Religion is defined by a unique set of beliefs and rules by which a person chooses to live by. Usually, there exists a superhuman power who is the original creator of said beliefs and rules. In grade school, we are taught about religions as they often contribute to the diversity that children are first exposed to. We learn that Christians believe that Jesus was the messiah and that they celebrate Christmas. We read books about how Muslims follow the teachings of the Qur’an and sometimes wear things that cover their faces. Jews go to temple wearing little hats and have eight nights of presents for Hanukkah. As we discover and learn more about each religion, we form a conclusion on what a religion is and how it fits into our own lives. We then begin to further dissect our identity. “Why do these people eat like me? Why do they speak my language? Why are our eyes the same?” a child may ask. An ethnicity, according to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, relates to “large groups of people classed according to common racial, national, tribal, religious, linguistic, or cultural origin or background”(Merriam Webster). So, at this point, we now know that we have religions and ethnicities, and that these two characteristics are different. However, Judaism encompasses characteristics of both a religion and an ethnicity. When observing tradition, culture, and stereotypes, it becomes strikingly evident that Judaism can not only define a person’s religion, but also their ethnicity. I, myself, grew up knowing that I was Jewish and Ukrainian. However, I realized that my parents just taught me that for simplicity purposes. I noticed that my Mother, when asked what ethnicity she is, responded with “I am Jewish”. The inquisitor usually then followed up with “…But you have an accent?”. “Well I’m from Ukraine, but I am Jewish”, she would respond. Many times my mother would answer with what she knew would be most understandable, but I knew she just did this to avoid the almost-guaranteed confusion. “In Ukraine”, my mother would tell me, “I was not considered Ukrainian. I was Jewish and only Jewish”. Growing up in a Jewish household, I gradually understood what it meant to be Jewish and how it fit into my life. My religion is Jewish and therefore I celebrate Hanukkah and Passover, and occasionally attend temple. However, my ethnicity is also Jewish. I speak a language that unifies the Jews, I have a Jewish last name, and I get asked if I’m Jewish because of the way I look. It became clear to me that Judaism is not just a religion, but an ethnicity as well.
For thousands of years, Jews have been represented by two distinct subcultures: Ashkenazi and Sephardic. Ashkenazi Jews are descendants of Eastern Europe, France, and Germany, while Sephardic Jews come from North Africa, the Middle East, Spain and Portugal. A religion alone cannot tell you where a person’s ancestors are from. But, by definition, an ethnicity can. If a person is Chinese by ethnicity, it would be safe to assume that their ancestors came from China. Where is a Christian person from? Where is a Muslim from? Consistent with a person’s origin is their appearance. Stereotypically, a Jew can be spotted from across a room with their formulaically big noses, their conventional full head of curls, and their nasally voices. Jews all throughout Eastern Europe can look patently similar to one another. But, as the distance increases, this is not always the case. Ashkenazi and Sephardic Jews are very different in appearance, culture, their interpretations of the religion, language, food, and just about every factor that you list as defining ethnicity. Although we see these two extremely different groups from different regions of the world, they still share certain cultural commonalities with each other relative to other ethnicities, and that suggests that they are related by something other than immediate biological ties (i.e. a similar ethnicity that comes from distant common...
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