Ashkenazi Jews: Difference between revisions

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There are many references to Ashkenazi Jews in the literature of medical and population genetics. Indeed, much awareness of "Ashkenazi Jews" as an ethnic group or category stems from the large number of genetic studies of disease, including many that are well reported in the media, that have been conducted among Jews. Jewish populations have been studied more thoroughly than most other human populations, for a variety of reasons:
There are many references to Ashkenazi Jews in the literature of medical and population genetics. Indeed, much awareness of "Ashkenazi Jews" as an ethnic group or category stems from the large number of genetic studies of disease, including many that are well reported in the media, that have been conducted among Jews. Jewish populations have been studied more thoroughly than most other human populations, for a variety of reasons:
* Jewish populations, and particularly the large Ashkenazi Jewish population, are ideal for such research studies, because they exhibit a high degree of [[endogamy]], yet they are sizable.<ref>{{cite journal|author=Carmeli, Daphna Birenbaum|journal=American Journal of Medical Genetics|year=2004|title=Prevalence of Jews as subjects in genetic research: Figures, explanation, and potential implications |volume=130a|issue=1|pages=76–83|doi=10.1002/ajmg.a.20291|pmid=15368499}}</ref>
* Jewish populations, and particularly the large Ashkenazi Jewish population, are ideal for such research studies, because they exhibit a high degree of [[endogamy]], yet they are sizable.<ref name=JewsasSubjects>{{cite journal|author=Carmeli, Daphna Birenbaum|journal=American Journal of Medical Genetics|year=2004|title=Prevalence of Jews as subjects in genetic research: Figures, explanation, and potential implications |volume=130a|issue=1|pages=76–83|doi=10.1002/ajmg.a.20291|pmid=15368499}}</ref>
* Jewish communities are comparatively well informed about genetics research, and have been supportive of community efforts to study and prevent genetic diseases.<ref>{{cite journal|author=Carmeli, Daphna Birenbaum|journal=American Journal of Medical Genetics|year=2004|title=Prevalence of Jews as subjects in genetic research: Figures, explanation, and potential implications |volume=130a|issue=1|pages=76–83|doi=10.1002/ajmg.a.20291|pmid=15368499}}</ref>
* Jewish communities are comparatively well informed about genetics research, and have been supportive of community efforts to study and prevent genetic diseases.<ref name=JewsasSubjects/>
The result is a form of [[ascertainment bias]]. This has sometimes created an impression that Jews are more susceptible to genetic disease than other populations.<ref>{{cite journal|author=Carmeli, Daphna Birenbaum|journal=American Journal of Medical Genetics|year=2004|title=Prevalence of Jews as subjects in genetic research: Figures, explanation, and potential implications |volume=130a|issue=1|pages=76–83|doi=10.1002/ajmg.a.20291|pmid=15368499}}</ref> Healthcare professionals are often taught to consider those of Ashkenazi descent to be at increased risk for colon cancer.<ref>Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality. (2009). The guide to clinical preventive services 2009. AHRQ Publication No. 09-IP006.</ref>
The result is a form of [[ascertainment bias]]. This has sometimes created an impression that Jews are more susceptible to genetic disease than other populations.<ref name=JewsasSubjects/> Healthcare professionals are often taught to consider those of Ashkenazi descent to be at increased risk for colon cancer.<ref>Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality. (2009). The guide to clinical preventive services 2009. AHRQ Publication No. 09-IP006.</ref>
A study by the [[Albert Einstein College of Medicine]] examines a particular genetic trait that increases the lifespan of the Ashkenazi population. The study focuses on [[telomerase]], the enzyme responsible for maintaining [[telomere]]s at the ends of [[chromosome]]s during [[mitosis|cell division]].<ref>{{cite web| url =| title =Longenity – Longevity Genes Project| accessdate=13 November 2009| work=Albert Einstein College of Medicine}}</ref><ref>{{cite web| url=| title=One Key Found for Living to 100| first=Robert Roy| last=Britt| date=November 12, 2009|| accessdate=September 2, 2013}}</ref>
A study by the [[Albert Einstein College of Medicine]] examines a particular genetic trait that increases the lifespan of the Ashkenazi population. The study focuses on [[telomerase]], the enzyme responsible for maintaining [[telomere]]s at the ends of [[chromosome]]s during [[mitosis|cell division]].<ref>{{cite web| url =| title =Longenity – Longevity Genes Project| accessdate=13 November 2009| work=Albert Einstein College of Medicine}}</ref><ref>{{cite web| url=| title=One Key Found for Living to 100| first=Robert Roy| last=Britt| date=November 12, 2009|| accessdate=September 2, 2013}}</ref>

Revision as of 18:10, 1 October 2013

For other meanings see Ashkenaz (disambiguation).
Ashkenazi Jews
(יהודי אשכנז Y'hudey Ashkenaz in Ashkenazi Hebrew)
Total population
(8[1]–11.2[2] million)
Regions with significant populations
United States United States of America 5–6 million[3]
Israel State of Israel 2.8 million[4][5]
Russia Russia 194,000-500,000[6]
Historical: Yiddish, German
Modern: Local languages, primarily: English, Hebrew, Russian
Judaism, some secular, irreligious
Related ethnic groups
Other Levantines,[7][8][9][10] Samaritans,[9] Assyrians,[9][10] Arabs, Sephardi Jews, Mizrahi Jews etc.
The Jews in Central Europe (1881)

Ashkenazi Jews, also known as Ashkenazic Jews or simply Ashkenazim (Hebrew: אַשְׁכְּנַזִּים‎, Ashkenazi Hebrew pronunciation: [ˌaʃkəˈnazim], singular: [ˌaʃkəˈnazi], Modern Hebrew: [aʃkenaˈzim], [aʃkenaˈzi]; also יְהוּדֵי אַשְׁכֲּנַזY'hudey Ashkenaz, "The Jews of Germania"), are a Jewish ethnic division who trace their origins to the indigenous tribes of early Israel.[11][12][13] According to the mainstream Rhineland hypothesis, Jews arrived in central Europe following the Byzantine–Sasanian War of 602–628 . Jews probably began settling along the Rhine in Germany, from Alsace in the south to the Rhineland in the north, during the early Middle Ages. Today, "Ashkenazi Jews" is a descriptive term for descendants of these Jews, including those who established communities in Eastern Europe centuries later. With them, they took and diversified Yiddish, a High German language written using the Hebrew alphabet, and heavily influenced by classical Hebrew and Aramaic.

Although in the 11th century, it is estimated that they composed only three percent of the world's Jewish population, at their peak in 1931, Ashkenazi Jews accounted for 92 percent of the world's Jews. Figures vary for the contemporary statistics. Some sources place Ashkenazi as making up approximately 83-85 percent of Jews worldwide,[14][15][16][17] while Sergio DellaPergola in a rough calculation of Sephardic and Oriental Jews, implies that Ashkenazi make up a notably lower figure, around 74%.[18] Ashkenazi Jews constitute around 35-36% of the Israeli population (and 47.5% of Israeli Jews).[19][20]


The name Ashkenazi derives from the biblical figure of Ashkenaz, the first son of Gomer, and a Japhetic patriarch in the Table of Nations (Genesis 10). In the rabbinic literature, the kingdom of Ashkenaz was first associated with the Scythian region, then later with the Slavic territories,[21] and, from the 11th century onwards, with northern Europe and Germany.[22] The Jews living in these regions associated with Ashkenaz's kingdom thus came to call themselves the Ashkenazi.[22] Later, Jews from Western and Central Europe also came to be called Ashkenazi because the main centers of Jewish learning were located in Germany.


The exact definition of Jewishness is not universally agreed upon—neither by religious scholars (especially across different denominations); nor in the context of politics (as applied to those who wish to make Aliyah); nor even in the conventional, everyday sense where "Jewishness" may be loosely understood by the casual observer as encompassing both religious and secular Jews, or religious Jews alone. This makes it especially difficult to define who is an Ashkenazi Jew. The people have been defined differently from religious, cultural, or ethnic perspectives.

Since the overwhelming majority of Ashkenazi Jews no longer live in Central Europe, the isolation that once favored a distinct religious tradition and culture has vanished. The center of Judaism today is once again in Israel, although a large community continues to live abroad, particularly in the United States of America, where Ashkenazi Jews live alongside other Jewish groups. Furthermore, the word Ashkenazi is often used in non-traditional ways, especially in Israel. By Conservative and Orthodox philosophies, a person can be considered a Jew only if his or her mother was Jewish (meaning, more specifically, either matrilineal descent from a female believed to be present at Mt. Sinai when the ten commandments were given, or else descent from a female who was converted to Judaism before the birth of her children), or if he or she has personally converted to Judaism. This means that a person can be Ashkenazi but not considered a Jew by some of those within the Jewish communities, making the term "Ashkenazi" more applicable as a broad ethnicity which evolved from the practice of Judaism in Europe.[citation needed]

By religion

Religious Jews have Minhagim, customs, in addition to Halakha, or religious law, and different interpretations of law. Different groups of religious Jews in different geographic areas historically adopted different customs and interpretations. On certain issues, Orthodox Jews are required to follow the customs of their ancestors, and do not believe they have the option of picking and choosing. For this reason, observant Jews at times find it important for religious reasons to ascertain who their household's religious ancestors are in order to know what customs their household should follow. These times include, for example, when two Jews of different ethnic background marry, when a non-Jew converts to Judaism and determines what customs to follow for the first time, or when a lapsed or less observant Jew returns to traditional Judaism and must determine what was done in his or her family's past. In this sense, "Ashkenazic" refers both to a family ancestry and to a body of customs binding on Jews of that ancestry. Reform Judaism, which does not necessarily follow those minhagim, did nonetheless originate among Ashkenazi Jews (it began in Germany).

In a religious sense, an Ashkenazi Jew is any Jew whose family tradition and ritual follows Ashkenazi practice. Until the Ashkenazi community first began to develop in the Early Middle Ages, the centers of Jewish religious authority were in the Islamic world, at Baghdad and in Islamic Spain. Ashkenaz (Germany) was so distant geographically that it developed a minhag of its own. Ashkenazi Hebrew came to be pronounced in ways distinct from other forms of Hebrew.

In this respect, the counterpart of Ashkenazi is Sephardic, since most non-Ashkenazi Orthodox Jews follow Sephardic rabbinical authorities, whether or not they are ethnically Sephardic. By tradition, a Sephardic or Mizrahi woman who marries into an Orthodox or Haredi Ashkenazi Jewish family raises her children to be Ashkenazi Jews; conversely an Ashkenazi woman who marries a Sephardi or Mizrahi man is expected to take on Sephardic practice and the children inherit a Sephardic identity, though in practice many families compromise. A convert generally follows the practice of the beth din that converted him or her.

With the integration of Jews from around the world in Israel, North America, and other places, the religious definition of an Ashkenazi Jew is blurring, especially outside Orthodox Judaism. Many Sephardic and Mizrahi Jews have joined liberal movements that originally developed within Ashkenazi Judaism. In recent decades, the congregations which they have joined have often embraced them, and absorbed new traditions into their minhag. Rabbis and cantors in most non-Orthodox movements study Hebrew in Israel, where they learn Sephardic rather than Ashkenazi Hebrew pronunciation. Ashkenazi congregations are adopting Sephardic or modern Israeli melodies for many prayers and traditional songs. Since the middle of the 20th century, there has been a gradual syncretism and fusion of traditions. This is affecting the minhag of all but the most traditional congregations.

New developments in Judaism often transcend differences in religious practice between Ashkenazi and Sephardic Jews. In North American cities, social trends such as the chavurah movement, and the emergence of "post-denominational Judaism"[23][24] often bring together younger Jews of diverse ethnic backgrounds. In recent years, there has been increased interest in Kabbalah, which many Ashkenazi Jews study outside of the Yeshiva framework. Another trend is the new popularity of ecstatic worship in the Jewish Renewal movement and the Carlebach style minyan, both of which are nominally of Ashkenazi origin.[25]

By culture

Culturally, an Ashkenazi Jew can be identified by the concept of Yiddishkeit, which means "Jewishness" in the Yiddish language.[citation needed] Yiddishkeit is specifically the Jewishness of Ashkenazi Jews.

Before the Haskalah and the emancipation of Jews in Europe, this meant the study of Torah and Talmud for men, and a family and communal life governed by the observance of Jewish Law for men and women. From the Rhineland to Riga to Romania, most Jews prayed in liturgical Ashkenazi Hebrew, and spoke Yiddish in their secular lives.

But with modernization, Yiddishkeit now encompasses not just Orthodoxy and Hasidism, but a broad range of movements, ideologies, practices, and traditions in which Ashkenazi Jews have participated and somehow retained a sense of Jewishness. Although a far smaller number of Jews still speak Yiddish, Yiddishkeit can be identified in manners of speech, in styles of humor, in patterns of association. Broadly speaking, a Jew is one who associates culturally with Jews, supports Jewish institutions, reads Jewish books and periodicals, attends Jewish movies and theater, travels to Israel, visits ancient synagogues in Prague, and so forth. It is a definition that applies to Jewish culture in general, and to Ashkenazi Yiddishkeit in particular.

Contemporary population migrations have contributed to a reconfigured Jewishness among Jews of Ashkenazi descent that transcends Yiddishkeit and other traditional articulations of Ashkenazi Jewishness. As Ashkenazi Jews moved away from Europe, mostly in the form of aliyah to Israel, or immigration to North America, and other English-speaking areas; and Europe (particularly France) and Latin America, the geographic isolation that gave rise to Ashkenazim has given way to mixing with other cultures, and with non-Ashkenazi Jews who, similarly, are no longer isolated in distinct geographic locales. For Ashkenazi Jews, chopped liver and gefilte fish were archetypal Jewish foods. To contemporary Ashkenazi Jews living both in Israel and in the diaspora, Middle Eastern foods such as hummus and falafel, neither traditional to the historic Ashkenazi experience, have become central to their lives as Jews in the current era. Hebrew has replaced Yiddish as the primary Jewish language for many Ashkenazi Jews, although many Hasidic and Hareidi groups continue to use Yiddish in daily life. (There are numerous Ashkenazi Jewish anglophones and Russian-speakers as well, although English and Russian are not originally Jewish languages.)

France's blended Jewish community is typical of the cultural recombination that is going on among Jews throughout the world. Although France expelled its original Jewish population in the Middle Ages, by the time of the French Revolution, there were two distinct Jewish populations. One consisted of Sephardic Jews, originally refugees from the Inquisition and concentrated in the southwest, while the other community was Ashkenazi, concentrated in formerly German Alsace, and speaking mainly Yiddish. The two communities were so separate and different that the National Assembly emancipated them separately in 1791.

But after emancipation, a sense of a unified French Jewry emerged, especially when France was wracked by the Dreyfus affair in the 1890s. In the 1920s and 1930s, Ashkenazi Jews from Europe arrived in large numbers as refugees from antisemitism, the Russian revolution, and the economic turmoil of the Great Depression. By the 1930s, Paris had a vibrant Yiddish culture, and many Jews were involved in radical political movements. After the Vichy years and the Holocaust, the French Jewish population was augmented once again, first by Ashkenazi refugees from Central Europe, and later by Sephardi immigrants and refugees from North Africa, many of them francophone.

Then, in the 1990s, yet another Ashkenazi Jewish wave began to arrive from countries of the former Soviet Union and Central Europe. The result is a pluralistic Jewish community that still has some distinct elements of both Ashkenazi and Sephardic culture. But in France, it is becoming much more difficult to sort out the two, and a distinctly French Jewishness has emerged.[26]

By ethnicity

In an ethnic sense, an Ashkenazi Jew is one whose ancestry can be traced to the Jews of Central Europe. For roughly a thousand years, the Ashkenazim were a reproductively isolated population in Europe, despite living in many countries, with little inflow or outflow from migration, conversion, or intermarriage with other groups, including other Jews. Human geneticists have identified genetic variations that have high frequencies among Ashkenazi Jews, but not in the general European population. This is true for patrilineal markers (Y-chromosome haplotypes) as well as for matrilineal markers (mitotypes).[27]

Since the middle of the 20th century, many Ashkenazi Jews have intermarried, both with members of other Jewish communities and with people of other nations and faiths, while some Jews have also adopted children from other ethnic groups or from other parts of the world and have raised them as Jews. Conversion to Judaism, rare for nearly 2,000 years, has become more common.[28]

A 2006 study found Ashkenazi Jews to be a clear, homogeneous genetic subgroup. Strikingly, regardless of the place of origin, Ashkenazi Jews can be grouped in the same genetic cohort — that is, regardless of whether an Ashkenazi Jew's ancestors came from Poland, Russia, Hungary, Lithuania, or any other place with a historical Jewish population, they belong to the same ethnic group. The research demonstrates the endogamy of the Jewish population in Europe and lends further credence to the idea of Ashkenazi Jews as an ethnic group. Moreover, though intermarriage among Jews of Ashkenazi descent has become increasingly more common, many Haredi Jews, particularly members of Hasidic or Hareidi sects, continue to marry exclusively fellow Ashkenazi Jews. This trend keeps Ashkenazi genes prevalent and also helps researchers further study the genes of Ashkenazi Jews with relative ease. It is noteworthy that these Haredi Jews often have extremely large families.[29]

The most recent studies have shown much more diversity within Ashkenazi or Eastern European Jews.[30]

Realignment in Israel

In Israel, the term Ashkenazi is now used in ways that have nothing to do with its original meaning; it is often applied to all Jews of European background living in Israel, including sometimes for those whose ethnic background is actually Sephardic. Jews of any non-Ashkenazi background, including Mizrahi, Yemenite, Kurdish and others who have no connection with the Iberian Peninsula, have similarly come to be lumped together as Sephardic. Jews of mixed background are increasingly common, partly because of intermarriage between Ashkenazi and non-Ashkenazi, and partly because many do not see such historic markers as relevant to their life experiences as Jews.[citation needed]

Religious Ashkenazi Jews living in Israel are obliged to follow the authority of the chief Ashkenazi rabbi in halakhic matters. In this respect, a religiously Ashkenazi Jew is an Israeli who is more likely to support certain religious interests in Israel, including certain political parties. These political parties result from the fact that a portion of the Israeli electorate votes for Jewish religious parties; although the electoral map changes from one election to another, there are generally several small parties associated with the interests of religious Ashkenazi Jews. The role of religious parties, including small religious parties which play important roles as coalition members, results in turn from Israel's composition as a complex society in which competing social, economic, and religious interests stand for election to the Knesset, a unicameral legislature with 120 seats.[citation needed]


History of Jews in Europe before the Ashkenazim

Historically, Ashkenazi Jews originated in from the Israelite tribes of the Middle East and arrived in Europe in stages starting from ancient times (following the Greek and later Roman conquest of ancient Israel and Judea) and continued in the following centuries by migration of Jews from Babylonia, Israel and other parts of the ancient world. Jews began settling in Germany, or "Ashkenaz", at least since the early 4th century.[31][32][33] Throughout Gaul and Germany for this period, with the possible exception of Trier, the archeological evidence suggests at most a fleeting presence of very few Jews, itinerant traders or artisans.[34] Yiddish emerged as a result of language contact with various High German vernaculars in the medieval period.[35] It was written with Hebrew characters, and heavily influenced by Hebrew and Aramaic. In the territory of what is now Austria, Jewish presence is documented since at least the 3rd century CE[36] In Hungary, minor Jewish presence was documented since the late Roman period.[37] In France, there was no substantial Jewish population in northern Gaul from late antiquity until the Middle Ages,[38] but Jewish communities existed in 465 CE in Brittany, in 524 CE in Valence, and in 533 CE in Orleans.[39] Jewish settlement in Romania dates back to 2nd century,[40] while Jewish settlement in Italy dates back to 1st century.[41]

After the Roman empire had overpowered the Jewish resistance in the First Jewish–Roman War in Judea and destroyed the Jewish Temple in Jerusalem in 70 CE, the complete Roman takeover of Judea followed the Bar Kokhba rebellion of 132–135 CE. Though their numbers were greatly reduced, Jews continued to populate large parts of Judea province (renamed Palaestina), remaining a majority in Galilee for several hundred years. However, the Romans no longer recognized the authority of the Sanhedrin or any other Jewish body, and Jews were prohibited from living in Jerusalem. Outside the Roman Empire, a large Jewish community remained in Mesopotamia. Other Jewish populations could be found dispersed around the Mediterranean region, with the largest concentrations in the Levant, Egypt, Asia Minor, Greece, and Italy, including Rome. Smaller communities are recorded in southern Gaul (France), Spain, and North Africa.[42]

Many Jews were denied full Roman citizenship until 212 CE, when Emperor Caracalla granted all free peoples this privilege. However, at least one example of an exception to this rule, is when Josephus ben Matthias, a direct line descendant of the Hasmonaeans, became a Roman citizen and adopted the family name of the Roman Emperor Flavius, before 70 A.D., and before he marched on Jerusalem with Vespasian's son Titus and then wrote The Antiquities of the Jews (The History of the Jews). As a penalty for the first Jewish Revolt, Jews were required to pay a poll tax until the reign of Emperor Julian in 363. In the late Roman Empire, Jews were free to form networks of cultural and religious ties and enter into various local occupations. But, after Christianity became the official religion of Rome and Constantinople in 380, Jews were increasingly marginalized, and brutally persecuted.[citation needed]

In Syria-Palaestina and Mesopotamia, where Jewish religious scholarship was centered, the majority of Jews were still engaged in farming, as demonstrated by the preoccupation of early Talmudic writings with agriculture. In diaspora communities, trade was a common occupation, facilitated by the easy mobility of traders through the dispersed Jewish communities.[citation needed]

Throughout this period and into the early Middle Ages, some Jews assimilated into the dominant Greek and Latin cultures, mostly through conversion to Christianity.[43] A remnant of this Greek-speaking Jewish population (the Romaniotes) survives to this day.

In the late Roman Empire, Jews are known to have lived in Cologne[33] and Trier, as well as in what is now France. King Dagobert I of the Franks expelled the Jews from his Merovingian kingdom in 629. Jews in former Roman territories now faced new challenges as harsher anti-Jewish Church rulings were enforced.

In Mesopotamia, and in Persian lands free of Roman imperial domination, Jewish life fared much better. Since the conquest of Judea by Nebuchadnezzar II, this community had always been the leading diaspora community, a rival to the leadership of Judea. After conditions for Jews began to deteriorate in Roman-controlled lands, many of the religious leaders of Judea and the Galilee fled to the east. At the academies of Pumbeditha and Sura near Babylon, Rabbinic Judaism based on Talmudic learning began to emerge and assert its authority over Jewish life throughout the diaspora. Rabbinic Judaism created a religious mandate for literacy, requiring all Jewish males to learn Hebrew and read from the Torah. It has been suggested that this mandate led to a higher literacy rate for Jewish minorities in both Christian and Islamic lands compared to the majority of gentiles, a result which gave these Jews a comparative advantage in urban commercial and financial roles which, to some extent, may explain their relative prevalence in these fields at the time.[44]

In the Caliphate of Baghdad, Jews took on many of the financial occupations that they would later hold in the cities of Ashkenaz.[citation needed] Jewish traders from Baghdad began to travel to the west, renewing Jewish life in the western Mediterranean region.[45] They brought with them Rabbinic Judaism and Babylonian Talmudic scholarship.

Charlemagne's expansion of the Frankish empire around 800, including northern Italy and Rome, brought on a brief period of stability and unity in Western Europe. This created opportunities for Jewish merchants to settle once again north of the Alps. Charlemagne granted the Jews freedoms similar to those once enjoyed under the Roman Empire. In addition, Jews from southern Italy, fleeing religious persecution, began to move into central Europe. Returning once again to Frankish lands, many Jewish merchants took on occupations in finance and commerce, including money lending, or usury. (Church legislation banned Christians from lending money in exchange for interest.) From Charlemagne's time to the present, there is a well-documented record of Jewish life in northern Europe, and by the 11th century, when Rashi of Troyes wrote his commentaries, Ashkenazi Jews were known for their halakhic learning, and Talmudic studies but were criticized by Sephardim and Jewish scholars in Islamic lands for their lack of expertise in Jewish jurisprudence (dinim) and general ignorance of Hebrew linguistics and literature.[46]

High and Late Middle Ages migrations

Historical records show evidence of Jewish communities north of the Alps and Pyrenees as early as the 8th and 9th century. By the end of the first millennium, Jewish populations were well-established in Western Europe, later followed the Norman Conquest into England in 1066, and settled in many cities of the Rhine area by the end of the 11th century. In the 11th century, both Rabbinic Judaism and the Talmudic Babylonian culture that underlies it became established in southern Italy and then spread north to Ashkenaz.[47]

Although the Jewish people in general were present across a wide geographical area as described, genetic research done by Gil Atzmon of the Longevity Genes Project at Albert Einstein College of Medicine suggests "that Ashkenazim branched off from other Jews around the time of the destruction of the First Temple, 2,500 years ago. . flourished during the Roman Empire but then went through a 'severe bottleneck' as they dispersed, reducing a population of several million to just 400 families who left Northern Italy around the year 1000 for Central and eventually Eastern Europe."[48][49]

With the onset of the Crusades, and the expulsions from England (1290), France (1394), and parts of Germany (15th century), Jewish migration pushed eastward into Poland (10th century), Lithuania(10th century), and Russia(12th century). Over this period of several hundred years, some have suggested, Jewish economic activity was focused on trade, business management, and financial services, due to several presumed factors: Christian European prohibitions restricting certain activities by Jews, preventing certain financial activities (such as "usurious" loans)[50] between Christians, high rates of literacy, near universal male education, and ability of merchants to rely upon and trust family members living in different regions and countries.

The Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth at its greatest extent.

By the 15th century, the Ashkenazi Jewish communities in Poland were the largest Jewish communities of the Diaspora.[51] This area, which eventually fell under the domination of Russia, Austria, and Prussia (Germany), would remain the main center of Ashkenazi Jewry until the Holocaust.

The answer to why there was so little assimilation of Jews in Eastern Europe for so long would seem to lie in part in the probability that the alien surroundings in Eastern Europe were not conducive, though contempt did not prevent some assimilation. Furthermore, Jews lived almost exclusively in shtetls, maintained a strong system of education for males, heeded rabbinic leadership, and scorned the life-style of their neighbors; and all of these tendencies increased with every outbreak of antisemitism.[52]

Usage of the name

In reference to the Jewish peoples of Northern Europe and particularly the Rhineland, the word Ashkenazi is often found in medieval rabbinic literature. References to Ashkenaz in Yosippon and Hasdai ibn Shaprut's letter to the king of the Khazars would date the term as far back as the 10th century, as would also Saadia Gaon's commentary on Daniel 7:8.

The word Ashkenaz first appears in the genealogy in the Tanakh (Genesis 10) as a son of Gomer and grandson of Japheth. It is thought that the name originally applied to the Scythians (Ishkuz), who were called Ashkuza in Assyrian inscriptions, and lake Ascanius and the region Ascania in Anatolia derive their names from this group.

Ashkenaz in later Hebrew tradition became identified with the peoples of Germany, and in particular to the area along the Rhine.

Ashkenaz and the Ashkenazi contrast to the land of Knaan, a geo-ethnological term denoting the Jewish populations living east of the Elbe river as opposed to the Ashkenazi Jews living to the West of it, and the Sephardic Jews of Iberian Peninsula.[53]

The autonym was usually Yidn, however.[citation needed]

Medieval references

Jews from Worms, Germany wear the mandatory yellow badge.

In the first half of the 11th century, Hai Gaon refers to questions that had been addressed to him from Ashkenaz, by which he undoubtedly means Germany. Rashi in the latter half of the 11th century refers to both the language of Ashkenaz[54] and the country of Ashkenaz.[55] During the 12th century, the word appears quite frequently. In the Mahzor Vitry, the kingdom of Ashkenaz is referred to chiefly in regard to the ritual of the synagogue there, but occasionally also with regard to certain other observances.[56]

In the literature of the 13th century, references to the land and the language of Ashkenaz often occur. Examples include Solomon ben Aderet's Responsa (vol. i., No. 395); the Responsa of Asher ben Jehiel (pp. 4, 6); his Halakot (Berakot i. 12, ed. Wilna, p. 10); the work of his son Jacob ben Asher, Tur Orach Chayim (chapter 59); the Responsa of Isaac ben Sheshet (numbers 193, 268, 270).

In the Midrash compilation, Genesis Rabbah, Rabbi Berechiah mentions Ashkenaz, Riphath, and Togarmah as German tribes or as German lands. It may correspond to a Greek word that may have existed in the Greek dialect of the Palestinian Jews, or the text is corrupted from "Germanica." This view of Berechiah is based on the Talmud (Yoma 10a; Jerusalem Talmud Megillah 71b), where Gomer, the father of Ashkenaz, is translated by Germamia, which evidently stands for Germany, and which was suggested by the similarity of the sound.

In later times, the word Ashkenaz is used to designate southern and Western Germany, the ritual of which sections differs somewhat from that of Eastern Germany and Poland. Thus the prayer-book of Isaiah Horowitz, and many others, give the piyyutim according to the Minhag of Ashkenaz and Poland.

According to 16th century mystic Rabbi Elijah of Chelm, Ashkenazi Jews lived in Jerusalem during the 11th century. The story is told that a German-speaking Palestinian Jew saved the life of a young German man surnamed Dolberger. So when the knights of the First Crusade came to siege Jerusalem, one of Dolberger’s family members who was among them rescued Jews in Palestine and carried them back to Worms to repay the favor.[57] Further evidence of German communities in the holy city comes in the form of halakhic questions sent from Germany to Jerusalem during the second half of the 11th century.[58]

Modern history

In an essay on Sephardi Jewry, Daniel Elazar at the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs[59] summarized the demographic history of Ashkenazi Jews in the last thousand years, noting that at the end of the 11th century, 97% of world Jewry was Sephardic and 3% Ashkenazi; in the mid-17th century, "Sephardim still outnumbered Ashkenazim three to two", but by the end of the 18th century, "Ashkenazim outnumbered Sephardim three to two, the result of improved living conditions in Christian Europe versus the Ottoman Muslim world."[59] By 1931, Ashkenazi Jews accounted for nearly 92% of world Jewry.[59] These factors are sheer demography showing the migration patterns of Jews from Southern and Western Europe to Central and Eastern Europe.

In 1740 a family from Lithuania became the first Ashkenazi Jews to settle in the Jewish Quarter of Jerusalem.[60]

Ashkenazi Jews developed the Hasidic movement as well as major Jewish academic centers across Poland, Russia, and Belarus in the generations after emigration from the west. After two centuries of comparative tolerance in the new nations, massive westward emigration occurred in the 19th and 20th centuries in response to pogroms in the east and the economic opportunities offered in other parts of the world. Ashkenazi Jews have made up the majority of the American Jewish community since 1750.[51]

Ashkenazi cultural growth led to the Haskalah or Jewish Enlightenment, and the development of Zionism in modern Europe.[citation needed]

The Holocaust

Of the estimated 8.8 million Jews living in Europe at the beginning of World War II, the majority of whom were Ashkenazi, about 6 million — more than two-thirds — were systematically murdered in the Holocaust. These included 3 million of 3.3 million Polish Jews (91%); 900,000 of 1.5 million in Ukraine (60%); and 50–90% of the Jews of other Slavic nations, Germany, Hungary, and the Baltic states, and over 25% of the Jews in France. Sephardi communities suffered similar depletions in a few countries, including Greece, the Netherlands and the former Yugoslavia.[61] As the large majority of the victims were Ashkenazi Jews, their percentage dropped from nearly 92% of world Jewry in 1931 to nearly 80% of world Jewry today.[59] The Holocaust also effectively put an end to the dynamic development of the Yiddish language in the previous decades, as the vast majority of the victims of the Holocaust, around five million, were Yiddish speakers.[62] Many of the surviving Ashkenazi Jews emigrated to countries such as Israel, Canada, Argentina, Australia, and the United States after the war.

In Israel

People of Ashkenazi descent constitute around 47.5% of Israeli Jews (and therefore 35-36% of Israelis).[5] They have played a prominent role in the economy, media, and politics of Israel since its founding. During the first decades of Israel as a state, strong cultural conflict occurred between Sephardic and Ashkenazi Jews (mainly east European Ashkenazim). The roots of this conflict, which still exists to a much smaller extent in present day Israeli society, are chiefly attributed to the concept of the "melting pot".[citation needed] That is to say, all Jewish immigrants who arrived in Israel were strongly encouraged to "melt down" their own particular exilic identities within the general social "pot" in order to become Israeli.[citation needed]

Ashkenazi Chief Rabbis in the Yishuv and Israel

Customs, laws and traditions

The Halakhic practices of (Orthodox) Ashkenazi Jews may differ from those of Sephardi Jews, particularly in matters of custom. Differences are noted in the Shulkhan Arukh itself, in the gloss of Moses Isserles. Well known differences in practice include:

The example of the chevra kadisha, the Jewish burial society, Prague, 1772
  • Observance of Pesach (Passover): Ashkenazi Jews traditionally refrain from eating legumes, grain, millet, and rice (quinoa, however, has become accepted as foodgrain in the North American communities), whereas Sephardi Jews typically do not prohibit these foods.
  • Ashkenazi Jews freely mix and eat fish and milk products; some Sephardic Jews refrain from doing so.
  • Ashkenazim are more permissive toward the usage of wigs as a hair covering for married and widowed women.
  • In the case of kashrut for meat, conversely, Sephardi Jews have stricter requirements—this level is commonly referred to as Beth Yosef. Meat products which are acceptable to Ashkenazi Jews as kosher may therefore be rejected by Sephardi Jews. Notwithstanding stricter requirements for the actual slaughter, Sephardi Jews permit the rear portions of an animal after proper Halakhic removal of the sciatic nerve, while many Ashkenazi Jews do not. This is not because of different interpretations of the law; rather, slaughterhouses could not find adequate skills for correct removal of the sciatic nerve and found it more economical to separate the hindquarters and sell them as non-kosher meat.
  • Ashkenazi Jews frequently name newborn children after deceased family members, but not after living relatives. Sephardi Jews, in contrast, often name their children after the children's grandparents, even if those grandparents are still living. A notable exception to this generally reliable rule is among Dutch Jews, where Ashkenazim for centuries used the naming conventions otherwise attributed exclusively to Sephardim such as Chuts.
  • Ashkenazi tefillin bear some differences from Sephardic tefillin. In the traditional Ashkenazic rite, the tefillin are wound towards the body, not away from it. Ashkenazim traditionally don tefillin while standing, whereas other Jews generally do so while sitting down.
  • Ashkenazic traditional pronunciations of Hebrew differ from those of other groups. The most prominent consonantal difference from Sephardic and Mizrahic Hebrew dialects is the pronunciation of the Hebrew letter tav in certain Hebrew words (historically, in postvocalic undoubled context) as an /s/ and not a /t/ or /θ/ sound.
  • The prayer shawl, or tallit (or tallis in Ashkenazi Hebrew), is worn by the majority of Ashkenazi men after marriage, but western European Ashkenazi men wear it from Bar Mitzvah. In Sephardi or Mizrahi Judaism, the prayer shawl is commonly worn from early childhood.[63]

Relationship with other Jews

The term Ashkenazi also refers to the nusach Ashkenaz (Hebrew, "liturgical tradition", or rite) used by Ashkenazi Jews in their Siddur (prayer book). A nusach is defined by a liturgical tradition's choice of prayers, order of prayers, text of prayers and melodies used in the singing of prayers. Two other major forms of nusach among Ashkenazic Jews are Nusach Sefard (not to be confused with Sephardi), which is the same as the general Polish (Hasidic) Nusach; and Nusach Chabad, otherwise known as Lubavitch Chasidic, Nusach Arizal or Nusach Ari.

This phrase is often used in contrast with Sephardi Jews, also called Sephardim, who are descendants of Jews from Spain and Portugal. There are some differences in how the two groups pronounce certain Hebrew letters and in points of ritual.

Several famous people have Ashkenazi as a surname, such as Vladimir Ashkenazy. However, most people with this surname hail from within Sephardic communities, particularly from the Syrian Jewish community. The Sephardic carriers of the surname would have some Ashkenazi ancestors since the surname was adopted by families who were initially of Ashkenazic origins who move to Sephardi countries and joined those communities. Ashkenazi would be formally adopted as the family surname having started off as a nickname imposed by their adopted communities. Some have shortened the name to Ash.

Notable Ashkenazim

Ashkenazi Jews have a noted history of achievement in western societies.[64] They have won a large number of the Nobel awards.[65][66] In those societies where they have been free to enter any profession, they have a record of high occupational achievement, entering professions and fields of commerce where higher education is required.[67] For example, during the 20th century in the United States, Ashkenazi Jews represented approximately 3% of the population, but won 27% of the US Nobel Prizes in science, and 25% of the ACM Turing Awards (the Nobel-equivalent in computer science).[68]

Katya Gibel Mevorach also warns about the danger of seeking supposed inherited "genetic intelligence" in Jews as a group in her piece: "Not an Innocent Pursuit: The Politics of a 'Jewish' Genetic Signature."


Genetic origins

Efforts to identify the origins of Ashkenazi Jews through DNA analysis began in the 1990s. Like most DNA studies of human migration patterns, the earliest studies focused on two segments of the human genome, the Y-chromosome (passed on only by males), and the mitochondrial genome (mtDNA, passed on only by females). Both segments are unaffected by recombination, except for the ends of the Y chromosome - the pseudoautosomal regions (PAR1 and PAR2). Genome-wide association studies have also been employed to yield findings relevant to genetic origins. Genetic studies revealed that Ashkenazi Jews originated in the Middle East during the Bronze Age (between 2500 BC and 700 BC) spreading later to Europe.[69]

Male lineages: Y-chromosomal DNA

A study of haplotypes of the Y-chromosome, published in 2000, addressed the paternal origins of Ashkenazi Jews. Hammer et al.[70] found that the Y-chromosome of Ashkenazi and Sephardic Jews contained mutations that are also common among Middle Eastern peoples, but uncommon in the general European population. This suggested that the male ancestors of the Ashkenazi Jews could be traced mostly to the Middle East. The proportion of male genetic admixture in Ashkenazi Jews amounts to less than 0.5% per generation over an estimated 80 generations, with "relatively minor contribution of European Y chromosomes to the Ashkenazim," and a total admixture estimate "very similar to Motulsky's average estimate of 12.5%." This supported the finding that "Diaspora Jews from Europe, Northwest Africa, and the Near East resemble each other more closely than they resemble their non-Jewish neighbors."

A 2001 study by Nebel et al. showed that both Ashkenazi and Sephardic Jewish populations share the same overall paternal Near Eastern ancestries. In comparison with data available from other relevant populations in the region, Jews were found to be more closely related to groups in the north of the Fertile Crescent. The authors also report on Eu 19 (R1a) chromosomes, which are very frequent in Eastern Europeans (54%–60%) at elevated frequency (12.7%) in Ashkenazi Jews. They hypothesized that the differences among Ashkenazim Jews could reflect low-level gene flow from surrounding European populations and/or genetic drift during isolation.[71] A later 2005 study by Nebel et al., found a similar level of 11.5% of male Ashkenazim belonging to R1a1a (M17+), the dominant Y-chromosome haplogroup in Eastern Europeans.[72]

Female lineages: Mitochondrial DNA

Before 2006, geneticists largely attributed the genesis of most of the world's Jewish populations, including Ashkenazi Jews, to founding effects by males who migrated from the Middle East and "by the women from each local population whom they took as wives and converted to Judaism." In line with this model of origin, David Goldstein, now of Duke University, reported in 2002 that, unlike male lineages, the female lineages in Ashkenazi Jewish communities "did not seem to be Middle Eastern", and that each community had its own genetic pattern and even that "in some cases the mitochondrial DNA was closely related to that of the host community." In his view this suggested "that Jewish men had arrived from the Middle East, taken wives from the host population and converted them to Judaism, after which there was no further intermarriage with non-Jews."[73]

However, a 2006 study by Behar et al.,[1] based on high-resolution analysis of haplogroup K(mtDNA), suggested that about 40% of the current Ashkenazi population is descended matrilineally from just four women, or "founder lineages", that were "likely from a Hebrew/Levantine mtDNA pool" originating in the Middle East in the 1st and 2nd centuries CE. Although Haplogroup K is common throughout western Eurasia, "the observed global pattern of distribution renders very unlikely the possibility that the four aforementioned founder lineages entered the Ashkenazi mtDNA pool via gene flow from a European host population:

"..Both the extent and location of the maternal ancestral deme from which the Ashkenazi Jewry arose remain obscure. Here, using complete sequences of the maternally inherited mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA), we show that close to one-half of Ashkenazi Jews, estimated at 8,000,000 people, can be traced back to only four women carrying distinct mtDNAs that are virtually absent in other populations, with the important exception of low frequencies among non-Ashkenazi Jews. We conclude that four founding mtDNAs, likely of Near Eastern ancestry, underwent major expansion(s) in Europe within the past millennium.."[1][73]

In addition, Behar et al. have suggested that the rest of Ashkenazi mtDNA is originated from ~150 women, most of those likely of Middle Eastern origin.[1]

Genome-wide association and linkage studies

In genetic epidemiology, a genome-wide association study (GWA study, or GWAS) is an examination of all or most of the genes (the genome) of different individuals of a particular species to see how much the genes vary from individual to individual. These techniques were originally designed for epidemiological uses, to identify genetic associations with observable traits.[74]

A 2006 study by Seldin et al. used over five thousand autosomal SNPs to demonstrate European genetic substructure. The results showed "a consistent and reproducible distinction between ‘northern’ and ‘southern’ European population groups". Most northern, central, and eastern Europeans (Finns, Swedes, English, Irish, Germans, and Ukrainians) showed >90% in the ‘northern’ population group, while most individual participants with southern European ancestry (Italians, Greeks, Portuguese, Spaniards) showed >85% in the 'southern' group. Both Ashkenazi Jews as well as Sephardic Jews showed >85% membership in the "southern" group. Referring to the Jews clustering with southern Europeans, the authors state the results were "consistent with a later Mediterranean origin of these ethnic groups".[75]

A 2007 study by Bauchet et al. found that Ashkenazi Jews were most closely clustered with Arabic North African populations when compared to Global population, and in the European structure analysis, they share similarities only with Greeks and Southern Italians, reflecting their east Mediterranean origins.[76][77]

A 2010 study on Jewish ancestry by Atzmon-Ostrer et al. stated "Two major groups were identified by principal component, phylogenetic, and identity by descent (IBD) analysis: Middle Eastern Jews and European/Syrian Jews. The IBD segment sharing and the proximity of European Jews to each other and to southern European populations suggested similar origins for European Jewry and refuted large-scale genetic contributions of Central and Eastern European and Slavic populations to the formation of Ashkenazi Jewry.", as both groups – the Middle Eastern Jews and European/Syrian Jews shared common ancestors in the Middle East about 2500 years ago. The study examines genetic markers spread across the entire genome and shows that the Jewish groups (Ashkenazi and non Ashkenazi) share large swaths of DNA, indicating close relationships and that each of the Jewish groups in the study (Iranian, Iraqi, Syrian, Italian, Turkish, Greek and Ashkenazi) has its own genetic signature but is more closely related to the other Jewish groups than to their fellow non-Jewish countrymen.[78] Atzmon's team found that the SNP markers in genetic segments of 3 million DNA letters or longer were 10 times more likely to be identical among Jews than non-Jews. Results of the analysis also tally with biblical accounts of the fate of the Jews. The study also found that with respect to non-Jewish European groups, the population most closely related to Ashkenazi Jews are modern-day Italians. The study speculated that the genetic-similarity between Ashkenazi Jews and Italians may be due to inter-marriage and conversions in the time of the Roman Empire. It was also found that any two Ashkenazi Jewish participants in the study shared about as much DNA as fourth or fifth cousins.[79][80]

A 2010 study by Bray et al., using SNP microarray techniques and linkage analysis found that when assuming Druze and Palestinian Arab populations to represent the reference to world Jewry ancestor genome, between 35 to 55 percent of the modern Ashkenazi genome can possibly be of European origin, and that European "admixture is considerably higher than previous estimates by studies that used the Y chromosome" with this reference point. Assuming this reference point the linkage disequilibrium in the Ashkenazi Jewish population was interpreted as "matches signs of interbreeding or 'admixture' between Middle Eastern and European populations".[81] On the Bray et al. tree, Ashkenazi Jews were found to be a genetically more divergent population than Russians, Orcadians, French, Basques, Italians, Sardinians and Tuscans. The study also observed that Ashkenazim are more diverse than their Middle Eastern relatives, which was counterintuitive because Ashkenazim are supposed to be a subset, not a superset, of their assumed geographical source population. Bray et al. therefore postulate that these results reflect not the population antiquity but a history of mixing between genetically distinct populations in Europe. However, it’s possible that the relaxation of marriage prescription in the ancestors of Ashkenazim that drove their heterozygosity up, while the maintenance of the FBD rule in native Middle Easterners have been keeping their heterozygosity values in check. Ashkenazim distinctiveness as found in the Bray et al. study, therefore, may come from their ethnic endogamy (ethnic inbreeding), which allowed them to “mine” their ancestral gene pool in the context of relative reproductive isolation from European neighbors, and not from clan endogamy (clan inbreeding). Consequently, their higher diversity compared to Middle Easterners stems from the latter’s marriage practices, not necessarily from the former’s admixture with Europeans.[82]

The genome wide genetic study carried out in 2010 by Behar et al. examined the genetic relationships among all major Jewish groups, including Ashkenazim, as well as the genetic relationship between these Jewish groups and non-Jewish ethnic populations. The study found that contemporary Jews (excluding Indian and Ethiopian Jews) have a close genetic relationship with people from the Levant. The authors explained that "The most parsimonious explanation for these observations is a common genetic origin, which is consistent with an historical formulation of the Jewish people as descending from ancient Hebrew and Israelite residents of the Levant".[83]

Johns Hopkins University geneticist Dr. Eran Elhaik has strongly challenged certain past works with his December 2012 study The Missing Link of Jewish European Ancestry: Contrasting the Rhineland and the Khazarian Hypotheses.[84] Dr. Elhaik wrote: "'We conclude that the genome of European Jews is a tapestry of ancient populations including Judaised Khazars, Greco-Roman Jews, Mesopotamian Jews and Judeans,' says Elhaik. 'Their population structure was formed in the Caucasus and the banks of the Volga, with roots stretching to Canaan and the banks of the Jordan.'"[30]

Connection to Khazars

The theory that the majority of Ashkenazi Jews are mainly the descendants of the non-Semitic converted Khazars or Europeans was proposed in 1883 by Ernest Renan, and was developed as a book-length thesis by Hugo von Kutschera. Since then it has enjoyed mixed fortunes. In Israeli scholarship it gained support from A.N. Poliak, whose exposition found support in Salo Wittmayer Baron and Ben-Zion Dinur. D.M. Dunlop (1954) thought the argument went beyond what the scant evidence allowed. It caught the public eye with the publication of Arthur Koestler's The Thirteenth Tribe in 1976. Bernard Lewis claimed that the idea was not based on any evidence, and lacked serious scholarly endorsement.[85] Though often encountered in fringe antisemitic circles, it has played a minor role in the history of antisemitism.[86][87][88]

Medical genetics

There are many references to Ashkenazi Jews in the literature of medical and population genetics. Indeed, much awareness of "Ashkenazi Jews" as an ethnic group or category stems from the large number of genetic studies of disease, including many that are well reported in the media, that have been conducted among Jews. Jewish populations have been studied more thoroughly than most other human populations, for a variety of reasons:

  • Jewish populations, and particularly the large Ashkenazi Jewish population, are ideal for such research studies, because they exhibit a high degree of endogamy, yet they are sizable.[89]
  • Jewish communities are comparatively well informed about genetics research, and have been supportive of community efforts to study and prevent genetic diseases.[89]

The result is a form of ascertainment bias. This has sometimes created an impression that Jews are more susceptible to genetic disease than other populations.[89] Healthcare professionals are often taught to consider those of Ashkenazi descent to be at increased risk for colon cancer.[90]

A study by the Albert Einstein College of Medicine examines a particular genetic trait that increases the lifespan of the Ashkenazi population. The study focuses on telomerase, the enzyme responsible for maintaining telomeres at the ends of chromosomes during cell division.[91][92]

Genetic counseling and genetic testing are recommended for couples where both partners are of Ashkenazi ancestry. Some organizations, most notably Dor Yeshorim, organize screening programs to prevent homozygosity for the genes that cause these diseases. E. L. Abel's book Jewish Genetic Disorders: A Layman's Guide (McFarland, 2008: ISBN 0-7864-4087-2) is a comprehensive reference text on the topic; also see the Chicago Center for Jewish Genetic Disorders[93] for more information.

See also


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References for "Who is an Ashkenazi Jew?"

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