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.
Jews don't really have a central authority of any sort (being in diaspora for 2000 years will do that for you). After the loss of the Temple in AD 70—when diaspora began—the closest thing to a central authority Jews had 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.
Making things more complicated, there are people who identify as ethnically Jewish (i.e. a descendant of the original Israelites, widely plausible due to the many massive diasporas Jews historically suffered) 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.
90% of Jews in the United States are Ashkenazic Jews (Jews who lived in Eastern Europe during diaspora). The other major Jewish groups are Sephardic (from Spain) and Mizrahi (Arab), but Mizrahi and Sephardic traditions have merged. 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 Northern China. Only Ashkenazic Jews have the "categories" of denominations most Americans are familiar with (Reform, Conservative, Orthodox, etc.)
The variable of the Ashkenazic movements isn't religiosity but how each movement views the binding nature of the various laws spread out in the Torah and elaborated on in the Talmud. In broad terms, Orthodox Jews are like Scalia and take an originalist perspective—the Torah and Talmud are normative and binding—while Conservative Jews are like Breyer and Ruth Bader Ginsburg—the Torah and Talmud are normative, but is "living"—and Reform Jews argue that the rules in the Torah and Talmud are guidelines. Reconstructionist Jews also take the guideline viewpoint, but believe that for the sake of Jewish culture, certain rituals should be preserved.
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), the Talmud, the Mishnah (commentary on the Torah), etc. Orthodox Jews believe these rules are binding: Orthodox families keep kosher, dress conservatively, keep the family purity laws, and observe Shabbat. Despite its breadth of coverage on this page, the Orthodox are actually the smallest (though growing due to high birth rates) of the Jewish movements. All Orthodox synagogues separate men and women during prayers. Orthodoxy has several sub-denominations, such as:
- Haredim: Literally "(God) fearing", 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. If you've wandered around Borough Park in Brooklyn, many of these Jews are Haredim.
- 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 ("Chabad" is one such organization). 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 Orthodox can be seen as the midpoint between Haredim and Modern Orthodox Jews (see below). 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. Yeshivish also refers to the type of English many of the men speak, a mix of Biblical Hebrew and English.
- 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.
- Sephardic Judaism is predominately Orthodox. Sephardic and Mizrahi Jews do not fit into these neat boundaries; they prefer to use terms such as "masorti" (which is, confusingly, also a term for Conservative Judaism in many areas), "observant," or "traditionalist."
- Open Orthodox is a mostly New York and Chicago phenomenon. Modern Orthodox Jews are still Orthodox, and for reasons too complicated to detail here, Modern Orthodox Jews do not ordain women or allow women to lead prayers; Open Orthodoxy does. It is a relatively recent phenomenon started by an Orthodox rabbi who, among many things, supports (though does not perform) same-sex marriage. It differentiates itself from Conservative Judaism because it (1) believes, like all Orthodox Jews, that the Torah and Oral Laws were given from God to the Jews at Mt. Sinai and (2) requires strict adherence to Jewish law (conservative Judaism technically does, but not all conservative Jews—or even many—follow this). An Open Orthodox rabbinical school ordains women, which the Modern Orthodox school strongly condemned.
- Conservative: Considers itself a happy medium between the very conservative Orthodoxy and the more liberal sects. Conservative Judaism believes that Jewish law is binding, but takes a more "living constitution" approach to adapt to modernity. For example, Conservative Jewish rabbis have held that driving on Shabbat—an activity all Orthodox rabbis prohibit—is permissible if that is the only way someone can attend synagogue. Conservative Jews also ordain women and have non-gender-segregated services. Probably the broadest in terms of how closely its members follow Mitzvot (commandments): on the "right," Conservative Jews will resemble Modern Orthodox Jews though they may be looser in keeping kosher; on the "left," they may be indistinguishable from Reform. Open Orthodoxy, because it ordains women, has been frequently accused of being truly Conservative (whether this is true is up for debate; it is included as Orthodox because that is what it identifies as). In recent years, Conservatism has been trending very leftward, especially on social issues.
- 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.
- Reform: One of the most liberal of the Jewish denominations, tending to stress moral teachings and downplay rituals. Classical Reform Judaism argued that Jewish laws were subjective and nonbinding and did as much as possible to rid Judaism of its "weirdness," eschewing Hebrew, bar mitzvahs, kashrut, and the laws of family purity, but by the 1940s, Reform Judaism (along with all forms of Judaism) swung right. Your average educated Reform Jew will know how to read Hebrew (if merely poorly), had a bar or bat mitzvah, regularly attends a Seder, and at least grew up attending synagogue on major holidays. Most, but not all, Reform Jews do not keep kosher or observe Shabbat prohibitions. Using "Reform" to mean "secular" is incorrect.
- 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). 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.
- "Karaite": this very, very small sect of Judaism - there is a small community in the United States, centered around San Francisco, and another in Israel, centered in Ashdod - does not accept the authority of Rabbinic law. This results in some interesting differences between Karaites and other Jews. For some reason, when atheists criticize Judaism, they seem to assume that all Jews are Karaite Jews and solely follow the words of Torah literally (which most Karaites would tell you is a gross exaggeration about their own beliefs and practices - yes, they reject rabbinical interpretation of the Torah, but the point is that everyone is free to interpret the Torah).
The movements in Israel are similar. After the large population of Haredi Jews, there are two Orthodox groups (Mesorati, "traditional," or Mizrahi/Sephardic) and Dati-Leumi ("national religious" or "religious Zionists," basically the equivalent of the more religious portion of Modern Orthodox). The non-Orthodox movements are stifled in their ability to succeed in Israel because the Israeli Rabbinate—the counsel of Rabbis that sets Israel's Jewish laws—is exclusively Orthodox.
Important aspects of religious Judaism:
- Kashrut, a set of dietary restrictions. The most famous part of this is the banning of pork and shellfish and not mixing meat and dairy. Even once an animal is kosher, it must be killed in a kosher manner (a method used to reduce pain as much as possible) and "koshered," or have the blood removed (blood isn't kosher). The separation of milk and meat goes far beyond not having pepperoni pizza: kosher households have two sets of dishes and two sets of silverware (one for dairy and one for meat) and may have two ovens and two sinks (if they don't, they will follow specific rules for cleaning between use). In certain extremes, a kitchen may go so far to have two countertops, two microwaves, and separate placemats and napkins.
- 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 Shabbat ("the Sabbath" in English; "Shabbos" in Yiddish), which lasts from Friday sunset to Saturday about an hour after sunset ("when you can see three stars"). Jews are prohibited from doing "melacha" (commonly mistranslated 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.
- Laws of Family Purity: Orthodox Judaism (and very observant Conservative Judaism) prohibits touching between opposite genders unless married or closely related. This is why that Orthodox man didn't shake your hand last week and instead did a jaunty little wave. In addition to this rule ("negiah"), married Jews are supposed to observe rules of marital purity: from the first day of a woman's menstrual period until seven days after it ends (in Conservative Judaism, it is seven days after the first day of her period, unless her period lasts longer), the woman is "niddah." The couple will not touch, sleep in the same bed, or even hand things directly to each other until the period ends and she goes to a mikvah, a ritual pool. According to the Chabad rabbis attempting to make Jews more observant, marital purity laws are what keep the spice in a Jewish relationship.
- With regards to straight sex and relationships overall—Judaism is a very liberal religion. In the context of marriage sex is encouraged, and prohibitions on birth control focus more on the method (i.e. whether a condom or birth control) than the result. A fetus is a potential life, not an actual life, and abortion is not only allowed but required when the life of the mother is in danger. The vast, vast majority of rabbis allow abortion for the health (mental or physical) of the mother as well. Furthermore, Judaism has strict rules regarding consent within a marriage and has always allowed for divorce by reason of incompatibility. And while strictly speaking only a man is allowed to initiate a divorce, a woman can request that a religious court compel her husband to divorce her on the following grounds: impotence, refusal to consummate the marriage, failure to support her, or spousal abuse.
- 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.
- 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 (Torah verses contained in black boxes with leather straps) on their heads and arms, and wrap themselves in a white tallit (prayer shawl) for morning prayers only. In Conservative and Reconstructionist Judaism, women wear tefillin and tallit as well; Reform Jews generally don't use tefillin.
- Orthodox shuls are practical affairs; there are prayer leaders, but most prayers are said silently, especially during the week. Prayers are all in Hebrew, except for the rare Aramaic segment. Most 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, audio equipment, etc., and allow female cantors (also called hazanim) and rabbis, which the Orthodox do not allow.
- The reason women don't wear tefillin is because women are exempt from all time-bound (and only time-bound) commandments, the argument being that women traditionally ended up stuck as the primary caregiver, and while men can re-arrange their work schedule for prayer, women can't re-arrange when their screaming child wants dinner. In Orthodox Judaism, the fact that women aren't required to do certain commandments was interpreted as meaning that they do not count as completing these commandments; for this reason, in Orthodox Judaism, women do not count towards the minimum number of attendees for prayer. Conservative and Reform Judaism do not interpret Jewish law this way.
- 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. Conversion usually happens after a long period of study, generally at least a year, so that the convert has the opportunity to experience every holiday and as many life cycle events as possible.
- There is also something called kiruv which is essentially an Orthodox Jewish attempt to get Jews to practice 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 proselytizing.
- 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).
Reward and Afterlife: While Jewish thought certainly includes spiritual reward and punishment, Jews are not encouraged to meet commandments for reward but instead to do so simply because it's God's will. Over the centuries, some ideas of an afterlife began to emerge, and very recently (within the last century), some Haredi rabbis began incorporating eternal hell into their threat system.
Tanakh calls the afterlife "sheol", meaning "underworld". It was considered to be the destination for all men and woman, good and bad. However, Jewish scholars didn't know whether to take these mentions of Sheol as a metaphor to explain what people did not know came after death, or an actual form of afterlife. Regardless, there are today two forms of afterlife commonly accepted: Gan Eden and Gehenna. Gan Eden is your typical heaven model, the reward for the righteous, but Gehenna is a bit different. Gehenna is a place of fiery torment, however it is extremely lax. Your torture does not occur on the Sabbath, and you can only spend up to a year in Gehenna before you are sent to Gan Eden. Souls become closer to this by repenting whilst in Gehenna or by having their living relatives bless them through traditional prayers of mourning. Ultimately, we all go to Gan Eden, though some think if you are a truly horrible person, your soul is destroyed once you leave Gehenna.
Still, traditional 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 Next World), because it's unknowable to the living. Interestingly, Olam Ha'Ba is the name used to describe the future messianic age, leading some to believe that truly is the afterlife.
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.
Literalism: 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 practiced 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: 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.
- 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.
The Chosen People: 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 Messiah: 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. The Mashiach is seen as completely human and not divine.
Mysticism: 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.
Racial Judaism 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. Genetic studies have confirmed that Ashkenazic Jews are most related to Sephardic and Mizrahi Jews and Palestinian Muslims. Mass sampling DNA analysis has recently confirmed that almost if not all European Jews have common ancestors within the past 30 generations.
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...
Cultural Judaism. 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, naturally.
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.
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 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.
Also thrown into the mix are what are known as 'ethnic Jews'. Ethnic Jews are those who are descendants of the original Jewish population - the Israelites. As covered later in this article, at two points in history, the entire Jewish population was expelled from Israel and were forced to resettle worldwide. The major Jewish cultural centers (Ashkenazi, Sephardic, Mizrahi, etc.) all began as a coalesced community of exiled Israelites that settled in a certain part of the world and had children with the area's native inhabitants, giving birth lineages that encompass most of modern Jews. Most Ashkenazi, Sephardic, and Mizrahi Jews are indeed ethnic Jews, however those who converted from another religion into Judaism in these areas are also recorded in the overall count, so having family members in the cultural sphere doesn't necessarily mean you have ethnic Jewish ties.
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. Oddly enough, before the mid-19th century, it was red hair that was associated with Judaism - which has a grain of truth to it, as there is in fact a higher proportion of Jewish gingers than there is in most other populations.
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 (gloat) about.
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. It's listed as one of the world's major religions because both Christianity and Islam were developed from Judaism (the first and second largest religions in the world, respectively). Christianity was originally a sect of Judaism created to reform the Jewish community, and Islam saw itself as a continuation of the Abrahamic tradition which has its roots in Judaism and the old prophets. The three are collectively known as the "Abrahamic religions" because they all trace a direct lineage back to Abraham (there are also many smaller Abrahamic religions apart from these three). In the UK, according to the 2001 census, Jews were outnumbered three to two by people who claimed "Jedi" as their religion. There were, however, as many as 18 million Jews (using the widest possible definition) before The Holocaust, or about 0.5% 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 Jewish).
The ArabIsraeli 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.
- 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 Kingdom 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.
A Quick Very Important Note:
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".
- The Yiddish word for "Jew" is, in fact, Yid (from the Hebrew "Yehudi"); "Yiddish" is just the Yiddish word for "Jewish". But the word "Yid" is almost always considered offensive in English—though people with a Yiddish-language background (mainly Hasidim) will often use it.
A final quick note: asking every Jewish person you meet what their opinion is on the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict, or expecting every Jewish person to have an opinion, is rude at best.