Ashkenazi Jews and their long-ago European mothers

If this is true, it doesn’t matter.

Being Jewish is being a member of G-d’s Covenant at Mount Sinai. Over the centuries, some women and men said, in effect, “Count me in,” and so they became members of the Covenant by observing its specifics and generalities.

If a genetic study reaches the conclusion that many European women converted, it is consistent with what we know of Roman history.

A history of Jews in the Roman Empire

Until the end of the first century CE, Judaism was the only monotheistic religion. Non-Jews worshiped a pantheon of gods. Some worshiped the god of their own city-state but not the god of any other city-state.

People of the Roman Empire were supposed to worship a statue of the emperor as well as any other god that they chose. The Emperor Hadrian was especially diligent in dedicating statues of himself all over the eastern part of the empire. His was particularly fond of the Greek culture and “Greek love” — pederasty.

We find evidence that non-Jews spent time around and in synagogues. These people have been called G-dfearers and Phylo-Jews — Jew lovers. It’s not so much that they liked Jews as such. They liked the religion of Jews. These G-dfearers were a pool of prospective converts. The “fly in the ointment,” the drawback, for men to convert was that they would be undergoing circumcision. I’m under the impression that adult circumcision is painful and takes a while to heal. It is speculated that not many adult men converted, but women did.

Some of the female converts probably married Jewish men. Perhaps some Phylo-Jews circumcised their sons in hope that these boys would convert. Who knows? And no one knows the numbers.

Perhaps as population genetics improve, studies of Jewish genetics may provide fine grain statistics for reconstructing theories.

Regardless of some of the previous details and the associated speculation, historians have long suggested that about ten percent of the population of the Roman Empire was Jewish. Recent reevaluations are suggesting a smaller Jewish population. But, imagine that the U.S. had a Jewish population of 38 million, or that 19 million Jews lived in the U.S. These figures are about 10 percent 5 percent respectively.

So now back to Rome. However many Jews lived within the Roman Empire, they were not evenly spread out. The largest concentration of Jews seems to have been on the Italian peninsula and in Rome itself. Many Jews did not relocate voluntarily. When the Roman Legions destroyed the Holy Temple in Jerusalem (69 CE), and when they destroyed the city of Jerusalem (about 135 CE), Jewish captives were taken to slave markets. As defeated captives, they were paraded through the streets of Rome.

Christian Rome

After Christianity became the official religion of of the Roman Empire (4th century CE), conversion to Judaism was punishable by death. However many European women (and men) had affiliated with the Jewish people before this, no more converted.

In time, Roman Jews (from Rome and Italy) found opportunities northward, over the Alps into the Rhine River valley and also in Roman Gaul. These Jews were the forebears of Ashkenazi Jews. A particular regional identity did not start to develop, though, until Charlemagne’s power reached from the Elbe River in today’s Germany, south and west to the Pyrenees Mountains, and southward to encompass all of Italy. This is the core of the Western Roman Empire, and this is the spiritual birthplace of Ashkenazi customs and their heritage of studying the Bible and the Talmud..

Jews in this region primarily had spoken Vulgar Latin — the language of their neighbors. Charlemagne’s Empire, the Carolingian Empire, brought Germanic speakers into the region from the east and northeast. The legal and language frontier along the Rhine River supplied the core population of Ashkenazi Jews.

Ashkenaz — Germanic Europe

I’m not aware of the reference ‘Ashkenazi’ appearing before the year 1000 or so. The earliest usage referred to the Jews of the Rhine River region and the locality of Charlemagne’s preferred seat of power in Aix-la-Chapelle/Aachen, only a short distance west of the Rhine. It is no surprise that Ashkenazi Jews would come to speak Yiddish —  Jewish German.

This first usage came about when two distinguished Jewish families from Italy crossed the Alps and settled near the Carolingian seat of power around the year 900 (or so).

We find a dichotomy here, though. The spiritual roots of Ashkenaz were in two Jewish cultural and scholarship areas. The guiding spirit of Ashkenazi Jews came from Italy. For the most part, Italian Jews remained in Italy, though.

The much of intellectual ferment of Ashkenaz came from the Torah academies in southern France. Again, for the most part, these Jews remained near the Mediterranean.

Work in progress -- nearing conclusion.



Author: teawithsugar31

Nesanel ben Yitzchok HaLevi

2 thoughts on “Ashkenazi Jews and their long-ago European mothers”

    1. This issue came up in a genetic study. Such studies flip-flop from one direction to another as technology changes and as algorithms change for calculating who is related to whom. My answer is that what matters is commitment to Jewish practice and destiny. King David is a descendant of Ruth, a convert. This never invalidated him from being king. All of us say, “G-d of our Fathers” even if it may not literally be true. What is true is that Abraham and Sarah trust us to do the right thing with the Holy Land (as well as we can; we learn from mistakes). Inheritance is a choice made by the owner of property. The owner may be obligated to leave his land to biological beneficiaries, At the same time, Ishmael and Esau were disinherited. A step-child can be put into a will. One reason the issue of “Jewish genes” comes up is by Arabs and others who claim that European Jews are interlopers who have been dispossessing the established locals. Right now, Jews are are not taking land that has a title to it unless it has been abandoned. The State set up a fund to compensate those who fled. It’s not likely that these people are alive now 70 years later unless they were children who became beneficiaries long ago. In practice, compensation for land ownership in 1948 has to be divided by any number of heirs. Any compensation is pennies on the dollar (to refer to US currency). But back to Jewish ownership of the Land in general. Today, Jews have eminent domain by virtue of being Abraham and Sarah’s “seed.” Actually, Hebrew has another word for descendants which is not used in the promise. Many land decisions concern security. Nevertheless, planning looks primarily at what is “good for the Jews.” (Go try to reach an agreement!) Current land planning in Israel looks toward developing the peripheries. A new high speed train will connect Haifa with the Jordan Valley to the southeast. As it is now, some parts of Israel are as densely populated or more so than the most densely populated regions of the world. Eminent domain has meant that any Jew anywhere in the world can live in the Land and become a citizen immediately. For others, naturalization is as in any other country.


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