Who Are Ashkenazi 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.

Ashkenazi Jews are the Jewish ethnic identity most readily recognized by North Americans — the culture of matzah balls, black-hatted Hasidim and Yiddish. This ethnicity 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.


READ: Ashkenazic Cuisine


Eventually, the vast majority of Ashkenazi Jews 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.

Hasidic Jewish women with covered hair in Manhattan. (Bonnie Natko/Flickr)
Hasidic Jewish women in Manhattan. (Bonnie Natko/Flickr)

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.

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