The Beginnings of Ashkenaz

February 1, 2024 | Tamar Marvin
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While the term “Ashkenazi” today refers to Jews whose ancestors hail from Central and Eastern Europe, Ashkenaz was originally medieval Jews’ word for Germany. The first Ashkenazim established communities in the Rhineland and northern France around the year 900, and their distinctive customs tended to be similar to those of Jews in the Land of Israel, as opposed to the Babylonian customs and liturgy that dominated in North Africa and Spain. But where did these Jews come from? Tamar Marvin explains:

Earlier [scholarly] consensus, still widely accepted though at times modified, proposes that the earliest substrate of Ashkenazi Jews originated in Byzantine southern Italy, an amenable proposition in several ways: this cultural arena, being part of Byzantine lands, had been closely tied in antiquity with the Land of Israel when it too was under Byzantine control. This would explain Eretz-Yisraeli customs in Ashkenaz. In addition, the Rhine River, a major migration route, and the Rhineland Valley, the center of early Ashkenaz, lie north of Italy, making a migration pattern through Italy plausible. Indeed, we see a number of early Ashkenazi figures with names that sound Greek, i.e. plausibly originating in Greek-speaking southern Italy (such as the Kalonymos family), or Italianate-Latinate.

Whereas Jews living in Islamic lands were largely present at the time of the Muslim conquests, or else were immigrants from within the empire, Jews admitted to Christian territories, especially those of northern Europe, were immigrants from outside, at first, mostly merchants. They were granted conditional charters of settlement by royal or Church officials.

These documents, of which we possess a small but not insignificant number, reveal several key facts in relation to the establishment of Jewish life in the Latin West. First, they are . . . conditional: they stipulate terms of legal residence, as well as granting privileges. Inherently, such a charter may be revoked at any time, making Jewish life legally precarious; eventually, rights of settlement would be cancelled throughout Ashkenaz by local, then mass-scale, orders of expulsion.

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