Jewish Glossary

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Ashkenazi – Yiddish-speaking Jews who originated in Central and Eastern Europe. One of the two divisions of Jews.

Bar mitzvah – A ceremony for Jewish boys at about 13 years of age. Literally means “Son of the covenant.” A bat mitzvah in the ceremony for girls.

Bris – Ritual circumcision.

Cantor (chazzan) – The person who leads a Jewish congregation in prayer. The cantor usually has a trained and pleasing singing voice because much of the Jewish religious service is sung.

Chasidic (Hasidic) – A branch of Orthodox Judaism that maintains a lifestyle separate from the non-Jewish world and  emphasizes personal experiences and mysticism as well as a strict rabbinic interpretation of Jewish law.

Circumcision – A Jewish rite performed on male infants as a sign of inclusion in the Jewish religious community.

Civil registration – The official government recording of births, marriages, and deaths. In some cases church records were the primary registration of a locality (see “Civil transcripts” next). See also the Jewish Civil Registration and Jewish Vital Records Wiki pages.

Civil transcripts – Government mandated copies of birth, marriage, and death records made by church officials or appointed Jewish officials. See the Jewish Civil Registration Wiki page.

Concentration camp – Places of incarceration where those detained had no due process and where the regular laws of the land were not recognized. See the Jewish Holocaust and  Jewish Concentration Camps Wiki pages.

Confirmation – A ceremony performed in some Reform and Conservative synagogues to replace or supplement the bar mitzvah.

Conservative – A traditional movement of rabbinic Judaism whose adherents observe Jewish law but believe the law should adapt to modern culture while retaining the values and ethics of Judaism.

Converso – A Spanish Jew converted to Christianity, usually by force; also a descendent of a converted Jew.

Diaspora – Greek word meaning “dispersion.” Refers to the Jewish settlement outside Israel. Can be applied to the dispersion of any race or people.

Eastern Jews (Oriental Jews) – Jews descended from ancient communities in Islamic lands, North Africa, Persia, Arabia, Yemen, and Turkey. This term is often applied to Jews who do not fit into the Ashkenazic or Sephardic distinction. These groups are relatively small and not many of them have emigrated to North America.

Holocaust, Jewish – The genocidal murder of European Jews by the Nazis during World War II, 1939–1945. See the Jewish Holocaust and  Jewish Concentration Camps Wiki pages.

International Tracing Service – An organization founded in 1946 and operated since 1955 by the International Red Cross. The aim of the ITS is to collect information on those who were missing, deported, or incarcerated in concentration camps.

Karaites – A minority branch of Judaism that believes in strict interpretation of scriptures without rabbinic interpretation.

Ketubot – A marriage contract, often handed down from one generation to another within a family.

Kohen (kohan, cohen) – a descendant of Aaron, a priest charged with performing various rites in the Temple in connection with religious rituals and animal sacrifices. (Recent DNA research found that Jews in three different countries identified as kohens have common elements in the y chromosome, indicating that they have a common male ancestor.)

Kosher – Fit for use according to Jewish law.

Ladino – A Romance language, usually written in Hebrew characters, used by Sephardic Jews, especially in the Balkans.

Landsmannshaften – Organization of Jews from the same town or region. See the Jewish Societies Wiki page.

Levite – A descendant of the tribe of Levi. They performed certain duties in connection with the Temple.

Marrano – A Jewish convert to Catholicism in medieval Spain or a descendent of a convert. This derogatory term is derived from the Spanish word for swine and implies that the conversion was not complete.

Mitzvah – A commandment. It can also refer to any Jewish religious obligation, or more generally to any good deed.

Mohel – A Jew who performs the ritual of circumcision.

Orthodox – A major movement within Judaism that follows a strict interpretation and observance of Jewish law from both the Torah and Talmud commentaries. Orthodoxy includes modern Orthodox Jews who integrate into modern society and the Chasidic Jews who live separately and dress distinctively.

Pages of Testimony – A preprinted form available from Yad Vashem that documents a Jewish person who died in the Holocaust. The forms are filled out by people who are able to provide information on the fate of Holocaust victims. See the Jewish Holocaust Wiki page.

Pale of Settlement (Pale of Jewish Settlement) – Western area of the Russian Empire where Jews were legally allowed to live. It began with the first partition of Poland in 1772 and existed until World War I. See the Population Maps Wiki page.

Pinkas – A register of a Jewish community in which the proceedings of and events related to the community are recorded.

Pogrom – Russian for destruction. An organized attack against helpless people, usually with government help, often directed against Jews.

Rabbi – A Jew educated in Jewish law and tradition and qualified to instruct the community, answer questions, and resolve disputes regarding the law; the leader of a Jewish congregation.

Rabbinic – Pertaining to a rabbi. Rabbinic ancestry means having rabbis among your ancestors; “Rabbinic Judaism” is a branch of Judaism that follows the teachings and interpretation of a rabbi.

Rebbe – The spiritual master and guide of a Chasidic community; sometimes translated as “Grand Rabbi,” but literally it means “my rabbi.” A Chasidic rebbe is considered to be a tzaddik (righteous one). The position is usually hereditary. Outside the Chasidic community the term is sometimes used to refer to any rabbi with whom a person has a close relationship.

Reform – A modern rabbinical movement of Judaism believing in a liberal interpretation of Jewish law but retaining the values and ethics of Judaism along with some of the practices and the culture.

Rosh Hashanah – Solemn festival that marks the beginning of the month of Tishrei, the beginning of the Hebrew Year.

Sephardic – Descendants of the Jews who lived in Spain or Portugal before 1492. The term is now often applied to Jews of Arabic and Middle Eastern background who are more accurately called Eastern Jews.

Shtetl – A Jewish town or community, especially in Eastern Europe. See the JewishGen ShtetlSeeker Wiki page.

Synagogue – A Jewish house of worship and study. See the Jewish Synagogue Records Wiki page.

Talmud – The collection of the Jewish oral tradition and rabbinical commentary interpreting the Torah.

Torah – The biblical books of Moses: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy.

Yeshiva – An academy of Jewish learning and scholarship. See the Jewish Schools Wiki page.

Yiddish – A language very similar to German, usually written in Hebrew characters, that was spoken chiefly by Ashkenazi Jews in Eastern Europe and the places to which those Jews migrated.

Yizkor books – Memorial books published by Holocaust survivors from a particular town or region. See the Jewish Holocaust Wiki page.