21st Century Jewish Traditions
Westerners often think of Ashkenazi Jews when they think of the Jewish culture of today: the fair-skinned, stocky European Jews who populated countries like Germany, France, Poland and Hungary in large numbers prior to the Holocaust (what Jews today call the Shoah).
But Jews have actually lived in just about every ethnic region of the world. In fact, the Ashkenazi Jewish community, while one of the largest in the Western Hemisphere, represents only a few of the diverse communities across the globe, and only a limited number of the cultural traditions that define the Jewish communities of the 21st century.
The Ethnic Cultures of Diaspora Judaism
The Greek word “Diaspora,” which is used today to describe the Jews who live outside of Israel, is an apt depiction of the history of the Jew. Diaspora Jews dispersed, or scattered across parts of the globe after the fall of Kingdom of Israel in the 8th century BCE.
They took up residence in regions such as, Egypt, Yemen and Mesopotamia, adapting their lifestyles to their new homes, melding their language with that of their host countries. As their migrations expanded to new regions, Jews picked up new traditions and linguistic habits; their Hebrew merged with the Castilian Spanish of Spain and the Germanic habits of Western Europe.
The Jews of Africa, Asia, Europe and South America
Today, Jewish communities can be found in China, Japan, Africa and India, as well as Eastern and Western Europe, North and South America. More than thirty ethnic Jewish communities span the globe, and can be found in semi-isolated regions of the Amazon of Peru, the northern reaches of Pakistan, Morocco, North Africa, and the city of Kaifeng China.
Many Jews were forced to migrate because of religious and ethnic persecution, but others also set out to find new business opportunities. Remote communities that had little or no contact with Jews became new destinations for enterprising young men and families in need of stable work.
The Moroccan Jews of North Africa who migrated to the Amazon in the 19th century and the Orthodox Jews of Eastern Canada who broke away from their communities to set up shop along the gold rush trail in British Columbia not only established new communities but changed the ethnic topography of the Jewish people.
The Effect of the Holocaust (Shoah) on Jewish Migration
World War II and the Holocaust had the greatest impact on Jewish life, decimating entire countries of their Jewish populations and creating mass exoduses of others to new homelands. Yet, even the Holocaust has failed to stem the perpetuation of Jewish culture throughout the world.
Today, there are three main ethnic divisions: the Ashkenazi, who originated initially in Western Europe, but are now found in Eastern and Western Europe and North America, as well as other communities throughout the world; the Sephardic, who originated from the Iberian Coast and whose heritage includes the Hispanic regions of Europe, North and South America, as well as Morocco; and the Mizrahi, who originated primarily from the Middle East, Central Asia and the Caucasus (e.g. Russia, Georgia and Azerbaijan). Each claims its own customs and traditions, and its own linguistic origins.
The Differences Between Yiddish and Ladino
Just as Yiddish was once the dominant language of Ashkenazi Jews, Ladino was once readily heard in the Jewish communities of the Iberian Peninsula. Today both languages are experiencing resurgence by descendants who want to see their cultural traditions continue. The interest in cultural and linguistic heritage has also helped to preserve some of the ancient and at one time, less-known traditions of small, isolated Jewish communities, such as those of the Crypto-Jews of New Mexico, Mexico and Central America.
Jewish communities continue to migrate, to merge and to find new roots. As North American Ashkenazi and Sephardic Jews venture out of cities, new, smaller communities are being formed in rural areas, giving rise to new ethnic roots and a new kind of cultural migration.