Types of Jewish Identities: How You Can Identify Your Jewish Roots

A Jewish family.

Judaism is one of the oldest monotheistic religions, national identities, and cultural heritages in the world. Their story begins with Abraham of the Torah and Old Testament, his son, Isaac, and his grandson, Jacob. Jews are descendants of the Biblical Judah, 1 of the 12 sons of Jacob or Israel. The descendants of the other 11 sons of Jacob lost their tribal identities as they mixed with other cultures, but through the centuries the descendants of Judah have maintained their Jewish identity and heritage.

Jews began in the area bounded by Mesopotamia on the east and Egypt on the West but were scattered from their biblical homeland during the Roman occupation. They migrated in groups into different areas of the world and became segregated and isolated by distance. Customs and beliefs that originated in the Holy Land, Babylon, and the Western Mediterranean were influenced by the areas where each of the 4 Jewish groups settled and formed separate subcultures.

How to Identify Different Types of Jewish Groups

Smaller Jewish subcultures also formed, but four of the major Jewish communities identified today are Ashkenazi, Sephardi, Mizrahi, and Crypto-Jews. All share a firm claim to the Jewish religion and their biblical roots. The types of Jews in these subcultures can be differentiated most easily by homeland, language, naming patterns, and migration patterns.

Ashkenazi Jews are the largest identifiable Jewish culture going back to Eastern Europe.
Rabbis kept records in Hebrew, Yiddish, the local language, or a mixture but no request was made to add them to public registrars.


March 25, 2022
Sephardi, or Sephardic Jews (Sephardim, plural) make up the second largest identifiable Jewish culture today. The largest Jewish group is th…
May 8, 2022
Mizrahi Jews, also known as Oriental Jews, make up a very small Jewish ethnic group. The term Mizrahi describes Jews from North Africa, the …
June 3, 2022
Crypto-Jews, also known as Marrano Jews, originated from the Sephardic Jewish community who resided mostly in the Iberian Peninsula (Spain a…

Homelands

The largest Jewish ethnic group is Ashkenazi or Ashkenazic—a Hebrew word meaning German. Ashkenazi Jews originated in Central and Eastern Europe. They settled in the German Rhine River Valley of Germany and Northern France during the Middle Ages. During the 17th century, persecution mounted and drove them east into what is modern-day Eastern Europe and Western Russia.

The second largest Jewish group is Sephardi or Sephardic who settled in Southwestern Europe—around Spain, Portugal, Greece, and Turkey—during the 1100s. They were identified as Southern Jews. During the Spanish Inquisition of the 1400s, they were forced to convert to Catholicism or flee. Many fled to the Americas.

A very small ethnic group known as Mizrahi or Oriental Jews lived since biblical times in Northern Africa, the Middle East, Turkey, and India. The term Mizrahi covers all Jews who did not live in Europe when they left the Holy Land. Most of the Mizrahi Jews have now returned to Israel.

Crypto-Jews, sometimes called Conversos, make up a considerably smaller Jewish group. They originated with the Sephardi Jews and fled—largely to the Americas where they settled in the American Southwest. They were baptized Catholic but practiced Judaism at home. As they moved to new areas, they tended to hide their Jewish roots. To protect their children, some didn’t tell them they were Jewish. As a result, later generations may not know of their Jewish roots.

A Jewish family in Poland

Language

Hebrew is considered the sacred Jewish language and was spoken at home among all the sects. However, local dialects of surrounding cultures became integrated into the Hebrew language, creating language differences between the different types of Jews. As they mixed with cultures of Eastern Europe, the Ashkenazim developed a dialect known as Yiddish. Sephardic Jews’ Ladino dialect developed from Hebrew, Portuguese, Spanish, Turkish, and Greek. Crypto-Jews also used the Ladino dialect.

Mizrahi Jews used a dialect with a background of Arabic, Persian, and other Asian languages. Mizrahi Hebrew includes many dialects from these regions.

Naming Patterns

Another way to identify the different types of Jewish groups is by looking at naming patterns. Ashkenazic Jews held to a patronymic naming pattern until the early to mid-1800s when they adopted family names to meet government requirements.

The Sephardic Jews adopted consistent last names in the 1100s when they settled on the Iberian Peninsula. They tended to be of Spanish and Portuguese origin.

Crypto-Jews, like the Sephardic Jews, adopted the surnames of their former countries. Their names may end in “ez,” which means “son of” in Spanish, or they may have other Hispanic surnames.

Not surprisingly, Mizrahi Jewish last names are much like those of the cultures in North Africa and the Middle East where they lived.

Records

Jewish communities were often considered outcasts, and local governments and state churches tended to be lax about including them in their vital records. They may have allowed them to keep their own records, or they may have recorded the information separately from that of other citizens. However, Rabbis and Jewish families often considered record keeping very important and typically kept and preserved their own. These records would likely not have been transferred as families moved, so they may be found in private collections, synagogues, or libraries—particularly Jewish libraries. FamilySearch has a large and growing collection of such records in the Knowles Collection. The records in the Knowles Collection can be accessed for free on FamilySearch with a FamilySearch account.

To learn more about the Knowles Collection and how you can use it to search for your Jewish ancestors, check out the article below.

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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.