Image: Four women complete the Sargeant-First-Class Course for the IDF Infantry Corps in 2007. We can’t tell whether they are Ashkenazi, Sephardic, or Mizrahi Jews by looking at them, but all are Jewish. Photo by the IDF, some rights reserved.
If you are around the Jewish world long enough, you’ll hear a mention of the terms “Ashkenazi” and “Sephardic.” Hang around a bit longer and if you are lucky you’ll hear the term “Mizrahi.” These are three different groups of Jewish traditions, each with their own ancient roots.
Mizrahi Jews – These are the oldest of the Diaspora communities of Judaism: Jews from the Levant (Eastern Mediterranean) North Africa and Central Asia. It includes Moroccan Jews, Iranian (Persian) Jews, Iraqi (Baghdadi) Jews, Egyptian Jews, Libyan Jews, Bukharan Jews, Yemenite Jews, Ethiopian Jews, Syrian Jews, Jews from Lebanon and Tunisia.
Most Mizrahi Jews no longer live in the lands that were their homes for centuries. Most now live either in Israel or in North America but many have retained their cultural heritage. One great source of information about the Jews of the Eastern Mediterranean and North Africa is JIMENA, (“Jews of the Middle East and North Africa.”)
Sephardic Jews – These Jews are descendants of the Jews of the Iberian peninsula, present-day Spain and Portugal. In 1492 (Spain) and 1497 (Portugal) the monarchs of those countries offered a cruel choice: convert to Christianity, leave immediately and forever, or die. Thus began the Sephardic Diaspora, the scattering of these people across the globe from Amsterdam to Brazil, from Greece to India.
Because Arab countries were generally more hospitable than Christian nations at the time of the Dispersion, many of the Sephardim settled in cities with existing Mizrahi communities. In some of those locations, Sephardic liturgical customs became dominant. That is the reason that you will sometimes hear the two terms “Sephardic” and “Mizrahi” conflated, although that is not really quite accurate. Sephardic Judaism is not a monolith; it encompasses many different Jewish cultures and heritages, all going back to the flowering of culture known as Golden Age Spain.
Nowadays the thing that unites Sephardic Jews worldwide is their minhag, their customs regarding worship and details of Jewish Law.
Ashkenazi Jews – Ashkenazi Jews are the Jews of Central and Eastern Europe. Unlike the other two groups, most of their history they lived in countries where Christianity was the dominant religion. They include the Jews of Poland and the Pale of Settlement as well as the Jews of Germany. The majority of Jews in Canada and the U.S. are of Ashkenazi descent; their ancestors arrived in the great immigration from Eastern Europe in the late 19th and very early 20th century. Many (but not all) of the founders of the State of Israel were from Ashkenazi families, which is why Ashkenazim have been dominant in Israeli politics.
In case you are wondering: converts to Judaism take on the traditions of the Jewish communities into which they convert. As with many other Jewish matters, these three are not so much a matter of DNA as of heritage and context.