Thursday, November 24, 2016

Who Are the German Jews?

When people ask, are you a yekke (and I get asked this often enough) they generally mean, I believe, do your parents or grandparents come from Germany? And I suppose the strict definition of a yekke is a Jew from Germany or a Jew with traceable lineage to Germany as parents from places like England, South Africa, the USA, Holland, or Switzerland (countries to which German Jews immigrated over the last 100 years) with known ancestors from Germany, Prussia, or Austria also seem to qualify. The term yekke is of uncertain origin. It might be a reference to short coats or Jacke in German as German Jews of the last few centuries tended to wear shorter jackets than their brothers out East. 

So you might wonder then what is an Ashkenazi Jew as you certainly know of Ashkenazi Jews from places like the Ukraine and Poland. The name derives from the biblical figure Ashkenaz, the first son of Gomer, the eldest son of Japeth, a son of Noah. For reasons which are much debated, this name became attached to the mass of Jews who made their way through Italy and into Central Europe in the centuries after the destruction of the second Temple. Another set of Jews, which we now call Sephardim, made their way to Babylon and then North Africa and eventually Spain. In the words of the Jewish Virtual Library, "The name Ashkenaz was applied in the Middle Ages to Jews living along the Rhine River in northern France and western Germany."  Many of these people migrated East and by the 16th century, the center of Ashkenazi Jewry was located in Poland, Lithuania, Bohemia and Moravia and soon after in Russia, the Ukraine, and the Baltic states. They all are Ashkenazim, decendents of the Jews who lived along the Rhine River. Their shared lineage is evidenced in the language Yiddish which is an offshoot of German. As R' Shlomo Hamburger, an expert on German Jewish customs, points out, the Yiddish word for translate - titsche - comes from the word Deutsch or German. So imagine a conversation where two people are chatting away in Italian and you can't follow it. You want them to switch to English so you shout "English!" Centuries ago one of your ancestors, if you are Ashkenazi, might have shouted, "Deutsch!" or "German!"

So you might ask, are they yekkes too? Well it gets complicated due to the rise of the Chassidic movement in the 18th century as a large portion of Ashkenazic Jewry took on a new set of customs, called Sefard, some of which developed under the new conditions of Eastern Europe and some of which were taken from Sephardic liturgy and kabbalah. Technically, these people are Ashkenazim, but we wouldn't call them German Jews or yekkes, even though originally their ancestors were from Germany. There also are Eastern European Jews such as those from Lithuania, who didn't take on nusach Sefard, yet don't call them German either. They are Litvacks and their practice is much closer to that of German Jews with many significant differences.

So it seems that ancestry alone is not the determining factor as custom and even outlook plays a large role in group identification. This is why I, all by my lonesome, have determined that there exists a new variety of German Jew and that is the American yekke. My reasoning is that the USA is largely a Germanic country and many of the people raised in the USA, depending where one is raised, have Germanic sensibilities that fit in best with the German Jewish style. Since originally their families were from Germany, ie they are Ashkenazim, the original German practices are part of their heritage and while their ancestors in Eastern Europe were not raised in a Germanic culture, they were. See my article "American Yekkes" for a more lengthy explanation on all this. This applies in particular to baalei teshuva, particularly those over the age of 40 who were raised in the suburbs, and even more so those raised or educated in the Midwest. Again, see my article for more on that.

Interestingly, the USA currently is home to more Ashkenazi Jews than any other country in the world. Here's a chart from Wikipedia:

Total population
10[1]–11.2[2] million
Regions with significant populations
 United States5–6 million[3]
Israel State of Israel2.8 million[4][5]
 United Kingdom~ 260,000
 Canada~ 240,000
 South Africa80,000
 New Zealand5,000
 Czech Republic3,000

So that's what I'll say for now about the German Jews. Torah Im Derech Eretz came out of Germany. It's the work of Rabbi Hirsch but he designed it for Germany utilizing the traditions from his German Jewish rebbes. A person need not take on German Jewish custom or identity to gain from Torah Im Derech Eretz as the philosophy is useful to the modern, western dominated world in general.

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