Jewish ethnic subdivisions

 

ASHKENAZIM 

Ashkenazi Jews are the biggest Jewish ethnic-subdivision. They are descended from Jews who first came to Rome following the destruction of the Second Temple in Jerusalem, probably as slaves. The first Ashkenazi Jews settled in Central Europe around the year 1000; however, following a huge series of expulsions during the Middle Ages, most ended up in Russia and Eastern Europe. 

Due to severe persecution and cultural tradition, Ashkenazim practiced endogamy (they only married within their ethnic group) for centuries, making their genetic profile startlingly homogenous, despite a history spanning over a thousand years. Because of this, Ashkenazi DNA is among the most studied in the world. Ashkenazim are most closely genetically related to other Jewish ethnic groups such as Sephardim, as well as Lebanese, Palestinians, and Syrians. Ashkenazim have no Eastern, Central, or Western European genetic markers. 

While in Europe, Ashkenazim developed their own liturgy and cultural traditions, as well as the Yiddish language, which is a mix of Germanic languages, Hebrew, and Aramaic. As a result of massacres in the late 1800s, millions of Ashkenazi Jews fled to the United States. After the Holocaust, most Ashkenazi survivors settled in Israel. 

 

MIZRAHIM 

Mizrahi Jews are the descendants of the Jews that remained in Southwest Asia (the Middle East) and North Africa throughout history and the duration of the forced exile from Israel/Palestine 2000 years ago. While Ashkenazi Jewish culture and genetics are incredibly homogenous, there is a lot more variation between one group of Mizrahi Jews (e.g. Persian Jews) to another (e.g. Yemenite Jews). Nevertheless, Mizrahi Jews have remained genetically and culturally tied to Israel/Palestine throughout the duration of history. 

Musta’arabi Jews are the descendants of Jews that never left Israel/Palestine nor the region of the Levant (Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, Israel, and Palestine). “Musta’arabi” literally means “those who live among the Arabs,” though the name is completely inaccurate as Jews lived in the region long before the Islamic and Arabic conquests of the sixth and seventh centuries. 

Nearly a million Mizrahi and Sephardi Jews were expelled from their homes in an act of ethnic cleansing between the 1940s and 1970s. Today, most Mizrahi Jews live in Israel, forming the majority of the Israeli population. 

 

SEPHARDIM 

Sephardi Jews are descended from the Jews that formed communities in the Iberian Peninsula (Spain and Portugal) and were later expelled during the Spanish and Portuguese Inquisitions, starting in 1492. It’s believed that the first Jews to settle in the Iberian Peninsula could have done so as they were fleeing the Babylonian captivity (597-581 BCE). Others arrived later as merchants. Finally, another group of former Judean slaves settled in the Iberian Peninsula after buying their freedom from the Roman Empire. 

As a result of the Spanish and Portuguese Inquisitions, most Sephardic Jews fled to North Africa, while others settled in other parts of Europe, India, Southwest Asia, and even the Americas. In Spain and the Spanish colonies (including Latin America), Jews continued to be persecuted, even those known as Conversos (Jews who converted to Christianity) and Anusim/Crypto-Jews (Jews who converted to Christianity but continued practicing Judaism in secret). The Spanish Inquisition wasn’t abolished until 1808. 

Sephardic Jews have a distinct liturgy, cultural traditions, and language, known as Ladino, which is a mix of Old Spanish and Hebrew. Sephardic and Ashkenazi Jews are closely genetically related. 

 

BETA ISRAEL 

Beta Israel, also known as Ethiopian Jews, are the descendants of Jews that lived in the Kingdom of Aksum and the Ethiopian Empire. There are various oral traditions and theories as to how the Jews ended up in Ethiopia. The most common one is that Ethiopian Jews are descended from the Tribe of Dan, one of the lost tribes of Ancient Israel. Another theory suggests that they are descended from Jews that fled Judea during periods of war and political unrest. Finally, others surmise that they originate with King Menelik, the son of King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba (from modern-day Ethiopia). 

The Beta Israel were virtually cut off from all other Jews for centuries and were not reunited until the 20th century. In the 18th and 19th centuries, many Beta Israel were forcibly converted to Christianity by Christian missionaries; the descendants of these Jews are known as the Falash Mura. 

The Beta Israel speak Tigrinya and Amharic and their liturgical language is Ge’ez. Due to political violence, antisemitic persecution, and famine, most Beta Israel fled to Israel in the second half of the 20th century. 

 

INDIAN JEWS

There are a number of Indian Jewish sub-ethnic groups. The first to arrive in India were the Cochin Jews, who came as traders around 562 BCE and settled in the Kingdom of Cochin (South India). Others fled Judea following the destruction of the Second Temple in Jerusalem in 70 CE. 

The second group to arrive to India were the Bene Israel, sometime around 2000 years ago. Bene Israel oral tradition says that they arrived ashore near Mumbai following a shipwreck as they fled political turmoil in Israel/Palestine. DNA testing shows that while they do have some admixture with the local Indian and Pakistani populations, there is a clear Israelite ancestral link. 

Baghdadi Jews are the descendants of a group of Jews that arrived in India as tradespeople from Iran, Iraq, and Afghanistan around 250 years ago. 

Smaller Indian Jewish sub-ethnic groups include the Bene Ephraim, Bene Menashe, and Paradesi Jews. 

 

AMAZIGH/MAGHREBI JEWS

Amazigh Jews are the descendants of Jews that settled in North Africa (particularly in the Atlas Mountains of Morocco) around the 6th century BCE. Others seem to have joined them later, during the first century, following the Great Jewish Rebellion against the Romans in Judea (modern-day Israel/Palestine) between 66-70. At some point these Jews came into contact with the local indigenous Amazigh population of North Africa. This led to a natural mixing of both cultures, though modern DNA studies confirm that Amazigh Jews are unequivocally of Israelite descent. 

Maghrebi Jews are Jews descended from the Jews living in North Africa prior to the arrival of Sepharadim following the Spanish Inquisition. Generally, this refers to the Jews living in Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, Libya, and Egypt. Jews have lived in the region for over 2000 years. From the 13th to 16th centuries, most Maghrebi Jews mixed with Sepharadim; today, most identify with their Sephardi heritage. 

As a result of violent antisemitism and ethnic cleansing, today most Amazigh and Maghrebi Jews live in Israel. 

 

CENTRAL ASIAN JEWS 

Central Asian Jews include Bukharan (modern-day Uzbekistan), Juhurim/Mountain Jewish (modern-day Azerbaijan), and Georgian Jews. Both Bukharan and Mountain Jews can trace their ancestry to Persian Jews who initially settled in modern-day Iran and Iraq following the Babylonian captivity. 

The ancestors of Mountain Jews are thought to have reached Persia from Ancient Israel as early as the 8th century BCE. Georgian Jews are one of the earliest diasporic Jewish communities in the world; having reached Georgia from Ancient Israel around the 6th century BCE, also as a result of the Babylonian captivity. 

All three of these Jewish sub-ethnic groups developed distinct diasporic cultures and languages. For example, Mountain Jews speak Judeo-Tat, a mix of ancient Iranian languages, Hebrew, and Aramaic. 

Due to violent antisemitism in their regions, today the vast majority of Bukharan, Mountain, and Georgian Jews live in Israel. 

 

KAIFENG JEWS 

Kaifeng Jews are the descendants of Mizrahi Jews who settled in China during the Northern Song (960-1127) or Tang (618-907) dynasties, probably because they were fleeing the Crusades. It’s unknown whether they reached China by sea or by land. Their first known synagogue was built in 1163. 

Though Kaifeng Jews have mostly assimilated into and intermixed with Chinese society, they still experience violent antisemitic repression and systemic discrimination and prejudice at the hands of the Chinese government. For example, Jewish community gatherings are banned, their synagogue is under constant surveillance, and Jewish teachers have been expelled. 

 

OTHER ETHNIC SUB-GROUPS 

Unfortunately, it’s virtually impossible to fit all Jewish ethnic-subdivisions into a single post. Other groups include: 

ROMANIOTE JEWS: the descendants of the oldest group of Jews residing in Europe. These Jews settled in Greece and its surrounding areas around 2300 years ago, during the time of Alexander the Great. Romaniote Jewish traditions are a mix of Hellenistic Judaism (Jewish tradition with elements of Ancient Greek culture) and Talmudic tradition. Romaniote Jews spoke Judeo-Greek (also known as Yevanic, which is a mix of Greek, Hebrew, and Aramaic); however, most Romaniotes were murdered in the Holocaust, and now the language is considered extinct. 

ITALKIM: the descendants of some Jews deported from Judea (modern day Israel/Palestine) around 70 CE who settled in modern-day Italy. Italkim have their own distinct traditions that are neither Sephardic nor Ashkenazi. They are most closely genetically related to Ashkenazi and Syrian Jews. 

AFGHAN JEWS: the descendants of Jews who settled in Afghanistan sometime around the seventh century. 

IQUITO JEWS: also known as Amazonian Jews, Iquito Jews are the descendants of Moroccan Jews who intermarried with the local indigenous Amazonian population. 

REGARDING CONVERTS: Judaism is a non-proselytizing religion, and the vast majority of Jews worldwide are ethnic Jews. While converts can belong to any ethnic group and converting to Judaism won’t change your ethnicity, they are still considered part of our tribe; as such, it’s important not to use a Euro-centric or Western-centric lens when discussing conversion to Judaism. Additionally, many converts are actually the descendants of ethnic Jews that were forced to adopt other religions such as Islam or Christianity for survival as a result of violent persecution throughout the centuries. 

Some groups of Jewish converts have essentially become their own ethnic groups, such as the Abayudaya in Uganda and the Bene Moshe in Peru.