Ashkenazi Jews

Ashkenazi Jews [Hebrew: Ashkenazim], a Jewish community living in Central, Eastern and partially Western Europe, associated with the Yiddish culture. In the Old Testament (Romans 10,3, Book of Jeremiah 51,27), a name of one of the peoples living in areas North of Israel (perhaps near Armenia). In the medieval rabbinic literature, the notion of Ashkenaz was identified with German territories. After the migration of German Jews, which started in the 11th century, the name was extended to the Jewish residents of Central, Eastern and Western parts of Europe. The Yiddish language became the basic criterion of distinguishing the Ashkenazi Jews from the Sephardi Jews from Spain. The mutual geographic isolation of both groups resulted in the formation of distinct cultural Ashkenazi trends, characterised by, inter alia, a separate order of prayers (Nusach Ashkenaz), different pronunciation in Hebrew, its own architectural forms of church buildings, interior furnishings of synagogues as well as folklore. The Ashkenazi Jews created a separate self-government organisation based on the German Law (the kahal).

During the 18th century, on the lands which belonged to Poland at the time, the religious and mystical movement known as Hasidism emerged among the Ashkenazic Jews. This event had a significant impact on their culture. At the turn of the 18th and the 19th centuries, under the influence of corresponding non-Jewish trends, an Enlightenment movement – the Haskalah – was born. At the beginning of the 19th century, a vast majority of the Ashkenazic Jews lived in the partitioned territory of Poland (mainly within the borders of Russia and Austria) and constituted around 90% of all Jews (currently 80%). In the second half of the 19th century, the Ashkenazic culture and science in the Yiddish language started to flourish, and at the same time, the Hebrew language and literature was also revived, driven by the rise of Zionism. The most important centre of the Ashkenazic Jews  after 1918 was Poland (with centres in Warsaw and Vilnius).

As a result of the extermination of Jews during the Second World War and the migration which started before 1914 and continued in waves after 1945, as well as the ethnic policy of the USSR (especially after 1935), the Ashkenazic culture in Central and Eastern Europe was almost completely wiped out. Nowadays, the Ashkenazi Jews are mostly concentrated in the United States, Israel and some Western European countries, and a slow revival of their culture has began in some countries of the former USSR. Today, the Yiddish language has ceased to be a hallmark of this division, replaced primarily by cultural heritage.

© Entries taken from PWN information websites.

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