Types of Jews

For good and for bad, Jews tend to be thought of as a single homogenous group. But the Jewish people have always had internal distinctions, and over the years have developed diverse ethnic and religious identities.

Since the biblical period, Jews have been divided into three religious groups: Kohanim (priests), the descendents of the sons of Aaron who served as priests in the Temple in Jerusalem; Levites, the descendents of the tribe of Levi, who also worked in the Temple as musicians, singers, guards, and gatekeepers; and Israelites (Yisraelim), those from the other 12 tribes.

The vast majority of today’s Jews are Israelites, but Kohanim and Levites still have a few distinguishing features. Kohanim are subject to some restrictions on whom they may marry and are forbidden from coming into contact with corpses. They also receive the first aliyah when the Torah is read. Levites receive the second aliyah during Torah reading, and are exempt from redeeming their first born sons.

Jews from different parts of the world have developed distinct cultures and customs. Jews from Germany and Eastern Europe are known as Ashkenazim. Much of what, in America, is thought of as Jewish–bagels, Yiddish, black hats–are actually specific to Ashkenazi culture.

Jews from Spain, the Iberian Peninsula and the Spanish Diaspora are known as Sephardim. Starting in the eighth century, they enjoyed a "Golden Age" of harmony with Christians and Muslims in Spain that lasted for about 200 years. When Jews were exiled from Spain and Portugal at the end of the 15th century, they fled to other areas of the world, bringing their unique traditions, including their language–Ladino–with them.

Mizrahim, or Oriental Jews originate primarily from Iraq, Persia (Iran), and Yemen, but can be found everywhere from Morocco to Calcutta. Though Mizrahim originally faced severe persecution in Israel because they were seen as provincial, they are now gaining more acceptance in Israeli society.

As a whole, Jews are sometimes referred to as Semites, but this can be misleading. This term originally comes from the Bible, referring to Shem, one of Noah’s sons. The Jewish people are thought to be descendents of Shem, a view that was widely accepted for a long time, but had no scientific backing. In modern times, anti-Semitism is understood to be anti-Jewish activities, but a Semite is not a technical term, and can refer to anyone from the Middle East.

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