Ashkenazi Jews are people who are descended from the Jewish population of Central and Eastern Europe. Judaism can be both a cultural and a religious identity, and in the case of Ashkenazi Jews, it is possible for someone to be culturally or ethnically descended from the Ashkenazim without practicing Judaism, or for someone to adopt Ashkenazic traditions without being ethnically related to the Jews of Central and Eastern Europe. Around 80% of the Jewish people around the world are Ashkenazim, including most American Jews.
The history of the Ashkenazi Jews began with migration from the Middle and Near East to Central Europe. The term “Ashkenazi” actually comes from the Hebrew word for “Germany,” reflecting the fact that many of them settled in Germany and along the Rhine Valley. Over time, the Ashkenazim were pushed back into Eastern Europe, developing close-knit communities and a rich cultural and religious tradition. They have historically been persecuted, banned from working in many professions and sometimes prevented from living in specific regions.
Genetically, the Ashkenazi Jews are clearly descended from people of Middle Eastern ancestry who intermarried with Central and Eastern Europeans, as ample studies on the Ashkenazim have demonstrated. Many Ashkenazim in Europe spoke Slavic languages, but they also developed their own language, Yiddish. They also developed a unique approach to the Jewish liturgy and to Jewish religious traditions. While Ashkenazim follow the same religious texts that other Jews do, there are a few distinctive variations in the Ashkenazic tradition which distinguish Ashkenazi Judaism from Sephardi Judaism and Mizhrahi Judaism.
The Ashkenazim population in Europe was devastated by the Holocaust of the 1930s and 1940s, when an estimated six million Jews were slaughtered under the regime of Adolf Hitler. Fortunately, many Ashkenazim had settled outside Europe, primarily in the United States, and kept their traditions and history alive. With the foundation of Israel in 1948, many Ashkenazi Jews relocated to the Middle East, and they make up a sizable proportion of the Jewish population of Israel today.
Because Ashkenazi Jews make up such a huge percentage of the Jews around the world today, many people who are unfamiliar with Judaism think specifically of Ashkenazi traditions when they hear the word “Jewish,” and they also assume that most Jews are of Central and Eastern European descent. In fact, Judaism is practiced in a variety of ways, and the ethnic heritage of the Jewish people is also quite diverse, with distinct lineages from the Mediterranean and Middle East.