Jewish Ethnic Groups

Instructor: Daniel McCollum

Dan has a Master's Degree in History and has taught undergraduate History

Traditionally the Jewish people were divided into two different groups with their own unique cultures; the Ashkenazim and the Sephardim. In this lesson we will look at these two and what they had in common and how they were different.


Today, those of Jewish ancestry are often divided into two separate ethnic communities, the Ashkenazim and the Sephardi. Following the crushing of the Jewish revolts against the Roman Empire in antiquity, many Jewish people were scattered throughout the Empire and the rest of the world. This community without a homeland is called the Jewish Diaspora. During the Middle Ages, they lived in modern day Germany and Spain, and began to develop their own cultures that became influential. Those Jewish peoples who trace their heritage back to Germany became the Ashkenazim and those who resided in Spain developed into the Sephardi. Although these communities began in Germany and Spain, they later emigrated throughout the rest of Europe, and later, the world, but maintained their own unique cultures to this very day.


No one knows when the first Jewish communities began to emerge in Germany. Some people believe they migrated into the region during the Early Middle Ages from Italy, while other scholars think it is more likely that they began to arrive after the region was conquered by Charlemagne. Whatever the case, by the 11th century, Germany had a vibrant and influential Jewish community. Many of their ancestors had been invited into the region by powerful lords, because many Jewish people worked as merchants, traders or bankers and it was hoped that they would be able to help improve the region's economy. Unfortunately, the wealth of the Jewish community often brought oppression as well. They were often distrusted by their Christian neighbors who accused them of sacrificing young children as part of their rituals, a belief that became known as the Blood Libel, or poisoning wells. As a result, many rulers eventually chose to expel them from their realms. Many of these expelled communities made their way east into Poland-Lithuania and, eventually, Russia, once again invited in by local rulers, or hoping to find safety and better opportunities.

Generally, the Ashkenazim became known for speaking the Yiddish language. Yiddish developed from the German spoken during the Middle Ages, but includes many loan words and other elements from Hebrew. Due to their isolation, the Ashkenazim developed several religious customs and traditions that set them apart from the Sephardi. For instance, Ashkenazim interpret kosher meat rules more liberally than the Sephardi. As the community flourished in central and eastern Europe, they produced many scholars of the Talmud who are still taught about today. The Ashkenazim also developed a very distinctive cuisine; much of what Americans consider to be traditional Jewish food, such as Matzoh Ball Soup or Gefilte. In fact, beginning in the 19th century, much of America's flourishing Jewish community was made up of members of the Ashkenazim people.


The second main ethnic group that makes up the Jewish people are the Sephardi. This group lived primarily in Spain, but maintained stronger connections to Middle Eastern culture, and for many centuries they could be found throughout Spain, North Africa and even the Ottoman Empire. The culture of the Sephardi first emerged around the year 1000 throughout Christian and Islamic Spain. Especially under Muslim rule, the community flourished and many attained high government positions. They became known as artists, poets and writers of high regard. This culture flourished until the end of the 15th century, when Manuel I of Portugal and Ferdinand and Isabella of Spain issued decrees forcing the Jewish people of their realm to either convert or be expelled. As a result, many of the Sephardi who did not convert emigrated either to North Africa or to the Ottoman Empire. Some also made it to the Netherlands, as well as North America where they formed the basis of the Jewish community in the early United States before being overwhelmed by Ashkenazim immigrants.

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