Please try and keep this page to useful notes. This is not a full-fledged essay on every aspect of Judaism. Resist the urge to add more details unless they are truly necessary for a non-Jew to understand.
There are three aspects of Judaism: the religion, the race, and the culture. Note that not all Jews are the same ratio of these. In fact, rarely will any two Jews be the same.
First, though, an introduction:
Mordcha: Why should I break my head about the outside world? Let them break their own heads.
Tevye: He's right. As the Good Book says, "If you spit in the air, it lands in your face."
Perchik: That's nonsense. You can't close your eyes to what's happening in the world.
Tevye: He's right.
Avram: He's right and he's right? How can they both be right?
: You know, you're also right.
Jews don't really have a central authority of any sort. Even in ancient times they practiced an impressive separation of powers: the king was responsible for the running of the secular side of things; rabbis and judges were in charge of religious decisions that often overruled the king; and priests were in charge of performing rituals in the temple but had no authority over religious doctrine. After the loss of the monarchy, the destruction of the temple, and the dissolution of the Sanhedrin note
, the closest thing to a central authority Jews had once the Diaspora took full force was made up of senior rabbis arguing until they could reach a consensus, or at least a compromise, which would eventually propagate to most Jewish communities by word-of-mouth. And those rabbis loved
to argue. (As the saying goes, "Two Jews, three opinions!") So this entry will try to hit the highlights, especially the common portrayals of Jews in media, but it is by no means
comprehensive, complete, or guaranteed to be accurate for any given Jew.
There are people who identify as ethnically Jewish (see below) but do not practice Judaism as a religion, and may be agnostic or atheistic. This makes them no less Jewish, though; see the section on "who is Jewish" below. This is true for all branches of Judaism. Some Jewish atheists may continue to take part in religious customs due to a sense of community and tradition.
The Jewish religion takes as holy scripture the Tanakh (very generally, the parts of the Christian Bible that Christians call the "Old Testament"; most famous and notable are the first five books, the Torah), plus several thousand years of commentary and Rabbinical interpretation.
The major religious groups or denominations are (in order of strictness):
- Orthodox: Orthodox ("frum") Judaism is somewhat of an umbrella term. In general, Orthodoxy strictly interprets Jewish religious texts such as the Torah (the first five books of the Old Testament for all you goyim out there), the Talmud, the Mishnah (sort of like commentary on the Torah), etc. This means that Orthodox families keep kosher, dress conservatively, and observe the Sabbath in accordance with some of the 613 Mitzvot (Commandments) that a Jew is supposed to follow. Despite its breadth of coverage on this page, the Orthodox are actually the smallest, if most dedicated, of the Jewish denominations. (Interestingly, in Israel all but a tiny handful of practicing Jews are Orthodox or ultra-Orthodox (Haredi) so the proportions are reversed from worldwide Judaism. Israel doesn't even recognize non-Orthodox religious rites, marriages, or conversions. The largest group of the Jews in Israel are Masorti'im, or Shomrei Masoret ("following tradition"). About a quarter are secular, although even they are known to follow certain mitzvas and celebrate certain holidays even if only for cultural reasons. Got that straight?) Orthodoxy has several sub-denominations, many of which are ill-defined, but which include:
- Haredim: Haredim are the most theologically conservative practitioners. If you see a Jewish man wearing a black suit with a black hat, a beard, side curls (payot), and fringes hanging from his shirt (a tallit worn under the clothing), he's probably (but not necessarily) Haredi. The term is generally used in Israel, but can apply to elsewhere as well. Haredim tend to be much more insular than others; they generally keep very tight-knit communities, refuse to consume non-Jewish media of any sort, and will usually work for each other as well.
- Hasidim: Literally "pious", the term is used to describe a set of Orthodoxy which puts higher value on emotion, joy, and mysticism. There are dozens of Hasidic sects (such as Chabad Lubavitch, Ger, Satmar, etc.), most based out of Eastern Europe and named after the city they originated in. Most Hasidim fall under the Haredi banner, though some (especially Lubavitch) attract more modern adherents, and have large outreach organizations. Hasidim usually have one "Rebbe" which they hold in the highest regard, almost like an angel, and some sects (such as Breslev) become so attached to their Rebbe they refuse to appoint a successor after his death. They're the closest thing Judaism has to born-again Christianity, which might be why Bob Dylan gravitated to Chabad Lubavitch after he became disenchanted with born-again Christianity.
- "Yeshivish" or "Litvish" Orthodox put a high value on Torah study and intellectualism. Although somewhat insular, they are not as "cultish" as Haredim. Often, Yeshivish men will devote themselves to full-time Torah study for several years or even their entire life. A yeshiva is a secondary or postsecondary institution for Torah study, and "Litvish" means "Lithuanian".
- "Modern Orthodox" a mostly North American phenomenon, consisting of people who want to keep the full gamut of Orthodox laws while still being active members of world society. Most Orthodox editors on this wiki will probably consider themselves Modern Orthodox, though the label is rather wide. Runs very close to the more conservative forms of Conservative Judaism.
- Conservative: Considers itself a happy medium between the very conservative Orthodoxy and the more liberal sects. The name originates from having split off from Reform Judaism when they felt Reform was abandoning too much of the tradition - hence the paradoxical name in the eyes of the Orthodox. They hold that the rabbinical rulings based on the holy texts should be modified when their basis has changed in modern times - basically meaning whenever they feel a religious law gets totally ridiculous. This form of Judaism is more prevalent in the US. Probably the broadest in terms of how closely its members follow Mitzvot (commandments). Conservative Judaism has fuzzy boundaries with Orthodox Judaism on the "right" and Reform Judaism on the "left".
- Reform: One of the most liberal of the Jewish denominations, tending to stress moral teachings and downplay rituals. Your average American Jew is likely to be of this denomination; Reform is more "loose" with restrictions and how one follows Mitzvot (although Conservative Judaism is, according the The Other Wiki, a close second). Many Reform Jews do not keep kosher or observe the Sabbath, seeing it as more of a suggestion rather than absolute law. There are different levels of Reform, and which (if any) rabbinical restrictions one keeps is usually reliant on the temple.
- Reconstructionist: A movement developed in the United States in the 1920s and 30s when a Rabbi named Mordecai Kaplan felt that Judaism must be reconciled with the modern world. Reconstructionist Judaism is much more liberal than Orthodox Judaism, and many followers of Reconstructionist Judaism are Deists or have a more Kabbalah-style view of God. However, Reconstructionists CAN be more conservative than Reform Jews: often times in Reconstructionism one is supposed to observe Jewish law and custom as much as one possibly can. Reconstructionism is also the origin of concepts like "eko kashrut," wherein traditional Jewish dietary law is modified to take into account issues of environmentalism and social justice.
- Some Jews simply call themselves "observant", without committing to a denomination, and some synagogues are unaffiliated with any movement or denomination. Others consider themselves a mix of denominations (such as "Conservadox" or "Reformadox") and pick the bits of each denomination that appeals to them. Often, when there's only one synagogue in town or in a geographic area, it ends up in a mish-mash of all of the non-Orthodox denominations
- Noachides: Also called Noahides. These are gentiles who follow the universal laws (often called the 'Noachide laws') and are often connected to one of the Hasidic groups who openly teach and welcome this group (such as Chabad Lubavitch and Breslev). This group is very small with few communities outside of the internet.
- Cultural: Jews who don't follow the spiritual aspects of the religion, but identify with the culture and holidays of Judaism.
Israel (the other major center of Jewish population, having just overtaken the United States) has a rather different religious distribution - most people are secular, Mesorati ("traditional", literally - basically a traditional Mizrahi/Sephardi religiosity that doesn't go to the extremes of Orthodoxy), Dati-Leumi ("national religious" - basically the equivalent of the more religious portion within Modern Orthodox) or hard-line Orthodox. The Reform movement is generally regarded, even by secular Jews, as "not really Jewish
", while the Conservative movement (under the name Masorti - also meaning "traditional", just with slightly different pronunciation) is trying hard to make inroads, and having moderate success.
In discussing the religious aspects of Judaism, it is most instructive to deal with Orthodox Judaism, which is the most conservative and traditional of the types of Judaism; more recent groups have less structured coherence in their beliefs and are still arguing about many things (such as gay marriage). In any case, one could define the other groups by which bits of Orthodoxy they don't
Important aspects of religious Judaism:
- Kashrut, a set of dietary restrictions. The most famous part of this is the banning of pork and shellfish - this is because each animal in the world is defined as 'kosher' or 'not kosher' depending on some physical characteristics: mammals need to chew their cud and have split hooves, fish need fins and scales. Nevertheless, there are myriad laws involved in it, including a very rigorous method of slaughtering animals known as shechitah, and the separation of milk and meat (commonly including a wait of several hours after eating meat before eating any dairy products, and a shorter period for the reverse). This separation goes far beyond merely not eating them at the same time or in the same meal; Orthodox households generally have two sets of dishes, two sets of silverware, two ovens, and two sinks, one each for milk and meat - and this can, depending on religious observance, extend to two countertops, two tablecloths or placemats, two microwaves, two sinks, or in some very extreme and very rich households, two kitchens.
- Let us not forget Passover (Pesach), when the entire house is cleaned of any leaven (chometz) and a separate set of dishes is brought up from a locked closet. There's a reason that switching the kitchen to Pesach mode is called "turning over.”
- Keeping the Sabbath day (known as Shabbat or Shabbos depending on one's pronunciation), which always lasts from Friday sunset to Saturday about an hour after sunset ("when you can see three stars"). Although the Sabbath is a joyous and holy day, there are all sorts of things that are prohibited to Orthodox Jews on the Sabbath, all of which fall under the category of "melacha", commonly (mis)translated as "work". Melacha is a set of thirty-nine categories of behavior that include anything to do with business as well as such mundane things as dragging tables through grass (as it's similar to ploughing) all the way up to practically anything to do with electricity, such as flicking light switches or operating cars. By most definitions, soldiers and emergency service personnel on duty are exempt from these strictures. Enterprising modern Jews have found ingenious ways around some of these strictures, though. Most major holidays have most of the same restrictions. Note that if someone's life is in danger, all Jewish laws of any sort are waived as much as necessary.
- Some refrigerators includes a "Sabbath Mode" as part of its onboard features - engage it and the onboard touchscreen will not respond to any commands until you press a predetermined sequence of buttons to bring up an option to exit Sabbath Mode. Some ovens also include a "Sabbath Mode" which simply heats the oven to a particular temperature and maintains it until the mode is disengaged.
- The Shabbat Elevator is prevalent in hotels around Israel, and other multi-storied buildings that are likely to be frequented by a large number of observant Jews on a Saturday. A Shabbat Elevator runs by itself, visiting each and every floor. There have been recent attempts by several (mostly Haredi) authorities to ban the use of these elevators as sacrilegious. They didn't work.
- Although the discussion of Shabbat in the Torah refers to the seventh day of the week, Sunday is often treated as the Sabbath by Christians. This was not always the case: though early Christians did break with many Jewish traditions, they too believed in honoring the Sabbath on Saturdays. (Indeed, they changed things up in an attempt to honor the Sabbath *more*.) Sunday was thought of as the "Lord's Day"—the day Jesus had risen, and thus the most holy day. Over time, the practice of honoring two days was more or less lost, and many Sabbath traditions were moved to Sunday. So, some Christians make efforts to apply the commandment about "keeping the sabbath day holy" on Sunday by trying not to work on Sunday and spending time worshipping or relaxing with family and friends. Needless to say, few if any Christians observe all the Sabbath-related mitzvot as an Orthodox Jew would. Whether or not Christians are supposed to observe all the Jewish mitzvot is a whole other question (early Christians, incidentally, decided that Jews who became Christian still did, but Gentiles who became Christian did not).
- A lunar/solar calendar. The year is divided into 12 months. While in the earlier texts of the Bible these are just called first month, second month, etc., they were given Babylonian names when pretty much the entire Jewish population was deported there in 597-538 BCE. A year is therefore approximately 11 days shorter than the 365-day solar year (it's +/-1 because of all sorts of complications). However, because several holidays are tied into to the growing seasons and harvests, every few years (seven times every nineteen years, yes it's complicated) a "leap month" is added onto the end to keep the the holidays in the same season. The Jewish year is marked from the supposed date of Creation and can be found by adding 3760 to the Gregorian year (so 2009 becomes 5769). The year begins on Rosh Hashana (see below), which falls out in September or October, so the first three or four months of 5769 were in 2008. Every 19 years the Jewish and secular calendars (approximately) meet, such that one's birthday in each calendar are usually only on the same day every 19 years.
- Judaism also believes that each day begins at sunset, rather than at midnight, based on the verse "and there was evening and there was morning" that describes each day of creation.
- Praying three times a day, though this was instituted in the early centuries CE after the destruction of the Temple and the cessation of animal sacrifices. Men are traditionally supposed to pray with a group of at least ten men (a minyan). Men wear tefillin (black boxes with leather straps) on their heads and arms, and wrap themselves in a white tallit (prayer shawl) for morning prayers only. In all types of Judaism except Orthodox Judaism (and occasionally in Modern Orthodox Judaism) women wear tefillin and prayer shawls also.
- Orthodox shuls are practical affairs; there are prayer leaders, but most prayers are silent, especially during the week. Prayers are all in Hebrew, except for the rare Aramaic segment. All positions of importance are given to men, except the President of the synagogue and a few members of the executive board may occasionally be women. Non-Orthodox congregations mix things up somewhat, with more church-like performances, choirs, elaborate chazzanut, audio equipment, etc., and allow female cantors (also called hazzanim) and rabbis, which the Orthodox do not allow.
- For women (and men), modesty is important; women have clothing that covers knees and elbows. Married women cover their hair, though many wear sheitels (wigs), some of which look better than the original hair did (whether this follows the rules is controversial). Men and women (excepting spouses and offspring/ancestors) are forbidden from even casual touching, like shaking hands, and women are forbidden from singing within earshot of men. This is one of the first things to go as one follows the continuum left of Orthodoxy.
- Amongst Orthodox Jews, marriage is generally done via a shadchan, or matchmaker, who connects the two singles. They go on several dates and decide if they want to marry each other. Dating and engagements are very short (often going less than four months from first meeting to marriage) and amongst Hasidim, there may be only one or two dates before the decision is made. Divorce is seen as unfortunate and to be avoided, but is far from rare, and was never considered taboo.
- As one follow the continuum right into extreme/fringe Orthodoxy, modesty becomes a common justification for sexist practices that don't have a real basis in Jewish law or tradition. For instance, modesty has at some time been cited as a reason why women shouldn't drive, hold public office, supervise commercial kosher food preparation, serve in the army, or do any number of other things even Orthodox Judaism doesn't expressly forbid them from doing. These arguments are generally made by small pockets of Israeli Orthodoxy and most are condemned even by those known as "ultra-Orthodox" in the West.
- Charity and good works; Jews are urged to give one-tenth of their earnings to the poor, though this sometimes winds up being given to Jewish schools and other organizations rather than people who are actually poor. This is partly justified in that Jewish schools are generally privately run and get little or no government funding, and will not turn away a student whose parents cannot pay.
- Judaism does not encourage non-Jews to convert to it, unlike many other religions (in particular Christianity),although any sincere convert will be accepted. Traditionally any convert will be refused three times before being allowed to proceed. Conversion usually happens after a long period of study, although the actual process depends on what branch of Judaism you are converting in to, or whether the conversion is a formality—for instance if you are the child of a non-Jewish mother and a Jewish father who was raised Jewish and you want to cover all your bases, or from a religious group of possible but not certain Jewish ancestry like Ethiopian Jews. Any convert should be treated as if they were born Jewish, although this does not always happen. There is also something called kiruv which is essentially an Orthodox Jewish attempt to get secular Jews to "convert" to Orthodox Judaism, which the Chabad Lubavitch movement in particular is passionate about.
Jewish philosophy is decidedly averse to asceticism. In general, Jews believe that God put them on the earth to be a "light unto the nations" - to bring the sacred into the mundane world. To that end, Jews do not believe in celibacy, poverty, or self-flagellation; one should enjoy as much of God's world as possible while being given guidelines as to how to do so. Jewish thought emphasizes modesty, humility, generosity, introspection, faith in God, and repentance as important traits to have. It also places an emphasis against
Reward and Afterlife
- This applies to sex as well. Far from considering it taboo, Judaism considers sex to be merely very private - and in fact very holy. There is a commandment for a husband and wife to have sexual relations as often as possible, and aside from religious restrictions based on the woman's cycle and restrictions on privacy, you're encouraged to be fruitful and multiply (it is in fact the first Mitzvah in the Torah, appearing in the first chapter of Genesis).
: While Jewish thought certainly includes spiritual reward and punishment, an important saying in Tractate Avoth urges its adherents not to do things for the reward, but simply because it's God's will. When looking at the Bible iself, no afterlife is mentioned: the Garden of Eden is a place from which humans were eternally banned. Over the centuries, from the Mishna and the Talmund and on, the ideas of Heaven and Hell started appearing (in correlation with Christian thought). It should be remarked that over the last few decades (a century at most) Haredi rabbis began incorporating eternal hell into their threat system. There is a character called Ha'Satan (Hebrew for "the Adversary") but he is generally identical to the Evil Inclination - a tempter, not a fallen angel or leader of Hell. In the visualization of Man's Final Judgment, Satan is the prosecuting attorney. He is balanced by the Good Inclination. Note that many rabbis, such as Maimonides, see these as metaphorical for internal struggle rather than actual spiritual beings.
Traditionally, Jewish thought on the afterlife has typically ranged from, "We don't know," to intimations that there's nothing at all (as it says in Ecclesiastes, "The dead know nothing, neither have they any more reward,"). With the notable exceptions of Maimonides and Nachmanides, we leave any mention of the afterlife at naming it "Ha'Olam Ha'Ba" (the World to Come), because it's unknowable to the living.
People of the Book
: Although you'll always find Jewish leaders and rabbis who shun questions, Jews are unusually questioning of their own religion. Talmud study, a fixture of Orthodox life, revolves around logic, debate, and the attacking of each side of an argument until it falls apart or reveals itself to be worthy. Jews are called the "People of the Book" by others, and even the simplest Jewish library will often have dozens of "must-have" books that form the basis of religious study. Synagogues will generally have full libraries with hundreds or thousands of books, and new ones are coming out all the time! This has become something of a Jewish cultural value as well; even non-religious Jews tend to place a high value on study and intellectual pursuits.
: It is very important to note that simply reading the Bible will not give you a good idea of Jewish laws. Almost nothing in the Bible is taken at face value; for example, the famous line "an eye for an eye" is actually interpreted as paying the monetary value
of an eye after gouging someone's eye out note
; it also serves as a limitation on revenge, not a prescription for horrible punishments as it's often imagined. A number of the commandments given in the Bible are not currently practised even by the Orthodox, since they only apply when the Temple in Jerusalem is standing, and said Temple was razed 20 centuries ago.
- Very importantly, this "nothing taken literally" includes the book of Genesis and the creation story. Although many Jews do believe it occurred exactly as written, there are plenty of mainstream opinions who tinker with it in various ways or even consider it entirely metaphorical. As a result, many Jews, even among the Orthodox, have no problem with a universe billions of years old or with the theory of evolution.
: The Temple in Jerusalem holds an important place in Jewish philosophy, but its value varies from one sect to the next. The Orthodox pray that the Temple will be rebuilt so Jews can go back to doing animal sacrifices there like in the old days. The Conservative prayers ask for the Temple to be rebuilt, but consider that we have moved beyond the need for sacrifices. (Some Orthodox agree with this belief, but not to the point of changing their prayers.) Reform Jews do not believe the Temple in Jerusalem is needed any more at all, and thus they often call their own houses of worship "temples." The Kotel, known in English as the Western Wall or the Wailing Wall, is the one remaining feature from the second Temple (it was destroyed by conquerors and rebuilt once); it is a retaining wall built around the artificial platform at the top of the mountain upon which the Temple was built. The Kotel has gained respect as the holiest site available to Jews due to its proximity to the Temple Mount, and many go there to pray at the closest place a Jew can currently get to where the Temple once stood. This is also because many rabbis forbid Jews from going onto the temple mount for fear of entering a location restricted to the ritually pure - and the rites that make someone ritually pure aren't available nowadays.
The Chosen People
- Interesting fact: People named "Cohen" (which means "priest" in Hebrew) and "Levi" (the tribe of Levi were the priest caste in Judaism) are probably descended from the actual Jewish priesthood, and some commentators say that when the Temple is rebuilt they would go back to being priests again. These statuses have halachic importance in things like going into graveyards, order of aliyot at the synagogue, etc. Although there are common Kohen names like Cohen and Katz, and Levite names like Leibowitz, there are many people with all sorts of last names who are still Kohanim and Levites.
- Some (non-Orthodox) rabbis do allow Kohanim/Levites to renounce their status, although this also means renouncing it for all their descendants. This is done mostly because Kohanim are forbidden from marrying divorced women, and converts.
: Jews are often referred to as the Chosen People. Though the term doesn't show up often in Jewish texts (they are sometimes referred to as "the treasured people"), like many "select" religious populations (the Mormons and Jehovah's Witnesses, for example) the idea permeates Jewish consciousness. It dates back to the days of Abram and Sarai. Abram agreed to serve God first and foremost, and thus became The Chosen One
by adopting G-d as his Chosen One
. (This is also when Abraham got his Meaningful Rename
.) The idea is not necessarily that Jews are somehow intrinsically better than anyone else; after all, if they were, they wouldn't take converts. It's more that Jews, being the favorite people of the Lord, are held up to a higher standard than others, and are expected to act in a holier manner than other, more mundane nations. The surprising tenacity of the Jewish people and religion, to have survived in a healthy manner for so long despite its small numbers and constant oppression, is also often cited as a commentary on their "special" status. An alternative interpretation, popular in more liberal sects of Judaism, is to reverse the meaning of the phrase: the Chosen people are not people who were chosen, but people who chose.
: The Mashiach
(literally "Anointed One" as in the anointment of a king) is believed to be a descendant of King David, who will appear at the End of Days, heralded by Elijah the Prophet, to redeem the Jewish people, bring them all back to the Land of Israel, and build the Third Temple. What happens afterwards is the subject of extreme argument, even amongst classic Jewish sources, ranging from "more or less the same, but happier" to "the physical world will cease to be, everything will be spiritual". As for Jesus, most Jews see him as, at best, a great teacher like others before and after him; at worst, nothing more than a fraud. Christianity is considered an idolatrous religion due to the statues of Jesus in churches, and the idea of a physical manifestation or son of God. (Islam is not seen as such, since it does not consider Mohammed as a deity, nor do they worship images of him.) Note that this is not a universal opinion; many medieval scholars did not consider Christianity idolatry, although that may have had something to do with the political climate.
: Although some Jewish sections are mainly intellectual, there are plenty (especially the various Hasidic sects) who place a high value on mysticism. The Kabbalah (which has recently been reinvented as a new-age have-it-all movement) is a set of mystic descriptions of the spiritual, invisible world, and is often used for symbolic
value in Japanese works, like Neon Genesis Evangelion
and Final Fantasy VII
. There are stories of reincarnated spirits, dybbuks
, golems, imps or sheidim
, witches, and holy men who can do miracles and commune with angels.
is the least interesting one. There are Jews everywhere, and probably of every racial group, whatever "race" means, since scientists never really defined it; usually racial schemes with more than three races
include at least one with no Jews before 1492. Note that Jews of any race have DNA more like the locals than like other Jews, but there is a Y chromosome, called the Cohen Modal Haplotype, typical of Jews of particular family lines; the Ashkenazi names are Cohen, Cohn, and Kahn.
It has been argued, of course (usually by gentiles and more liberal Jews) that there is no such thing as a "Jewish race", because one cannot convert
to a race. This argument is usually met with much counter-argument... and shouting.
But the primary Jewish racial stereotype is mostly a function of...
. Here's the whopper. There are two or three major, and (naturally) many minor, cultural traditions in Judaism. Which culture you are can have a great effect on both of the above two categories (Sephardic Jews, for example, have different rules for Passover than Ashkenazic Jews). Graduate theses have been written on all of the different cultures, so let's zoom in on the most recognizable: Ashkenazim
, or Eastern European Jews, generally from Poland, Russia, and other countries in that region. Most tropes on this site which discuss Judaism—Yiddish as a Second Language
, Space Jews
, Ambiguously Jewish
, et cetera—are about Ashkenazic Jews. There's some pushback in All Jews Are Ashkenazi
One reason for this, of course, is that most of the Jewish immigrants to America from the late 1800s and up were Ashkenazim. They settled in New York City
, most notably the Lower East Side, and as they got more affluent, the Upper West Side; by now the idea of New York without Jews is practically impossible. Bagels, corned beef, random Yiddish words, and much more are part of New York's DNA. So, it's not surprising that a lot of television writers have had more exposure to Jews than Americans in other parts of the country or viewers in other parts of the world, leading to the Big Applesauce
trope that You Have to Have Jews
As long as we're at it, let's note that the other major divisions are the Sephardic and Mizrahi Jews. Originally just applied to Jews descended from those exiled from Spain, Sephardic now means Mediterranean Jews. Meanwhile the Mizrahi were those Jews that remained in the Middle East or moved to Central Asia after the diaspora. The two groups tend to practice very similar rituals, and are often grouped together under the Sephardic label despite their different origins. There are other, smaller groups, most famously the Cochin and Bene-Israel Jews of India, the Beta Israel of Ethiopia, and the vanishing Kaifeng Jewish community of Eastern China.
Who is a Jew?
This one is less confusing than one might think, but has become more so in recent decades. Traditionally, a Jew is someone whose mother is a Jew or who converted. The Orthodox and Conservative branches of Judaism stick to this conception today, but Reform and Reconstructionist Judaism allow either parent to be Jewish if the child has been raised as one, which has caused controversy, particularly when marriages between different groups are involved. A Jew who ceases to practice Judaism is a non-observant Jew, not a non-Jew, so the atheist Jews mentioned above are still considered Jewish. More observant branches refuse to acknowledge conversion out; the so-called converts are highly misguided, but if their mother was Jewish or they went through conversion to Judaism, they're still technically a Jew.
- This is true even when the convert in question is a Cardinal in the Catholic Church!
In the other direction, many Orthodox Jews, as well as the Israeli government, only recognize converts to Judaism if they had an Orthodox conversion.
- The Israeli government is actually a little schizophrenic on this. Any convert to Judaism (whether Reform, Conservative, or Orthodox) is eligible for Israeli citizenship under the Law of Return, which offers automatic Israeli citizenship to any Jew who wants it; however, the Rabbinate does not accept non-Orthodox conversions, and the Rabbinate has control over marriage and burial. So while the Israeli government would give you citizenship because you're a Jew, the Israeli Rabbinate would deny your marriage application to another Jew because you are not, in their eyes, Jewish. And when you die, you wouldn't be able to buried in a Jewish cemetery. Needless to say, this causes some tension in Israel.
- The Israeli government also recognizes Beta Israel (Ethiopian Jews, with different religious practices), Samaritans (dwindling remnants of biblical Israel's northern tribes), and Karaites (non-rabbinical Jews, who reject any source of religious authority other than the Tanakh) as Jews, even when the major congregations may not.
Note that "Jews for Jesus" and "Messianic Jews", despite their names, are not accepted as Jews by pretty much all mainstream practitioners. Belief in the deity of Jesus in any way, or that the same Messiah could come twice, is seen as incompatible with Jewish philosophy. These organizations are viewed as, essentially, Christianity dressed up with Jewish ritual to entice unaffiliated or ignorant Jews to the fold.
Also controversial are Black Hebrew Israelites, who are a very diverse group of mostly African Americans who believe that they are descended from ancient Hebrew ancestors. They are distinct from African Americans who have either converted to Judaism or who are Jewish by descent, who generally are a fairly uncontroversial part of any congregation (yes, that even includes Ultra-Orthodox and Hasidic congregations). While some Black Hebrew Israelite congregations are basically just Jews with some added African or African American traditions, and have good relations with more traditional Jewish congregations, others are viewed with some hostility or disapproval by Jews, for such things as claiming that white Jews are imposters and not descended from the ancient Hebrews (like they claim to be), mixing Jewish and Christian traditions, and (in some extreme cases) black supremacy. A group of Black Hebrew Israelites who tried to move to Israel under the Law of Return caused quite a kerfuffle for a while, although now they have been accorded permanent resident status and have been allowed to stay.
So, what's the stereotype?
The physical aspects are the racial ones: curly dark hair, large noses and ears, dark complexion, occasionally a "swarthy" look, et cetera. Yiddish - basically a dialect of Middle German with huge numbers of words taken from Hebrew and Polish and written using the Hebrew alphabet - that was the main language among Ashkenazim (Ashkenaz refers to Germany), is often a second language
, or at least a great choice for cursing. A tendency towards being short seems to have been reversed with the advent of better nutrition; many American Jews are taller than all of their grandparents.
Traditionally held to be good with money, originally due to Middle Ages laws against charging interest (only applied between Christians or between Jews, but Jews could loan to Christians and so became Europe's bankers), and also holding scholarship and education in high esteem, Jews tend to make sure to give their children better lives than they had. This is where the stereotype of the Jewish Mother
guilting her children into being doctors or lawyers comes from—"I worked, I sacrificed, so you could go to college and then medical school!" Jewish parents take great pride in their children's accomplishments (one-upmanship games between mothers really do happen). As an alternative, being a teacher, especially a college professor, is fantastic; it gives plenty for the mother to kvell
Jewish parents are also known/stereotyped for encouraging or guilting their children into dating and marrying within the faith, i.e. "a nice Jewish boy/girl". In more liberal sects this is less common than it used to be (see: assimilation) and is often played for comedy in media, but it's pretty much a given in more conservative sects of Judaism that you date and marry other Jews.
Old Jews have a stereotype of kvetching
(complaining) a lot, especially back pain, and have a reputation for being severe hypochondriacs.
Assimilation is a big topic of debate. Nowadays, especially in America, Jews want to be part of society at large, but don't want to lose their own identities; similarly, right now in America, this balancing act is generally possible. In other countries...it varies.
You're Also Jewish?
If you go by Jewish TV characters, it would seem that one in every three people is Jewish
. On Friends
this is literally true; two out of the six main characters are Jewish (Ross and Monica, for those keeping score, and possibly
Rachel.) Judaism is usually portrayed as one of three major world religions, along with Christianity and Islam. The truth is that out of some six-and-a-half-billion people in the world, only fourteen-and-a-half-million are Jewish, which works out to just 0.215% of the world's population, making Judaism the 11th most populous religion. In the UK, according to the 2001 census, Jews were outnumbered three to two by people who said their religion was "Jedi". There were, however, about 18 million Jews before the Holocaust, or almost 1% of the world population at the time. Also, Jews comprise about 2% of the population of the United States and have always been its second-most-populous religion. The reason Jewish characters are so common may be because of the absurdly high percentage of Jewish people in the entertainment industry. It may also be due to many shows being written in New York City, which has the largest Jewish population in the world outside of Israel: 1.54 million Jews lived in New York in 2011 (about 18.5% of the city's total population), and in the 1950s, 2.5
million Jews lived in the Big Apple (which, because the city was smaller then, comes out to just under a third
of the total population: so one out of every three people was
The Arab-Israeli Conflict
: It's confusing, filled with ancient history and old grudges on both sides, with absolutely no black or white anything
and a distinct lack of clear answers.
Israelis are a whole different creature from American Jews, resulting in the media either portraying the two as exactly the same or portray "Jewish" and "Israeli" as two very different things (usually a bit more serious, and closer to reality). Israelis consist of a mix of Ashkenazic Jews (who form the ethnic plurality) mixed with Sephardic (Iberian) Jews, Mizrachic (Middle-Eastern) Jews, Yemenite Jews, and Falashas (Ethiopian Jews) who each have their own cultures. People do tend to lump Sephardic and Middle-Eastern Jews together, which may or may not be accurate depending on where the specific population came from.
A note on the difference between Sepharadic and Mizrachic: Sepharadi is Hebrew for "Spanish" and refers to the descendants of Spanish and Portuguese Jews who fled the Inquisition rather than convert to Christianity. Mizrachi is Hebrew for "Eastern" or "Oriental" and usually refers to Jews from any part of the Middle East and their descendants. There is some overlap between the two, but the terms are neither exclusive nor interchangeable. Sepharadic Jews have different liturgy than Ashkenazic; other distinct liturgical traditions belong to Yemenite and Ethiopian Jews.
Hebrews, Israelites, Israelis, Jews and all that
: Confusing these terms can lead to a lot of misunderstandings, especially when engaged in any sort of academic debate.
A Quick Very Important Note
- The Israelites, or B'nei Israel ("sons of Israel"), were the descendants of Abraham, Isaac, and particularly Jacob, after whom they named themselves - Jacob was dubbed Israel (lit. "striven with God") after an incident involving an angel. The Israelites were the ones who fled Egypt and conquered the land of Canaan, then dubbed the Land of Israel.
- The "Hebrews". The name originally comes from the Hebrew "Ivri", "from the other side (of a river)", used to describe Abraham. In most cases it's synonymous with "Israelites" - though at the time was probably a wartime nickname. After the rule of King Solomon, the rulership of Israel broke apart, resulting in...
- The Kingdom of Israel, to which the ten of the twelve tribes besides those of Judah and Levi belonged.
- The Kingdom of Judah, comprising the tribe of Judah and the Levites.
- The kingdoms were eventually destroyed, respectively, by the Assyrians and Babylonians (with some lull in between). The Babylonian exile from the Kingdom of Judah, whose members came to be called Jews for short, eventually returned to Israel to restore their sovereignty as the Kigdom of Judea.
- After some very complicated fighting, the Kingdom of Judea first became a vassal of The Roman Empire, and then (after the death of Herod caused a Succession Crisis and civil unrest) the Roman Province of Judea. After the Jews revolted in 70 CE the Romans began making life difficult in the province, inducing many to leave; after another revolt in 132 CE, the Romans began the brutal suppression of the Jewish people, killing half a million, selling more into slavery, and forcing most of the rest into exile. Judaea Province was merged with Syria and specifically given the name of the Israelites' ancient enemies: Syria Palaestina. The Diaspora is widely regarded to begin at this juncture.
- Today, the majority of what we call the Jewish people consists of descendants from the people of the Kingdom of Judea. The people of the Kingdom of Israel, now known as the Ten Lost Tribes because we're not sure where they disappeared off to, may have been the forebears of what we nowadays call Bene-Israel, Kaifeng, and/or Ethiopean Jews, amongst others - but nobody really knows for sure.
- In 1948, with the creation of a new Jewish state, the choice to name it Israel harks right back to the time of Jacob, rather than to the Kingdom of Israel that was destroyed by the Assyrians. The Citizens of Israel are called Israelis (not "Israelites"!) - and many of them are not Jews at all, religiously or otherwise. "Israeli Jews" may be a good term to refer specifically to the ethnic, cultural and/or religious Jewish population of the country.
- Today, Israeli Jews constitute about 40% of the world Jewish population. Another 40% lives in the US; the remaining 20% are scattered elsewhere.
It is considered slightly off-color to call someone "a Jew." Why, exactly, is tricky, and boils down to "it just sounds rude." Maybe it's just that so many have said that with a harsh tone. It has been used as an insult to indicate that negative Jewish stereotypes apply; instead of saying "you are so greedy," some people still say, "you're such a Jew." It might also be that it implies that being Jewish is a choice. It's a bit more common to hear someone described as "Jewish," rather than "a Jew."
The word "Jews," oddly, isn't as bad. You don't have to go crazy with political correctness and replace every occurrence of "Jews" with "the Jewish People," but if referring to a group it'd be better to say "they are all Jewish" instead of "they are all Jews."
There's a bit of N-Word Privileges
, too. Jewish kids go around saying they have to go to "Jew school," and "Jew camp," but unless you're Jewish, then it's "Hebrew/Saturday/Sunday School" or "Jewish/Hebrew/Torah camp."
- This has been taken to the extreme in the Russian language. By the early XX century the word "Zhid/Żyd" that means "Jew" in most Slavic languages (just like the English word, it is derived from the Hebrew word "Yehudi") has become so offensive in Russian that it is now used exclusively as a pejorative, on the same level of offensiveness as "Kike". The PC substitute for "Zhid" is "Yevrey", which means "Hebrew".