by: Shmuel ben Shlomi
I’m not real sure why this is still talked about in the 21st Century as it has been a topic of discussion for hundreds of years. Since the answer to the question “Are Ashkenazi Jews really Jews?” has been thoroughly researched I will provide this article as a cliff note on the subject. A full listing on a more in-depth look into the Ashkenazi Jewish story will be posted at the end of this article.
To understand what an Ashkenazi Jew is we must first take a look at the origin of that name — Ashkenaz and how it became attached to a certain group of Jews commonly found in Eastern Europe and Northern France. To do that we have to go way, way back to the post-Deluge era and the descendants of Noah.
Noah had three sons aboard the ark of safety — Shem, Ham, and Japheth. After the flood the descendants of these three survivors migrated to various parts of the globe, mainly to areas throughout the Near, Middle, and Far East, Africa, the Caucasus and Europe.
Japheth had a son named Gomer. His descendants remained mainly in the area where the ark finally rested on Mount Ararat in Turkey (originally called Gomer). He had a son name Ashenaz. Over time his descendants migrated North and East to the Baltic region and Europe, mainly in what we now call Germany (which was historically, originally named Ashkenaz).
The Hebrew people are not descended from Noah’s son Japheth. They come from Shem, Noah’s second born son. So how then did some Jews become called by the name of Japheth’s grandson Ashkenaz?
Throughout history, once the Hebrew people came into existence through the lineage of Abraham/Sarah, Isaac/Rebecca and Jacob/Rachel - all descended from Shem; the Hebrew peoples (later called Jews) could be found in various parts of the globe. While mainly living in the region of The Levant, which included what we now call Israel, Syria, Lebanon, Jordan and parts of Southwest Turkey, these Jews could also be found living in other areas, such as Iraq, Persia (modern day Iran), Egypt and Northern Africa, as far North as Russia and easterly in parts of India and even into the early remnants of Rome. However, the main body of Hebrews remained in The Levant.
It was in the time period of the final great revolt of the Jews against the Roman Empire circa 138 CE that the Jews were kicked out of their homeland of Israel (name changed by the Roman Emperor to Palestine) and scattered, or dispersed throughout the rest of the known world. After that time even Jews living in Rome itself were no longer favored. Many Jews moved eastward in great numbers to Iraq (where there was already a large contingent of Jewish population since the days of the Babylonian exile from Judea back in circa 536 BCE). Others moved North into Turkey, the Baltic regions, Russia and what we now call the breakaway States from the former Soviet Union like Ukraine, Azerbaijan, Lithuania and others.
Those that moved West settled mainly in Eastern Europe in countries we now know as Poland, Hungary, Germany, the Netherlands region and Northern France. The greatest number who migrated West ended up in Spain (called Sefrad in Hebrew - where we get the word Sephardic) and Portugal. We will discuss Sephardic Jews in a later article. For now let’s concentrate on the original question concerning Ashkenazi Jews.
Those Jews that migrated into Eastern Europe mostly settled in Germany (Ashkenaz). The second largest contingent were eventually found in Poland. Over time as a result of persecutions, pogroms, and general all around harassment by the non-Jews in those areas the Jews began gathering more and more together for protection forming towns and villages (Shtetls) inhabited mainly by Jews. They became more and more isolated from the non-Jewish communities surrounding them taking on their own distinctive lifestyles based mainly on their rabbis' interpretation of the Torah and Talmud. The dress, mannerisms and behavior became unique to their particular shtetl. Since their main area of habitation was the region originally known as Ashkenaz they eventually were called, and also called themselves Ashkenazi Jews as to distinguish themselves from the other ethno-Jewish group known as Sephardic Jews (Those who stayed in The Levant, Iraq, or moved to North Africa, Spain and Portugal).
Now back to the question: “Are Ashkenazi Jews Really Jews?” Like all Jews the answer is traced back to lineage. Does a person identified as an Ashkenazi Jew descend from the line of Abraham/Sarah, Isaac/Rebecca, and Jacob/Rachel and whose mother was a Jew (Hebrew)? If so, then like any other claiming to be a Jew, they are very much a Jew from an ethnic point of view. Whether or not a Jew, any Jew, practices or even believes in the current practice of Judaism (be it Orthodox, Conservative, Reform or anything in-between), or even in God is not relevant to this particular question. That is a whole other discussion which I may get into one day — but not here.
Are Ashkenazi Jews really Jews? If they meet the above lineage criteria then of course they are. And, they better be for without them we would never know the joys and pleasures of taking in the aroma of and eating that delicious matzah ball soup.
LIST of REFERENCES for your personal study: