The History of Jewish Diversity
The Jewish experience is built upon foundations of diversity as old as the Jewish people, a reality that may be lost to many Jews who tend to think of other Jews as being only like themselves. The historical home of the Jews lies at the geographic crossroads of Africa, Asia, and Europe. Jews are an amalgam of many peoples and Jewish origins include a multitude of languages, nations, tribes, and skin colors.
The essence of the story of the Jewish people is based on the Exodus from Egypt, where Jews sojourned for 400 years. The Exodus story is not only a metaphor for the escape from slavery to freedom; it is also a geographic journey that took the Hebrew people across the Sinai from Asia to Africa and back again. Over time, ancient Judea, Samaria, and Israel were conquered by the Babylonians, Greeks, Romans, and Turks, among others. Throughout the centuries, the Hebrews had long and deep connections with Mediterranean, European, Asian and African cultures. Today, Israel is one of the most racially, ethnically, and nationally diverse countries in the world, with immigrants from over 70 countries.
Even at their beginning, Jews were a blend of different groups. As Ephraim Isaac, Ph.D., the Ethiopian-born director of the Institute of Semitic Studies in Princeton, New Jersey, explains:
Over two thousand years ago, the Jews were an ethnic group\but even then not a “perfect” one. Since then, Jews have intermingled with many nations and absorbed many proselytes. [c] The ancient Israelites were not a racial unit but a sacral association, called an amphictyony by some scholars. They were a people bound together by a common language, and common territory, similar historical experience, and common consciousness. The Ark of the Covenant was the main sacred cult object and formed the center of worship. They had a primary unit of social and territorial organization, [c] and extended family that was then patrilineal. [c] It is the centrality of concern for the Torah revealed on Mount Sinai and the great values of our heritage that bind us together as Jews.
The story of the Jewish people is filled with interracial and intercultural mixing. After all, Israel's greatest prophet, Moses, married Zipporah, an Ethiopian. Solomon and David each took wives from Africa. Joseph married an Egyptian-an African. While so much of contemporary Jewish consciousness comes from Eastern and Central Europe, Jews have deep roots in Africa, and later in the Iberian Peninsula.
From their original homes in Asia and Africa, Jews spread across the globe. The World Jewish Congress survey of the Jewish Diaspora indicated that by the mid-16th century, Jewish communities could be found in countries as far-flung as Jamaica, Brazil, Yemen, Afghanistan, Ethiopia, Uganda, India, and China, as well as in many countries in Europe. Even today, the World Jewish Congress identifies 120 countries with a Jewish community and it does not include all that we know about.
Scholars have studied some Jewish population migrations more than others-to Central and Eastern Europe, for example. Others are less well known. The migrations throughout Africa are almost completely lost to historical analysis, and the movement of the Anusim (Conversos) to the New World has not been well analyzed.
Today, the Jews that live in the other countries around the globe are as varied as the countries themselves. Some are immigrant communities that may look different from the surrounding populations in which they find themselves, as well as Jews who are, at first glance, hard to distinguish from the larger communities in which they live. Just as is happening in the United States, France, or Argentina today, from their earliest days Jews around the world married local people, and, as a result, they came to resemble the people around them. Still, they retained their Jewish identities and religious observances; only they did so with a local accent and flavor, reflected in dress, language, cultures, and food.
As would be expected, the cultures of diverse Jews reflect the regions in which they live. Food is a good example. According to the Book of Jewish Food by Claudia Roden, an Egyptian Jew who lives in London:
Jewish food tells the story of an uprooted, migrating people. [c] There is really no such thing as Jewish food. [c] Local regional food becomes Jewish when it travels with Jews to new homelands. [c] The main influence on the development and shaping of their cuisine was their mobility. [c] Jews moved to escape persecution or economic hardship, or for trade. [c] The vehicles of gastronomic knowledge were merchants and peddlers, traveling rabbis, preachers and teachers, students and cantors, professional letter carriers, beggars (who were legion), and pilgrims on their way to and from the Holy Land. [c] It is possible, by examining family dishes, to define the identity and geographical origin of a family line.
Ethiopian Jews, like non-Jewish Ethiopians, eat their food with injera, flat, spongy bread used to scoop up purees lentils, vegetables, and other spicy stews. In the south of India, the Jews of Cochin make curries with chilies and coconut, ingredients not found in typical Ashkenazi kitchens. None of this should be a surprise, since Ashkenazi cooking reflects its Eastern and Central European origins as well.
The similarities among these communities are as significant as the differences. While Asian, African, and Latin American Jews are racially and ethnically different from European Jews, they wear kippot and tallitot, read Hebrew and chant Torah. They hold Shabbat services, have rabbis as their spiritual leaders, and say the blessings over bread and wine on Shabbat. They have synagogues and mikvot. Many Jews may look different from their fellow Jews of European origin, but they pray to the same God and consider themselves part of the same people. Jews are diverse, yet they are tied to each other historically and religiously.
The majority of Jews in the United States are Ashkenazi, mainly from Eastern Europe. However, even the great variety of European cultures from which most American Jews descended is understood only in a cursory way. Few realize how complex and varied the communities were from place to place, the distinct nature of Hungarian Jews, Polish Jews, Greek Jews, and many others.
Even less is known about Mizrahi Jews (Jews of the Arab world) and the rich societies that once thrived in Yemen, Iran, or Iraq. Relatively few people know about the ancient communities of Jews in India, despite Jews having lived there for centuries.
This web site provides a brief overview of some better known and lesser-known Jewish communities. Additionally, there are examples of newer and emerging communities that are in transition to Judaism. They illustrate the scope and variety of diversity of Jews around the world.
How Do We Define “Jewish Diversity”
Just as Ashkenazi Jews are a mix of many peoples encountered during centuries of wandering throughout the Diaspora, Jews of color have different backgrounds, different life experiences, and different perspectives on their relationship to Judaism. These differences include geography, socioeconomic class, ideology, culture, skin tone, language, paths to Judaism, and so on. What language can be used to describe multi-racial and multi-ethnic Jews? What about those who are adopted from Asia by Ashkenazi parents? How would one categorize Indian Jews? Some African Americans whose families have been Jewish for over 100 years prefer to be known as “Hebrew Israelites,” feeling that “Jew” refers to whites. Still other African American Jews have joined mainstream synagogues. What about the Anusim (known also as Conversos or Crypto-Jews), who were forced to convert to Catholicism in Spain and Portugal over 500 years ago
How do we talk about ourselves when the language we have is too narrow and confining, like outdated racial categories on a census form? How do we describe a group for which there is no group label?
We must use what is admittedly inadequate language: “Jews of color,” “diverse Jews,” “racially and ethnically diverse Jews.” All of these terms refer to those who are in currently distinct subcultures from the majority different from non-sephardic European backgrounds. Many people who fall into this category may not define themselves as “people of color.” Yet they may feel marginalized and many in the mainstream may see diverse Jews as being “other.” Whatever their origins and culture, whatever their skin tone, whatever their path to Judaism, we include them in our discussions of Jewish diversity.