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Greek Romaniote Jews
There are about 15 million Jews worldwide (less than 1 percent of the world’ss population). By contrast there are around 1 billion Catholics and 1 billion Muslims worldwide. About six million of them live in the United States, around the same number that live in Israel. Jews live in more than 70 countries.

According to the Historical Atlas of the Jewish People, published in the mid 1990s, 29 percent of the world’s Jews live in Israel, 45 percent are in the United States and Canada, 10 percent are in the former Soviet Union, and 8 percent are in Europe. Since then many of the Jews in the former Soviet Union have moved to Israel. The remainder are mostly in countries like Argentina, Uruguay and Australia.

At one time there were 337,000 Jews in Africa, 5.5 million in Asia (including Israel), 1.5 million in Europe, one million in Latin America and 2.3 million in the former Soviet Union but many of these emigrated Israel.

Websites and Resources: Judaism101 jewfaq.org ; Judaism and Jewish Resources shamash.org/trb/judaism ; Aish.com aish.com ;Wikipedia article Wikipedia ; torah?org torah.org ; Chabad,org chabad.org/library/bible ; Religious Tolerance religioustolerance.org/judaism ; Judaism.com judaism.com ; ; Jewish History: Jewish History Timeline jewishhistory.org.il/history ; Wikipedia article on Wikipedia ; Jewish History Resource Center dinur.org ; Origin of Judaism adath-shalom.ca ;Center for Jewish History cjh.org ; Jewish Culture and History Resources ddickerson.igc.org/judaica ;

Books: A Short History of Judaism by I. And D. Cohn-Sherlok (1994); The Gift of the Jews by Thomas Cahill; Ancient Biblical History Books: Egypt, Canaan and Israel in Ancient Times by Donald Redford; Oxford Companion to the Bible ; Palestine Bible as History by Werner Keller; The Bible Unearthed by I. Finkelstein & N. Asher Silberman ; Historical Atlas of the Holy Lands by K. Farrington

Jewish People

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Kaifeng Jew in China 1910s
Before the creation of Israel, Jews generally spoke the language of their native country or region and tended to congregate in urban areas.

Jewish communities established in rural communities tended to be very different from one another and tended to reflect the lifestyle and culture of the country or region they lived in. Jewish community members varied greatly in terms of wealth, education and influence. They ranged from wealthy bankers and merchants to humble artisans and poor shop keepers .

The Jews believe that they have a special covenant (promise with God) and are his Chosen People. The title of Chosen People does not connote a position of superiority rather it means they have the responsibility of passing on their knowledge about the one true God to other peoples of the world.

Who is a Jew

Cochin Jew in India in the 1800s
The definition of a Jew is hotly contested issue in Israel. Traditionally, children of Jewish mothers have been recognized as Jewish. Conservative Jews insist that this is not enough: a true Jew is someone who keeps Jewish law and obeys the commandments.

American reformed Judaism recognizes patrilineal descent. The State of Israel grants citizenship under the law of return to people with a single Jewish grandparent. Conservative Jews Chas Chabadniks accept only the Talmudic rule that a Jew is anyone born to a Jewish mother, or someone who has undergone an Orthodox conversion and agreed to keep all 613 Jewish laws.

"Whoever saves a single Jew,” reads the Babylonian Talmud. "Scripture ascribes it to him as though he had saved an entire world.”

Jewishness and Genetics

Are light-skinned Jews from Eastern Europe, dark-skinned Jews from Yemen and black-skinned Jews from Ethiopia genetically related? Studies of blood types and some single-gene enzyme markers have shown that these groups have more in common genetically with people from their homeland than they do with other Jews. This suggests there has been a lot of intermingling, mixed marriages and conversions among Jews and Judaism is more of matter of faith than ancestry.

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Armenian Jews in Georgia
Studies of fingerprints, Rhesus blood group frequencies and other single-gene enzyme markers indicates the opposite. They show that Jews from different parts of the world have more in common with each other than each group does with non-Jews in their homeland. DNA studies have shown that Jews and Arabs have a common ancestor. Jews and Arabs also have a lot in common with other Mediterranean people.

Geneticists conclude that Jews from different parts of the world do have certain genetic similarities and some of the differences between them can be partly explained by changes that have occurred over the dozens of generations which they have been separated from each other. One study found that 40 percent of Ashkenazi Jews descended from just four women.

Many Jewish women lack a gene and genetic mutation associated with breast cancer. One doctor who has researched the matter told the Washington Post, “For most Jewish women the chance [of breast cancer ] is so low that we would not recommend testing unless they are red flags.” Ashkenazi Jews have an unusually high risk of certain cancer as as well as Gaucher and Tay-sachs diseases.

Jewish Character

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Yiddish-speaking New York Jews
Jews have a reputation for being rowdy, loud, loquacious, comical and homey. They value family, community, friendship, and education. They also value punctuality and try to never go back on their word.

Emphasis has generally been placed on respect to elders, traditional religion and conformity to social rules. Many Jews feel they were too passive during the Holocaust when they were led to the Nazi gas chambers “like sheep to the slaughter.”

Jewish humor is a fixture of early Woody Allen films and olf vaudeville routines. Among the people that are poked fun at are kibitzers , people who meddle in the affairs of others with useless advise. The stereotypical Jewish mother is overprotective, overbearing and overly involved in her children’s lives. She have been a a central figure in jokes, Yiddish theater and Woody Allen films.

One ancient rabbinical text teaches: “There are four types of people: The one who said: What is mine is mine and what is your is yours---this is the common type, but there are some who say that this is the type of Sodom. What is mine is yours and what is yours is mine---this is a bore. What is mine is yours---a saint. What is yours is mine---a villain.”

See Rituals and Practices

Ashkenazic (European) Jews

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Ashkenazic Jews in Poland
Ashkenazic Jews are Jews in Israel of European origin. They include early Zionists, Holocaust survivors and immigrants and settlers that arrived mainly before and after World War II and the descendants. They make up about half of Israel’s Jewish citizens. The term Ashkenazic is derived from Ashkenaz, the medieval name of Germany.

Of the world’s Jews, about 82 percent are Ashkenazic Jews. Ashkenazic Jews have traditionally dominated Israeli politics, the arts, literature and journalism and shaped the Israeli mentality. The Israel that people think of is primarily the Israel of the Ashkenazic Jews. Yiddish, ultra-Orthodox sidelocks and black coats and Fiddler on the Roof culture is associated more with Ashkenazic Jews

Ashkenazic Jews are declining in numbers and power and experiencing self doubt and ridicule are suffering in way that is not all that different from that experienced by American WASPs. One Israeli scholar told the New Yorker, “It turns out the old Ashkenazi---the secular community, especially---are the dinosaurs. We lack identity and vitality.”

Sephardic (Middle Eastern) Jews

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Yemenite Jew
Sephardic Jews are primarily the descendants of Jews that settled in Spain in the Middle Ages, were expelled from there in 1492 and settled in North Africa. The word “Sephardic” is derived from the medieval name used by Jews to describe the Iberian peninsula.

Of the world’s Jews, 11 percent are Sephardic Jews from North Africa and 7 percent are Oriental Jews. The term Oriental Jews can be used in place of Sephardic Jew. It can also refer to Jews from Central Asia and India.

Sephardic Jews are from mostly North Africa and the Middle East. Most are from Morocco, Yemen, Syria, Iran, Iraq and other Middle Eastern Islamic countries. Like Ashkenazi they make up about half of Israel’s Jewish citizens.. They traditionally have had dark skin and wore Middle-Eastern-style clothes. Their most devout members are identified by the black skullcaps. Some Sephardic women wear headscarves and long gowns in a manner similar to Muslim women.

Sephardic Jews are known as Sephardic Jews even though they are from the Middle East not Spain because Sephardic traditions from Spain took root in the Middle East because of the dissemination of Sephardic publications among Jews in the Middle East. Particularly influential was Sephardic interpretation of laws found in Joseph Karo’s Shulchan Aruch

Despite the fact that most Jews in Israel are of Middle Eastern descent the country was founded by Europeans. The first Jews who arrived from Arab nations often dressed like Arabs, ate Middle Eastern food, and lived in tents like Bedouins when they arrived. Most were illiterate, unskilled and poor. Although there are still disparities between European and Middle Eastern Jews, as time goes by they grow closer together, helped in part by the fact that over one forth of all Israeli marriages are between the two groups.♦

Difference Between Sephardic Jews and Ashkenazi Jews

Sephardic Jews observing Hoshanah Rabah
Sephardic Jews and Ashkenazi Jews sometimes have different interpretation of Jewish laws and different takes on liturgical matters. They often speak different languages and have different pronunciations of Hebrew. The order of prayers in their prayer books vary slightly; Sephardic Jews but not Ashkenazi Jews allow polygamy and levirate marriage; and the passover diet is more restricted for Ashkenazi Jews than for Sephardic Jews.

Many Sephardic Jews arrived in Israel after World War II. They have traditionally been less prosperous and less educated than Ashkenazic Jews. They also have traditionally been less well represnted in government, business, professions, the arts and the media. They have a higher birth rate and their numbers are increasing faster than those of Ashkenazic Jews.

Many Sephardic complain they are victims of ethnic and class discrimination. Many were taught in secular schools that the traditions of their parents were primitive. In the early 1970s Middle Eastern Jews made up 60 percent of all beginning classes in elementary schools but only 14 percent of those graduating from high school. The high school figure is much higher now but still lower than European Jews. Ori Orr, a Labor Party politician and former general, caused a stir when commented he said of Sephardic Jews: “I can’t speak with these people like I speak with others who are more Israeli in character.”

Many Sephardic Jews resent how they have been treated by the Ashkenazic Jewish establishment. One spokesman for the Shas party told the Washington Post, “In every city, Sephardim are always the bottom 10 percent. The Ashkenazi always threw us out; they made boys cut off their sidelocks; they wouldn’t allow religious teaching. They stole our culture.”

These days many Ultra-Orthodox Jews are Sephardic Jews.

Secular Jews

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New immigrants in Israel
Secular Jews make up about 80 percent of the Jewish population in Israel (of these about 25 percent call themselves nonobservant Jews). Although they far outnumber the ultra-religious they are much less political. Found in their highest concentrations in coastal cities such as Tel Aviv and Haifa, they want Israel to be a prosperous and normal state rather than a religiously fanatical one. Their position on the Palestinians is pragmatic: whatever brings peace and security.

Secular Jews value hard work, success and have liberal political views. Many are Ashkenazim. Some secular Jews, especially young ones, feel alienated by rabbis and synagogues. Some have developed their own rites and interpretations of traditional rites.

Modern Israel is a liberal democracy founded largely by secularized Jews. This contrasts with the "Land of Israel" view of Ultra-Orthodox Jews who regard Israel the god-given homeland of the Jews.

Secular Jews and Ultra-Orthodox Jews lived side by side peacefully until the 1967 Six-Day War when Israel seized the West Bank, Gaza Strip and East Jerusalem and Ultra-Orthodox Jews felt this was the fulfillment of a prophecy in which the Jews reclaimed their Biblical lands. For them from then on religion, history and politics were intertwined.

One secular Jew told the New Yorker, “The ultra-Orthodox treat us like goyim, with such contempt. They don’t serve in the Army, they don’t care that we die. They don’t even respect us.” Another secular Jew told Newsweek, “We don’t want them here. They hate us. They don’t think we’re Jews.”

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons

Text Sources: World Religions edited by Geoffrey Parrinder (Facts on File Publications, New York); Encyclopedia of the World’s Religions edited by R.C. Zaehner (Barnes & Noble Books, 1959); Encyclopedia of the World Cultures edited by David Levinson (G.K. Hall & Company, New York, 1994); National Geographic, the New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Smithsonian magazine, Times of London, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

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© 2009 Jeffrey Hays

Last updated March 2011

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