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Ashkenazi Jews

Ethnic Groups > Etnic Groups & Poverty

Ashkenazi Jews, also known as Ashkenazic Jews or Ashkenazim; (also Yehudei Ashkenaz, "the Jews of Ashkenaz"), are the Jews descended from the medieval Jewish communities along the Rhine in Germany from Alsace in the south to the Rhineland in the north. Ashkenaz is the medieval Hebrew name for this region and thus for Germany. Thus, Ashkenazim or Ashkenazi Jews are literally "German Jews." Later, Jews from Western and Central Europe came to be called "Ashkenaz" because the main centers of Jewish learning were located in Germany.
An interesting story was related by author Arthur Koestler, who noted that the term “Ashkenaz” is also mentioned in the Hebrew bible, referring to a people living somewhere in the vicinity of Armenia. Probably for this reason, the Khazars, a people who lived in and around this area in ancient times and converted to Judaism in the 7- 8 centuries, came to believe they were the descendants of these biblical people. Some scholars argue that they began to call themselves “Ashkenazim” when they migrated to Poland in the 13 century. Eventually, perhaps, the term came to describe the community as a whole, not just the Khazarian immigrants.
Many Ashkenazi Jews later migrated, largely eastward, forming communities in non German-speaking areas, including Hungary, Poland, Lithuania, Russia, Ukraine, Eastern Europe, and elsewhere between the 11th and 19th centuries. With them, they took and diversified Yiddish, a basically Germanic language with Hebrew influence. It had developed in medieval times as the
lingua franca among Ashkenazi Jews. The Jewish communities of three cities along the Rhine: Speyer, Worms and Mainz, created the SHUM league (SHUM after the first Hebrew letters of Spira, Warmatia and Magentza). The SHUM-cities are considered the cradle of the distinct Ashkenazi culture and liturgy.
Although in the 11th century, they comprised only 3 percent of the world's Jewish population, at their peak in 1931, Ashkenazi Jews accounted for 92 percent of the world's Jews. Today they make up approximately 80 percent of Jews worldwide. Most Jewish communities with extended histories in Europe are Ashkenazim, with the exception of those associated with the region. The majority of the Jews who migrated from Europe to other continents in the past two centuries are Ashkenazim, Eastern Ashkenazim in particular. This is especially true in the United States, where most of the 5.3 million American Jewish population is Ashkenazi, representing the world's single largest concentration of Ashkenazim.

The Ashkenazi Jewish population originated in the Middle East. Jews have lived in Germany, or "Ashkenaz", at least since the early 4th century. They brought with them both Rabbinic Judaism and the Babylonian Talmudic culture that underlies it. Yiddish, once spoken by the vast majority of Ashkenazi Jewry, is a Germanic language that developed from the Middle High German vernacular, heavily influenced by Hebrew and Aramaic.

Background in the Roman Empire
After the Roman empire had overpowered the Jewish resistance in the First Jewis-Roman war in Judea and destroyed the Jewish temple in Jerusalem in 70 CE, the complete Roman takeover of Judea followed the Bar Kochba rebellion of 132-135 CE. Jews continued to be a majority of the population in Palestine for several hundred years. However, the Romans no longer recognized the authority of the Sanhedrin or any other Jewish body, and Jews were prohibited from living in Jerusalem. Outside the Roman Empire, a large Jewish community remained in Mesopotamia. Other Jewish populations could be found dispersed around the Mediterranean region, with the largest concentrations in the Levant, Egypt, Asia Minor, Greece, and Italy, including Rome. Smaller communities are recorded in southern Gaul ( France), Spain, and North Africa.
Jews were denied full Roman citizenship until 212 CE, when Emperor Caracalla granted all free peoples this privilege. But, as a penalty for the first Jewish Revolt, Jews were required to pay a poll tax until the reign of Emperor 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, and brutally persecuted.
In Palestine and Mesopotamia, where Jewish religious scholarship was centered, the majority of Jews were still engaged in farming, as demonstrated by the preoccupation of early Talmudic writings with agriculture. In communities, trade was a common occupation, facilitated by the easy mobility of traders through the dispersed Jewish communities.
Throughout this period and into the early Middle Ages, some Jews assimilated into the dominant Greek and Latin cultures, mostly through conversion to Christianity. In Palestine and Mesopotamia, the spoken language of Jews continued to be Aramaic, but elsewhere in the diaspora, most Jews spoke Greek. Conversion and assimilation were especially common within the Hellenized or Greek-speaking Jewish communities, amongst whom the Septuagint and Aquila of Sinope (Greek translations and adaptations of the Tanakh or Hebrew Bible) were the source of scripture. A remnant of this Greek-speaking Jewish population (the Romaniotes) survives to this day.

The Germanic invasions of the Western Roman Empire in the 5th century by tribes such as the Visigoths, Franks, Lombards, and Vandals caused massive economic and social instability within the western Empire, contributing to its decline. In the late Roman Empire, Jews are known to have lived in Cologne and Trier, as well as in what is now France. However, it is unclear whether there is any continuity between these late Roman communities and the distinct Ashkenazi Jewish culture that began to emerge about 500 years later. King Dagobert I of the Franks expelled the Jews from his kingdom in 629. Jews in former Roman territories now faced new challenges as harsher anti-Jewish Church rulings were enforced.

Rabbinic Judaism moves to Ashkenaz
In Mesopotamia, and in Persian lands free of Roman imperial domination, Jewish life fared much better. Since the conquest of Judea by Nebuchadnezzar II, this community had always been the leading diaspora community, a rival to the leadership of Palestine. After conditions for Jews began to deteriorate in Roman-controlled lands, many of the religious leaders of Judea and the fled to the east. At the academies of Pumbeditha and Sura near Babylon, Rabbinic Judaism based on Talmudic learning began to emerge and assert its authority over Jewish life throughout the diaspora. Rabbinic Judaism created a religious mandate for literacy, requiring all Jewish males to learn Hebrew and read from the Torah. This emphasis on literacy and learning a second language would eventually be of great benefit to the Jews, allowing them to take on commercial and financial roles within Gentile societies where literacy was often quite low.
After the Islamic conquest of the Middle East and North Africa, new opportunities for trade and commerce opened between the Middle East and Western Europe. The vast majority of Jews in the world now lived in Islamic lands. Urbanization, trade, and commerce within the Islamic world allowed Jews, as a highly literate people, to abandon farming and live in cities, engaging in occupations where they could use their skills. The influential, sophisticated, and well organized Jewish community of Mesopotamia, now centered in Baghdad, became the center of the Jewish world. In the Caliphate of Baghdad, Jews took on many of the financial occupations that they would later hold in the cities of Ashkenaz. Jewish traders from Baghdad began to travel to the west, renewing Jewish life in the western Mediterranean region. They brought with them Rabbinic Judaism and Babylonian Talmudic scholarship.

Charlemagne's expansion of the Frankish empire around 800, including northern Italy and Rome, brought on a brief period of stability and unity in Western Europe. This created opportunities for Jewish merchants to settle once again north of the Alps. Charlemagne granted the Jews freedoms similar to those once enjoyed under the Roman Empire. Returning once again to Frankish lands, many Jewish merchants took on 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, there is a well-documented record of Jewish life in northern Europe, and by the 11th century, when Rashi of Troyes wrote his commentaries, Ashkenazi Jews had emerged also as interpreters and commentators on the Torah and Talmud.

High and Late Middle Ages migrations
Historical records show evidence of Jewish communities north of the Alps and Pyrenees as early as the 8th and 9th century. By the end of the first millenum, Jewish populations were well-established in Western Europe, later followed the Norman Conquest into England in 1066, and settled in many cities of the Rhine area by the end of the 11th century. With the onset of the Crusades, and the expulsions from England (1290), France (1394), and parts of Germany (1400s), Jewish migration pushed eastward into Poland, Lithuania, and Russia. 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: 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 1400s, 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, would remain the main center of Ashkenazi Jewry until the Holocaust.
The answer to why there was so little assimilation of Jews in Eastern Europe for so long would seem to lie in part in the probability that the alien surroundings in 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.

The Holocaust
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 50–90% of the Jews of other Slavic nations, Germany, France, Hungary, and the Baltic states. 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. Many of the surviving Ashkenazi Jews emigrated to countries such as Israel, Canada, Argentina, Australia, and the United States after the war.

In Israel
Today, Ashkenazi Jews constitute the largest group among Jews, and among Israeli Jews as well. 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.
In Israel all Jews have more or less a strong sence of national pride (even close to arrogance). At the same time there is much difference between the different groups of Jews living there. The most dominant group are the Ashkenazi Jews, and Israel is mostly organised according to their principles. As most Ashkenazim today are living in Israel and the United States, it makes it easy to understand why they are a dominant group, an elite even, in Israel as well as among American Jews. More like any other group the Ashkenazi Jews have been Americanised, which in effect makes Israel a Western country in the Middle East. The Ashkenazim from Russia, however, are often more Russian than Jewish. As a consequence they are not a part of the dominant Ashkenazi culture.

Ashkenazi Jews have a noted history of achievement in western societies. They have won a large number of the Nobel awards. 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. For example, during the 20th century in the United States, Ashkenazi Jews represented approximately 3% of the population, but won 27% of the US Nobel Prizes in science, and 25% of the ACM Turing Awards (the Nobel-equivalent in computer science).

The Ashkenazi Jews in Central Europe (1881). Red = 9-13%, Dark brown = 13-18%, Brown = 1%, Light brown= 0.5%, Blue = 2-3% of the population.

Modern history
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; 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.
Ashkenazi Jews developed the Hasidic movement as well as major Jewish academic centers across Poland, Russia, and Lithuania in the generations after emigration from the west. After two centuries of comparative tolerance in the new nations, massive westward emigration occurred in the 1800s and 1900s 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, and the development of Zionism in modern Europe.

A study by Michael Seldin, a geneticist at the University of California Davis School of Medicine, found Ashkenazi Jews to be a clear, relatively homogenous 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 more common, many Ultra-Orthodox 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 Ultra-Orthodox Jews often have extremely large families.

DNA clues
Efforts to identify the origins of Ashkenazi Jews through DNA analysis began in the 1990s. In fact, it was from this research, prompted by an observation of the different physical features between Ashkenazi Jews and other of the world's Jewish ethnic divisions, that modern was born. Dr. Karl Skorecki, a Canadian nephrologist of Ashkenazi parentage, noticed that a fellow-congregant of Sephardi parentage, who was a Kohen like him, had completely different physical features. According to Jewish tradition, all Kohanim are descended from the priest Aaron, brother of Moses. Skorecki reasoned that if Kohanim were indeed the descendants of only one man, they should, at least on the paternal line, have a common set of genetic markers and should perhaps preserve some family resemblance to each other.

Male lineages: Y chromosomal DNA
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 some 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."
A 2001 study by Nebel
et al. showed that both Ashkenazi and Sephardic Jewish populations share the same overall paternal Near Eastern ancestries. The authors also report on Eu 19 chromosomes, which are very frequent in Eastern Europeans (54%-60%) at elevated frequency (12.7%) in Ashkenazi Jews. They hypothesized that these chromosomes could reflect low-level gene flow from surrounding Eastern European populations, or, alternatively, that both the Ashkenazi Jews with Eu 19, and to a much greater extent Eastern European populations in general, might partly be descendants of Khazars. Again, this study suggested a total male admixture estimation that is no larger than ~12.5%. A 2005 study by Nebel et al., based on Y chromosome polymorphic markers, showed that Ashkenazi Jews are more closely related to other Jewish and Middle Eastern groups than to their host populations in Europe. However, 11.5% of male Ashkenazim were found to belong to R-M17, the dominant Y chromosome haplogroup in Eastern Europeans, suggesting possible gene flow. The authors hypothesized that "R-M17 chromosomes in Ashkenazim may represent vestiges of the mysterious Khazars". They concluded "However, if the R-M17 chromosomes in Ashkenazi Jews do indeed represent the vestiges of the mysterious Khazars then, according to our data, this contribution was limited to either a single founder or a few closely related men, and does not exceed ~ 12% of the present-day Ashkenazim.
A 2003 study of the Y-chromosome by Behar
et al. points to multiple origins for Ashkenazi Levites, a priestly class who comprise approximately 4% of Ashkenazi Jews. It found that Haplogroup R1a, uncommon in the Middle East or among Sephardic Jews, originating in Central Asia and dominant in Eastern Europe, is present in over 50% of Ashkenazi Levites, while the rest of Ashkenazi Levites' paternal lineage is of Middle Eastern origin. Behar suggests a founding event, probably involving one or very few European men, occurring at a time close to the initial formation and settlement of the Ashkenazi community as a possible explanation. Ashkenazi and Sephardic Cohanim and Israelites, on the other hand, were found to share the same genetic signature, originating in the Middle East 2000 years earlier.

Female lineages: Mitochondrial DNA
Before 2006, geneticists largely attributed the genesis of most of the world's Jewish populations, including Ashkenazi Jews, to founding effects by males who migrated from the Middle East and "by the women from each local population whom they took as wives and converted to Judaism." In line with this model of origin, David Goldstein, now of Duke University, reported in 2002 that, unlike male 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."
However, a 2006 study by Behar
et al., based on high-resolution analysis of (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 first and second centuries CE. Although Haplogroup K 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:
"..Both the extent and location of the maternal ancestral deme from which the Ashkenazi Jewry arose remain obscure. Here, using complete sequences of the maternally inherited mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA), we show that close to one-half of Ashkenazi Jews, estimated at 8,000,000 people, can be traced back to only four women carrying distinct mtDNAs that are virtually absent in other populations, with the important exception of low frequencies among non-Ashkenazi Jews. We conclude that four founding mtDNAs, likely of Near Eastern ancestry, underwent major expansion(s) in Europe within the past millennium.."
In addition, Behar
et al. have suggested that the rest of Ashkenazi mtDNA is originated from ~150 women, most of those likely of Middle Eastern origin.

Genome-wide association study
In genetic epidemiology, a genome-wide association study (GWA study, or GWAS) is an examination of genetic variation across a given genome, designed to identify genetic associations with observable traits. In human studies, this might include traits such as blood pressure or weight, or why some people get a disease or condition.
A 2007 study by Bauchet
et al. found that Ashkenazi Jews were most closely clustered with Arabic North African populations, and in the European structure analysis, they share similarities only with Greeks and Southern Italians, reflecting their East Mediterranean origins.

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