Jewish history is an incredible subject. Being one of the oldest still practiced religions in the world, and also being the foundation of a vibrant array of cultures, and is found all over the world, from the United States to France, to Morocco, to India, and even Australia!
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But something that can sometimes surprise people, is that Jewishness is not just a religion or a culture. It’s also known as an ethnicity!
When people learn this, it opens up a whole new world of questions. For example, does this mean you could have some Jewish ancestors in your ancestry? Do they come from Europe, as some of your relatives did? Or did they come from elsewhere?
With such a huge list of questions to answer, we hope that this guide we’ve compiled will help you out a little.
It will cover where Jewish people have come from in history, as well as the many groups that you might find today, as well as some advice on how to get started finding your own heritage.
Jewish People Across The World
As we’ve already touched on, Jewish people can be found all over the world. But virtually all Jewish communities originated from the Fertile Crescent area of the Middle East, on the east coast of the Mediterranean.
Sandwiched between the ancient kingdoms of Ancient Egypt and Babylonia, regional centers of power and culture in the bronze age and pre-classical world in their own right, many elements from these would be assimilated into what you eventually become the original Jewish people and religion.
However, the destruction of Solomon’s temple, the first temple of Jerusalem, in the first millennium BC, saw an end to the original Kingdoms of Israel and Judah.
Many Jewish people were forced to either flee their homeland or were conquered by the Neo-Babylonian Empire in the 6th century.
This is the first example of a trend that would occur frequently throughout Jewish history, where a diaspora of Jewish people would, for whatever reason, be forced to either flee a land they had been living in or be forced to live under a new dominant political power.
Explaining over two and a half thousand years of history in a short time is pretty exhaustive, so this trend is an important tool to understand why Jewish people can be found all over the world.
Jewish People In Europe
These diasporas of Jews would be affected, both in positive and negative ways, by the political powers and cultures of the lands they would settle in.
For those Jewish communities that fled the Babylonian invasion, they would eventually settle across Europe, finding both refuge and persecution with many of the local powers as they came and went.
The Hellenistic Greek states and Roman Empires would define much of Jewish history in Europe, with the destruction of the Second Temple of Jerusalem.
Following the collapse of the Roman Empire, the further fracturing of these communities would continue through to the Middle and Modern Ages that followed, with the treatment of Jewish people varying wildly depending on the period and place they found themselves in.
Jewish People In The Middle East
For those that stayed in the Middle East, the Jewish people would face a similar, yet very different story.
Whilst the Jewish diaspora that remained would find some reprieve under the Achaemenid Persian Empire, who helped finance and rebuild the Second Temple of Jerusalem, their proximity to the Roman Empire, and the disintegration of several Persian Empires in that time meant that the area around Babylon would become a major center of Jewish culture, rather than Jerusalem.
The Early Muslim rule in the area did bring with it a brief Golden Age for Jewish culture and Religion, where Jewish people rose to high positions in the sciences, philosophy, and cultures.
However, the positioning of the Middle East also meant that it would become the center of many conflicts between the nations and empires that would come to dominate the region, such as the many Crusader wars that would take place on the west Arabian Coastline in and around Jerusalem, the Mongol invasion.
The treatment of the Jewish diaspora would also start to vary as the larger states and powers become more regional, with some Jewish communities moving across North Africa, the southern Mediterranean, and into southwest Asia.
This is to say, that the reason that many Jewish people are found around the world, is as much out of necessity, as it can feel like a coincidence.
Kinds Of Jewish Ancestry
As we talked about in the previous section, the treatment and, in some cases, persecution of the Jewish people means that, throughout history, it has been possible to find communities across a massive geographical range, especially for a single religious and cultural group.
And because of rules and legislations in man of the places they settled in often isolated them from living with and marrying none-Jewish people, most communities eventually become genetically isolated over the years, creating what we would now consider being distinct Jewish ethnic identities.
The groups that are the most widely recognized in the modern world are the following three.
If you are looking for Jewish communities in Europe, the most likely group you will find is Ashkenazi Jews.
Originally most prominent in Central Europe, particularly in what is today modern Germany, France, and Poland, though at the time would have been known as the Holy Roman Empire, not to confused with the classical Roman Empire.
They had likely been a part of several waves that had been moved during late Hellenic Greek and the Roman Empire. Many would end up settling in what was then known as Gaul, where they faced sporadic persecution from local Christian kingdoms and communities.
The famous Frank King Charlemagne eventually helped ease tensions in his lifetime, allowing Jewish people greater freedom they had not had since the classical period, with almost consistent documentation continuing to the present day.
Aside from whatever regional language most Jewish people would learn in their local area, the dominant Jewish language was that of Yiddish, a combination of the classic Hebrew language, with elements of Aramaic, with a heavy influence of High German, an older form of what would influence the modern language family that includes German, Austrian, and Belgian.
Unfortunately, the number of people who speak and write Yiddish sharply fell in the 20th century, as many of the Jewish people who were murdered in the Holocaust were Yiddish-speaking people and communities, making up around 85% of the total number of Jews killed.
This, coupled with a massive refugee crisis that displaced many other Jewish people, and many who have since emigrated and fled to other parts of the world, also caused numbers to decline further.
Based on research that has been done since the 1990s, it is generally accepted that most Ashkenazi Jews are descended from an ethnicity that diverges from other Jewish heritages around 2500 years ago, which would actually place the divergence around the time of the First Temple of Jerusalem being destroyed by the Neo-Babylonians!
Amongst some of the most famous Ashkenazi Jewish people, is the renowned physician Albert Einstein, one of the most influential scientists of the 20th century, and of all time.
Sephardi Jews are another widely recognized Jewish diaspora. Sephardi were a group of Jewish people who had settled in and around the Iberian Peninsula during the Golden Age of Islamic Spain, where they found a level of tolerance and acceptance that was rare in other parts of Europe.
However, after the Edict of Expulsion in 1492 by the Catholic Church, many Jewish people were forced to convert to Christianity, or expelled from their historic homeland.
This lead to a diaspora that was forced to spread across much of North Africa, across much of the Arabic-speaking world in what are now Algeria, Morocco, Tunisia, and Libya, amongst many others, mingling with the Mizrahi Jewish folk of the respective areas where possible.
Since 1948, the founding of Israel, many Sephardi have emigrated to the new country, or to France and the US. The dominant language spoken amongst these communities is a family of Judeo-Spanish languages, often called Ladino.
Whilst it is considered a Romance language, it has influences from all across the Mediterranean, with influence from Arabic, Hebrew, Turkish, and even French, as well as from Old Spanish. Variations on the language popped up in virtually every Sephardi community along the North African coast.
From a genetics perspective, most Sephardi Jewish people come from ethnicities from the Middle East, and well as North Africa and Southern Europe.
Mizrahi Jews are a relatively recently recognized group when compared to the other two we have talked about, though it has just as much history like them.
This group of Jewish People has historically been found in the middle east, where they have lived in a variety of ways for over 2 thousand years! Because of the Golden Age of Islam, it has also been possible to find historical Jewish communities from this group all across North Africa.
Not only that, but some communities of this diaspora have even moved Eastward, into lands all across West Asia. There was even an active presence of Jewish people in India for hundreds of years. In fact, it is considered one of the oldest foreign religions to the subcontinent!
Jerry Seinfeld, the American actor and comedian, is just one of many notable people who come from Mizrahi heritage and family lines.
From a genetics perspective, many communities from across the Middle East and beyond have been centered around the Levant, with many overlaps between Ashkenazi and Sephardi Jews, as well as those from their own region.
This has only assured researchers more that this overlap with other ethnicities, implies that the Arabian Peninsula, like many Jewish records confirm, has always had a Jewish population.
Are Jewish People An Ethnicity, Or A Religion?
The simple answer is: Yes!
Now, that can seem like a clear contradiction at first. Surely, if you practice Judaism, then you are a Jewish person? But then, why do so many people who don’t follow Judaism still identify as Jewish
The more complicated answer is that because Judaism, the religion, has for so long been associated with the culture and people that practice it.
For many families, the traditions and rules that have been a part of their lives for generations are as much are part of them as the religion is, if not more so. This is why you might have heard some people refer to Jews as an ‘ethnoreligious’ group.
What Is Considered ‘European Jewish?
As we mentioned in a previous part of this article, the Jewish ethnicities with the largest ties to Europe are Ashkenazi Jews, who have had a history within the continent since the classical era.
However, this isn’t to say that there weren’t other European Jewish ethnicities in Europe. As nations and empires rose and fell, groups of the Sephardi and Mizrahi people would travel from the Middle East and North Africa into Southern Europe, meeting and mingling with the local Jewish communities and vice versa.
This can cause something of a headache for geneticists who want to try and find out where groups of people were at certain points in history.
Generally speaking, if you can trace your Jewish ancestry back further than the 9th century CE, it is quite likely Ashkenazi, although you’ll be surprised how far people could travel in the Middle Ages, even without cars or engines!
How To Find Out If You Have Jewish Ancestry.
If you think you might have European Jewish heritage, the first thing you might want to try is talking to any living family relatives you have.
Your parents, aunt, uncles, and grandparents, may all have some interesting pieces of information on your family history, about another, more distant relative you might not have heard of. Even if it doesn’t help to find any conclusive answers, the history you might uncover is its own reward.
However, trying to find any European Jewish ancestry you might have through word-of-mouth might be a little tricky. Not only can information about distant family relations become hard to follow, but it can also be especially hard to follow if the name you’re given for a family relative isn’t the one they are born with.
Many Jewish people throughout history, as a way of avoiding different kinds of antisemitism and persecution, have had their names changed from more traditional Jewish names to other names that would fit in better with the local culture and language they were living with.
Probably the most definitive way of finding out if you have European Jewish ancestry is through using a DNA test. A trusted DNA test provider will most likely reveal some interesting results from your family Ancestry!
As you can see, trying to track your Jewish heritage is nothing short of a Herculean task. But the answers you find along the way will be as much an education of the world that your ancestors lived in, as much as it will be about finding out about your family. It can often be as much a way of finding out how they lived as a diary.
We hope you find the personal diary of your ancestors, and that you found this guide helpful. Or informative, if nothing else!