If there is a Jew in any mainstream media (and the odds are better than you might think
), he or she will most likely be portrayed as Ashkenazi
, even when that portrayal does not fit that character's background or the setting. Oy vey!
This means that the Jew will be white and apparently of Central or Eastern European descent, will probably eat gefilte fish and bagels with lox, and may drop Yiddish words into their speech
. The names of Jews will almost always end with -berg, -man, or -stein. These "Jewish names" are actually Polish and German names adopted by Ashkenazi Jews to fit in. The trope is so pervasive that we tend to think only
Jews have these names.
In real life, while seventy to eighty percent of the world's Jewish population are in fact Ashkenazim, there are many other Jewish cultures, including the Sephardim
(Iberian), the Mizrahim
(Middle-Eastern; there may, depending on who's counting, be more Mizrahim in Israel than Ashkenazim), the Temanim
(those from Yemen in particular), the Kaifeng Jews
(Chinese), and the Habashim
(Ethiopian). Indeed, there are Jews from almost every country and culture, with their own distinct names and customs. And this is not even counting converts, who can (and do) come from every cultural background imaginable.
The trope has its origins in America, where Jewish culture, especially in New York and Los Angeles, is dominated by Ashkenazi tradition. This was not always so, however. In 1850, the considerable majority of Jews living in English-speaking countries were Sephardim, which can make works from this period with Jewish characters a bit confusing (even leaving aside the near-constant antisemitism
). It was only in the late 19th and early 20th century
that a great deal of Ashkenazi Jews immigrated to the United States (and to a lesser extent, Western Europe) to flee from persecution in eastern Europe.
In historical works, this can sometimes be a case of Translation Convention
Note that this trope is not about the simple presence of Ashkenazi Jews in a work
, but rather about the implicit or explicit assumption that all Jews are of Eastern European descent (e.g. by having Jewish characters speaking with Yiddish accents where their background and/or time period would make this improbable). Please do not add examples along the lines of "Character X is Ashkenazi" when it is nothing remarkable. Similarly, it's not worth listing an "aversion" if a work just happens to have a Jew who's Sephardi or Mizrachi.
- In You Don't Mess with the Zohan, Israeli culture is rife with Yiddishisms (e.g. "feygele") despite Yiddish (both language and culture) being largely foreign in Israel (except amongst Charedim).
- Used extensively in Mel Brooks's History of the World Part I for comedy. Even the Spanish Sephardic Jews in the Inquisition song absurdly speak in Yiddish accents with smatterings of Yiddish such as "Oy gevald!" But none of the film even pretends to try to be taken seriously.
- In Agora, Jews are mostly European looking, though some do have Mizhrahim and Sephardim features.
- Played puzzlingly straight in The Infidel where a British Muslim taxi driver figures out he is actually Jewish by birth. Rather than making him a member of the well-established Persian Jewish community (actor Omid Djalili is of Iranian descent and looks it), they gave him an inexplicably anglo-Ashkenazi birth name and background.
- Neal Stephenson's The Baroque Cycle features a number of Sephardic and Mizrachi Jews, however in one scene Jewish galley slaves of Barbary pirates sing "Havah Nagilah." The song is actually written in the early twentieth century to and is more a part of Ashkenazi culture. This is probably just an instance of Rule of Funny.
- Similarly to the above, the prequel book to Kyril Bonfiglioli's "Charlie Mortdecai" series All the Tea in China partially averts this, but also kind of plays is straight for Rule of Funny reasons. Mortdecai is loosely based on the famous art dealer Joseph Duveen, and was given the same background, that of descent from upper middle class Sephardic Jews in the Netherlands. However, the ancestor character behaves like a (somewhat offensive) Askenazi Jewish stereotype, including his use of Yiddish as a Second Language.
- Michael Chabon:
- Played straight in the novel The Yiddish Policemens Union. The community of Sitka is heavily based on Ashkenazi culture. This is justified by the fact that the city-state is populated mostly by descendants of Jews who fled the Nazis.
- Also seen in The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay in a New York City setting where it makes sense.
- The whole point of Gentlemen Of The Road, however, is to avert this trope. The two main characters are a Frankish and an Abyssinian Jew who travel to the Khazar khaganate, a Turkic nation that practiced Judaism.
- Played With in The Sparrow by Mary Russell. It is precisely because Sofia is a Sephard, and behaves like one, that Fr. Sandoz's quasi-Spanish gallantry and old-fashioned beard are off-putting to her; it's also why Sandoz doesn't recognize that she's Jewish at all.
- Rachel Berry of Glee fits this, because in order to figure out whether or not Puck was Quinn's baby daddy she told Quinn that her cousin was worried about her baby having Tay-Sachs, and tells Quinn that she only has to worry about the disease if the father of her baby is Jewish. This is despite the fact that Rachel Berry's actress, Lea Michele, is actually a Sephardic Jew. (Ironically, Quinn's actress, Dianna Agron, is actually Ashkenazi.)
- The supposedly-Israeli businessman Ari Frankel in It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia not only has a Yiddish last name, but also speaks completely unaccented American English. While there are a few natural-born Israelis who can do this (usually American-educated or born to American parents), the obviously non-Israeli actor hardly portrayed a typical person from Israel.
- In an episode of Mad Men, one of the executives remarks that the Israelis don't look anything like New York Jews, who would largely be Ashkenazi. Don Draper later asks a New York Jew to tell him about Israel, and she admits that she doesn't know much about it, besides advising him not to cross an Israeli.
- In L.A. Noire, the prime suspect in one of the cases is a Jewish jeweler. Though his swarthy complexion and decidedly un-ashkenazi name "Kalou" suggest that he is of Sephardic descent, he still peppers his speech with Yiddish.
- Archer features a black Jewish agent named Conway Stern, who sports an Ashkenazi last name despite the fact that his ethnicity would suggest that he is either an Ethiopian Jew or a convert. It's later revealed that his entire identity is a cover anyway.
- In Family Guy, Peter Griffin's retelling of the Exodus story via his ancestor "Moses Griffin" portrays the Biblical Israelites (i.e. a generation of ancient Hebrews born and raised in Egypt) as stereotypical Ashkenazi Jews.
- About 80% of Jews worldwide are Ashkenazi.
- This trope was mostly inverted in Western Europe prior to the 18th century or so, where most Jews were Sephardi. Still partly the case in France.
- Somewhat inverted in Israel, where about half of the Jews follow the Sephardic rites (with the majority of them technically being Mizrahim). Israeli Hebrew pronunciation (which is a Sephardi pronunciation) is becoming standard outside of Orthodox circles, even among American Jews.