Mizrahi Jews: A Minority of a Minority

David Sassoon and his sons—a Mizrahi Jewish family

Mizrahi Jews, also known as Oriental Jews, make up a very small Jewish ethnic group. The term Mizrahi describes Jews from North Africa, the Middle East, and Central Asia, including parts of India and Turkey. Mizrahi Jews are of Babylonian and Persian heritage.

Among Mizrahi Jews was the Sassoon family of Baghdad. After receiving a traditional Jewish education and marrying, David Sassoon formed a business dynasty beginning in the late 1700s. He dispatched his sons to important financial centers in other eastern countries. The success of the Sassoon family enticed other Baghdadi Jews to immigrate to India for employment, which helped found new Jewish communities on their arrival. David went on to fund a wide range of Jewish and general communal, educational, and other philanthropic endeavors in those areas.

What Sets the Mizrahi Jews Apart from Other Groups?

David Sassoon, an influential Mizrahi Jewish man
David Sassoon

Mizrahi are not included among the Jewish groups such as Ashkenazi and Sephardi who lived in Europe. They have their own sets of customs because while keeping their own Jewish customs, they adapted to the customs and clothing of the countries they lived in. Many spoke Arabic, Aramaic, and Farci. A majority of the Mizrahi Jews left Muslim-majority countries during the Arab Israeli conflicts of the 20th century to immigrate to Israel, but they represent a very small portion of that population.

What Records Can I Use to Find My Mizrahi Ancestors?

Most records of Mizrahi ancestors would be part of family records or lineages passed down in families. Mizrahi records might be found in archives in the areas where the various Mizrahi families settled. They may also be found in the same records as any others—not necessarily Jewish-specific records. If a catalog search shows Jewish records, check for your Mizrahi ancestors there as well.

Cemetery records and headstones are also sources of useful information. The designs and inscriptions on headstones often definitively identify or point to Jewish heritage.

Sources to Help You Find Your Mizrahi Ancestors

The sources below may help you in locating records for the Mizrahi Jewish ethnic group.

FamilySearch Wiki

The FamilySearch Wiki provides great information about the various Jewish ethnicities and key internet links. The boxed area on the right of the page provides links to other wiki articles on records that pertain to the topic.

MyHeritage

MyHeritage.com, based in Israel and Lehi, Utah, United States, has an abundant database of records from the Middle East and related areas. Schelly Talalay Dardashti, who works with MyHeritage, is an expert researcher on various Jewish ethnicities, including Mizrahi, and has some great RootsTech videos on Jewish Genealogy research.

The Knowles Collection

The Knowles Collection at FamilySearch doesn’t yet include many Mizrahi Jewish names and records. It does contain records from Morocco and Turkey, but those in the collection are primarily Sephardic Jews who immigrated to those places when they fled Spain and Portugal. To learn more about the Knowles Collection and how to search it for your Jewish ancestors, check out the article below.

February 10, 2022
The Jewish community is unique in that they have maintained a cultural identity despite centuries of challenges. Family history is an import…

FamilySearch

Likewise, although FamilySearch is actively acquiring records from the Middle East, Asia, and Africa, we currently have relatively few records of Mizrahi Jews. But RootsTech.org has 60 free videos about Jewish genealogy that could be helpful as you conduct research on your Jewish roots. Click here to see what videos are available.

Synagogues

Synagogues tend to hold and maintain their own records. If you are looking for your Mizrahi ancestors and know where they lived, try going to their local synagogue to see if they are in their records. One of the largest synagogues in Asia outside of Israel is the Magen David Synagogue (Byculla). It was constructed by David Sassoon for the growing population of Baghdadi Jews who fled from persecution in Baghdad.

A book inside the Magen David Synagogue
Book inside Magen David Synagogue. Image by Sam Litvin.

Local Registrations

Records for Mizrahi ancestors would most likely be found in local registrations and in Church records. If there is a government-supported religion that keeps birth, marriage, and death records, check those. It may have been customary to list Jewish vital records in a separate section from other registrations.

U.S. Military Records

When searching for Jewish records, don’t overlook military records. The United States military records tend to be detailed and may identify those of Jewish ethnicity.

Tags
About the Author
W. Todd Knowles is a deputy chief genealogical officer at FamilySearch, where he has worked for 22 years. His own journey in family history began by searching for his great-grandfather, a Polish Jew. From those early beginnings, the Knowles Collection was created. This collection now houses the genealogical records of 1.5 million Jews.
About the Author
Diane Sagers was a freelance writer for about 30 years. For 27 of those years, among other things, she wrote 2 to 4 newspaper columns weekly for the Tooele Transcript. She also created and edited a magazine for 27 years, wrote numerous articles for other publications, wrote chapters for several published books, edited documents, and ran a tour company. For the past several years, she has served as a volunteer public relations and marketing writer for FamilySearch and the Family History Library. When she isn't writing, she enjoys spending time with her 6 children, their spouses, and 25 terrific grandchildren, doing genealogy research and teaching others, cooking, sewing, playing piano, gardening, and traveling.