Ashkenazi Jews are a subgroup of the Jewish people, with something like three-quarters of all Jews in the world now claiming descent from them. They trace their origins to 7th century Europe, when Jews first arrived in the Rhineland, in what is now Germany. This is generally thought to have occurred because of the Muslim conquest of Byzantine Palestine.
German Cradle of Culture
As a result, Ashkenazi Jews can trace their origins back to Israel itself, but it was in Europe that a distinctive Ashkenazi culture would develop. The areas which were initially settled by Ashkenazi Jews stretched from Alsace, in present day France, to the Rhineland, in present day Germany. The cities of Speyer, Worms and Mainz would become especially associated with the Ashkenazi Jews during the Middle Ages, and are regarded as the cradle of a distinctive Ashkenazi culture. At this stage in their history though, it is estimated that the Ahskneazi Jews accounted for a mere three per cent of the world’s Jewish population.
In terms of religious identity, many Ashkenazi Jewish communities developed distinctive cultural patterns during this era. Nevertheless, all Ashkenazi Jews can be identified by a concept known as ‘Yiddishkeit’, which basically means ‘Jewishness’ in Yiddish. During earlier times, a rabbi would lead prayers in Hewbrew, but most people belonging to an Ashkenazi community would speak Yiddish in the course of their daily lives.
Migrations Across the Globe
Many Ashkenazi Jews would later migrate from the Rhineland to Central and Eastern Europe, settling in countries such as Bohemia, Poland, Russia and Romania. It was here that the Yiddish language would develop and diversify. Yiddish was originally a dialect of High German, which would be influenced by Aramaic and Hebrew. It would also use the Hebrew alphabet.
The vast majority of the Jews who emigrated to the United States from Europe during the 19th and 20th century are Ashkenazi Jews. Indeed, most Jews in Europe consider themselves Ashkenazi, apart from those with links to the Mediterranean region, who are mainly Sephardic Jews. The spread of Judaism to all the continents of the world has been spearheaded by Ashkenazi Jews.