For most Americans, traditional Jewish culture summons up images of Passover seders with steaming bowls of matzah ball soup, black-hatted, pale-skinned Hasidic men, and Yiddish-speaking bubbes (grandmothers) and zeydes (grandfathers). In reality, these snapshots represent only one Jewish ethnic group — Ashkenazi — of many.
Shared Jewish history, rituals, laws, and values unify an international Jewish community. However, the divergent histories of Jewish communities and their contacts with other cultural influences distinguish Jewish ethnic groups from one another, giving each a unique way of being Jewish. In addition, thanks to intermarriage, conversion and interracial adoptiongrowing numbers of American Jews are of color and have Latino, Asian orAfrican-American ancestry.
Worldwide, Jews from distinct geographic regions vary greatly in their diet, language, dress, and folk customs. Most pre-modern Diaspora communities are categorized into four major ethnic groups (in Hebrew, sometimes called eidot, “communities”):
- Ashkenazim, the Jews of Germany and Northern France (in Hebrew, Ashkenaz)
- Sephardim, the Jews of Iberia (in Hebrew, Sepharad) and the Spanish diaspora
- Mizrahim, or Oriental Jews
- Ethiopian Jews
The Jewish ethnic identity most readily recognized by North Americans — the culture of matzah balls, black-hatted Hasidim, and Yiddish — originated in medieval Germany. Although strictly speaking, “Ashkenazim” refers to Jews of Germany, the term has come to refer more broadly to Jews from Central and Eastern Europe. Jews first reached the interior of Europe by following trade routes along waterways during the eighth and ninth centuries.
Eventually, the vast majority of Ashkenazim relocated to the Polish Commonwealth (today’s Poland, Lithuania, Latvia, Ukraine, and Belarus), where princes welcomed their skilled and educated workforce. The small preexistent Polish Jewish community’s customs were displaced by the Ashkenazic prayer order, customs, and Yiddish language.
Jewish life and learning thrived in northeastern Europe. The yeshiva culture of Poland, Russia, and Lithuania produced a constant stream of new talmudic scholarship. In 18th-century Germany, the Haskalah movement advocated for modernization, introducing the modern denominations and institutions of secular Jewish culture.
Although the first American Jews were Sephardic, today Ashkenazim are the most populous ethnic group in North America. The modern religious denominations developed in Ashkenazic countries, and therefore most North American synagogues use the Ashkenazic liturgy.
Many historical documents recount a large population of Jews in Spain during the early years of the Common Era. Their cultural distinctiveness is characterized in Roman writings as a “corrupting” influence. Later, with the arrival of Christianity, Jewish legal authorities became worried about assimilation and maintaining Jewish identity. Despite these concerns, by the seventh century Sephardim had flourished, beginning a time known as the “Golden Age of Spain.”
During this period, Sephardic Jews reached the highest echelons of secular government and the military. Many Jews gained renown in non-Jewish circles as poets, scholars, and physicians. New forms of Hebrew poetry arose, and talmudic and halakhic (Jewish law) study took on great sophistication.
Ladino, the Judeo-Spanish language, unified Jews throughout the peninsula in daily life, ritual, and song. Ladino, a blend of medieval Spanish with significant loan words from Hebrew, Arabic, and Portuguese, had both a formal, literary dialect, and numerous daily, spoken dialects which evolved during the immigrations of Sephardic Jews to new lands.
The Sephardic Golden Age ended when Christian princes consolidated their kingdoms and reestablished Christian rule throughout Spain and Portugal. In 1492, King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella expelled all Jews from Spain; soon after, a similar law exiled Jews from Portugal. Sephardic Jews immigrated to Amsterdam, North Africa, and the Middle East.
Others established new communities in the Americas or converted publicly to Christianity, sometimes secretly maintaining a Jewish life. These converts (known in Ladino as conversos and in Hebrew as anusim, forced converts) often maintained their Judaism in secret. In the 21st century, there are still people in both Europe and the Americas who are discovering and reclaiming their Jewish ancestry.
Wherever Sephardic Jews traveled, they brought with them their unique ritual customs, language, arts, and architecture. Sephardic synagogues often retain the influence of Islam in their architecture by favoring geometric, calligraphic, and floral decorative motifs. Although they may align with the Ashkenazic religious denominations (usually Orthodoxy), the denominational identity of Sephardic synagogues is, in most cases, less strong than their ethnic identity.
At home, Ladino songs convey family traditions at the Shabbat table, although Ladino is rapidly disappearing from daily use. Sephardic Jews often maintain unique holiday customs, such as a seder for Rosh Hashanah that includes a series of special foods eaten as omens for a good new year and the eating of rice and legumes (kitniyot)on Passover.
Although often confused with Sephardic Jews (because they share many religious customs), Mizrahi Jews have a separate heritage. Mizrahi (in Hebrew, “Eastern” or “Oriental”) Jews come from Middle Eastern ancestry. Their earliest communities date from Late Antiquity, and the oldest and largest of these communities were in modern Iraq (Babylonia), Iran (Persia), and Yemen.
Today, most Mizrahi Jews live either in Israel or the United States. In their new homes, Mizrahi Jews are more likely than other Jews to maintain particularly strong ties with others from their family’s nation of origin. Thus, it is not uncommon to find a specifically Persian or Bukharan synagogue. Likewise, Mizrahi Jews are not united by a single Jewish language; each subgroup spoke its own tongue.
The unique Mizrahi culture has penetrated Israeli mainstream society in recent years. Yemenite music entered the pop scene with Ofra Haza, who blended traditional instruments, rhythms, and lyrics with modern flair. Yemenite silversmiths create sacred objects used by Jews of all backgrounds. “Mizrahi” restaurants — where large platters of skewered meat and breads and bowl upon bowl of salads and condiments are shared by a group — have become fashionable gathering places in Israel.
Despite these trends, Jewish ethnic barriers remain strong. In Israel, Ashkenazic Jews still dominate leadership roles in public institutions. For much of Israel’s history, Sephardic and Mizrahi Jews were disproportionately underrepresented in the government. Yet now, they make up more than half of the population.
A Jewish community in Ethiopia—theBeta Israel(House of Israel)—has existed for at least 15 centuries.
Because of low literacy levels, a tendency to rely on oral traditions and nomadic lifestyles among most Ethiopians prior to the 20th century, historic material about this community is scant and unreliable.
In the late 1980s and early 1990s, tens of thousands of Ethiopian Jews emigrated to Israel, leaving behind a very small community. Learn more about Ethiopian Israelis here.
Jewish Diversity Still Matters
Many Jews today live a multi-layered Jewish existence. Some Ethiopian Jews attend Hasidic yeshivas, and some Sephardic Jews enjoy matzah ball soup at their Passover seders. Jews from all backgrounds often borrow each other’s cultural traditions. Many populous Jewish communities have a diverse range of ethnicities, and that diversity presents itself even within individual families.
Though some of these cultural divides have healed — partially due to the increase in marriages among members of different ethnic groups — ethnicity is still highly relevant in Israeli society. For example, the public school curriculum over-represents Ashkenazic cultural achievements and history. At least one study recently reported that Mizrahi Jews are still half as likely to attend universities as Ashkenazi Jews.
Massive economic disparities exist among different communities, since Mizrahi immigrants frequently were brought to Israel by emergency airlifts, arriving with minimal property or wealth. Partially as a way to combat these discrepancies, Israeli political parties are often formed along ethnic lines, such as Shas (Sephardic), Agudas Israel (Ashkenazic), and Atid Ehad (Ethiopian Jews).
Some Jews protect their ethnic identity in other ways. Religious Jews will follow the customsof their ancestors in both their homes and synagogues. Others consciously study their traditional Jewish language, whether Yiddish, Ladino, or Farsi (Persian) and join social clubs based on their ethnic heritage. In North America, where secular schools often celebrate multiculturalism, Jewish supplemental and day schools have begun to include Jewish ethnic diversity in their curricula. Indeed Jewish ethnicity becomes a way to trace the course of Jewish history.
Ashkenazi Pronounced: AHSH-ken-AH-zee, Origin: Hebrew, Jews of Central and Eastern European origin.
Pronounced: AHSH-ken-AH-zee, Origin: Hebrew, Jews of Central and Eastern European origin.
Hasidic Pronounced: khah-SID-ik, Origin: Hebrew, a stream within ultra-Orthodox Judaism that grew out of an 18th-century mystical revival movement.
Pronounced: khah-SID-ik, Origin: Hebrew, a stream within ultra-Orthodox Judaism that grew out of an 18th-century mystical revival movement.
Mizrahi Pronounced: meez-RAH-khee, Origin: Hebrew for Eastern, used to describe Jews of Middle Eastern descent, such as Jews from Iraq and Syria.
Pronounced: meez-RAH-khee, Origin: Hebrew for Eastern, used to describe Jews of Middle Eastern descent, such as Jews from Iraq and Syria.
Sephardic Pronounced: seh-FAR-dik, Origin: Hebrew, describing Jews descending from the Jews of Spain.
Pronounced: seh-FAR-dik, Origin: Hebrew, describing Jews descending from the Jews of Spain.
Shabbat Pronounced: shuh-BAHT or shah-BAHT, Origin: Hebrew, the Sabbath, from sundown Friday to sundown Saturday.
Pronounced: shuh-BAHT or shah-BAHT, Origin: Hebrew, the Sabbath, from sundown Friday to sundown Saturday.
yeshiva Pronounced: yuh-SHEE-vuh or yeh-shee-VAH, Origin: Hebrew, a traditional religious school, where students mainly study Jewish texts.
Pronounced: yuh-SHEE-vuh or yeh-shee-VAH, Origin: Hebrew, a traditional religious school, where students mainly study Jewish texts.
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Ashkenazim differ from Sephardim in their pronunciation of Hebrew, in cultural traditions, in synagogue cantillation (chanting), in their widespread use of Yiddish (until the 20th century), and especially in synagogue liturgy.How do I know if I am Sephardic or Ashkenazi? ›
Ashkenazi Jews come from Eastern Europe, Germany, and France, while Sephardic Jews are from Spain, Portugal, Africa, and the Middle East. Most Jews in America are Ashkenazi because of the large population of German and Eastern European Jewish immigrants who arrived in the U.S. between the 1850s and the 1900s.Where do most Ashkenazi Jews come from? ›
One of two major ancestral groups of Jewish people whose ancestors lived in France and Central and Eastern Europe, including Germany, Poland, and Russia.What is the DNA of Ethiopian Jews? ›
Y-DNA of Ethiopian Jews
A study of Lucotte and Smets has shown that the genetic father of Beta Israel (Ethiopian Jews) was close to the Ethiopian non-Jewish populations. This is consistent with the theory that Beta Israel are descendants of ancient inhabitants of Ethiopia, not the Middle East.
Individuals of Ashkenazi Jewish descent may carry pathogenic variants for Bloom syndrome, Canavan disease, cystic fibrosis, familial dysautonomia, familial hyperinsulinism, Fanconi anemia C, Gaucher disease, glycogen storage disease type 1A, Joubert syndrome type 2, maple syrup urine disease type 1B, mucolipidosis IV, ...What are common Sephardic last names? ›
Famous surnames like Abarbanel, Benveniste, Zacuto, ibn Yahya, and Palache could be found amongst Iberian Jews in the centuries preceding the persecutions, Expulsion, and forced conversion.What is the best DNA test for Sephardic? ›
Autosomal DNA tests are best for finding more recent connections. Once you have gone back five or six generations, the amount of DNA you will have inherited from a specific ancestor makes it harder to connect it to the Sephardic community of the 18th century and beyond.What tribe do Sephardic Jews come from? ›
Sephardic Jews are Spanish Jews who were forced to convert to Catholicism or face expulsion from Spain after 1492. In this great diasporic movement, 100,000-300,000 Spanish Jews (estimates vary) left Spain and settled in different parts of Europe and the Middle East.What celebrities are Sephardic Jews? ›
- Alona Tal (1983-), Israeili singer and actress.
- Shaun Toub (1963-), Iranian-American actor.
- Isaac Touro (1738-1783), Touro College named in his honor. ...
- Judah Touro (1775-1854), American businessmen & philanthropist. ...
- Gilbert Trigano (1920-2001), French businessman, developer of Club Med.
The Genetic Structure of Ashkenazic Jews. AJs were localized to modern-day Turkey and found to be genetically closest to Turkic, southern Caucasian, and Iranian populations, suggesting a common origin in Iranian “Ashkenaz” lands (Das et al., 2016).
About half of Jewish people around the world today identify as Ashkenazi, meaning that they descend from Jews who lived in Central or Eastern Europe. The term was initially used to define a distinct cultural group of Jews who settled in the 10th century in the Rhineland in western Germany.Does Ashkenazi show up on ancestry DNA? ›
AncestryDNA offers an autosomal test and family finder tool. Their test can identify Ashkenazi/European Jewish ancestry, while other sorts of Jewish ancestries may appear as regional ethnicities.What country is Ashkenaz in the Bible? ›
Originally affiliated with the people living north of Biblical Israel (Aptroot, 2016) or north of the Black Sea (Wexler, 1991). Used in Hebrew and Yiddish sources from the Eleventh century onward to denote a region in what is now roughly Southern Germany (Wexler, 1991; Aptroot, 2016).Why did Ethiopian Jews go to Israel? ›
Many Ethiopian Jews also immigrated to Israel to flee from the civil war, famine during and after the war, as well as hostility toward Ethiopian Jews.What kind of Jews are in Ethiopia? ›
The largest Jewish group in Ethiopia is the Beta Israel, also known as Ethiopian Jews. Offshoots of the Beta Israel include the Beta Abraham and the Falash Mura, Ethiopian Jews who were converted to Christianity, some of whom have reverted to Judaism. Addis Ababa is home to a small community of Adeni Jews.What is special about Ashkenazi? ›
Most people with Ashkenazi ancestry trace their DNA to Eastern and Central Europe. But many also have Middle Eastern ancestry, which is just one reason for their genetic “uniqueness.” It's clear that people with European ancestry are genetically distinct from those of Asian or African descent.Why do doctors ask if you are Ashkenazi? ›
The Ashkenazi Jewish genetic panel can tell people if they have an increased chance of having a child with certain genetic diseases. This testing may be recommended for people with Ashkenazi Jewish heritage who plan to have children or are pregnant.Why do Ashkenazi have so many health problems? ›
Researchers think Ashkenazi genetic diseases arise because of the common ancestry many Jews share. While people from any ethnic group can develop genetic diseases, Ashkenazi Jews are at higher risk for certain diseases because of specific gene mutations.What last names are Mizrahi? ›
Mizrahi (or Mizrachi) is a sephardic surname, given to Jews who got to the Iberian Peninsula from the east or Jews who lived in the eastern side of the peninsula. Notable people with the surname include: Alon Mizrahi (born 1971), Israeli association football player.What language do Sephardic speak? ›
Ladino language, also called Judeo-Spanish, Judesmo, or Sephardi, Romance language spoken by Sephardic Jews living mostly in Israel, the Balkans, North Africa, Greece, and Turkey.
Among Orthodox Jews, the first choice is often the paternal grandfather (if he is no longer alive). On the other hand, Sephardi Jews often name their children for someone who might still be living (again, traditionally the firstborn is named after the paternal grandfather).How do I prove my Sephardic ancestry? ›
There are various things that indicate Sephardic ancestry, including one's family name (or the Sephardic family names of your ancestors), speaking Ladino in one's home (either Eastern Ladino or Western Ladino), through a genealogy, proof of one's connection to Sephardic synagogues or communities (cemeteries, ketubot, ...Which DNA test is best for Ashkenazi? ›
- For general genealogical testing, AncestryDNA, and 23andMe provide the most detailed reports about Ashkenazi heritage at the best prices.
- For Y-DNA and mtDNA testing, FamilyTreeDNA is your best option, especially compared with the health-oriented testers, like EasyDNA.
Blood tests and DNA tests will not help an individual document his or her descent from a specific Federally recognized tribe or tribal community.Do Sephardic Jews have genetic diseases? ›
In contrast, the medical genetics of Sephardic Jews and Mizrahi Jews are more complicated, since they are more genetically diverse, and consequently no genetic disorders are more common in these groups as a whole. Instead, they tend to have the genetic diseases common in their various countries of origin.Why is it called Ashkenazi? ›
The name Ashkenazi derives from the biblical figure of Ashkenaz, the first son of Gomer, son of Japhet, son of Noah, and a Japhetic patriarch in the Table of Nations (Genesis 10). The name of Gomer has often been linked to the Cimmerians.What nationality is the name Mizrahi? ›
Mizrahi Jews, also known as Oriental Jews, make up a very small Jewish ethnic group. The term Mizrahi describes Jews from North Africa, the Middle East, and Central Asia, including parts of India and Turkey. Mizrahi Jews are of Babylonian and Persian heritage. Among Mizrahi Jews was the Sassoon family of Baghdad.How genetically similar are Ashkenazi and Sephardic? ›
Atzmon said. Ashkenazic and Sephardic Jews have roughly 30 percent European ancestry, with most of the rest from the Middle East, the two surveys find. The two communities seem very similar to each other genetically, which is unexpected because they have been separated for so long.Do Sephardic Jews still speak Ladino? ›
Sephardic schools changed their language of instruction to French, and Ladino didn't remain the main language of Sephardic Jews beyond the 19th century. Yiddish became the universal language for Eastern European Jews, but Ladino never did for Sephardic Jews.Is Israel a Sephardic or Ashkenazi? ›
Among Israel's Jewish population, over 25 percent of schoolchildren and over 35 percent of all newborns are of mixed Ashkenazi and Sephardi/Mizrahi descent, and these figures have been increasing by approximately 0.5 percent annually.
There is no DNA test for Sephardic ancestry, although some companies are refining their tests for some sub-communities. Sephardim (meaning Iberian Jews) descend from both Jewish migrants to what is now Spain and Portugal in Roman times, converts, inter-marriages, adoptions, non-paternity events, etc.Do Ashkenazi live longer? ›
Researchers found that among Ashkenazi Jews, those who survived past age 95 were much more likely than their peers to possess one of two similar mutations in the gene for insulinlike growth factor 1 receptor (IGF1R).Who is the father of Ashkenazi? ›
His short stature and large face further support this hypothesis. The name of Ashoka's father – Bindusara (spotted one) also suggests the possibility of a hereditary character of the skin disorder, which is known in von Recklinghausen disease.What is the difference between Sephardic and Ashkenazi charoset? ›
What's the difference? Ashkenazi charoset is usually made from apples, walnuts, a lot of cinnamon, and sweet wine. Sephardic versions veer more toward dried fruit, balanced spices, and a variety of nuts.Is Sephardic the same as Ashkenazi kosher? ›
These two groups have the same religious beliefs, but their cooking styles are quite different. Ashkenazi foods might seem more familiar to American cooks (matzo ball soup and gefilte fish), while Sephardic foods tend to be more exotic in terms of flavor (shakshuka and hummus).Do Ashkenazi Jews have different DNA? ›
Did early Ashkenazi Jews descend from Judean Jews, or were they converts from other areas in the Mediterranean? Finally, the Ashkenazi population is genetically homogeneous today.Where is Ashkenaz in the Bible? ›
The term Ashkenaz is mentioned in the Hebrew Bible in Genesis 10:3 and 1 Chronicles 1:6 as the dwelling place of a descendant of Noah's son Japhet, ancestor of later Europeans. In Jeremiah 51:27 it seems to be part of Asia, perhaps Asia Minor, and is located northwest of Palestine.Who do the Ethiopian Jews descend from? ›
The origin of the Ethiopian Jews is unclear though most believe that they are the descendants of King Solomon and Queen Sheba. There are many theories though, some believing they are the lost tribe of Dan, while others believe they are the descendants of Christians who converted to Judaism.What color of eyes do most Jews have? ›
- According to our figures more Jewesses (64.46 percent) than.
- Jews (58.41 per cent) have dark eyes. Pure blue eyes also appear.
- to be more frequent among the men (24.08 percent) than among the.
Sephardic Jews are Spanish Jews who were forced to convert to Catholicism or face expulsion from Spain after 1492. In this great diasporic movement, 100,000-300,000 Spanish Jews (estimates vary) left Spain and settled in different parts of Europe and the Middle East.
A new Pew Research Center survey finds that nearly all Israeli Jews self-identify with one of four subgroups: Haredi (“ultra-Orthodox”), Dati (“religious”), Masorti (“traditional”) and Hiloni (“secular”).