The only proper definition of the Jews is as a 'people,' a group of humans that to varying degrees share some similar ethnic and cultural characteristics, but not exclusively. A 'Jew' is therefore a member of the Jewish people, nothing more.

To speak of a Jewish race is incorrect in the commonly understood definition of 'race,' for there were and are Jews of a variety colors and physical types. To speak of Judaism as a culture is also difficult, because although there have been common elements preserved through tradition and religion, Jewish communities have for the past 2000 years often assumed the language, dress, and diets of the regions in which they lived. And of course, to define a Jew in strictly religious terms is also problematic, for there are and have always been Jewish people who practice and adhere to the Jewish religion to varying degrees. Thus the only proper definition of the Jews is a 'people', and a Jew as a self- or society-defined member of that people.

However, the Jewish people are very unique as a people for having lived all over the world and been a part of many important world civilizations for thousands of years. From advisors in the ancient Babylonian court to Russ Feingold in the U.S. Senate, the Jews are perhaps the most far flung people, in distance and in time, that the world has ever seen.

I'd like to present, then, a brief history of the Jewish people:


During the reign of Ramses III, a caste of Egyptian society called the 'Haberu' fled Egypt and settled in Palestine, to the east. This is, of course, the biblical Exodus story. It is unclear whether the people in question were actually slaves or not, and it is unlikely they could trace their ancestry from outside of Egypt, as the bible claims. 'Moses' is an Egyptian name, and it is theorized that this figure was actually a member of the aristocracy. What is known, is that immediately preceding Ramses as pharaoh was Akhnaton, who attempted to replace the ancient Egyptian religion with a monotheism that worshiped the sun, only to have the previous religion restored by Ramses III. The caste that left Egypt was likely influenced by, or were perhaps renegade followers of, this infant religion, hence the monotheism that characterized them.

It is likely that upon settling in Palestine, they likely justified their presence by incorporating the foundation myths of the native population as their own. Thus these Hebrew people assimilated the Abraham lineage myth and other Gensis stories into their own past, cementing their link with their new home and the people they were interspersed with.

History then proceeded much as laid out by familiar biblical stories: the rise of a Hebrew state under kings, the division of that state into two, and the Babylonian captivity and return from exile. During this period the Hebrew religion was developed to an elaborate extent, instituting many practices familiar today. It was unique in the world in its monotheism.

Palestine was brought firmly into the Helenistic world by the conquests of Alexander the Great, and later into the Roman world along with the rest of the Mediterranean. Thus the Hebrew people were a combination of influences from all of the ancient near-eastern civilizations: Egypt, Persia, the Babylonian Empire, Greece, and Rome.

With its messianic faith, the province of Judea, as the area was called under the Romans, was a center of resistance to Roman rule. The word 'Jew' comes from this provincial name, as does 'Judaism' for the religion. In response to the turmoil in the region, including a renegade sect that believed Jesus to be the messiah, the Romans destroyed the second temple in 78 AD and scattered the population. This was the beginning of the 'Diaspora', the worldwide dispersion of the Jewish population that characterizes it to this day.

Most refuges from Judea settled in the Mediterranean near East. They assimilated in and spread with the Arab empire that began with in the eighth century with the emergence of Islam, giving rise to the Jewish communities that would later be present throughout the Middle East and Iberia. Others escaped Roman rule entirely, settling in Persia, and later being reunited with other Middle Eastern communities after the Arab defeat of Persia. This community sent members far afield and gave rise to the far flung Jewish communities of China and Northern India.

Others fled Judea to the south, giving rise to nomadic desert communities that survived to the 20th century, as well as the large Jewish community of Yemen. Either a branch of this community or travelers from the community in Egypt established the Ethiopian Jewish community, one of the largest in later centuries. Others made their way to Cochin in Southern India, establishing a community there.

Another group settled in the European areas of the Roman Empire. Many settled in the northern frontier areas of the Rhine valley, later moving eastward and giving rise to the Ashkenazic Jewish community, which would later spread through northern and Eastern Europe. Ashkenaz was the biblical name for Germany.

Most of these worldwide communities were isolated from others. They were often outcasts in the societies they coexisted in, but often were not. Conditions changed over the centuries as well. There were complex varying degrees of assimilation and diffusion. In the middle ages, there was some contact among various Jewish communities throughout the world. Two major developments in Jewish thought that spread throughout most of the communities were Halacha, a set of religious laws, and Kabbalah, mystical teachings.

In the early middle ages, the largest Jewish community was in Ethiopia, where the local Christian population touted their own Israelite roots traced back through the Hebraic king Solomon. The Ethiopian community was rather isolated, from the others, however and developed divergent traditions. In the Middle East in this era, Jews were often influential. The Jewish scholars Averroes and Mamonides flourished under Islamic rule. The other large communities were in Spain, Egypt, Persia, and Germany. After the Christian reconquest of Spain, that community, at that point the largest in the world, suffered persecution and was ultimately expelled in 1492. This created a diaspora within a diaspora. The Spanish Jews were called Sephardim, Sephora being the biblical name for Iberia. After expulsion, they mostly settled in North Africa, although some made their way to the Dutch Republic. Later the term 'Sephardim' came to differentiate all non-European Jews in some usages.

The Ashkenazic Jews of Northern Europe were subject to persecution and were relegated to a few professions, such as money lending and peddling. Beginning in the 17th century, they migrated eastward, invited by opportunities in the newly coalescing empires of Poland and Russia. This community was so successful that by the 19th century, Poland contained the largest Jewish population in the world, and Jews were present in every Eastern European nation. At this late time, the mystical ultra-orthodox sub-sects, such as Hasidim, that are in many people's minds synonymous with Judaism were developed.

Beginning with the Sephardic community of the Dutch Republic, and followed by German and later Eastern European Jews, communities emigrated in huge numbers to newly opened lands of the Americas, as well as Australia, and South Africa, making the diaspora a truly world wide phenomenon. Fed by huge swells of immigration from Eastern Europe, the United States contained the largest Jewish population in the world by 1945.

In the 19th century, the Jews of Western and Central Europe were assimilated to a great degree, becoming largely secular and participating in the cultural, intellectual and political life of that era. For the first time in Europe, Jews were at the forefront of science, art, and commerce. However, that era also saw the rise of racial anti-Semitism, the belief that Jews were an inferior race. It was in response to this that the Zionist movement emerged, an effort to build an independent Jewish state. Zionists such as Theodore Hertzl advocated Palestine, at that point an Ottoman dependency, as the location for this state. The first émigré settlements in Palestine were in the late 19th century, and by the 20th century it had drawn Jews from all over the world.

The holocaust carried out by the Nazi regime, one of the worst acts of genocide in history in which 6 million Jews were killed and the Jewish population of Germany and Poland was wiped out, was the apogee of racial anti-Semitism, but was also the impetus for international recognition of a Zionist state in Palestine, now called Israel. The infant nation of Israel, settled by Ashkenazic communities from Europe, now received immigration from Jewish communities all over the world, reversing the diaspora trend for the first time in 2000 years. Since it was to contain people from a variety of backgrounds, the Zionist nation planners advocated the use of Hebrew, previously reduced to a religious language, as the vernacular, marking the only time an ancient language has been revived for every day use. Migration to Israel essentially emptied the Jewish populations of the rest of the Middle East, and later Ethiopia, to the point where today Israel is the third largest Jewish nation, after the United States and Russia.

Can be used derogatorily as a verb meaning to haggle. You can "Jew down" the price of an item. Jew can also be used as a noun to refer to someone who is a miser or tight with money. I suppose that these racist usages come from the Middle Ages when Jews were often merchants and moneylenders. The latter is important because during that time period usury was considered a sin to Christians. Hopefully over the next hundred years Jew as a verb will start to mean "to be funny" and Jew as a noun will mean "entertainer". Oh, wait, that's horribly racist too.

Jew (?), n. [OF. Juis, pl., F. Juif, L. Judaeus, Gr. , fr. the country of the Jews, Judea, fr. Heb. Yhdah Judah, son of Jacob. Cf. Judaic.]

Originally, one belonging to the tribe or kingdom of Judah; after the return from the Babylonish captivity, any member of the new state; a Hebrew; an Israelite.

Jew's frankincense, gum styrax, or benzoin. -- Jew's mallow Bot., an annual herb (Corchorus olitorius) cultivated in Syria and Egypt as a pot herb, and in India for its fiber. -- Jew's pitch, asphaltum; bitumen. -- The Wandering Jew, an imaginary personage, who, for his cruelty to the Savior during his passion, is doomed to wander on the earth till Christ's second coming.

 

© Webster 1913.

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