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.
Ancient Religious Groups
Since the biblical period, Jews have been divided into three religious groups:
The descendants of the sons of Aaron who served as priests in the Temple in Jerusalem;
The descendants of the tribe of Levi, who also worked in the Temple as musicians, singers, guards, and gatekeepers; and
Those from the other 11 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.
Ethnicities: Ashkenazi, Sephardic, Mizrahi Etc.
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 Mizrahi Jews originally faced severe discrimination in Israel because they were seen as provincial, they are now gaining more acceptance in Israeli society.
In addition, a community of Jews has lived in Ethiopia for more than 1,000 years. The majority of Ethiopian Jews immigrated to Israel in the 1980s and ’90s, where many continue to observe a number of distinct practices and customs. Like the Mizrahi Jews before them, Ethiopian Israelis have encountered discrimination and have had to adapt to a very different culture.
There are also numerous Jewish communities in Africa, such as the Abayudaya community in Uganda. In addition, in the United States, the increasing popularity of intermarriage, interracial adoption and conversion has fostered a growing population of Jews of color, particularly Jews with Asian, Latino and African ancestry.
Jews vary dramatically in their approach to Jewish traditions, laws and ritual observance. In the United States, the major religious streams of Judaism are Reform, Conservative, Orthodox and Reconstructionist. The Orthodox population is itself quite diverse, with numerous subgroups, such as ultra-Orthodox or haredi Orthodox (a group that includes Hasidic Jews), centrist Orthodox and Modern Orthodox. Many Jews do not identify with any one denomination, instead describing themselves as “nondenominational,” “transdenominational,” “post-denominational” or “just Jewish.”
Semites and Anti-Semitism
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 descendants 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. Both Hebrew and Arabic (along with Amharic, the language spoken in Ethiopia) are classified as Semitic languages. Indeed, it is not uncommon for Palestinians and other Arabs to insist they cannot be anti-Semitic, because they are themselves Semites.
Pronounced: hah-RAY-dee, Origin: Hebrew, literally “in awe of” or “fearing” God, this means ultra-Orthodox or fervently Orthodox.
Pronounced: meez-RAH-khee, Origin: Hebrew for Eastern, used to describe Jews of Middle Eastern descent, such as Jews from Iraq and Syria.
Pronunced: TORE-uh, Origin: Hebrew, the Five Books of Moses.