Ashkenazi Jews, also known as Ashkenazic Jews or Ashkenazim, are Jews descended from medieval Jewish communities that lived along the river Rhine in Germany. Many later migrated to the east, forming communities in countries including Hungary, Lithuania, Poland, Russia and the Ukraine between the 11th and 19th centuries CE.
Most Jewish communities with long histories in Europe are Ashkenazi, except for those in Mediterranean countries which are usually Sephardi. In 1931, Ashkenazi Jews accounted for 92% of the Jewish population of the world and account for 80% of it today. The majority of the United States 5.3 million Jews are Ashkenazi.
The name is derived from Ashkenaz, a Hebrew word for Germany which was often used in medieval rabbinic literature. In the Tanakh, Ashkenaz appears in Genesis 10.1, as the name of a grandson of Japheth, the son of Noah. Ashkenaz was taken to be an ancestor of the German people.
Jewish communities were well established in what is now France and Germany by the year 1000 CE and came to England following the Norman Conquest of 1066 CE. There were Jewish settlements in many cities along the river Rhine by the end of the 11th century CE.
Jews were expelled from England in 1290 CE, from France in 1394 CE and from parts of Germany in the 15th century CE, consequently the Jewish community was pushed steadily eastwards into Lithuania, Poland and Russia. In Eastern Europe, Jews lived largely in isolation from their gentile neighbors, maintained a strong education system for boys and placed great score in the leadership and wisdom of rabbis.
In response to anti-semitic pogroms and better economic prospects in other parts of the world, large numbers of Ashkenazim began to migrate westwards from the 18th century CE onwards. Ashkenazim have made up the majority of American Jews since 1750 CE.
More than two thirds of the Ashkenazi Jews in Europe were systematically murdered during the Holocaust. Many of the survivors would leave Europe and emigrate to Australia, Argentina, Canada, Israel or the United States after the end of the Second World war.
Distinctive religious and cultural practices
Ashkenazi and Sephardi Jews traditionally pronounce Hebrew in different ways. The Ashkenazi also have various customs and traditions that differentiate them from the Sephardim and other Jewish communities. The following are some examples of how Halachah is interpreted differently by Sephardim and Ashkenazim.
- During Pesach Ashkenazi traditionally do not eat peas, beans, lentils, millet or rice, foods which Sephardi Jews do not feel obliged to avoid.
- Sephardi Jews have stricter interpretations regarding what makes meat kosher and may reject meat which is happily accepted as kosher by Ashkenazi Jews.
- Ashkenazi Jews have traditionally been willing to prepare and eat dishes that mix fish with dairy products, considered unacceptable by Sephardi Jews.
- The newborn children of Ashkenazi Jews are often named after relatives who have already died, traditionally they are not named after relatives who are still alive. Sephardi Jews have traditionally named their children after their grandparents, regardless of whether they are alive or dead. This has caused difficulties in mixed Sephardi and Ashkenazi marriages. However, the Ashkenazi Jews of Holland have long followed the naming tradition usually exclusively associated with the Sephardim elsewhere.
The language traditionally associated with the Ashkenazi community is Yiddish, which for most of its history was the mother tongue of the majority of Ashkenazi Jews and the language that they normally used for every day communication. It remains the first language of Hasidic Jews today.
Ashkenazi Jews in North America and, to a lesser extent in the United Kingdom and other English-speaking countries, began to mix English and Yiddish in their speech. As a result, English has borrowed a number of Yiddish words, some of which have become well known even in areas where the Jewish community is relatively small. This mixture of Yiddish and English is humorously documented in Leo Rosten's 1968 book, The Joys of Yiddish.
The first language of the majority of Ashkenazi Jews today is the official language of the country in which they were born, consequently the most widely spoken languages amongst Ashkenazi Jews today are English, Modern Hebrew and Russian. Some Ashkenazim choose to use an occasional Yiddishism in order to assert their cultural identity.