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 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. Worldwide, Jews from distinct geographic regions vary greatly in their diet, language, dress, and folk customs. Most pre-modern Diaspora communities are categorized into three 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
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.
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