Different Kinds of Jews, Part I: Jewish Cultural Identity and the Diversity Therein

So this is actually “from the archives”; a kind of “revamp” of a letter I sent Josep about a year ago, including my answer to a follow-up question he asked. I expanded it a bit and decided to split it into two entries. In this entry, I will address Jewish cultural identity, and ethnic subgroups within Judaism (edot), and in the next entry, I will discuss religious denominations and “spiritual approach (Hassidism vs. non-Hassidism)”.

Now, before I proceed I must make a big disclaimer: this is a two-part blog series, not a book, and therefore these categorizations are going to be extremely general. There are many groups and subgroups that will not be mentioned because this is a vast topic that could (and does) fill several books, and I’m sticking to the ones that are most prominent and well-known. I thereby apologize in advance to any member of any group that is not properly addressed in the categories that follow–and invite you to mention it in the comments, and to write us a guest letter to tell us about your community.


Dear Josep,

You asked: It has always struck me how Judaism is both a religion and a cultural group. How can you differentiate those? And how do you live those discrepancies?

As an observant Jew, I don’t differentiate them. They are completely interlocked.

Let me put it to you as an allegory. I would use Catalonia as an example but your weird political situation makes things messy. 😛 Let’s say you were born in Italy to Italian parents. So for you, being an Italian means two things: 1) that you are part of the Italian nation/ethnic group, and 2) you are a resident of Italy. As an ethnic Italian, you are Italian no matter where you were born or where you choose to live. That’s simply your DNA, and the culture of your parents. As a citizen of Italy, however, you enjoy certain rights and responsibilities, just by right of the fact that you were born there. So in this context, you can either be a “good” Italian citizen, who abides by the laws of his country, or a “bad” Italian citizen, who doesn’t follow the laws of his country. Still, no matter what you do, you will always be Italian, whether you’re a good citizen or not.

Now, I am not an ethnic Italian and I never will be. But say I decided that I wanted to become a Italian citizen. I can’t simply declare myself Italian because I identify with the Italian cause, am a fan of Michelangelo and Vivaldi, and enjoy pizza. 😛 I would either have to have been born there, or I would have to undergo a process of absorption and live up to certain criteria–living there for a certain number of years, etc., and of course observe the laws of the place, before I would be accepted as a citizen by the Italian government and start to enjoy my rights.

So… being a Jew first and foremost means that you were born into the Jewish nation. That you are a descendant of Israel (Jacob). (You know why we’re called Jews, right? The whole thing with the split kingdoms of Judah and Israel and the ten tribes who were lost to history?) God did not select us as a group with a common faith, but as a people with a common DNA. He gave the Torah to us as a sort of national contract, kind of like a constitution. We accepted it upon ourselves as a nation, and therefore we, as a nation, are obligated to keep it. So you can think of the faith aspect of Judaism as a “spiritual citizenship” that is unique to the Jewish cultural group. Being born into the Jewish nation automatically grants you the rights and responsibilities of that “citizenship”. Whether you choose to uphold those responsibilities does not change your ethnic status. A person born to a Jewish mother will always remain a Jew in my eyes no matter what faith he professes. But as a Jew I believe he has certain obligations that he is not upholding if he does not keep halakha (Jewish law). A person who was not born to a Jewish mother, however, does not have any obligation to keep the Torah, as he was not born into the “spiritual kingdom” of Judaism, and is therefore not bound by its constitution.

Having said that Judaism is a cultural identity, the fact that we have been scattered among the nations for so long means that there is great ethnic diversity within the unified ethnicity of Judaism. We call these subgroups edot.

Ethnic Subgroups within Judaism

The main differences between the different ethnic subgroups, in terms of Jewish practice, are prayer liturgies and varying customs in how to perform the mitzvot (commandments). But we are all Jews: we all observe the same holidays, keep kosher, and mostly, our lifestyles and beliefs are very similar. One reason Jews were so successful in business historically is that we maintained ties with our brethren throughout the world; we had more in common with each other than with the surrounding population. Some edot have holidays or traditions that are specific to them, like the Moroccan Maimuna and the Ethiopian Sigd, but the major holidays are the same. Israel is kind of a “melting pot” of all these different cultures, and you’ll find a lot of Jews marrying into other ethnic subgroups and creating interesting hodgepodges of these traditions and customs. As you may have noticed about me, I find other cultures fascinating and love to learn about the different kinds of Jews there are and how they do things differently.

Anyway, here are the general ethnic categories:

Ashkenazi

“Ashkenaz” is the Hebrew word for what is now known as the general area of Germany/Austria. However, the term Ashkenazi refers to all Jews of Eastern European descent, including German/Austrian, Russian, Polish, Lithuanian, Latvian, etc. An overwhelming majority ofJews today are Ashkenazi–somewhere between 70%-80%.

Anyway, as you know, both Eitan and I are Ashkenazi Jews. My ancestors came from Ukraine, Poland, and Russia. Eitan’s also came from those general areas, as well as Austria. Most American Jews are Ashkenazi, whereas about 45% of Israeli Jews are Ashkenazi.

Also known as the inventors of Gefilte Fish. ...which, contrary to what popular culture may have you believe, is NOT the pinnacle of Jewish cuisine. Ashkenazi cuisine is the most boring and bland of all the Jewish cuisines!
Also known as the inventors of Gefilte Fish.
…which, contrary to what popular culture may have you believe, is NOT the pinnacle of Jewish cuisine. Ashkenazi cuisine is the most boring and bland of all the Jewish cuisines!
Gefilte Fish – AlefAlef“ by Eigenes Werk. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 through Wikimedia Commons.

Sephardi

“Sepharad” is the Hebrew word for this Mediterranean peninsula:

This place. Something tells me you've heard of it.
Something tells me you’ve heard of it.

You can find it referred to this way in the last few books of the Jewish Bible, so I believe the term predates even the term Hispania. In modern Hebrew, it refers to modern Spain.

In general, people tend to refer to Jews as being either Ashkenazi or Sephardi, and this is not quite accurate, as you’ll see in a moment. The reason North African, Middle Eastern and Eastern Jews tend to be referred to as Sephardi is because after the expulsion, the Spanish Jews who were forced to move to those places completely dominated the culture. So the next category–Mizraḥi–overlaps with Sephardi in some places. Sephardi Jews–at least in the pre-Holocaust days–could be found in Italy, Holland, Greece, Turkey, and the Balkans as well as North Africa.

I should mention here that Roman Jews in Italy are sort of a category of their own in terms of customs and liturgy. But they are a pretty small minority.

Mizrahi

“Mizraḥ” means “east”, and this is a general term used in Israel to refer to Jews of North African, Middle Eastern or Eastern descent. This includes Moroccan, Algerian, Tunisian, Libyan, Egyptian and native Israeli Jews (a.k.a. ones who lived in Israel before the establishment of the State and the “ingathering of the exiles”), though as I mentioned many of these are also considered Sephardim; Indian Jews; Yemenite Jews; Iraqi and Iranian Jews; Kurdish Jews; Bukharan Jews, etc. etc. Each one of these groups has distinct characteristics… and, of course, cuisine 😉

Now that's what I'm talkin' about. Moroccan cuisine is my favorite!
Now that’s what I’m talkin’ about. Jewish Moroccan cuisine is my favorite!
MoroccanCouscous” by KhonsaliOwn work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

The reason that Sephardim and Mizraḥim make up a majority of Israeli Jews even though Ashkenazim are such an overwhelming majority is what you probably know from spending time in the countries of their origins: these places are very hostile to Jews these days. Many Mizraḥim were forcibly expelled from their countries of origin when Israel was founded. Talk about a refugee problem. Some of them had to be rescued by the IDF, like the Yemenites and the Iraqis.

I want to specifically mention Bnei Minashe, a group from India that claims to be descended from the tribe of Menashe (one of the ten tribes that vanished after the first exile). Many of them converted and moved to Israel. There is a significant community of them in Kiryat Arba, the settlement right next to Hebron.

Ethiopian (Beta Israel)

The story of the Ethiopian Jews is a really amazing one. It is believed that the community first moved to Ethiopia during the time of King Solomon, and they were eventually cut off from the rest of the Jewish world, but they maintained many Jewish practices, including reading the Torah, keeping kashrut, and observing the Sabbath. They referred to themselves as Beta Israel, the house of Israel. There is speculation that they are descended from another of the lost ten tribes–the tribe of Dan. But because they were cut off from all the Talmudic/rabbinical responsa, they did not observe many of the rabbinical laws that became part of Jewish tradition later. (For instance, they did not celebrate Purim or Chanukah.) They were officially recognized by the Israeli Rabbinate as Jews a few decades ago, and many of them were brought to Israel via airlift. They did have to undergo a symbolic conversion process to counter any doubts that remained (because there was some controversy about it in the Rabbinate), but most Ethiopian Jews in Israel today are considered completely Jewish.

Ethiopian Israeli women at the Western Wall in their traditional white dress and colorful headscarves.
Ethiopian Israeli women at the Western Wall in traditional festive dress.
Women at kotel“. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

Chinese/Kaifeng Jews

Yes, believe it or not, there is a small Jewish community in China that dates back hundreds and hundreds of years, which grew when Jews fled Europe during the wars. I have never met anyone from this community, but apparently they exist…

…So as you can see, there is great ethnic diversity within the global Jewish community. And if anyone wants to argue that we are racist for not allowing intermarriage, s/he’ll have to contend with the fact that a white Jew has much less of an issue marrying an Ethiopian, Yemenite, or Indian Jew than a white non-Jew. But I know you know the intermarriage thing isn’t about race or any sense of superiority, but about preserving Jewish continuity–as we discussed it in the past. Not to say that racism isn’t a problem among Jews–just like it is among everybody else. :-/ Here in Israel, it’s much more accepted than in the USA to stigmatize and make jokes about ethnic stereotypes. Ethiopians tend to deal with the worst of it. (There have been a number of big protests recently about racism against Ethiopian Israelis, and I hope that the dialogue on the topic that was created as a result will help improve the situation.) But Jews do tend to identify with people who have experienced similar struggles, and many Jews were involved in the Civil Rights movement in USA during the 60’s for this reason.

That concludes part I. Next week, God willing, we’ll tackle religious denominations and Hassidism.

Love,

Daniella


Click here to read Part II!

 

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