Ashkenazim is a term meaning the Jew
s of Northern and Eastern Europe
. Just as with the Jews as a whole, various people over the ages have maintained that the Ashkenzim are a race
, an ethnic group
, a cultural group, a linguistic group, a religious group, or any other way of classifying a people. And just as with the Jews as a whole, the Ashkenazim have a diaspora
that has taken them across the world. Ashkenazim are the predominant Jewish people in North America
and were the founders of the state of Israel
. They are often seen in contrast to the Sephardim
, an equally ambiguous and misused term generally meaning Jews from the Middle East
or North Africa
In the Torah, in Genesis, Ashkenaz was one of the sons of Jepeth, who himself was a son of Noah, and ended up settling the land to the northwest after the flood. Thus, the Hebrew name for North Central Europe became Ashkenaz.
The story of the Ashkenazim as a distinct people begins in the Roman Imperial period when Jews from Mediterranean regions settled in Northern Gaul. It is unclear what brought them there, but it is certain that this was one of the more insignificant Jewish communities of the Roman Empire. Small numbers may have pushed into the Rhine valley, and as the area fell to Germanic invaders in subsequent centuries, this Jewish community found itself under new rulers.
This community, based in Germany and Northern France, was a backwater compared to the Jewish centers of the Mediterranean and the Islamic world. Like their counterparts in those regions, the Ashkenazim were tolerated and often supported by rulers from Charlemagne to Otto, who relied on them for their trading contacts with the wider world. There was intellectual exchange and trade between the Ashkenazim in Northern Europe and Jewish communities elsewhere.
Reflecting its diverse cultural and ethnic origin mixing Palestinian, Mediterranean, and Germanic Stock, the Ashkenazi community evolved a distinct language, Yiddish, which featured a Germanic structure augmented with vocabulary from Hebrew and Latin.
As the middle ages progressed, tolerance gave way to persecution. The community had spread throughout Northwestern Europe, but events like their total expulsion from England in 1290 were becoming typical. In this period, the Jews of Europe were restricted from many trades and confined to early Ghettos, a situation that would last until the enlightenment. Persecution increased, and especially after the Bubonic Plague, mass slaughters, known as pogroms, were common. At this point, the Ashkenazim were still one of the less prominent Jewish communities of the world. Their numbers and prominence were augmented somewhat after the Jewish community was expelled from Spain.
In the 17th and 18th century, the monarchies of Eastern Europe, such as Poland-Lithuania and Czarist Russia, offered the Ashkenazim a way out of persecution. These nations needed the crafts and trade that settlers could provide, and offered a persecution-free environment for the Ashkenazim. In a great wave of migration many moved East from Western Europe. Many people associate Ashkenazim with Eastern Europe, but it is interesting to note that in general as a people they were only there for two or three centuries before the mass migrations of the 19th and 20th centuries. The Ashkenazim are not a Slavic people, nor do they bear any relation to the Khazars, who were a continent away in the Caucasus at this point.
With the enlightenment, the situation for the Ashkenazim in the west greatly improved. Napoleon emancipated the Jews of his empire, and many began to participate in the political and cultural innovations of the new nation-states, exemplified by Benjamin Disraeli, who served as the British prime minister. But just as things were improving in the West, they got worse in the East, as the formerly tolerant regimes gave way to oppressive ones. The Jews of Eastern Europe were now ghetto-ified, poor, and uneducated, and subject to draconian laws and pogroms. The Russian Empire restricted them to an area known as the Pale of Settlement. Population growth in both the West and the East resulted in Ashkenazim becoming the largest of the world's Jewish groups, and by the 20th century Poland would have the world's largest Jewish population.
In the West, after a century of tolerance, new anti-Jewish sentiment emerged, this time based on racial theories instead of religious intolerance. The Dreyfus affair in France convinced many intellectuals that the Jews needed a nation and this sentiment led to the Zionist movement. In the middle of the 19th century many German Jews, and by the end of that century those of Eastern Europe, engaged in a massive emigration to the United States, Canada, South America, Australia, and other new worlds. They became the dominant jewish population in these lands, whose Jewish populations had previously been, especially in North America, mostly Sephardim.
Ashkenazim from both Eastern and Western Europe immigrated to Palestine as part of the Zionist enterprise. Before and after the founding of the state of Israel, other Jews also came to Palestine from the Middle East, India, Ethiopia, and other places. Although they may have had little in common with each other, in a world psychologically divided into 'western civilization' and 'everything else,' these various non-European Jews were on the surface a contrast to the westernized Ashkenazim, and were lumped together as the Sephardim, which originally meant only the Jews from Spain, while the Ashkenazim were seen as a uniform group as well. In fact, it was only at this point that the term came to have the meaning that it does today. As the Ashkenazim had developed somewhat different religious practices in their centuries of relative isolation, there evolved two separate religious hierarchies in Israel. Today the Ashkenazim and Sephardim are seen as a dualist contrast in world Jewry. Some even apply American racial perspectives and see them as the 'white' and 'non-white' Jews, but this simplistic view ignores the complex history that characterizes world Jewry. Ironically, Ashkenazi is a somewhat common Sephardi last name. This name would have been given to one who originated in or traded with Ashkenazi lands, and illustrates the silliness of rigidly dividing a fluid people.
After the Holocaust depopulated Europe of its remaining Jews, the Ashkenazim in the world lived in mostly in North America, the Soviet Union, and Israel, and virtually none remained in the land they were named for. Although Yiddish enjoyed a brief flourishing in the early 20th century in America with the Yiddish theatre and newspapers that delighted Jewish tentaments, it is now a language on the wane. The Ashkenazim of the world speak English, Hebrew, or Russian. Today, as the lines of ethnicity in Israel blur, and the Jews of North America assimilate or retain only religious rituals as a legacy of a once distinct culture, the term 'Ashkenazim' may soon be necessary only for the study of the past.