Despite being spread all over the world, Jews have managed to preserve their cultural identity and religion, and even thrive in the face of oppression and persecution. To begin our month-long series of articles on Jewish genealogy, this article focuses on the history of the Jewish Diaspora.
The word diaspora means "dispersion" or "scattering." The Diaspora began in 586 B.C. when Jerusalem was conquered by the Babylonian empire and large numbers of Jews were deported to Babylon. In 539 B.C. Jews were allowed to return to Jerusalem, but in 70 A.D. Jerusalem was conquered again-this time by the Romans. By that time, the Jews were living all over the Mediterranean world. With the fall of Jerusalem even more of them were scattered-to Spain, North Africa, Greece, Turkey, Egypt, and present-day Iraq.
Today's Jewish population can be grouped into three groups: Sephardim, Ashkenazim, and Mizrahim.
Sephardic Jews lived in Spain under Muslim rule from the 8th to the 12th centuries. They were granted complete religious freedom as long as they paid taxes to the Muslim political leaders. Jews, Muslims, and Christians coexisted peacefully in cities like Toledo, Córdoba, and Granada. The Jewish population in Spain was one of the largest in the world during this time; they spoke their own Judeo-Spanish language known as Ladino or Judezmo. This era was also known as the Golden Age of Spanish Jewry because of the many advances made in architecture, literature, and scholarship.
All of that came to an end with the Reconquista. Christians from the northern part of the Iberian peninsula moved down, re-conquering Muslim Spain one city at a time and driving Jews and Muslims out before them. The Reconquista culminated in 1492 with Ferdinand and Isabel's expulsion edict; Jews were forced to convert to Catholicism or flee. Many fled to Portugal, Italy, and Morocco.
Jews on the European continent came from a different branch of Judaism, the Ashkenazim. Throughout their history, they faced considerable persecution. In 1290, Edward I of England banished Jews from his realm and confiscated their property; most fled to France and Germany. Throughout the Middle Ages, Jews were banned from trade guilds and were not allowed to own land. Since they could not be engaged in crafts or in agriculture, many became financiers and moneylenders (hence Shakespeare's stereotype of Shylock, the wealthy moneylender in The Merchant of Venice). At a time when literacy was a mark of social class and only the clergy and the nobility were literate, Jews were educated and taught all their children to read and write, even their daughters.
In Germany in the 1100s Yiddish was developed; the words were mostly German but written with Hebrew letters. By the 1700s it was widely spoken by Ashkenazi Jews. In the face of increasing persecution-Jews were accused of causing the plague and of using the blood of Christian children in Passover rites-many Jews from Germany fled east to Poland, Lithuania, and Russian or west to the Netherlands, where they could apply for Dutch citizenship. Most European and American Jews today are Ashkenazim.
The third branch of Judaism are the Mizrahi Jews, descended from the Jewish communities of the Middle East and Central Asia. Today the Mizrahim include Iraqi Jews, Syrian Jews, Persian Jews, Ethiopian Jews, Indian Jews, and Pakistani Jews. Today Jews are as diverse as the many nations they inhabit, but "wherever they have wandered, Jews have always carried with them strong faith, and independent spirit, and a high regard for work and education." ( Jay Schleifer, A Student's Guide to Jewish American Genealogy (Phoenix, Arizona: Oryx Press, 1996), page 36.).