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ETHNONYMS: Ashkenazim, Hebrews. Sephardim


Identification. The Jews of North America are a relatively assimilated ethnic group in the United States and Canada. The name "Jew" is an Anglicized version of the Hebrew word yehudi, meaning "Hebrew, the language of the kingdom of Judah," and originally referred to the members of the tribe of Judah, one of twelve tribes of Israel in the Middle East about four thousand years ago. Jewish self-identity rests on a number of factors including a unique set of religious beliefs and practices, ancestry from Jewish peoples, a shared understanding of the Holocaust, and a belief in Israel as the Jewish homeland.

Location. Jews in North America live primarily in cities or adjacent suburbs. Although urban Jewish ghettos no longer exist, a pattern of residential isolation persists, with many city neighborhoods or suburban communities defined as "Jewish" because of the large number of Jews who reside there and the Jewish institutions such as synagogues, community centers, and kosher food stores located there. Sixty percent of Jews live on the East Coast of the United States and about 20 percent on the West Coast, with relatively few, save those in major cities, in the South and Midwest. In Canada, the same pattern holds, with two-thirds of the Jewish population living in or near Toronto or Montreal .

Demography. In 1986 the Jewish population in North America was about 6.3 million, with 5.9 million in the United States and 305,000 in Canada. Thus, North American Jews constitute about 43 percent of the 14.5 million Jews in the world. By way of comparison, in Europe there are 4.1 million Jews, in Asia 3.3 million, in South America 600,000, in Africa 159,000, and in Oceania 72,000. The United States has the largest Jewish population in the world and Canada the seventh largest. In North America, the majority of Jews live in twelve large cities, with 1.9 million in the metropolitan New York City region (over 30 percent of U.S. Jews), 500,000 in Los Angeles. 300,000 in Philadelphia, 250,000 each in Miami and Chicago. over 100,000 each in Boston, Washington, D.C. Montreal, and Toronto, and over 50,000 each in Baltimore and San Francisco. In Canada, the other Jewish population centers are Winnipeg, 15,000, and Vancouver, 14,000. The Jewish population has been relatively stable for the past decade, despite a relatively low birth rate, offset somewhat by recent emigrations of Jews from the Soviet Union and Israel to the United States and Canada.

Linguistic Affiliation. The overwhelming majority of North American Jews use English as their primary or only Domestic language, or French in the French-speaking provinces of Canada, with about 20 percent of Canadian Jews bilingual in the two languages. Recent immigrants from Europe and the Middle East often speak the language of their homeland, those from the Soviet Union speaking Russian, those from Syria speaking Arabic, and those from Israel speaking Hebrew. Hasidic Jews use Yiddish, written with Hebrew characters, and some Jews of central and eastern European ancestry speak Yiddish at home. Yiddish, the traditional language of Jews of Eastern Europe, shares common medieval roots with High German and contains Slavic loan-words, although it is usually written with Hebrew characters and from right to left as is Hebrew. A number of Yiddish words have become part of the U.S. English lexicon, including blintze, chutzpah, goy, kibitz, landsman, mensh, nebbish, shlemiel, shlock, shnook, and shmooz.

Hebrew is the religious language for Orthodox and some Conservative Jews, with prayerbooks written in and prayers chanted in Hebrew. Hebrew is a branch of the Canaanite group of Semitic languages. Reform Jews use English in their religious services.

History and Cultural Relations

The immigration history of Jews to the U.S. and Canada differs as does the nature of cultural relations between Jews and other groups in those nations.

United States. The first Jews in North America — 23 Sephardic Jews from South America — arrived in New Amsterdam (now New York City) in 1654. Since then Jews have continued to immigrate to North America, with the bulk arriving in three periods: 1830-1880, 1881-1924, and 1935-1941. Prior to 1830 most Jews in North America were Sephardic (see "Social Organization" below) and numbered about six thousand in 1830. From 1830 to 1880 the Jewish population increased to 250,000, most of whom were Ashkenazi Jews who emigrated from Germany, as part of a larger movement of Germans to North America. Not only did these immigrants, largely young, rural or small-town peoples escaping religious persecution, swell the Jewish population, but they also spread across the continent establishing Communities in dozens of cities. The second period of migration from 1880-1924 closed with a Jewish population of over 4 million in the United States, mostly urban and mostly on the East Coast. This time the immigrants were mostly Ashkenazi Jews from eastern and central European countries such as Poland, Romania, Hungary, and especially western Russia. These Immigrants were the forebears of about 80 percent of Jews in North America today. Restrictive immigration laws in the United States and the depression slowed immigration, but beginning in the mid-1930s until the late 1940s, some 200,000 Jews fleeing Nazi-controlled Europe and extermination in concentration camps arrived in the United States. The 1900-1950 period was also a time of upward (socially and economically) and outward (from the cities to the suburbs) mobility for the eastern European Jews. Since the establishment of the state of Israel in 1948, Jews have arrived in the United States mainly from the Middle East, the Soviet Union, and most recently from Israel. One key feature of Jewish immigration is that most of the immigrants stayed, with only one in fourteen returning to their homelands as compared to about one in three returns for most other ethnic groups.

Despite overt discrimination in education and employment in the past and organized anti-Semitism in some sectors of American society, laws have generally guaranteed Jews Religious freedom and relations with other ethnic and religious groups have been generally peaceful if not friendly. Political ties to the African-American community are no longer as strong as they once were. Current tensions with the African-Americans reflect, in part, Jewish concerns over African-American support for the Palestinians in the Middle East and African-American concerns over Jewish ties to South Africa and lack of Jewish support for affirmative action programs. Jews generally distinguish themselves from all non-Jews who are classified and referred to as goyim, commonly understood to mean "non-Jew." Some scholars suggest that Jews in the United States today are more apt to stress the secular aspects of Jewishness, such as the use of Yiddish words, as opposed to the religious aspects such as following Jewish law regarding dietary restrictions.

Canada. In contrast to the immigration history in the United States, the majority of Jewish immigrants to Canada arrived after 1945, with about 40 percent of the current Canadian Jewish population composed of recent arrivals as compared to about 20 percent for the United States. In 1900 there were 15,000 Jews in Canada, but by 1915 the population had grown to 100,000 through mass emigrations from eastern Europe. Few Jews immigrated to Canada in the years before World War II, and about 200,000 have arrived since then. These include Jews fleeing war-torn Europe, Hungarian Jews escaping from Hungary in 1956, French-speaking Jews coming from North Africa, and, most recently, about 22,000 arriving from Israel and 8,000 from the Soviet Union.

Largely because Canada is a bicultural nation with distinct French- and English-speaking populations and because of greater acceptance of cultural diversity, Jews in Canada, like other ethnic groups, are relatively less assimilated than their counterparts in the United States. While this has led to a more visible emphasis on religious elements of Jewishness and the survival of European customs, it has also placed Jews outside the two mainstream Canadian religious traditions of Catholicism and Protestantism. This position as a third Religion and other factors have sometimes subjected Jews to laws interfering with traditional religious practices. Laws introduced after World War II removed most of these restrictions. Today, Canadian Jews are slowly becoming more like U.S. Jews, with the use of European customs and languages disappearing.


Jews are now largely integrated into the U.S. and Canadian economic systems. Although they work in most trades and professions, they are overrepresented (as a percentage of the population) in several, including ownership of small and middle-sized businesses, the communication and entertainment industries, public service, and professions such as Medicine, dentistry, law, accounting, teaching, and scientific Research. Past and present discrimination has been cited by some as the cause of the relatively few Jews found in the upper echelons of the banking industry and large corporations in general. Civil rights legislation of the 1960s and 1970s has outlawed old laws and private covenants that restricted Jewish ownership of land or membership in private associations. The traditional Jewish division of labor with men working outside the home and women working in the home has given way to many women having professional employment.

Kinship, Marriage and Family

Marriage and Family. Jewish marriage and kinship practices conform to those of mainstream North American Culture: monogamous marriage, nuclear families, bilateral Descent, and Eskimo-type kinship terms. Surnames are patrilineal, although there is a trend toward women keeping their own surnames at marriage or hyphenating their husbands' surnames and their own. The importance of family continuity is emphasized by the custom of naming children after deceased relatives. Although marriage with non-Jews (goyim) was proscribed and sanctioned by ostracism in the past, the intermarriage rate today is increasing as among North Americans in general. Though Jewish families have fewer children, they are often described as child-oriented, with family resources freely expended on education for both boys and girls. Jewish identity is traced matrilineally. That is, if one's mother is a Jew, then that person is Jewish according to Jewish law and entitled to all the rights and privileges that status brings, including the right to emigrate to and settle in Israel as citizens.

Socialization. As with most Americans and Canadians, early socialization takes place in the home. Jewish parents are indulgent and permissive and rarely use physical punishment. Socialization as a Jew takes place in the home through story-telling and participation in Jewish rituals, and through attendance at Hebrew school in the afternoon or evening and participation in Jewish youth groups at the synagogue or community center. Orthodox Jews often run their own Grammar and high schools, whereas most non-Orthodox Jews attend public or private secular schools. Acquisition of knowledge and the open discussion of ideas are important values and activities for Jews, and many attend college and professional schools.

The Bar Mitzvah ceremony for a boy at age thirteen is an important rite of passage as it marks him as an adult member of the community for religious purposes,

and the Bat Mitzvah ceremony for a Reform or Conservative girl at age twelve or thirteen serves the same purpose. In the past the Bar Mitzvah ceremony was much more elaborate and spiritual in focus; today both ceremonies have become important social as well as religious events for many Jews.

Sociopolitical Organization

Social Organization. Today, Jews are highly integrated into the North American class system, with Jews found in the upper, middle, and working classes. Upward social mobility is an important value, and has been achieved for about three generations largely through education. Although Jews are often thought to be concentrated in the upper-middle and lower-upper classes, there is still a sizable number in the working class and some elderly Jews live below the poverty line. Vestiges of discrimination remain and Jews are still excluded from some social organizations open to non-Jews. In communities with large Jewish populations, exclusively or largely Jewish social organizations such as community centers, the Young Men's and Young Women's Hebrew Associations

(YMHA, YWHA), B'nai B'rith, and Hadassah are important. And in some communities the synagogue (shul ) plays an Important social and recreational role. Many Jews are also involved in or contribute to national or international organizations that support Jewish causes such as the Anti-Defamation League of the B'nai B'rith, the United Jewish Appeal, and the United Jewish Welfare Fund.

Internally, Jews have no formal social or political Organization, although they can be and are often divided into Subgroups on the basis of three overlapping criteria: degree of Religiousness, place of one's own or one's ancestor's birth, and Ashkenazic or Sephardic ancestry. Degree of religiousness is reflected in the labels Orthodox, Conservative, or Reform Judaism. Orthodox Jews generally follow and resist changes in traditional religious beliefs and practices, which they base on the halakhah, the Jewish literature that covers ethical, Religious, civil, and criminal matters. Conservative Judaism comprises a combination of thought reflecting different Philosophical, ethical, and spiritual schools. In general, Conservatives stress change from within, Zionism, and an ingathering of all Jews. Because of the diversity of opinion, Conservative religious practices run a wide gamut, although most are less traditional than those of Orthodoxy. Reform Judaism, as the name suggests, reflects a modification of Orthodoxy in light of contemporary life and thought. Thus, Reform Jews do not believe that Jewish law is divinely revealed and eschew many practices central to Orthodoxy such as eating only kosher foods, wearing a skull-cap (yarmulke ) when praying, and using Hebrew in prayer. The differences among Orthodox, Conservative, and Reform Jews go well beyond religion and are manifested in many day-to-day activities and events and the degree to which members of each are assimilated into North American society. Other categories of Jews based on degree of religiousness include Hasidic (ultra-Orthodox) Jews, Reconstructionalists, and "Civil" Jews.

As mentioned above, Jews arrived in North America in waves, largely from European nations and these places of ancestry are used to delineate one Jew or group of Jews from another. Thus, for example, one speaks of German Jews, Russian Jews, Polish Jews, Syrian Jews, and so on, or in a more general sense, eastern, central, or southern European Jews. These distinctions are no longer especially important, although German Jews are still looked upon as wealthier and of higher status than other Jews.

The final major distinction is between Jews of Ashkenazic (Ashkenazim) or Sephardic (Sephardim, Sfardim) ancestry. Ashkenazim Jews are those descended from the Ashkenazic Jews of eastern and central Europe and Currently make up about 90 percent of North American Jews. Sephardim are descended from the Sephardic Jews who lived in southern Europe from about the seventh to the fifteenth Century when they were expelled from Spain by Queen Isabella and King Ferdinand. Most of the exiles settled in the Middle East and North Africa. Beyond a difference in place of ancestry, Ashkenazic and Sephardic Jews differed and in some ways continue to differ in language (Yiddish or European Languages versus Judeo-Spanish or Middle Eastern languages), the pronunciation and spelling of Hebrew, liturgy, and surnames. But members of both groups freely acknowledge that members of the other group are Jews, although some Ashkenazim were less accepting of Sephardim in the past. Although North American Judaism is dominated by Ashkenazim because of their large numbers, there are important Sephardic communities in New York, Los Angeles, Seattle, Atlanta, Chicago, Montreal, Rochester, and Indianapolis.

These communities derive from a migration occurring from 1900 to 1925 when Sephardic Jews left areas that are now Turkey, Greece, Yugoslavia, Rhodes, and other territories of the Ottoman Empire.

Finally, mention should be made of other Jewish groups such as Karaites (Qaraites), Israeli, and Russian Jews who have recently immigrated to North America from their Respective countries, and Black Jews who have formed their own sects (though by Jewish-defined criteria most of these sects are not considered Jews). These groups, who sometimes follow an ultra-Orthodox life-style or a life-style different from that of assimilated Jews, also sometimes choose to live in relatively isolated urban communities and form their own synagogues. The recent emigrants from Israel are looked upon by some with puzzlement, as they seem to be rejecting the aliyyah, or ascent to the land of Israel, a marker of Jewish identity if not a goal for many Jews.

Political Organization. Although North American Judaism has no overarching political structure similar to that of Roman Catholicism or the Church of the Latter-Day Saints (Mormons), the Orthodox, Conservative, and Reform synagogues are aligned with central organizations — the Union of Orthodox Congregations of America, the United Synagogue of America (Conservative), and the Union of American Hebrew Congregations (Reform). Although in the past the synagogue played an important organizational and leadership role, it no longer does so for most Jews. Similarly, the rabbi, the spiritual and moral leader of the synagogue congregation, now rarely plays a leadership role in the community, based solely on his status as the rabbi.

Jews have been seen (often by anti-Semitic commentators) as aligned with liberal or radical political philosophies including socialism, communism, unionization, and the New Deal and tended to vote heavily in favor of candidates of the Democratic party in the United States; in the past decade or two, a marked trend toward conservatism and identification with the Republican party has been noted among a minority of Jews. Jews, despite being only about 2 percent of the Population, are an important voting bloc because large numbers vote and because they make up a sizable percentage of the population in some large states such as New York and Florida and the Canadian provinces of Ontario and Quebec. Jews run for and have been elected to numerous local and state offices.

Social Control and Conflict. Integrated as they are into U.S. and Canadian society, Jews generally resolve legal conflicts with Jews or non-Jews through the legal system. Legal remedies available through Jewish agencies are rarely used. Among the Orthodox there is recourse to some religiously sanctioned social control such as Orthodox divorce. Although overt discrimination against Jews is waning in North America, there is a long tradition of anti-Semitism, reflected in limited access to certain professions and residential isolation. Within the Jewish communities in both nations, there are long traditions of supporting Jewish causes and institutions through charitable donations to and work for synagogues, schools, community centers, social welfare agencies, and the state of Israel.

Religion and Expressive Culture

Religious Beliefs. Judaism is the oldest monotheistic Religion to survive to modern times. To Jews, God is the Supreme Being, the Creator of the Universe, and ultimate Judge of Human Affairs. Some importance is also given to particular prophets and angels. The Hebrew calendar is a lunar calendar (based on the movement of the moon around the earth) and has 354 days, 12 months of 29 or 30 days each with extra days added so that the lunar calendar conforms to the solar (Gregorian) calendar, and seven days in a week. The Hebrew calendar is based on the date 3761 b.c.e. the year traditional Jewish scholars believed the world began. Thus, the years 5748-5749 are the equivalent of 1989 in the Gregorian calendar. Jewish weekly synagogue attendance is relatively low at about 20 percent compared to other religions. Because of the wide divergence of religious belief and practice (Orthodox/Conservative/Reform, Ashkenazic/Sephardic, and so on), no single all-encompassing system of Jewish belief and practice can be described.

Religious Practitioners. There is no hierarchy of religious leaders. The rabbi (master, teacher) is the spiritual leader of the synagogue congregation. Today, the role and status of the rabbi is roughly the same as that of a Protestant minister or Catholic priest and involves pastoral, social, educational, and interfaith responsibilities. Reform Jews and Reconstructionalists permit women to be ordained as rabbis. Cantors are also important, leading the congregation in the chanting of prayers (prayers are chanted, not recited) and in training boys for the Bar Mitzvah.

Ceremonies. Rosh Hashanah (New Year) and Yom Kippur (the Day of Atonement), the High Holy Days, usually fall in September. Pesach (Passover), Shavout (Festival of Weeks), and Succot (Feast of the Ingathering) were originally harvest festivals involving pilgrimages to the Temple. Passover today marks the escape of the Hebrews from ancient Egypt about 3,500 years ago and is widely celebrated. Minor holy days or festivals include Hanukkah (dedication Feast of Lights), Purim (Festival of Lots), and Tisha B'Av (Ninth Day of Av). Although of less importance today, Rosh Hodesh (Beginning of a New Moon) is still noted and marked by special prayers. Shabbat (the Sabbath) is the only Holy Day mentioned in the Ten Commandments and is celebrated from sundown Friday to sundown Saturday each week of the year. The Sabbath is a day of rest and reflection. In addition to these Holy Days and festivals, all major life-cycle events — birth, age of religious majority, marriage, and death — are marked by prayer and ritual observances.

Death and Afterlife. Jewish law requires that the deceased be buried within twenty-four hours of death. Some Reform Jews allow cremation. For close relatives there is a seven-day mourning period (shivah) involving prayer and restrictions on the activities of the mourner. Regular prayer in memory of the deceased follows at set intervals following the mourning period. Jewish beliefs concerning the soul and afterlife are vague and vary from one group to another.


Cohen, Steven (1983). American Modernity and Jewish Identity. New York: Tavistock.

Goren, Arthur A. (1980). "Jews." In Harvard Encycopedia of American Ethnic Groups, edited by Stephan Thernstrom, 571-598. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, Belknap Press.

Gross, David C. (1981). The Jewish Peoples Almanac. Garden City, N.Y. Doubleday.

Rosenberg, Stuart E. (1970-1971). The Jewish Community in Canada. Toronto: McClelland & Stewart.

Rosenberg, Stuart E. (1985). The New Jewish Identity in America. New York: Hippocrene Books.


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