Ashkenazi Jews ( Y’hudey Ashkenaz in Ashkenazi Hebrew) Total population 1011.2 million Regions with significant populations United States 56 million Israel 2.8 million Russia 194,000500,000 Argentina 300,000 United Kingdom ~ 260,000 Canada ~ 240,000 France 200,000 Germany 200,000 Ukraine 150,000 Australia 120,000 South Africa 80,000 Belarus 80,000 Hungary 75,000 Chile 70,000 Belgium 30,000 Brazil 30,000 Netherlands 30,000 Moldova 30,000 Poland 25,000 Mexico 18,500 Sweden 18,000 Latvia 10,000 Romania 10,000 Austria 9,000 New Zealand 5,000 Azerbaijan 4,300 Lithuania 4,000 Czech Republic 3,000 Slovakia 3,000 Estonia 1,000 Languages Historical: Yiddish Modern: Local languages, primarily: English, Hebrew, Russian Religion Judaism, some secular, irreligious Related ethnic groups Sephardi Jews, Mizrahi Jews, other Jewish ethnic divisions, Samaritans,Assyrians,Kurds,Arabs, other Levantines,Italians, Iberians and Greeks
Ashkenazi Jews, also known as Ashkenazic Jews or simply Ashkenazim (Hebrew: , Ashkenazi Hebrew pronunciation: [aknazim], singular: [aknazi], Modern Hebrew: [akenazim, akenazi]; also Y’hudey Ashkenaz, lit. “The Jews of Germany”), are a Jewish ethnic division whose ethnogenesis and emergence as a distinct community of Jews coalesced in the Holy Roman Empire around the end of the 1st millennium. The traditional language of Ashkenazi Jews consisted of various dialects of Yiddish.
They established communities throughout Central and Eastern Europe, which had been their primary region of concentration and residence until recent times, evolving their own distinctive characteristics and diasporic identities. Once emancipated, weaving Jewish creativity into the texture of European life (Hannah Arendt), the Ashkenazi made a “quite disproportionate and remarkable contribution to humanity” (Eric Hobsbawm), and to European culture in all fields of endeavour: philosophy, scholarship, literature, art, music and science. The genocidal impact of the Holocaust, the mass murder of approximately 6 million Jews during World War II devastated the Ashkenazi and their Yiddish culture, affecting almost every Jewish family.
It is estimated that in the 11th century Ashkenazi Jews composed only three percent of the world’s Jewish population, while at their peak in 1931 they accounted for 92 percent of the world’s Jews. Immediately prior to the Holocaust, the number of Jews in the world stood at approximately 16.7 million. Statistical figures vary for the contemporary demography of Ashkenazi Jews, oscillating between 10 million and 11.2 million.Sergio DellaPergola in a rough calculation of Sephardic and Mizrahi Jews, implies that Ashkenazi make up less than 74% of Jews worldwide. Other estimates place Ashkenazi Jews as making up about 75% of Jews worldwide.
Genetic studies on Ashkenazim have been conducted to determine how much of their ancestry comes from the Levant, and how much derives from European populations. These studiesresearching both their paternal and maternal lineagespoint to a significant prevalence of ancient Levantine origins. But they have arrived at diverging conclusions regarding both the degree and the sources of their European ancestry. These diverging conclusions focus particularly on the extent of the European genetic origin observed in Ashkenazi maternal lineages.
The name Ashkenazi derives from the biblical figure of Ashkenaz, the first son of Gomer, son of Khaphet, son of Noah, and a Japhetic patriarch in the Table of Nations (Genesis 10). The name of Gomer has often been linked to the ethnonym Cimmerians. Biblical Ashkenaz is usually derived from Assyrian Akza (cuneiform Akuzai/Ikuzai), a people who expelled the Cimmerians from the Armenian area of the Upper Euphrates, whose name is usually associated with the name of the Scythians. The intrusive n in the Biblical name is likely due to a scribal error confusing a waw with a nun .
In Jeremiah 51:27, Ashkenaz figures as one of three kingdoms in the far north, the others being Minni and Ararat, perhaps corresponding to Urartu, called on by God to resist Babylon.
In the Yoma tractate of the Babylonian Talmud the name Gomer is rendered as Germania, which elsewhere in rabbinical literature was identified with Germanikia in northwestern Syria, but later became associated with Germania. Ashkenaz is linked to Scandza/Scanzia, viewed as the cradle of Germanic tribes, as early as a 6th-century gloss to the Historia Ecclesiastica of Eusebius. In the 10th-century History of Armenia of Yovhannes Drasxanakertc’i (1.15) Ashkenaz was associated with Armenia, as it was occasionally in Jewish usage, where its denotation extended at times to Adiabene, Khazaria, Crimea and areas to the east. His contemporary Saadia Gaon identified Ashkenaz with the Saquliba or Slavic territories, and such usage covered also the lands of tribes neighboring the Slavs, and Eastern and Central Europe. In modern times, Samuel Krauss identified the Biblical “Ashkenaz” with Khazaria.
Sometime in the early medieval period, the Jews of central and eastern Europe came to be called by this term. In conformity with the custom of designating areas of Jewish settlement with biblical names, Spain was denominated Sefarad (Obadiah 20), France was called Tsarefat (1 Kings 17:9), and Bohemia was called the Land of Canaan. By the high medieval period, Talmudic commentators like Rashi began to use Ashkenaz/Eretz Ashkenaz to designate Germany, earlier known as Loter, where, especially in the Rhineland communities of Speyer, Worms and Mainz, the most important Jewish communities arose. Rashi uses leshon Ashkenaz (Ashkenazi language) to describe German speech, and Byzantium and Syrian Jewish letters referred to the Crusaders as Ashkenazim. Given the close links between the Jewish communities of France and Germany following the Carolingian unification, the term Ashkenazi came to refer to both the Jews of medieval Germany and France.
The origins of the Ashkenazim are obscure, and many theories have arisen speculating about their ultimate provenance. The most well supported theory is the one that details a Jewish migration through what is now Italy and other parts of southern Europe. The historical record attests to Jewish communities in southern Europe since pre-Christian times. Many Jews were denied full Roman citizenship until 212 CE, when Emperor Caracalla granted all free peoples this privilege. 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.
The history of Jews in Greece goes back to at least the Archaic Era of Greece, when the classical culture of Greece was undergoing a process of formalization after the Greek Dark Age. The Greek historian Herodotus knew of the Jews, whom he called “Palestinian Syrians”, and listed them among the levied naval forces in service of the invading Persians. While Jewish monotheism was not deeply affected by Greek Polytheism, the Greek way of living was attractive for many wealthier Jews. The Synagogue in the Agora of Athens is dated to the period between 267 and 396 CE. The Stobi Synagogue in Macedonia, was built on the ruins of a more ancient synagogue in the 4th century, while later in the 5th century, the synagogue was transformed into Christian basilica.
Sporadicepigraphic evidence in grave site excavations, particularly in Brigetio (Szny), Aquincum (buda), Intercisa (Dunajvros), Triccinae (Srvr), Savaria (Szombathely), Sopianae (Pcs), and Osijek in Croatia, attest to the presence of Jews after the 2nd and 3rd centuries where Roman garrisons were established, There was a sufficient number of Jews in Pannonia to form communities and build a synagogue. Jewish troops were among the Syrian soldiers transferred there, and replenished from the Middle East, after 175 C.E. Jews and especially Syrians came from Antioch, Tarsus and Cappadocia. Others came from Italy and the Hellenized parts of the Roman empire. The excavations suggest they first lived in isolated enclaves attached to Roman legion camps, and intermarried among other similar oriental families within the military orders of the region.Raphael Patai states that later Roman writers remarked that they differed little in either customs, manner of writing, or names from the people among whom they dwelt; and it was especially difficult to differentiate Jews from the Syrians. After Pannonia was ceded to the Huns in 433, the garrison populations were withdrawn to Italy, and only a few, enigmatic traces remain of a possible Jewish presence in the area some centuries later.
No evidence has yet been found of a Jewish presence in antiquity in Germany beyond its Roman border, nor in Eastern Europe. In Gaul and Germany itself, with the possible exception of Trier and Cologne, the archeological evidence suggests at most a fleeting presence of very few Jews, primarily itinerant traders or artisans. A substantial Jewish population emerged in northern Gaul by the Middle Ages, but Jewish communities existed in 465 CE in Brittany, in 524 CE in Valence, and in 533 CE in Orleans. Throughout this period and into the early Middle Ages, some Jews assimilated into the dominant Greek and Latin cultures, mostly through conversion to Christianity.[bettersourceneeded] King Dagobert I of the Franks expelled the Jews from his Merovingian kingdom in 629. Jews in former Roman territories faced new challenges as harsher anti-Jewish Church rulings were enforced.
Charlemagne’s expansion of the Frankish empire around 800, including northern Italy and Rome, brought on a brief period of stability and unity in Francia. This created opportunities for Jewish merchants to settle 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 to Frankish lands, many Jewish merchants took up 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, Jewish life in northern Europe is well documented. By the 11th century, when Rashi of Troyes wrote his commentaries, Jews in what came to be known as “Ashkenaz” were known for their halakhic learning, and Talmudic studies. They were criticized by Sephardim and other Jewish scholars in Islamic lands for their lack of expertise in Jewish jurisprudence (dinim) and general ignorance of Hebrew linguistics and literature.Yiddish emerged as a result of language contact with various High German vernaculars in the medieval period. It was written with Hebrew letters, and heavily influenced by Hebrew and Aramaic.
Historical records show evidence of Jewish communities north of the Alps and Pyrenees as early as the 8th and 9th century. By the 11th century Jewish settlers, moving from southern European and Middle Eastern centers, appear to have begun to settle in the north, especially along the Rhine, often in response to new economic opportunities and at the invitation of local Christian rulers. Thus Baldwin V, Count of Flanders, invited Jacob ben Yekutiel and his fellow Jews to settle in his lands; and soon after the Norman Conquest of England, William the Conqueror likewise extended a welcome to continental Jews to take up residence there. Bishop Rdiger Huzmann called on the Jews of Mainz to relocate to Speyer. In all of these decisions, the idea that Jews had the know-how and capacity to jump-start the economy, improve revenues, and enlarge trade seems to have played a prominent role. Typically Jews relocated close to the markets and churches in town centres, where, though they came under the authority of both royal and ecclesiastical powers, they were accorded administrative autonomy.
In the 11th century, both Rabbinic Judaism and the culture of the Babylonian Talmud that underlies it became established in southern Italy and then spread north to Ashkenaz.
With the onset of the Crusades in 1095, 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) 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.
By the 15th century, the Ashkenazi Jewish communities in Poland were the largest Jewish communities of the Diaspora. 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 central and eastern Europe for so long would seem to lie in part in the probability that the alien surroundings in central and 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.
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 and the country of Ashkenaz. 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.
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. 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.
In an essay on Sephardi Jewry, Daniel Elazar at the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs 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; by the end of XVI century, the: ‘Treaty on the redemption of captives’, by Gracian of the God’s Mother, Mercy Priest, who was imprisoned by Turks, cites a Tunisian Hebrew, made captive when arriving to Gaeta, who aided others with money, named: ‘Simon Escanasi’, 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.” By 1931, Ashkenazi Jews accounted for nearly 92% of world Jewry. 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.
The generations of after emigration from the west enjoyed a comparatively stable socio-political environment in places like Poland, Russia, and Belarus. A thriving publishing industry and the printing of hundreds of biblical commentaries precipitated the development of the Hasidic movement as well as major Jewish academic centers. 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.
Ashkenazi cultural growth led to the Haskalah, or Jewish Enlightenment, with its goal of integrating modern European values into Jewish life.Zionism was also developed in modern Europe.
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 5090% 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. 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. 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 Jewish victims of the Holocaust, around 5 million, were Yiddish speakers. Many of the surviving Ashkenazi Jews emigrated to countries such as Israel, Canada, Argentina, Australia, and the United States after the war.
Following the Holocaust, some sources place Ashkenazim today as making up approximately 8385 percent of Jews worldwide, while Sergio DellaPergola in a rough calculation of Sephardic and Mizrahi Jews, implies that Ashkenazi make up a notably lower figure, less than 74%. Other estimates place Ashkenazi Jews as making up about 75% of Jews worldwide. Ashkenazi Jews constitute around 3536% of Israel’s total population, or 47.5% of Israel’s Jewish population.
In Israel, the term Ashkenazi is now used in a manner unrelated to its original meaning, often applied to all Jews who settled in Europe and sometimes including 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.
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 that 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.
People of Ashkenazi descent constitute around 47.5% of Israeli Jews (and therefore 3536% of Israelis). 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”. 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.
The Ashkenazi Chief Rabbis in the Yishuv and Israel include:
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.
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.
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” 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.
Culturally, an Ashkenazi Jew can be identified by the concept of Yiddishkeit, which means “Jewishness” in the Yiddish language.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.
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. 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 1790 and 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 diverse 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.
In an ethnic sense, an Ashkenazi Jew is one whose ancestry can be traced to the Jews who settled in 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 argued that genetic variations have been identified that show high frequencies among Ashkenazi Jews, but not in the general European population, be they for patrilineal markers (Y-chromosome haplotypes) and for matrilineal markers (mitotypes). However, a 2013 study of Ashkenazi mitochondrial DNA, from the University of Huddersfield in England, suggests that at least 80 percent of the Ashkenazi maternal lineages derive from the assimilation of mtDNAs indigenous to Europe, probably as a consequence of conversion.
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.
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 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.
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 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.
Relations between Ashkenazim and Sephardim have not always been warm. North African Sepharadim and Berber Jews were often looked upon by Ashkenazim as second-class citizens during the first decade after the creation of Israel. This has led to protest movements such as the Israeli Black Panthers led by Saadia Marciano a Moroccan Jew. Nowadays, relations are getting better. In some instances, Ashkenazi communities have accepted significant numbers of Sephardi newcomers, sometimes resulting in intermarriage.
Ashkenazi Jews have a noted history of achievement in Western societies in the fields of exact and social sciences, literature, finance, politics, media, and others. 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. Ashkenazi Jews have won a large number of the Nobel awards. While they make up about 2% of the U.S. population, 27% of United States Nobel prize winners in the 20th century, a quarter of Fields Medal winners, 25% of ACM Turing Award winners, half the world’s chess champions, including 8% of the top 100 world chess players, and a quarter of Westinghouse Science Talent Search winners have Ashkenazi Jewish ancestry.
Time magazine’s person of the 20th century, Albert Einstein, was an Ashkenazi Jew. According to a study performed by Cambridge University, 21% of Ivy League students, 25% of the Turing Award winners, 23% of the wealthiest Americans, and 38% of the Oscar-winning film directors, and 29% of the Oslo awards have gone to Ashkenazi Jews.
Efforts to identify the origins of Ashkenazi Jews through DNA analysis began in the 1990s. Currently, there are three types of genetic origin testing, autosomal DNA (atDNA), mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA), and Y-chromosomal DNA (Y-DNA). Autosomal DNA is a mixture from an individual’s entire ancestry, Y-DNA shows a male’s lineage only along his strict-paternal line, mtDNA shows any person’s lineage only along the strict-maternal line. Genome-wide association studies have also been employed to yield findings relevant to genetic origins.
Like most DNA studies of human migration patterns, the earliest studies on Ashkenazi Jews focused on the Y-DNA and mtDNA segments of the human genome. Both segments are unaffected by recombination (except for the ends of the Y chromosome the pseudoautosomal regions known as PAR1 and PAR2), thus allowing tracing of direct maternal and paternal lineages.
These studies revealed that Ashkenazi Jews originated in the Middle East during the Bronze Age (between 2500 BC and 700 BC), spreading later to Europe.
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.”
Various studies have arrived at diverging conclusions regarding both the degree and the sources of the non-Levantine admixture in Ashkenazim, particularly in respect to the extent of the non-Levantine genetic origin observed in Ashkenazi maternal lineages, which is in contrast to the predominant Levantine genetic origin observed in Ashkenazi paternal lineages. All studies nevertheless agree that genetic overlap with the Fertile Crescent exists in both lineages, albeit at differing rates. Collectively, Ashkenazi Jews are less genetically diverse than other Jewish ethnic divisions.
The majority of genetic findings to date concerning Ashkenazi Jews conclude that the male line was founded by ancestors from the Middle East. Others have found a similar genetic line among Greeks, and Macedonians.
A study of haplotypes of the Y-chromosome, published in 2000, addressed the paternal origins of Ashkenazi Jews. Hammer et al. 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.” “Past research found that 5080 percent of DNA from the Ashkenazi Y chromosome, which is used to trace the male lineage, originated in the Near East,” Richards said.
But historical documents tell a slightly different tale. Based on accounts such as those of Jewish historian Flavius Josephus, by the time of the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 CE, as many as six million Jews were living in the Roman Empire, but outside Israel, mainly in Italy and Southern Europe. In contrast, only about 500,000 lived in Judea, said Ostrer, who was not involved in the new study.
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 Central and 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. 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 Central and Eastern Europeans.
Before 2006, geneticists had largely attributed the ethnogenesis of most of the world’s Jewish populations, including Ashkenazi Jews, to Israelite Jewish male migrants from the Middle East and “the women from each local population whom they took as wives and converted to Judaism.” Thus, in 2002, in line with this model of origin, David Goldstein, now of Duke University, reported that unlike male Ashkenazi 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.”
In 2006, a study by Behar et al., based on what was at that time 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. Additionally, Behar et al. suggested that the rest of Ashkenazi mtDNA is originated from ~150 women, and that most of those were also likely of Middle Eastern origin. In reference specifically to Haplogroup K, they suggested that although it 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”.
In 2013, however, a study of Ashkenazi mitochondrial DNA by a team led by Martin B. Richards of the University of Huddersfield in England reached different conclusions, again corroborating the pre-2006 origin hypothesis. Testing was performed on the full 16,600 DNA units composing mitochondrial DNA (the 2006 Behar study had only tested 1,000 units) in all their subjects, and the study found that the four main female Ashkenazi founders had descent lines that were established in Europe 10,000 to 20,000 years in the past while most of the remaining minor founders also have a deep European ancestry. The study states that the great majority of Ashkenazi maternal lineages were not brought from the Near East (i.e., they were non-Israelite), nor were they recruited in the Caucasus (i.e., they were non-Khazar), but instead they were assimilated within Europe, primarily of Italian and Old French origins. Richards summarized the findings on the female line as such: “[N]one [of the mtDNA] came from the North Caucasus, located along the border between Europe and Asia between the Black and Caspian seas. All of our presently available studies including my own, should thoroughly debunk one of the most questionable, but still tenacious, hypotheses: that most Ashkenazi Jews can trace their roots to the mysterious Khazar Kingdom that flourished during the ninth century in the region between the Byzantine Empire and the Persian Empire.” The 2013 study estimated that 80 percent of Ashkenazi maternal ancestry comes from women indigenous to Europe, and only 8 percent from the Near East, while the origin of the remainder is undetermined. According to the study these findings “point to a significant role for the conversion of women in the formation of Ashkenazi communities.”
Variation in Ashkenazi mtDNA is highly distinctive, with four major and numerous minor founders. However, due to their rarity in the general population, these founders had been difficult to trace to a source.
A 2014 study by Fernndez et al. has found that Ashkenazi Jews display a frequency of haplogroup K in their maternal DNA that suggests an ancient Near Eastern origin, similar to the results of Behar. He stated that this observation clearly contradicts the results of the study led by Richards that suggested a European source for 3 exclusively Ashkenazi K lineages.
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.
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”.
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.
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. 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.
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”. 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.
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”.
Speculation that the Ashkenazi arose from Khazar stock surfaced in the later 19th century and has met with mixed fortunes in the scholarly literature. In late 2012 Eran Elhaik, a research associate studying genetics at the Johns Hopkins University School of Public Health, argued for Khazar descent in his paper The Missing Link of Jewish European Ancestry: Contrasting the Rhineland and the Khazarian Hypotheses. A 2013 study of Ashkenazi mitochondrial DNA found no significant evidence of Khazar contribution to the Ashkenazi Jewish DNA, as would be predicted by the Khazar hypothesis.
A 2013 trans-genome study carried out by 30 geneticists, from 13 universities and academies, from 9 countries, assembling the largest data set available to date, for assessment of Ashkenazi Jewish genetic origins found no evidence of Khazar origin among Ashkenazi Jews. “Thus, analysis of Ashkenazi Jews together with a large sample from the region of the Khazar Khaganate corroborates the earlier results that Ashkenazi Jews derive their ancestry primarily from populations of the Middle East and Europe, that they possess considerable shared ancestry with other Jewish populations, and that there is no indication of a significant genetic contribution either from within or from north of the Caucasus region”, the authors concluded.
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:
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. Healthcare professionals are often taught to consider those of Ashkenazi descent to be at increased risk for colon cancer.
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.
Genetic counseling and genetic testing are often undertaken by 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 related diseases.