Section: Judaism and Jewish life

Jewish identity

© 2011 Beit Hatfutsot.

Today Jews are scattered all over the world, and there have been Jewish communities in most parts of the globe for many centuries.

This section will describe and explain some of the features of Jewish religious identity. In doing so it will demonstrate the diverse cultures within and across the many Jewish communities throughout the world.


Is there a typical Jew?

Two main cultural groups exist, each of which came into being about a thousand years ago: Ashkenazi Jews, who trace their origins and customs back to their ancestors of central and northern Europe, and Sephardi Jews, who trace their customs back to their ancestors around the Mediterranean.

The word ‘Jew’ is difficult to define. Jews can be religious or secular, and they can practice their religion in many different ways.

The Jewish people are descended from the ancient Biblical patriarchs: Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. The early stages of the Jewish story are described in the Bible.

Where in the world do Jews live?

The largest Jewish communities in the world today exist in Israel (5,413,800) and the United States (5,275,000).

There are also sizeable Jewish communities in many other countries including in Russia, France, Canada, Argentina, the United Kingdom, Germany, South Africa and Hungary.

Just about every country in Europe has a Jewish community, and there are small communities scattered throughout the Middle East. There are new Jewish communities in parts of Asia, while communities in Australia’s big cities and in many countries in Latin America are also thriving.

Many Jews prefer to live in large Jewish communities for the convenience of being close to Jewish schools, synagogues, kosher food shops and whatever allows them to live a religious cultural life.

Symbols of Jewish identity

One group of Orthodox Jews, the Haredim, wear distinctive clothes. The men often wear long black coats, broad brimmed black hats and wear their hair in sidelocks or sidecurls known as payot.

Haredim are not the only kind of Orthodox Jews who wear a head covering all the time. Other Orthodox Jews, whose clothes are similar to most other people’s, will cover their heads with a small cap, called a kippah. This can be of any colour or design.

Orthodox Jews believe that it is important to keep up Jewish practice even if it does not fit with the customs of the time. Other Jews, Reform and Liberal, for example, are more ready to blend their Jewish lives with the common practices of the day in the society in which they live.

The vast majority of Jews around the world live amongst their non-Jewish neighbours and could not easily be recognised as Jewish on the street. For example, a Jewish Indian woman might wear a sari, while a Jewish Moroccan bride will wear a highly ornate wedding dress, common in Morocco.

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Symbols of Jewish identity

Symbols of Jewish identity

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