My students are often surprised when I tell them there are Jews who do not speak Yiddish, but Ladino, an old Spanish and Hebrew blend written in Hebrew letters. The Jews they are familiar with are those they meet on the streets of NYC, descendants of Eastern European immigrants. If they want to mention "really religious" Jews, they usually point to the Hasidim, whose various ultra-Orthodox sects developed also in Eastern Europe. The Hasidim are of course most visible because of their dress (payess (ear curls) and prayer fringes for the men; wigs and modest dress for the women). There are other observant communities among the Jewish population but they fit right in the American tapestry, willing to blend modernity, science, technology, progressivism and traditional teachings of ethical behaviors.
So who are Jews? There are many diverse communities within the "Jewish People." Although they turn to the same religious texts and interpretations and practice the same faith stemming from the same core beliefs, over the millennia and due to many tragic historic events, Jews have been forcibly dispersed over many lands. Gradually their customs, their languages and even their self-identities diverged so that today scholars have given names to the largest of these different groups.
The Ashkenazim or Ashkenazi Jews are those Jews who descend from Jewish communities in central, eastern and northern Europe. The term "Ashkenaz" comes from the Hebrew word for "German." Most American Jews are descendants of Ashkenazic Jews who immigrated at the turn of the twentieth century. Most of the Jews who were killed in the Holocaust were Ashkenazim. In general, although the Ashkenazic communities were often very large, the Jews were ostracized by the Christian community and often were victims of violence such as pogroms, of restrictive laws (Jew taxes and ghettoes) and of discrimination (prohibited from guilds, from universities, from living in cities or other restricted areas). Their international language was Yiddish, a combination of old German and Hebrew, plus newer words in Polish and Russian, all written in Hebrew characters.
Sephardim or Sephardic Jews: When the Romans forced Jews out of Palestine after they conquered it in 70 AD, Jews dispersed throughout the Roman Empire, many taken as slaves. Large numbers found those lands under Moslem control more hospitable , chiefly Northern Africa, southern Europe (Italy) and the Iberian peninsula (Spain and Portugal). With the Moors in power, Jews were more integrated into society and able to rise to heights of scholarship, particularly in science and medicine, politics and finance. They were bankers, shipping magnates and advisors to the aristocrats. The name Sephardim comes from the Hebrew word "Sepharad" meaning "Spain."
All good things come to an end and, in 1492, King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella issued the decree now called the "Expulsion" ordering that all Jews convert to Catholicism or leave Spanish-controlled lands. Sephardim fled east, towards Ottoman-controlled lands such as Turkey, Greece and North Africa. Some went north to places such as England and Ireland. (The Tedeschis, the Nietos and the Da Costas of The Tales are all from the Sephardic tradition.). Others followed trade routes north into eastern and central Europe. Still more went west and formed the earliest Jewish communities in the Americas. There is evidence that among Columbus' crew, there were several Sephardic Jews. And Jewish Sephardic pirates were notorious for attacking Spanish vessels throughout the Mediterranean and in the Caribbean. (Moises Torones and the Brotherhood are part of that tradition, as told in the Tales.) The international language of the Sephardim is Ladino, a mixture of Spanish and Hebrew, written in Hebrew characters.
Mizrahi Jews are Jews descending from communities in the Middle East, North Africa, and Asia. They are often called Eastern, Oriental or Arab Jews and are sometimes classified as Sephardim. Their communities are the oldest Jewish ones in the world, with roots stretching back to the origins of Judaism when the nomadic peoples traveled throughout the Middle East and settled in many ancient lands. The majority of Mizrahi live in Israel today. A story only recently being talked about is the violent expulsion of the Mizrahis from Arab lands from the 1940s to the 1990s as growing anti-Semitism and anti-Israel fervor arose in the region.
Palestinian Jews, a subset of the Mizrahi described above, are descendants of communities that never left the Holy Land. Throughout millennia, through hard times and oppression, Jews remained in isolated settlements in remote locations or in small villages. Travelers, explorers, generals of invading forces, all commented on the presence of Jews in Palestine throughout written history. Thus, as descendants of Palestine Jews will claim, they had continuous possession of their "homeland" from the moment it had been given to Abraham and that only those who lived in the Diaspora had to return. They had always remained. (Judah Halevi Hassan, the man who wrote the original Journals on which the Tales are based, is a descendant of Palestinian Jews.)
There are other groups of Jews with distinct stories and traditions, such as the Ethiopian Jews, called the Beta Israel (Falasha is a derogatory term meaning "outsider.") and the Cochinim who lived for two thousand years on the Malabar coast of India, supposedly landing there as sailors for King Solomon sent to purchase spices, apes, peacocks and precious metals.
The picture above is of a Mizrahi Jewish family wearing traditional outfits in 1915.