mexico peaked in the 1920s and then continued through the 1970s at a slower pace.3 Today, two groups in Mexico City – the Damascene and Lebanese Comunidad Monte Sinai4 (shami) and the Aleppan Comunidad Maguen David (ha- lebi) – make up roughly 40% of the total Mexican Jewish population, which numbers around 40,000 (Hamui Halabe, 2005, p. 217). The two other main Jewish groups are the Comunidad Ashkenazí (idish) and the Comunidad Sefaradí (turco), which identify with descent from Eastern and Central Europe and Turkey, Greece and the Balkans, respectively. There are also smaller Conservative and Reform congregations as well as pan-Jewish organizations such as the Centro Deportivo Israelita and the Comité Central and Tribuna Israelita.5 Among Mexican Jews, the term Comunidad (community) designates not a loosely defined population

but rather a specific institutional structure that provides religious, educational and other services. (From this point on I capital- ize Community when referring to one of these four main institutions.)

In contrast to Jewish congregation models more common in the United States, the Mexican Jewish Communities are more all-encompassing in the lives of their members. They structure many aspects of an individual’s life, including social, educa- tional and professional, in addition to religious. Perhaps for this reason, one of the most common adjectives non-Jewish Mex- ico City residents use to describe Jews is ‘‘cerrados” (‘closed’ or insular), often cited as evidence of Jewish inability or unwillingness to be ‘‘true Mexicans” (see Sefchovich, 2007). However, as Hamui Halabe (2005, 2008) has detailed, this in- ward-orientation developed largely as a response to Jews’ inability to participate as a group in Mexican politics and other realms of civil society, until the 1992 constitutional reforms granting legal recognition to religious groups. My analysis of Mexican Jewish labels is to be understood within this highly structured and structuring communal context.

It is important to recognize that shami, halebi, idish and turco are labels of institutional affiliation as much as, and some- times more than, ethnic heritage per se. For example, when people from different Communities marry, the new family unit automatically belongs to the husband’s Community and is required to pay dues to that Community if they wish to receive ritual services.6 However, if a man from another country marries a Mexican Jewish woman, they can join her Community, regardless of the man’s ethnic background. While this is not always the case7, it was for several such couples I encountered. Perhaps the ‘‘rule” is relaxed so that the wife’s already-established social networks may facilitate the husband’s integration. In any case, children of an immigrant man from Beirut and a Mexican-born Aleppan woman could be members of Maguen David and hence, halebis and not shamis. In general, cross-Community marriages have become increasingly common since the 1970s and have altered the nature of these once-impermeable inter-communal boundaries (DellaPergola, 2003, pp. 5–8). They also further complicate ethnic Jewish labels.

Ashkenazim constitute the numerical majority of Jews worldwide and, as mentioned above, generally hold the balance of power in communities as well as national and international Jewish organizations. Mexico City was no exception, as Ashkenazim were historically more numerous than any other group. However, demographic surveys from 1990 and 2000 show that the non-Ashkenazi groups now make up more than half of the total Jewish population, due to continuing (albeit slower-paced) immigration through the 1970s as well as higher birth rates (DellaPergola, 2003, pp. 1–2; DellaPergola and Lerner, 1995).

Many early Syrian Jewish immigrants started out as peddlers until accumulating enough capital to invest in textile stores and factories. Textiles remain a common Syrian Jewish industry, along with other kinds of manufacturing/importing of industrial and consumer goods as well as real estate. Many Syrian Jewish families occupy upper socioeconomic strata in Mexico City; much of this wealth is re-invested in the Communities through donations or monthly membership dues called arijá, a large part of which is used to financially assist the substantial number of struggling families. A large proportion of funds for communal resources is donated, in addition to monthly dues, by a relatively small number of very wealthy indi- viduals (Hamui Halabe, 2005, p. 212). This tradition of communal philanthropy contributes to the popular misconception of uniform Jewish wealth; a trope I heard often from non-Jewish Mexicans when they learned of my research topic.

Ashkenazim generally moved earlier into professional and academic fields in Mexico, a trend with historical roots in the Emancipation of European Jews in the 18th–19th centuries. Traditionally, Syrian Jewish men joined family businesses upon reaching adulthood, and women married immediately after, or sometimes before, graduating high school. However, unlike previous generations, a large proportion of Syrian Jewish young people now attend university. This new reality challenges the stereotype of Arab Jews as poorly educated and further contributes to the overall shift in balance of prestige and influence in inter-communal Jewish relations.

In addition to these demographic and economic shifts, trends in religiosity have dramatically altered the communal land- scape. As Hamui Halabe (2005) has analyzed, the recent growth of transnational ultra-Orthodox movements has created a new axis of distinction among Mexican Jews. Schools and synagogues have emerged that, while still under the auspices of one of the four Communities, distinguish themselves as more strictly observant. This tendency has been most marked within the halebi Comunidad Maguen David. While the liturgy in all four Communities is officially Orthodox, members of ultra- Orthodox groups may be labeled religiosos in contrast to those who are tradicionalistas (a term often applied to ‘‘typical” Sephardi/Mizrahi patterns of religiosity, denoting strict adherence to some aspects of Jewish law and greater laxity in others (Stillman, 1995)). These and other religious labels are in fact very fluid and contested, a topic I explore further in the larger research project.

As in sister diasporic communities in Argentina (Jacobson, 2006) and New York (Zenner, 2000), many aspects of ultra- Orthodox, Syrian Jewish observance reflect Ashkenazi haredi8 norms, such as the familiar black suits and hats for men. Such customs were ‘‘imported” to Syrian Jewish communities in Latin America via the rabbis and students trained in Ashkenazi insti- tutions in North America and Israel beginning in the 1960s (Hamui Halabe, 2005, p. 355). While the broader Ashkenazi haredi world remains a reference point in many ways, a unique Sephardi/Mizrahi brand of ultra-Orthodoxy has developed in Mexico and worldwide, spurred in part by the ascendance of religious figures such as Israel’s Rabbi Ovadia Yosef (Deshen, 2005; Susana

Brauner, personal communication, September 19, 2008). While there are Ashkenazi ultra-Orthodox groups in Mexico, halebi ultra-Orthodox are far more numerous.

Hamui Halabe (2005) describes this proliferation of ultra-Orthodoxy as part of a general resurgence of religion as a central point of identification among Mexican Jews, which had taken a back seat to Zionist and more social/secular communal activities (like the arts and athletics) during Mexico’s ‘‘Golden Age” of economic prosperity in the 1940s–1970s. She relates the re- embrace of religion to the increasing political and economic instability in Mexico beginning in the late 1970s. Notions of religiosity are, now more than ever, central to those of Jewishness among contemporary Mexican Jews; a fact that is reflected in how people define and apply ethnic labels.

6. The salience of religiosity: labels as ethno-religious spectrum

When I directly asked people in interviews about the differences between the Communities, many gave me ‘‘text-book” definitions, citing differences in origins, prayers, food, etc. It was usually in the context of other types of conversations that differences in religiosity were brought up. Nonetheless, it became clear that these were among the most salient qualities distinguishing the Communities. A spectrum of religiosity emerges, with árabes occupying one extreme (especially halebis) and ashkenazím the other.

Although many acknowledge that some ashkenazím are very religious, referencing members of ultra-Orthodox sectors, as a group they are more commonly positioned on the more secular end of the spectrum. Shamis are often characterized as less religious than halebis, and many shamis themselves say their Community is more ‘‘cosmopolitan” and ‘‘modern” while at the same time distinguishing themselves as more traditional than the idish. Although halebis can be said to represent the árabe end of the ethno-religious spectrum par excellence, shamis are nonetheless unambiguous árabes. Turcos, in contrast, occupy an ambiguous, in-between space between the two poles: sometimes lumped with ashkenazím and other times with árabes. In the following section, I analyze how the in-betweenness of turcos reveals the importance of the idish vs. árabe polarity in Mexican Jewish social organization, as well as the salience of religiosity in making these distinctions.

‘‘Ali,” a woman I interviewed whose mother is turca and father idish, grouped the sefaradim with ashkenazím when talk- ing about her high school. (She, like 90% of Mexican Jewish children, attended a Jewish day school (Fainstein, 2008).) When I asked which Communities her classmates were from, she said: ‘‘la mayoría son sefaradí o ashkenazí porque como es un ambi- ente más, más light.” (The majority are sefaradí or ashkenazí because it’s like a more ‘light’ environment [at her particular school].). ‘‘Light” is often used as an adjective or alone to describe relative laxity or laid-backness, especially in religious observance; its opposite is ultra. Later in the interview, I asked how she became aware of the different Jewish communities in Mexico, and she again characterized a difference between shamis and halebis on one side, and turcos and ashkenazím on the other. She said:

Ali: [. . .] de hecho los rabinos de la Comunidad Sefaradí sí te acentúan mucho que un matrimonio sefaradí con un shami o ashkenazí con un halebi como que no se acoplan muy bien
Me: ¿te dicen eso?
Ali: sí porque los shamis y los halebis son muy, tradicionalistas. . . y los idish y los sefaradís son más lights

Ali: [. . .] actually the rabbis of the Comunidad Sefaradí do emphasize a lot that a sefaradí with shami marriage or ashke- nazí with halebi, like, they don’t fit together very well.
Me: They tell you that?
Ali: Yes because the shamis and halebis are very, traditionalist. . .and the idish and the sefaradís are more ‘light.’

In both of these statments, Ali clearly places turcos and idish on the same, less-religious side of the spectrum.

Others, however, group turcos with shamis and halebis. In a joint interview with a shami woman and a turca woman on linguistic differences between the two Communities (in particular, use of Judeo-Spanish vs. Judeo-Arabic loanwords), the turca woman said: ‘‘pero sin embargo o sea, el turco y el árabe están mucho más unidos que el idish y el árabe” (But nonetheless [despite language differences] I mean, the turco and the árabe are much more united than the idish and the árabe). An ashkenazí woman in her thirties told me that turcos are ‘‘árabes light:” that is, similar to shamis and halebis, but less religious and less ‘‘showy” or ostentatious, referencing one of the negative stereotypes associated with Syrian Jews. For this woman, turcos were still in-between but clearly closer to árabes than to idish.

This in-between-ness is a recurrent theme in talk about turcos. Even a rabbi of the turco Comunidad Sefaradí remarked on it when I joined his family for a Passover seder (ritual meal). I had remarked on similarities and differences between his Community’s synagogue ritual and those of Syrian synagogues. In response, he said, ‘‘The turcos are sort of in-between the árabes and the Ashkenazim.” I interjected, ‘‘Yes, in Mexico that’s true, everybody talks about them as being in the middle.”

‘‘Not just in Mexico,” he said. He explained the geographical position of Turkey as within the Muslim world but with much contact with Ashkenazim and Europe in general. He gave the example of Passover customs: unlike the shamis and halebis, in his Community they don’t eat rice and avoid kitniyot (certain grains and legumes) like corn, lentils, and soy. How- ever, unlike Ashkenazim, they do eat peas. ‘‘That’s the only difference. We eat peas,” he said, implying that their customs

Author’s personal copy

E. Dean-Olmsted / Language & Communication 31 (2011) 130–140 135

were more like those of Ashkenazim than those of Syrians. Not only did this rabbi acknowledge turco in-betweeness as a social fact, but he also provided a global, historical justification for local Mexican Jewish community structure and politics.9 The prevalent discursive construction of turcos as neither here nor there is itself evidence of the strength of the árabe vs. idish polarity in Mexican Jewish society. Eckert and McConnell-Ginet observed a similar phenomenon in their investigation

of social groups at a US high school:

Because it is so basic to life in school, the jock-burnout opposition comes to define the landscape of identities at Belten. Those who are neither jocks nor burnouts commonly refer to themselves as in-betweens, and nuances of identity throughout the school are described in the same terms that construct these two categories. Thus, the jock-burnout oppo- sition constitutes the dominant discourse of identity in the school, and one could say that orientation to that opposition engages almost every student in the school in an overarching community of practice (1995, p. 479).

Similarly, the árabe vs. idish opposition is the dominant one toward which Mexican Jews orient in their definitions of self and others in interaction. When invoking historical/geographical/cultural histories, turcos are grouped with árabes (as is commonly done in scholarship under the rubric of Sephardi/Mizrahi studies or ‘‘The Jews of Islam” (Stein, 2002)). Grouping turcos with idish, on the other hand, is based on perceived similarities in religiosity in contemporary Mexico City. In other words, religiosity often trumps other qualities in deciding how to categorize turcos.

This privileging of religiosity in social categorization can even extend to the inclusive sense of the word sefaradí. One ha- lebi woman did just this, using sefaradí in a way that, ironically, excluded turcos:

En México las comunidades más religiosas son la shami y la halebi, la halebi primero y luego la shami. Y la turca no es religiosa, la mayoría de las personas de la comunidad turca no son religiosas. Por la misma, la gente le marca si no fuera. . . o sea si no es religosa, entonces, o sea sí es sefaradí pero es como si no perteneciera.

In Mexico the most religious communities are the shami and the halebi, the halebi first and then the shami. And the turco community is not religious, the majority of people of the turco community are not religious. For that reason, people see them as. . . as if they weren’t. . . that is, if one isn’t religious, then, well, he is Sephardi but it’s as if he didn’t belong.

By citing a certain level of religious observance as an essential quality of not just Syrian-ness, but Sephardi-ness, she in a sense disqualifies the turcos from being true Sephardim. In this schema, they become illegitimate bearers of the Sephardi title. While acknowledging the word’s currency to represent all non-Ashkenazim, she positions shami/halebi religiosity as a more important indexical quality of sefaradí than any other cultural, historical, or geographical factor. This contrasts markedly with more common uses of the inclusive Sephardi label, in Mexico and beyond, in which more ‘‘folkloric” aspects of (specifically Judeo-Spanish) culture are celebrated. Examples include the short-lived Federación Sefaradí Méxicana or FESE- ME, which attempted to unite the three non-Ashkenazi Communities in the early 1980s. A stated purpose was to promote appreciation of ‘‘‘sefaradismo’, es decir, de todas las costumbres, comida, bailes, música, poesía, filosofía, en fin, todo lo que con- forma como tal a la cultura sefaradí.” (‘Sephardism’, that is, all the customs, food, dances, music, poetry, philosophy; in sum, all that conforms as such to the Sephardi culture) (Cherem, 1989, p. 294). Note that religious values is conspicuously absent in this list of ‘‘all things Sephardi;” a reason, perhaps, for FESEME’s failure to garner enough interest to survive beyond a few years. The discursive struggle over the legacy of sefaradísmo is a topic I explore in greater depth elsewhere. For the time being, I merely wish to point out that the definitional weight of religiosity in Mexican Jewish labeling practices extends even to the word sefaradí.

It is important to stress that religiosity has always been an important quality distinguishing members of the Mexican Jew- ish Communities. Indeed, the halebi reputation for piety has long been renowned throughout the Jewish world. Nonetheless, in Mexico City, the disproportionate adoption of ultra-Orthodox practice among árabes in general, and halebis in particular, has accentuated the religious dimension of ‘‘ethnic” difference, making it one of the most salient. This situation has manifested in subtle semantic change in Mexican Jewish ethnic labels. While the referents of these labels remain the same, a re-ranking of their indexical properties has placed religiosity at the top of a list of distinguishing attributes. In a fascinating interplay of the global and the local, the system of Mexican Jewish ethno-religious categorization has shifted in response to religious movements that are transnational in scope.

7. Variation in shajato and new social realities

I now turn to a different kind of change in a different kind of label: the slur ‘shajato’. While ‘shami,’ halebi’ and ‘árabe’ are (usually) relatively neutral terms of reference, shajato is loaded with derogatory connotations. Gold observed that shajato was the ‘‘really pejorative word” for shamis and halebis (1985, p. 120). Originally used almost exclusively by ashkenazím to disparage árabes, some young shamis and halebis have reappropriated shajato to express group pride and solidarity. I first highlight metasemantic talk in which shami and halebi speakers are careful to distance themselves from the negative attri- butes that shajato indexes; evidence of the word’s continued derogatory force. I then present counter-examples of people using the word with pride and ironic humor. In addition to serving other social functions, I argue that this more novel usage signals important changes in relations among the Mexican Jewish ethnic sub-groups.

Shami journalist Andre Moussali explained that shajato was the Arabic word for the slippers that Syrian Jews used to wear while working at their market stands in Mexico City’s historic center, and before that, in Syria and Lebanon (personal communication, December 4, 2008). Another shami consultant defined shajato simply as ‘‘typically Oriental.” One of the most vivid and overtly derisive depictions I have found appears in a June 2006 posting by a Mexico City blogger named Cyn- thia Neumann (2009). By her name, photo and the content of her postings, I assume that she is an Ashkenazi, Mexico City resident in her 20s. Interestingly, she does not mention the words shami, halebi, or even árabe. Rather, she seems to assume the qualities she describes are so iconic of shamis and halebis that to identify them as such is unnecessary:

Todos han conocido a un shajato en su vida. . . asi es, el shajato es un ser especial. es dificil de explicar, pero muy facil de detectar. . .
Llamese shajato al judio prepotente, con la camisa Versace ultimo modelo (amarilla de seda, con flores negras y azules), con una estrella de david con la marca ‘‘fendi” a la vista y el pelo chino crespo negro en el pecho. El shajato saluda diciendole a todo mundo: ‘‘papa” o ‘‘mano”, ‘‘que paso mano?” y trata a la mayoria de la gente muy mal, sobre todoba los meseros (casi casi le gritan al mesero ‘‘coffe (sic) here please now” y chasquean los dedos.

Apellidos hay muchos. . . Hafif, Hamui, Kababie, asi como nombres (que como bien he dicho, joden la existencia de sus vidas): ferdose, jasibe, estrella, hermosa, bella (y he conocido a las mas feas llamadas hermosas. pobres mujeres!!!)
Everyone has known a shajato in their lives. . . that’s how it is, the shajato is a special being. It’s difficult to explain, but easy to detect. . .

Shajato is the word for a pushy/arrogant Jew, with the latest Versace shirt (yellow silk, with black and blue flowers), with a star of david with the ‘‘fendi”10 logo in sight and curly frizzy black hair on the chest. The shajato greets everyone saying: ‘‘papa” or ‘‘mano,” ‘‘what’s up mano?” and treats most people very badly, especially waiters (they just about shout at the waiter ‘‘coffee here please now” and snap their fingers.

Surnames there are many. . . Hafif, Hamui, Kababie, just like first names (which, as I’ve said, make their lives miserable): ferdose, jasibe, estrella, hermosa, bella (and I’ve known a lot of ugly girls named hermosa [beautiful]. poor women!!!)

Shajato, then, encompasses multiple stereotypical dimensions of Syrian Jewishness: phenotype, rude or pushy behavior, dress that is deemed excessively flashy, language, and naming traditions (children are named after living grandparents, which perpetuates names that may be considered old fashioned or strange in contemporary Mexico). The word’s broad tem- poral reach simultaneously evokes ridicule of humble origins and criticism of contemporary accumulation and display of wealth (although we can’t be certain the author knew the word’s etymology; many of my 20-something Syrian Jewish con- sultants at least knew that it originally meant some kind of slipper or sandal). As we see in this and other descriptions, male- ness is also an implied semantic feature of shajato. Although there are certainly female shajatas, the prototypical shajato is male.

While young shamis and halebis certainly do not disparage their names (on the contrary, these are often a source of great pride), they otherwise use similar terms as Cynthia Neumann when talking about shajato. At Shabbat (Sabbath) lunch with an ultra-Orthodox halebi family, I asked a 29-year-old woman what the word meant. In response, she listed some shajato qualities: ‘‘Quiere decir que llevas ropa de marca, que usas muchas palabras del árabe, que no eres muy estudiado. Pero eso ya está cambiando, ya hay más gente que estudia.” (It means that you wear designer clothes, use a lot of words from Arabic, and that you’re not very educated. But that’s changing, now there are more people that study.)11 In an interview, 23- year-old ‘‘Samuel” told me that he didn’t see himself as a ‘‘stereotypical halebi.” When I asked him to clarify what he meant, he asked if I knew what a shajato was and proceeded to explain:

Shajato es como muy. . . como alguien que está así vestido muy bien todo el tiempo y así, va a los mejores lugares y, que se cree mucho. . . que es muy. . . gastador y que, no sé es una actitud como, así de estar todo el día muy peinadito así bien con gel y en tu coche y ¿sabes? Y los idish son más como, más light así con el dinero y, más bohemios como en general ¿ves?
Shajato is like very. . .like someone who is dressed very well all the time, goes to the best places and, who thinks a lot of himself. . .who is very spendthrift. . .I don’t know, it’s an attitude like, to be all day with your hair very done up with gel, in your car, you know? And the idish are more light with money, and, more Bohemian in general, you see?

Samuel distances himself from the word and category of shajato by using the diminutive ‘–ito’ with the adjective peinado (‘coiffed’) to mock the character being described, as well as superlatives (dressed very well, goes to the best places, thinks a lot of himself, very spendthrift), which depict excess and exaggeration. In contrast, he uses the English loanword light to de- scribe ashkenazím, not with regards to religiosity as Ali did above, but rather with regards to consumption and display of wealth.

Like Samuel, many characterized shajato as ‘‘an attitude.” This came up at a Shabbat lunch served at a turco rabbi’s home, attended mostly by people in their 20s from all four of the Jewish communities. Many of them were meeting each other for the first time and early conversation centered on finding out one another’s Community, high school, university, and level of religious observance. Later in the afternoon, ‘‘Gina,” whom I guessed to be shami or halebi by her long, wavy black hair and darker skin, said something to the effect of ‘‘Mi respeto a los shajatos aquí pero no aguanto los shajatos.” (My respect to the shajatos here but I can’t stand shajatos.) She motioned across the table to a shami companion, ‘‘Simon,” who said ‘‘no no no” to indicate he wasn’t offended. Gina continued, ‘‘hasta conozco hombres idish que son shajatos pero gueritos” (I even know idish men who are shajatos but fair-skinned), wrinkling her face and shrugging her shoulders as if shuddering in disgust.

Simon then said, ‘‘yo soy shajato de sangre pero no de actitud” (I’m shajato by blood but not by attitude). ‘‘Alan,” an idish man sitting next to him, asked ‘‘te molesta la palabra shajato?” (does the word shajato bother you?). Simon paused for a mo- ment and thought. ‘‘No,” he answered. ‘‘Shajato es una actitud, alguien prepotente” (Shajato is an attitude, someone pushy/ arrogant). Alan added, ‘‘es alguien que quiere pisar a los demás” (It’s someone who wants to walk all over everyone else).12

In this interaction, both Gina and Simon partially divorced the word of its ethnic component; Gina by insisting she had known ‘‘shajatos idish” and Simon by characterizing it as an attitude. This allowed him to remove himself from the social category (again, only partially – shajato by blood but not by attitude) and align himself with his peers as a non-shajato. This metasemantic discussion of shajato therefore served to create solidarity among these new acquaintances from different Communities, although the shami man was put in a position to articulate some fine conceptual distinctions in order to share his interlocutors’ evaluative stance.

Most older Mexican Jews with whom I spoke with talked about shajato as a very nasty word, not to be used lightly. When interviewing former Comunidad Maguen David (halebi) president Isaac Hamui Mussali, his daughter Liz Hamui asked what motivated him to return to communal administration in 1983 after a break of nearly twenty years. His answer is revealing of how powerful and hurtful the word shajato was in inter-communal relations at the time:

Prácticamente el comentario de algunas gentes de la comunidad ashkenazí, que sin pensar o sin preveer que yo podía escuchar- los, se refirieron a nosotros con la palabra shajatos. En ese momento yo no mencioné una sola palabra, pero al salir le dije a Sarita mi esposa, esta palabra se la van a tragar. . . la traducción de la palabra shajato es chancla y nosotros no somos chancla de nadie. Entonces como fue la primera vez que yo lo escuché en mi vida, me ofendió, y entonces tomé como tribuna a la pres- idencia de la comunidad. Por eso me lancé a un nuevo período, para demostrar que la primera comunidad,la mejor comunidad en México es la nuestra. Nuestra imágen cambió totalmente ante la opinión de ellos, tan es así que en alguna ocasión, las mis- mas gentes de la comunidad ashkenazí me dijeron que les gustaría ser orientales, ser árabes, esa fue la palabra que usaron. . . ahora nos tienen envidia por la evolución que hemos tenido, quiero hacer la aclaración, envidia sana. Eso no implica que mis amigos íntimos no sean ashkenazím, los quiero bien. En realidad me dolía que se nos ninguneara, quería que tuviéramos el nie- vel que deberíamos en el contexto intercomunitario.

Practically, the commentary of some people of the Comunidad Ashkenazí who, without thinking or knowing I could hear them, referred to us with the word ‘shajatos.’ In that moment I didn’t say a word, but upon leaving I said to Sarita my wife, ‘‘they are going to eat this word”. . . the translation of the word shajato is ‘sandal’ and we are nobody’s sandal. As that was the first time in my life I had heard it, it offended me, and so I took [it] as a platform to the presidency of the Community. For this reason I launched myself into a new period, to demonstrate that the first community, the best community in Mexico is ours. Our image completely changed in their opinion, so much so that on one occasion, the same people from the Comunidad Ashkenazi said to me that they would like to be Orientals, to be Arabs, that was the word they used. . . now they envy us for the evolution we’ve had; I want to clarify, healthy envy. That doesn’t mean that my dear friends aren’t Ashkenazim, I love them well. In reality, it hurt me that they belittled us, I wanted us to have the level that we should in the inter-communal context.13

In this anecdote, the word shajato serves not only as a weapon of derision, but as a source of motivation for halebis to ‘‘advance” and gain prestige in the eyes of their Ashkenazi counterparts. As Mr. Hamui says, in many ways this has indeed come to pass: Maguen David is now the largest of the four Communities, with an extensive network of schools, synagogues and a beautiful new community center built in 2003. It offers religious, social, cultural and athletic activities every day of the week that attract a high degree of participation among its own members and those of other Communities. The success of communal endeavors, coupled with greater numbers, increasing education levels and expansion into new domains of economic activity, tilt the balance of inter-communal influence and prestige in favor of árabes in general and halebis in particular. Although discrimination and prejudice certainly persist, I believe this new reality also facilitates the amelioration and reappropriation of shajato.

8. The amelioration of shajato

In the examples above, shajato is construed as unambiguously negative, something loathed by self-respecting árabes and idish alike. Alongside this usage, however, exists another that is quite the opposite: Shajato has been appropriated by some Syrian Jews to express pride and solidarity. This process can be characterized as semantic amelioration: when ‘‘bad words” become more favorable (or at least less hurtful and more socially acceptable). Amelioration is part of taxonomies that are commonly used to classify, but not explain, processes of semantic change. The meanings of nominals, especially social labels, suffers from particular theoretical neglect in formal semantics (Traugott and Dasher, 2002, p. 4; McConnell-Ginet, 2002, p. 150). However, other language scholars have provided in-depth analysis of the sociopolitical processes that factor into the

amelioration or reappropriation of slurs among marginalized groups, especially sexual minorities. Wong has argued for the importance of speakers’ agency and ‘‘desire to index different stances and to project different personae” (2008, p. 423) in the spread of innovative uses of social labels. In the case of slurs, the trajectories of words like ‘queer’ and ‘nigger’ would indicate that the more inflammatory a word, the better a candidate it is for reappropriation. McConnell-Ginet asserts that ‘queer’ is so politically effective precisely because of its ‘‘readily accessible history of use in gay-bashing” (2002, p. 153). Such may also be the case with shajato, a term long used to belittle and mock Syrian Jewish Mexicans.

Andre Moussali published an article on the word in the local Jewish magazine Foro, at the end of which he proclaimed his pride in being shajato. He explained to me in conversation, ‘‘si shajato se refiere a esos hombres que trabajan duros para cui- darles y educarles a sus familias, entonces yo soy shajato” (if shajato refers to those men who work hard to care for and educate their families, then I am shajato (personal communication December 4, 2008).14 With this statement, Moussali attempts to replace the negatively evaluated characteristics invoked by shajato with positive ones that had been erased or downplayed in the common sense of the word. This contrasts with former Maguen David president Isaac Hamui’s outright rejection of it.

In my own observations, when the word shajato was used with pride, it was generally done so within interactions framed as humorous or ironic. I often heard shami and halebi youth call themselves or each other shajato in jest. At a party in the shami Comunidad Monte Sinai to celebrate the holiday of Sukkot, I met a young woman who, after learning of my topic, de- clared she would be a good research subject because she was ‘‘muy (very) shajata,” which evoked her friends’ laughter. A group on the social networking website Facebook is entitled ‘‘Para los amantes del kipe” (for lovers of kipe, a Middle Eastern food). The group description reads, ‘‘a quien no le gusta una buena comida arabe??? (Who doesn’t like a good Arab meal). . . BE SHAJATO!” (in English). That is, members should celebrate Syrian Jewishness and not be ashamed. The group has over 300 members.15 These acts of alignment with the category of shajato contrast completely with the distancing stances seen in the previous examples.

As humor scholars from a wide range of disciplines have demonstrated, self-directed humor involving slurs and stereo- types serves many social and psychological functions. Among other things, it allows members of marginalized groups to rise above oppression or discrimination by outsiders; laughing while using a hurtful word to refer to oneself is a way of denying its injurious power (Rappoport, 2005, pp. 39–43). Indeed, the in-group, neutralized use of ‘nigger’ among African–Americans was popularized in large part by comedians like Richard Pryor (Kennedy, 2002, pp. 31–33. Humor, then, seems to play an important role in the general amelioration and reappropriation of slurs, perhaps because it is talk framed as non-serious and therefore safer or more acceptable for deploying usually-taboo language.

Shajato is not only used in a friendly, teasing manner among Syrian Jews. Often idish people will affectionately use it to refer to shami and halebi friends. A Torah class I attended had mostly shami and halebi students and only a few ashkenazím, including ‘‘David.” One evening while discussing my project, David told another student that I would want to record him. Unsettled, the other student asked him ‘‘why me, why not you?” To which David dryly responded, ‘‘Because her study is about the shajatos.”16 This teasing jab was taken only with good humor by David’s interlocutor and others within earshot. An- other example involves an informal weekend gathering of mostly Ashkenazi people at the home of a couple in their forties. A halebi friend called to say he would be joining us, and the Asheknazi host announced ‘‘Ya viene el shajato” (here comes the shaj- ato). At first his wife scolded him for using the word, but from that point on it was used freely, even after the halebi friend arrived.

When the Ashkenazi people in these examples refer to their friends as shajatos, it serves as a token of intimacy that ‘‘clearly stands as testimony to bonds of affection so strong as to allow people freedom to violate conventional behavior norms” (Rappoport, 2005, p.53). In his book, Rappoport argues that stereotype humor of this sort generally promotes good inter-group relations, rather than reinforce prejudice and hostility. While I generally agree, I add the caveat that the trajec- tory is not one of simple causality. The joking in itself does not create social harmony, but is rather part and parcel of a broad- er process of changing group relationships. So too is the amelioration of shajato. In the Mexican Jewish case, I argue that shamis and halebis can joke about being shajatos in part because they are no longer as marginal in Mexican Jewish society. Ashkenazim can use it affectionately because they are confident in their shami and halebi friendships, the very existence of which are a testament to the general opening of inter-communal relations and increased interactions among people from different Communities. At the same time, when they use shajato in these ways, speakers are actively contributing to the ongoing construction of this new reality. Social and semantic change are therefore intimately intertwined.

The amelioration of shajato, of course, is not a fait accomplis and may well never be. As seen in the earlier examples, the word’s negative properties are still in full force. However, as Judith Butler has argued, novel usages of slurs put them on dis- play and open the possibility of more permanent shifts in meaning:

As acts, these words become phenomenal; they become a kind of linguistic display that does not overcome their degrading meanings (my emphasis), but that reproduces them as public texts and that, in being reproduced, displays them as repro- ducible and resignifiable terms. The possibility of decontextualizing and recontextualizing such terms through radical acts of public misappropriation constitutes the basis of an ironic hopefulness that the conventional relationship between word and wound might become tenuous and even broken over time (Butler, 1997, p. 101).

In our quest to understand semantic change, McConnell-Ginet advocates an ‘‘empty vessel” view of word meanings as ‘‘underspecified but. . .given (specific) meaning as they are deployed to do things in ongoing discourse” (2002:151). That is, while constrained by cognitive structures, social histories and conventions, speakers are constantly shaping and reshaping word meanings as ‘‘part and parcel of the shaping and reshaping of social and political practices” (McConnell-Ginet, 2002, p. 149). An analysis of group labels is especially productive for understanding the interrelationships of social and semantic change. It also has great potential for comparison across contemporary Jewish communities, as well as other immigrant and diasporic groups.

9. Conclusions

In this article, I have examined how Mexican Jews talk about and use the labels shami, halebi, árabe, turco, sefaradí, idish, and ashkenazí in order to gain insight into the social organization of this Mexico City minority subculture. I have argued that the substantial impact of conservative religious movements on these groups manifests in how labels are defined and applied. In particular, notions of religiosity have emerged as the most important indexical qualities distinguishing Mexican Jewish social categories. Given the pervasiveness of transnational conservative religious movements around the 21st-century world, it is worth investigating whether similar processes have occurred in the labeling practices of other ethno-religious commu- nities, Jewish and otherwise.

As with shajato, the reappropriation and amelioration of slurs in multi-ethnic societies can be understood not only as a coping strategy of the marginalized or oppressed, but also as an outcome of/contributor to socioeconomic progress. Young shamis and halebis are forging new domains of interaction with other Jews and other Mexicans by attending university and engaging in a broader array of professional and civic activities than their parents and grandparents. Playing with the poly- semous capabilities of shajato – especially in humorous interactions – is part and parcel of coping with and contributing to this changing social reality.

In general, attention to labeling practices can contribute much to the comparative study of Jewish languages, or what Be- nor has coined ‘‘comparative Jewish linguistics” (Benor, 2008, p. 1063). Like loanwords from Hebrew and ancestral lan- guages, labels are linguistic resources on which Jews can draw to express and describe Jewish experiences and identities, as well as position themselves with regards to Jewish and non-Jewish interlocutors (Benor, 2008, pp. 1068–1069). They also constitute a ready domain for comparison. Because Jewish groups in any location form part of transnational diasporas, we can investigate how the ‘‘same” labels – like Sephardi and Ashkenazi – absorb local sociopolitical processes into their mean- ings. The benefits of such comparative analysis, of course, are not limited to Jewish language practices, but extend to studies of diasporic and immigrant groups more generally. Organizing, categorizing, and distinguishing within and between such groups can be understood as strategies for integrating into new homelands while maintaining unique identities and cultures. As among Mexican Jews, this process is by no means complete within one or two generations. The study of how immigrants and their descendants use ethno-religious labels can therefore offer us key insights into the long-term processes of migration and diaspora.


The research for this paper was made possible by grants from Fulbright-Hays, The Memorial Foundation for Jewish Cul- ture, the Indiana University Anthropology Department Skomp Foundation, the Indiana University Center for Latin American and Caribbean Studies and the Tinker Foundation. Many thanks to Joëlle Bahloul, Sarah Bunin Benor, Liz Hamui, Paulette Kershonovich, Daniel Suslak, Pedro Martín Butragueño and the members of the Grupo de Investigadores Sociolingüístico in Mexico City for their feedback. I also wish to thank the anonymous reviewer for the incredibly helpful and detailed comments.


Damascus, Beirut’s community developed in the late 18th and early 19th centuries due to immigration from Damascus, initially, and later Aleppo as well as Ottoman port cities. The communities in Beirut and Damascus, due in part to geographical proximity and ease of transport, maintained extensive commercial and familial ties (Levi, 2010, pp. 78–133). The Damascenes in the Mexican Comunidad Monte Sinai are more numerous and hence the erasure of Lebaneseness in the label ‘shami.’

5 The latter two represent the entire Jewish community in government and public relations, respectively.



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Evelyn Dean-Olmsted is a doctoral candidate in linguistic anthropology at Indiana University. Her dissertation explores questions of ethnicity, national belonging, social class and religiosity through analysis of language and discourse among young adult Syrian Jewish Mexicans. In addition to her work in Mexico, she has conducted research with natural disaster victims in Bolivia, immigrants in the United States and Sephardi Jews in Sarajevo, Bosnia. She is a recipient of the Foundation for Jewish Culture Doctoral Dissertation Fellowship for 2010–2011.

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