Writing Jewish Characters: Groups in Judaism Part II

Updated: Jan 27

Hey everyone, it’s time for the second part of this series on Groups in Judaism.  Last time we covered sects, this time we’re covering locational/ethnic groups.  Like last time, we’re sticking to relatively modern divisions, though the history in this case is more important, as the groups are generally sorted by where they were between approximately the years 1000 and 1500 CE.


There are three major divisions, plus a number of smaller ones – and all of these groups overlap at least somewhat. But it’s still useful to know the major groups.




Ashkenazi Jews


Ashkenazi Jews are the largest group, making up somewhere between 70 and 80% of the world Jewish population – and 90% of the Jewish population prior to the Holocaust, as the vast majority of the Jews killed in the Holocaust were Ashkenazi.  As a note, I am fully Ashkenazi (my ancestors lived in various locations in Eastern Europe including Russia, Poland, and the Austro-Hungarian Empire) and so most of my familiarity is with this group.


Ashkenazi Jews are descended from Jews who ended up in France and Germany around the years 800-1000 and then slowly headed east (through eastern Europe, into Russia) as religious persecution hit in various places and various times.  The word Ashkenazi comes from a number of Biblical peoples/locations, but was used in the medieval period to refer to what is now Germany – which is where this group gets their name.


A bit under half of the Jews in Israel are Ashkenazi… but Israel sometimes groups all Jews of European origin (including many who should be identified as Sephardi) under the header Ashkenazi.  Due to migrations (primarily after the pogroms in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, along with the pre- and post-Holocaust migration), the vast majority (approximately 90%) of Jews in America are Ashkenazi.


Prior to the Holocaust, the main language of Ashkenazi Jews was Yiddish – a language which is essentially a combination of German and Hebrew, written in the Hebrew alphabet.  In the modern world, Ashkenazi Jews generally speak the language of whatever country they live in (so English for anyone writing stuff set in America, Hebrew for Israelis, etc.), but the more Orthodox groups do sometimes still use Yiddish as their main language.  There are very few Yiddish-speaking monolingual adults – even if it’s a first language, they’re likely to learn a second one – and this was true even when it was more common as a first language, as Jews had to communicate with people in whatever countries they lived in.  As an example, my stepfather’s father grew up in a town in Transylvania and spoke something like nine different languages due to all the government changes in that area.  Yiddish was his first language, but it certainly wasn’t his last.


Many Ashkenazi Orthodox Jews speak Hebrew in a very distinctive way.  The primary difference – and one I personally abhor – is replacing a T sound with an S sound.  So instead of Shabbat, you’ll hear Shabbas.  The reason I hate it has to do with gendering of nouns in Hebrew.  Nouns that end in S are masculine; nouns that end in T are feminine.  And this sometimes extends to how they’re treated – a prayer shawl is a Tallit in Hebrew, but many Ashkenazi Jews pronounce it Tallis…which then extends to the plural.  So instead of two Tallitot (Hebrew feminine plural), you end up with two Tallesim (Hebrew masculine plural).  Personally, I find this sexist and problematic, and I strongly prefer to pronounce the words as they’re meant to be in Hebrew.  But Ashkenazi Orthodox Jewish men in particular may not, so if you hear an S sound when it looks like it should be a T, that’s why.  This will not, however, show up in other languages that these Jews are speaking, so don’t do this in English.


When most people think “Jewish,” they’re usually thinking of Ashkenazi Jews – specifically, Orthodox Jews with the hats and the jackets and the dark curly hair and hooked noses that are more common in this ethnic group.  Not all of us look like that, but it’s common, and it’s a stereotype.

There are some things that Ashkenazi Jews do specifically that differ from other groups, but the truth is, most of the time if you’re writing a modern Jewish character, those differences are small and specific enough that you should be able to avoid them without a serious issue.  And any of them that are big enough are going to show up in the individual posts on those subjects.

Due to the prevalence in the US, if you’re writing modern American Jews, Ashkenazi is… basically easy mode, and definitely the one I recommend for beginners.  It’s not quite a default, but it’s the most common to the point that it’s where I’d start – with a high likelihood that your character is descended from people who came over from Europe sometime between 1880 and 1950.  This may or may not be relevant to their immediate life in your story, but it can be useful background information.  If you’re writing a story set somewhere else, this is not necessarily the way to go.


Sephardi Jews


Sephardi (also called Sephardic) Jews are the second largest Jewish group, making up somewhere around 15% of the world Jewish population.


Sephardi Jews originally settled in Spain – called Sepharad in Hebrew.  (Of course, I say Spain, but really the entire Iberian peninsula is included.)  There’s a strict date on this one: Spain kicked all the Jews out in 1492, and Sephardi Jews are descended from Jews who lived there before that.  Similarly, Portugal expelled or forcibly converted its own Jews at around the same time.


At that point, the Sephardi Jews moved in multiple directions.  Some went into hiding in Spain itself (or its colonies), becoming secret Jews while outwardly Catholic.  A lot of this group either fully converted eventually or lost a lot of the traditions, to the point where most people don’t consider them Jewish anymore.  Others eventually switched back to Judaism and emigrated elsewhere, primarily in the Americas.  A second group fled south to Northern Africa, while a third group fled east to the Balkans and Ottoman Empire.  A fourth group headed north into other parts of Europe, but a lot of those Jews were eventually kicked out of those countries as well… or died in the Holocaust.


Part of this fourth group ended up in England where they created what is probably one of the most quintessential British dishes. Fish and chips.


The earliest hints of this dish showed up in the early 16th century as a dish called pescado frito. There’s mentions of the dish in literature in Dickens’ Oliver Twist, and it first appeared in a cookbook in the 1840s as “fried fish, Jewish Style.” The chips appeared later in the 18th century and weren’t paired until the 1860s. However, it’s really kind of interesting that a food that Sephardic Jews made as a Sabbath meal has become one of the dishes that Britain is known for… this is why it’s a good thing to let refugees and immigrants into your country; you get amazing food. 

While Sephardi Jews are currently a smaller population in America, they were the first Jewish settlers in what was then called the New World. So that Hamilton fanfic or Revolutionary War Romance should have Sephardi Jews there, not Ashkenazi.  They were the dominant group until sometime in the mid-to-late 1800s. (The first confirmed Ashkenazi synagogue was not founded until 1795 in Philadelphia.) 


Nowadays, they comprise a significant portion of the Jews in Israel (though some are grouped weirdly into Ashkenazi), the majority of the Jews in France (many of whom are descended from Jews who had moved to Northern Africa, who later came to France after World War II when the former colonies began to become their own countries), a decent population in America (perhaps 2-300,000 of the 5.7 million Jews in the US, which is significant but not anywhere near dominant), and much smaller amounts elsewhere.


After 1492, the main language of Sephardi Jews was Ladino aka Judeo-Spanish – a language which is essentially a combination of Spanish and Hebrew, written in the Hebrew alphabet.  It is still spoken in some locations, but is not a majority language anywhere.


If you’re writing something set in a Spanish or Portuguese-speaking country, France, or Israel, this is definitely a group to do more research on instead of just assuming your characters will be Ashkenazi.



Mizrahi


The third major group of Jews is less organized than either Ashkenazi or Sephardi Jews.  This group is Mizrahi Jews, whose name comes from the Hebrew word for east (Mizrach).  To be completely honest, it’s kind of a catch-all term which refers to any Jews whose ancestors moved east rather than west after the numerous times they were kicked out of Israel.


Mizrahi Jews comprise probably somewhere around 10% of the world Jewish population, but are much more common in Israel, with approximately 10% of all Israeli Jews being immigrants or first generation Israelis who come from Mizrahi groups – and as many as 60% of all Israelis having at least some Mizrahi ancestry.


Weirdly, in Israel’s rabbinical system they are generally grouped under the header Sephardi… unlike, oddly enough, some actual Sephardi Jews.  Part of this has to do with Israel’s rabbinical system – there are two Chief Rabbis, one Ashkenazi and one Sephardi – and the Mizrahi groups are generally closer religiously to the Sephardi Rabbi’s rulings.


There is not one set language or date or… well, anything, really, for Mizrahi Jews.  They have often lived in Muslim majority countries (another reason they’re grouped with Sephardi, who after being kicked out of Spain often headed into Muslim majority locations), though many of them have been kicked out of those countries more recently… or persecuted to the point that they fled, mostly to Israel.


As an example of the latter, look at Yemenite Jews, who faced such persecution that 49,000 of them were removed from Yemen and brought to Israel in 1949-1950, with another 3000 following ten years later.  As of 2018, fewer than 50 Jews remain in the country.  Egypt is a similar case – there are perhaps 100 Jews in the country.  As far as anyone knows, there is one Afghani Jew left in the entire country.  


Most of the groups I see listed as Mizrahi are now firmly in Israel, with one or two having significant populations in America or elsewhere… but not their country of origin (example: the Syrian Jewish community in Brooklyn, which consists of approximately 75,000 people).  Like Sephardi Jews, they are still the minority, comprising perhaps 2-300,000 of the Jews in the US – the largest group not in Israel.


Maghrebi Jews (Jews from North Africa) generally fit into a mix of Mizrahi and Sephardi traditions and are somewhat of a blend between the two.  In Israel, they’d usually be classified as Sephardi.

If you’re writing a story set in Israel, definitely do your research on your character’s individual community!  If you’re writing a story set elsewhere, I would probably not start with Mizrahi Jews unless you’re prepared to do serious research.




Other


While Ashkenazi, Sephardi, and Mizrahi Jews are the three largest groups, they are definitely not all the Jews in the world.  The remaining groups are smaller, so we’ll discuss the most notable ones here.  I’m not going to list every group, but these are some of the most interesting ones.  Again, writing about these groups is definitely hard mode, other than possibly the last.


Italkim

While many of the Jews in Italy are either Ashkenazi or Sephardi, there’s a distinct sect that follows its own rituals, which are related to but not identical to both groups.  This group moved to Italy back when it was the center of the Roman Empire and pretty much stayed there.  Similarly, the Romaniote Jews in Greece were their own group.


Indian Jews

There’s a native community of Jews in India who have likely been there for close to 2000 years called Bene Israel, which literally translates to children of Israel.  Much of the population has since migrated to Israel.  There are a few other smaller groups in India as well.


Kaifeng Jews

There have been Jews in China for a solid 1000 years or so, the largest group of whom are called the Kaifeng Jews.  While other Jews live in China, particularly in the larger cities, these Jews have been there for a long time.


Beta Israel

Beta Israel, meaning the house of Israel, is one of the largest and most notable groups of Jews who don’t fit into any of the main groups.  With a population of approximately 150,000 people, this group originated in Ethiopia and was mostly brought to Israel between 1979 and 1991.  They likely moved to Ethiopia as early as the year 325 and existed there ever since.  There are other African groups (including the Abayudaya of Uganda), but Beta Israel is by far the largest and most notable.


Conversion

While ethnically converts do not belong to any group, they’re generally accepted as part of whichever group they converted into – so if they’ve undergone a conversion at an Ashkenazi synagogue and practice (or at least learned) Ashkenazi ritual, they’re considered Ashkenazi Jews. 

 

I don’t know how many Jews have converted to Judaism rather than being born to it.  What this does mean for your writing is that people in the US who have converted to Judaism will likely be grouped as Ashkenazi, while people in Israel will be split between Ashkenazi and Sephardi, and people elsewhere… will vary wildly.  Frankly, the sect will matter as much as the ethnic group here, particularly which type of conversion they underwent.  


There will definitely be a longer post devoted solely to conversion at some point in the future.



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