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.
Pronounced: meez-RAH-khee, Origin: Hebrew for Eastern, used to describe Jews of Middle Eastern descent, such as Jews from Iraq and Syria.
Pronounced: seh-FAR-dik, Origin: Hebrew, describing Jews descending from the Jews of Spain.