It is not uncommon to refer collectively to Jews as an ethnic group. However, the history and contemporary reality of the Jewish community is much more complex. Within the Jewish community there are cultural and ethnic divisions that speak to the complex, diverse global history of the Jewish people. Even as you read through some of the broad categories that exist, it is critical to remember that in modern society, especially in the United States, identity is fluid. Individuals may or may not identify fully or in part with any or all of these categories.
Sephardi, Ashkenazi, and Mizrahi are the three largest and broadest Jewish ethnic catagories, that encompass significant populations that have existed across large geographic areas. We also recognize that these groups include myriad subdivisions which are not fully recognized here. Information about subdivisions or smaller Jewish ethnic grouping, such as Ethiopian or Indian Jews, can be found on this site listed by the country of origin.
With time, the lines between these main groups has blurred considerably. The historic disruptions of the Inquisition, the Holocaust and the expulsions of Jews from Arab lands in response to the founding of the State of Israel, have brought these groups into increased contact. This together with increasing freedom to choose identity further complicates the distinct lines that separated these historic groupings.
For centuries, one of the strongest and most powerful Jewish communities could be found on the Iberian Peninsula, in the geographic area known among Jews by its Hebrew name Sepharad. The 8th through the 12th centuries were known as a Golden Age of Jewish life in Spain. The community had a strong religious, intellectual and cultural life. The reconquest of Spain and its reunification under Isabel and Fernando in 1492 resulted in the expulsion of the Jewish community of 200,000 from Spain. And in 1496, in Portugal, tens of thousands of others were forcibly converted to Christianity under threat of death.
Of those who fled, many settled in North Africa, the Netherlands, Turkey and Greece, where they set up smaller but vibrant communities. Others ventured as far as the New World, only to encounter the long reach of the Inquisition as part of Spanish and Portuguese colonialism. Living under the dangerous gaze of the Inquisition, in Europe or abroad, many Jews abandoned their religious heritage while others were observant in secret.
Sephardic Jews traditionally spoke Ladino, a Judeo-Spanish dialect. However, as they dispersed away from the Iberian Peninsula, the maintenance of Ladino varied greatly community to community. And while specifically Sephardic liturgical elements carried across geographic regions, each community came to develop its own takes on ritual, cuisine and culture.
During the Holocaust, Sephardic communities in Greece, Holland and the former Yugoslavia were largely destroyed. The founding of the State of Israel in 1948 brought voluntary and involuntary exodus of those Sephardic Jews who lived in Arab lands. Today, large Sephardic communities can be found in Israel, France, and the United States.
The term Sephardic today is commonly used to speak about Mizrahi Jews who do not have historical ties to the Iberian Peninsula.
The term Ashkenazi broadly refers to Jews who trace their roots to Central and Eastern Europe. Though the word Ashkenaz draws from the biblical name of the first son of a prophetic figure, the term came over time to be associated in the middle ages with the lands of the Rhine where Jews first settled before moving eastward over the centuries. Ashkenazi Jews developed their own interpretations of religious traditions and modes of prayer. In Europe, Ashkenazi Jews often spoke Yiddish, a language that blends Hebrew and German. Across the continent, customs, food, dress and culture varied some and could at time be points of contention between Jews. There was mass migration out of Europe, dominantly to the United States but also to South America and Israel in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. This shift in location diminished the importance of this variety. And with the destruction of European Jewry in the Holocaust, the regional variations were like the communities that had embodied them, largely destroyed. Today, the majority of Jews in North America and South America trace their historic roots to the broadly defined lands of Ashkenaz. In contrast to its historic complexity, Ashkenazi identity in the United States has largely become synonymous with American Jewish culture as it was forged on the Lower East Side of Manhattan at the turn of the 20th century. For example, foods such as mazto balls, gefilte fish, braided challah bread, pickles, herring, noodle kugels, borscht, bagels and lox, which once represented regional diversity and customs, have become generally accepted in the United States as symbols of general Ashkenazi foods. Other cultural and religious elements generally associated with Ashkenzi identity include Klezmer music, Yiddish, and Hassidim.
Contemporary Ashkenazi Jews may identify with some elements of what it means to be Askenazi but not embracing others. For example a religious Jew may follow Ashkenazi religious practice but not engage with the culinary or musical traditions. Jews who do not have historical familial ties with European Jewry may similarly choose to identify partially or completely with Ashkenazi identity. Conversely, Jews with historic familial ties to the lands of Ashkenaz may not actively identify as Ashkenazi. For example an American Jew may pray with Sephardic liturgy but eat bagels lox and listen to klezmer music. Overwhelmingly, but by no means exclusively, Ashkenazi Jews are white.
The term “Mizrahi,” which means “Eastern,” dates from the time of the establishment of the State of Israel and refers to Jews from a wide range of unrelated Arab Jewish communities. Mizrahi Jews are of Middle East origin and generally self-identify as “Arab Jews,” or by their country of origin, e.g. “Iraqi Jew,” “Tunisian Jew,” “Iranian Jew,” etc., and retain particular traditions and practices. Many Mizrahi now follow the liturgical traditions of the Sephardi and are sometimes colloquially referred to as Sephardic Jews. Many Mizrahi may consider it culturally inaccurate to label them as Sephardic, even if some Mizrahi themselves have come to accept this generalized classification.
Until their exile after the birth of the State of Israel, there had been an uninterrupted presence of large Jewish communities in Arab lands from ancient times. The history of Jews with origins in North African and Middle Eastern countries like Morocco, Tunisia, Yemen, Iran, and Iraq was one of maintaining Jewish identities despite centuries of intermittent prosperity and persecution. Today, however, 99% of this ancient population no longer resides in the lands where they lived for thousands of years. Jews were stripped of their citizenship in Egypt, Iraq, Algeria, and Libya; detained or arrested in Algeria, Yemen, Syria, Libya, Iraq, and Egypt; deprived of employment by government decrees in Egypt, Iraq, Libya, Syria, Yemen, and Algeria, and had their property confiscated in all of the Arab lands except Morocco. The largest population of Mizrahim can today be found in Israel with smaller groups in France, Canada, and the United States.