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Syrian Jewish Mexicans and the Language of Everyday Orientalism

It was a routine doctor’s visit, so I simply picked a name out of the phone book, one near our Mexico City neighborhood of Polanco.  I suspected the doctor might be (Ashkenazi) Jewish by his surname.  Still, I feigned surprise when he reacted to my description of my research ­ – language and identity among Syrian Jewish Mexicans – by exclaiming “I’m Jewish! ”  From that point on, the focus of our conversation shifted, from my sinuses to his Shami (Damascene Jewish) and Halebi (Aleppan Jewish) patients.  “Let me tell you,” he told me, the seasoned expert instructing the naïve gringa anthropologist.  “They believe in magic,” which made them difficult patients because they preferred to wait and see before accepting the treatments he recommended.  “They believe if they pray enough, God will save them.” They also marry their cousins, he said. I had a thermometer in my mouth so I couldn’t deliver my ANTH 101 treatise on the normalcy of cousin marriage in many cultures.  My husband Josh came to the rescue and told him that such unions weren’t as common as they once were, which was also true, so I nodded my endorsement.

Throughout my fieldwork year, I found myself in these kinds of conversations a lot.  Never mind those comments by a few non-Jewish Mexicans, like a young man at a salsa club who told me “They live in Polanco and have all the money. What else do you want to know?”  Remarks like these were usually about Jews in general, the speakers mostly unaware of the ethnic and religious distinctions among them.  Talk about the particularities of Syrian Jews happened mostly, as in the doctor’s office, with Ashkenazi Jews.  To understand where such statements come from, it’s necessary to know a bit about the social organization of Jewish Mexicans, who number around 38,000 people in Mexico City (and about 40,000 country-wide (Hamui Halabe 2005:117)). Since their institutional origins in the early 20th century, Mexico City’s four main Jewish subgroups have been defined by the geographic origins of their founders: Shamis from Damascus, Syria, as well as Lebanon; Halebis from Aleppo, Syria; Idish or Ashkenazim (singular: Ashkenazi) from Eastern and Central Europe; and Turcos or Sefaradim (singular: Sefaradí) from the Balkans, Greece, and Turkey.  These designations long shaped nearly every aspect of an individual’s life.   One worshipped, went to school and worked with other members of her specific Jewish sub-community.  As most of my older consultants put it, God forbid a Shami marry a Halebi, Turco, or Ashkenazi, or scandal would ensue. 

But things have changed in recent decades.  As demographer Sergio DellaPergola (2003) has documented, “intermarriage”   between members of the different Jewish subgroups has been on the rise since the 1970s; today such marriages are unremarkable. There are other changes, too.  For one, more young Shamis and Halebis are going to university, defying stereotypes of girls who marry as teenagers and boys who go straight to work in the family manufacturing business (although both are still common).  At the same time, many of these young people are engaging with the people and ideas of ultra-Orthodoxy, a relatively new stream of Judaism in Mexico that emphasizes stricture in interpretation and observance of Jewish.  Ultra-Orthodoxy or haredism originated in Eastern Europe and remains dominated by Ashkenazi Jews worldwide.  However, significant sectors of Sephardi and Middle Eastern Jews – including many Halebis and Shamis in Mexico – have adopted these modes of belief and practice in recent decades.  In Mexico City, this has served to further complicate the long-standing ‘ethnic’ distinctions among Jews.

The driving question of my dissertation research was if and how such ethnic distinctions were still relevant in the everyday lives of Syrian Jewish young people, given said changes.  To this end, I participated in the Syrian Jewish communities as an honorary member, a status I negotiated during pre-dissertation research (I am Jewish, but not Syrian or Mexican; more on that later).  I went to synagogue and communal events, joined families for Shabbat (Sabbath) meals, holidays and life cycle celebrations, and attended many religious classes or clases de Torá.  I made audio recordings in many of these settings (provided they didn’t take place on the Sabbath or other holidays, during which electronic devices are prohibited).   I also attended and recorded university classes to observe interaction between Jewish and non-Jewish students and “shadowed” six individuals who wore a voice recorder throughout an entire day.  In addition, I conducted around 45 recorded interviews with both Jewish and non-Jewish individuals.

In sifting through my data, I was listening for those linguistic features that distinguished Jewish from non-Jewish speech in Mexico City, as well as different kinds of Jews from one another. While this is an ongoing task of my research, I identified several components of the local Jewish ‘ethnolinguistic repertoire,’ a term coined by Sarah Benor to refer to  “a fluid set of linguistic resources that members of an ethnic group may use variably as they index their ethnic identities” (Benor 2010:159).  In addition to certain intonational and phonological patterns, these resources include a lexicon of items derived from Hebrew/Aramaic, Yiddish, Judeo-Spanish and Judeo-Arabic, as well as uniquely Jewish usages of Mexican Spanish words.

I then zeroed in on practices in which the aforementioned ‘ethnic’ distinctions were made salient in interaction.   These constitute the focus of my dissertation, entitled “Speaking Shami: Syrian Jewish Language Practices as Strategies of Integration and Legitimation” (Dean-Olmsted 2012)I analyze ethnic labeling (Dean-Olmsted 2011), using ‘heritage words’ from Arabic and Hebrew, and conversational joking.  I also compare one student’s talk on a university radio show to that in a religious class she taught to other young Jewish women. I highlight how she creates cohesion in these two seemingly disparate worlds by selectively employing discursive resources from Jewish ultra-Orthodoxy to her academic conversations and vice versa.

As part of my analysis, I took stock of the critical evaluations many people – from across the Jewish sub-sectors – expressed about Syrian Jewish practices, linguistic and otherwise.  Take, for example, the Arabic words and phrases that many Shamis and Halebis use as part of their conversational Spanish.  Such ‘heritage words,’ as I call them, are associated with stigma and stereotypes that can be characterized as Orientalist, to draw on Said’s (1978) language.  In particular, many see Arabic words as icons (Irvine and Gal 1995) of a supposedly inherent Syrian Jewish religious mentality: one often cast as superstitious, ritualistic, and pre-rational.  (We see this in the Ashkenazi doctor’s characterization of his patients’  belief in ‘magic.’)  I heard this critique as much from secular-leaning Ashkenazi Jews as from those aligned with ultra-Orthodoxy.  People from the latter group, in particular, saw Arabic words as a foreign, Islamic influence, and therefore unfit for a proper Jewish lexicon.  For example, at lunch at the home of an ultra-Orthodox (but not Syrian) rabbi, for example, I was talking about the word jarám (pronounced ha-ram) with one of my Syrian Jewish research participants.  We were laughing about the versatility of the word, which can be used to express everything from mild disappointment to abject horror. The rabbi had been listening quietly and spoke at an opportune moment. “Jarám isn’t just an Arabic word,” he said. “It’s an Islamic word.”  He explained that it has to do with the Muslim concept of “lo prohibido” (the forbidden), and Judaism doesn’t embrace the same concept.  His evaluation of this word was clear: this was an Islamic word, a foreign influence, an intruder.  We as Jews should not use it. This language ideology, of course, erases the long historical trajectory of Jews in Islamic lands and the shared culture between Arab Christians, Jews and Muslims.  In its place, it imposes contemporary geopolitical schema that serve to equate ‘Arab’ with ‘Muslim’ and position these in opposition to ‘Jewish.’

In addition to associating these words with ‘Oriental’ superstition and Islamic influence, they are also linked to the unflattering local stereotype of the Syrian Jewish shajato (pronounced sha-ha-to). The word shajato comes from the Arabic word for the sandals that men used to wear in the outdoor markets in Mexico City’s historic center.  The shajato stereotype shares much in common with those of the nouveau riche: a combination of wealth and lack of formal education, conspicuous consumption, and public behavior deemed prepotente (arrogant or presumptuous).

Shamis and Halebis, of course, are not oblivious to these critiques.  On the contrary; through my analysis, I came to understand the importance of such ideologies in shaping language use.   I realized that when Syrian Jewish Mexicans use ethnic labels and slurs, participate in ethnic joking, or use Arabic words, they are not simply “indexing ethnic” in a neutral way.  Rather, built-in to such practices is an engagement with (real and imagined) critical audiences.  As such, I characterize these linguistic practices as strategies of integration into broader Jewish, Mexican, and Jewish Mexican social spheres, as well as legitimation within those spheres.  Humor is one such strategy, key to reappropriating slurs like shajato, and using Arabic words in ways that create ironic distance between speaker and word.  When employed in ethnic teasing, humor allows interlocutors to safely acknowledge, bridge, and also reinforce the ethnic distinctions among them.

It is not surprising that many Syrian Jews are aware of negative ideas that circulate about them, given how frequently I heard them articulated.  In addition to pointing to their supposedly “superstitious” religiosity and shajato behavior, many complained of patriarchal attitudes toward women, which one Ashkenazi person summed up as simply “the Arab mentality.”  I believe people were particularly free about expressing such ideas to me for a few reasons.  First, although my (maternal) Jewish lineage is Baghdadi, most assumed I was Ashkenazi because of my white European phenotype (a bequest of my father’s Anglo-German, Protestant family).  Additionally, upon learning I was an academic researcher, many presumed a corresponding secularist orientation.  For one or both of these reasons, Ashkenazim in Mexico assumed I was “one of them” and were free about sharing their negative views of Shamis and Halebis.

This kind of talk is by no means restricted to Mexico; I’ve had plenty of similar conversations with North Americans  – academics or not, Jewish and otherwise – who are familiar with Syrian Jewish communities.  What strikes me is how completely socially acceptable it seems to be.  In this, it resembles what Jane Hill (2008) has labeled as the “everyday language of (White) racism.”  Hill analyzes talk among White people in the United States that, while purportedly neutral or event anti-racist, serves to perpetuate “commonsense” racial stereotypes and hierarchies.  She considers not only explicitly racialized discourse (like using ethnic slurs), but also more covert signaling and exclusions that assume shared knowledge and evaluations toward racial or ethnic Others.

Along these lines, I argue that the negative evaluation (implicit or explicit) in talk about Syrian Jewish people and practices constitutes a sort of “everyday language of Orientalism.” Like the language Hill analyzes, such discourse is rarely framed or interpreted as racist, which would violate the norms of sociability in multicultural societies, as well as speakers’ own anti-racist values and self-image.  Rather, critiques are couched in other terms.  Those aligned to some degree with Jewish ultra-Orthodoxy appeal to standards of “proper” Jewish religious belief in explaining why they think Arabic words are not good for Jewish people to use.  People on all points of the religious spectrum point to Syrian Jewish practices involving women as incompatible with purportedly universal values of gender equality (the fact that this critique is articulated by those within ultra-Orthodox circles will surprise many outsiders, who apply the same critique to ultra-Orthodoxy itself).  Invoking values, as opposed to race or ethnicity, allows people to freely express negative evaluations without the appearance of prejudice.  It even allows members of the targeted group themselves to express such evaluations.

John Bowen (2011) has documented a similar shift in legislative and judicial discourse in France regarding certain practices of North African Muslim immigrants.  Whereas practices like female head- and face-covering were once denounced because of their ostensible harm to the female subjects in question, recent court decisions are grounded in appeals to the value of gender equality and the centrality of inter-gender “mixing” (mixité) to French society.  In these cases, mention of Islam is scrupulously avoided as practices are cast as  “objectively contrary to French principles” of civic normality and sociability (Bowen 2011:336).  Nonetheless, concludes Bowen, “purportedly universal value judgments did not conceal very well a targeting of certain forms of Islam” (2011:336).  What is common to Bowen’s case study and my own is the invocation of “universal” values in attempts to censure behavior seen as unfit for full membership/participation in the collectivity.  As I argue in the dissertation, at the heart of such debates are deeply held ideas about what it means to be – and speak like – good moderns; a debate with deep philosophical roots, as Bauman and Briggs (2003) have traced.

It is certainly not my intent to vilify my Ashkenazi friends and consultants who make such statements.  Indeed, I would be hypocritical to pretend I did not share some of their evaluations (I also cringe at the thought of teenaged brides, although talking to some such women made me realize they were usually not blind pawns in their marriages.  Furthermore, as I mentioned above, it is now the norm for Shami and Halebi young people – including women – to go to university).  I also do not mean to imply that negative ideas about the Other are the sole domain of any one group; I also heard racialized talk among Syrians about Ashkenazim. But the balance of power and prestige in current Jewish identity politics lies with Ashkenazim, in Mexico and beyond.  Accordingly, racialized discourse directed at Sephardic and Middle Eastern Jews is simply more common and more acceptable.   Nor is such discourse unique among Jews.  Rather, it is symptomatic of a much broader phenomenon of Orientalist language that pervades Western societies.  While such language in scholarship, literature, and policy has been well-documented since Said’s (1978) foundational work, how it manifests in everyday talk is less understood.   Attention to linguistic practice, therefore, contributes a critical perspective on how Orientalist language and ideas are circulated, altered, contested, and perhaps even transformed through our daily interactions.


Bauman, Richard, and Charles L. Briggs
2003      Voices of Modernity : Language Ideologies and the Politics of Inequality. Cambridge, UK ; New York: Cambridge University Press.

Benor, Sarah Bunin
2010      Ethnolinguistic Repertoire: Shifting the Analytic Focus in Language and Ethnicity. Journal of Sociolinguistics 14: 159–183.

Bowen, John R.
2011      How the French State Justifies Controlling Muslim Bodies: From Harm-Based to Values-Based Reasoning. Social Research 78(2): 325.

Dean-Olmsted, Evelyn
2011      Shamis, Halebis and Shajatos: Labels and the Dynamics of Syrian Jewishness in Mexico City. Language & Communication 31(2): 130–140.

2012      Speaking Shami: Syrian Jewish Mexican Language Practices as Strategies of Integration and Legitimation. Ph.D. Dissertation, Department of Anthropology, Indiana University.

DellaPergola, Sergio
2003      Jewish Out-Marriage: Mexico and Venezuela. In International Roundtable on Intermarriage. Brandeis University.

Hamui Halabe, Liz
2005      Transformaciones En La Religiosidad De Los Judíos En México: Tradición, Ortodoxia y Fundamentalismo En La Modernidad Tardía. Mexico City: Noriega Editores.

Hill, Jane H.
2008      The Everyday Language of White Racism. Chichester, U.K. ; Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell.

Said, Edward W.
1978      Orientalism. New York: Pantheon Books


Evelyn Dean-Olmsted received her PhD in anthropology from Indiana University in May 2012.  She is currently an instructor at Southern Illinois University Edwardsville.  She can be reached at

4 thoughts on “Syrian Jewish Mexicans and the Language of Everyday Orientalism”

  1. Fascinating. There is a common stereotype, at least in America, that the Syrians are a particularly tight-knit community, frowning upon converts and marriage with other communities. I wonder whether this actually reflects some reality of Syrian culture.

  2. Evelyn Dean-Olmsted

    Thanks for reading my piece and for your comment. I would also describe Shamis and Halebis in Mexico as being tight-knit (and I thank you for choosing this relatively neutral descriptor. Much more common are words like ‘clannish’ and ‘insular’, or ‘cerrados’ in Spanish.) Indeed, Syrians communities in several countries follow a special decree or takana (Heb.) that forbids their members from marrying converts. (A colleague Sarina Roffe wrote her thesis on this topic:

    The takana is highly controversial, to say the least, even among community members. And it’s another thing that outsiders (esp. other Jews) commonly point to as evidence of Syrian Jewish “backwardness.” Debates about the takana would be another great area for discourse analysis. I know many people couch their critiques in religious terms (accepting genuine converts is a basic religious imperative) but there are more universalist arguments advanced as well (e.g. in the name of multiculturalism, diversity, anti-racism, etc.). Again, I believe much of the ire evoked by such subjects is deeply rooted in modernist projects, at both Jewish communal and national levels.

  3. Dear Evelyn,
    Thank you for this article. I have ashkenasi relatives in Mexico City and spent many summers there. I learned to speak Spanish fluently because of them. I have so much to share with you–unbelievable experiences. I have a book to recommend about the “idishe” Please email me because I would like to take this off line and give you a lot of input and observations. Example: My cousin married a “Turca” and it didn’t work out. The idishe are always talking about the Syrians as “los árabes”. Please email at . As I say, I have a lot to share…a lot.

    Best regards and shabbat shalom from Tel Aviv,

  4. I found this article very interesting. I am an American Askenazi Jew, with a college degree, who married a Israeli Syrian Jew in Brooklyn back in the early 70’s. My husband lived in Mexican for a few years before coming to the US. My mother said I married him for sociological reasons to learn the secret culture of the Syrian Jews. Perhaps she was right. The marriage lasted 9 years and I did learn some very profound differences among the subcultures of the Sephardics. If you are interested in discussing this further, please contact me.

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