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Judaism is one of the monotheistic religions, remarkable for its common origin with the world's two most prolific religions, Christianity and Islam. It originated in the Middle East over 3,500 years ago and is one of the oldest religions in the world that still exists today.
|“||Hear, O Israel: the Lord is our God, the Lord is One.||”|
Judaism is a monotheistic religion, worshipping and following the commandments of one God.
Unlike many religions, Judaism is inextricably linked to a particular people, the Jewish people, whose homeland is the area of Israel/Palestine. According to the Bible, God freed the Jews from slavery in Egypt, after which God gave the Torah to them at Mount Sinai. The Torah, meaning "teaching", is the set of laws and beliefs that Jews are expected to follow. According to the mainstream interpretation, it consists of a "Written Torah" (the Bible, especially its first 5 books) as well as an "Oral Torah" (the body of traditions from which Jewish law is derived in practice). The Hebrew Bible (what Christians call the "Old Testament", also known by its Hebrew acronym Tanakh) is holy to Jews, and it consists of three sections: the first five books (called "Chumash" or simply "Torah", and traditionally said to have been dictated by God to Moses); the books of the "Prophets", and the holy "Writings". Traditionally, the Torah includes 613 mitzvot (commandments).
Jewish religious leaders are called "rabbis", and they are expected to be experts in the laws of the Torah, based on the oral tradition as well as the text of the Bible. However, there are some small groups that do not accept rabbis as leaders. Karaites are a sect that developed in the Middle Ages, rejecting rabbinic interpretations and following their own direct interpretation of the Bible. Somewhat similarly, the Ethiopian Jewish community was separated from other Jews for thousands of years, and did not have rabbis until their recent immigration to Israel.
Traditional Jewish law defines as a Jew anyone who was born of a Jewish mother or converted to Judaism following the religion's laws on conversion. Jews are of many hues, nationalities and ethnicities. Even those who no longer believe in the Jewish religion recognize one another as belonging to a single people.
Jewish belief says that Jews need to follow the Jewish religion, but others only need to be ethical monotheists (sometimes called "Noachides") in order to be rewarded by God.
In ancient times, Jewish worship was focused on the Temple in Jerusalem, where animal and grain sacrifices were offered along with prayers and song. But since the Second Temple was destroyed in 70 CE, Jewish worship and ritual have centered around the synagogue and the home. The synagogue is primarily a place for prayer, and also for religious study. Synagogues are called "temples" by some modern Jews who do not expect the Jerusalem Temple worship to ever be reestablished.
The synagogue does not have a fixed architecture, though it usually faces towards Jerusalem. At the front is an "ark" (ahron) in which Torah scrolls are kept. There is also a platform (bimah) where the Torah scroll is placed while being read. In Orthodox and some Conservative congregations, men and women sit separately.
Rabbis do not have have a formal role in the synagogue. Any adult male Jew can lead prayers (in the more liberal denominations, women too), but sometimes a trained cantor chants the prayers in a highly decorative melodic style. Prayers can be recited in unison, harmony, or responsively with the congregation.
Relics of the Temple in Jerusalem, such as the Western Wall and the Temple Mount, are holy to Jews. The Western Wall functions essentially as an outdoor synagogue with a special feature: a tradition of writing prayers on paper and inserting them into cracks in the wall. Jewish worship on the Temple Mount is controversial among both Jews and Muslims and has been a flashpoint of conflict, so it is prohibited.
Graves, especially of tzaddikim (righteous leaders), are holy to Jews and can also be places of pilgrimage. In particular, members of the Chasidic movement make pilgrimages to the graves of past leaders, such as the grave of Rabbi Nachman of Breslov in Uman, and the grave of Rabbi Menachem Schneerson in Queens. According to Jewish tradition, small stones are often placed on a tombstone as a sign of grief, reverence and the permanence of memory. Do not remove them.
Much of early Jewish history takes place in modern-day Israel and Palestine, but according to the story in the Bible, the origins of the Jewish people is further east, in modern-day Iraq. According to the Book of Genesis, the first Jew was Abraham, who was born in Ur, Iraq in around 1800 BCE, and obeyed a divine command to move to the land of Canaan (now Israel/Palestine). Abraham's son Isaac and grandson Jacob lived mostly in Israel, especially Beer Sheva and Hebron. But the family's travels also brought them to Haran (in Southeastern Anatolia south of Urfa). Near the end of Jacob's life, a famine forced him and his family to move to Egypt. Jacob had a second name - Israel - so Jacob's descendants, who are the Jewish people, are also known as the "people of Israel" (or in the Bible's language, the "children of Israel").
According to the book of Exodus (see also Exodus of Moses), the family grew in Egypt into a large people, but an Egyptian monarch (Pharaoh) decided to enslave them. According to Exodus, God inflicted a serious of miraculous plagues on the Egyptians in order to convince the Egyptians to let them go. The people left slavery under the leadership of the prophet Moses. While in the Sinai desert, God revealed his name to Moses as YHWH (there is no agreement as to the correct vowels, but "Yehova" is based on a misunderstanding, mixing up YHWH and "Adonai", one of the often used replacements), and forbade the Israelites from worshiping any other god. Moses also received the Torah (the divine covenant and law for the Jewish people) from God, and transmitted it to the people. The desert journey ended up taking 40 years, after which Moses' successor Joshua led the people into the "Promised Land" of Canaan (so called because God had promised it to Abraham's descendants). Joshua conquered the land and killed or displaced many of its Canaanite inhabitants. From then on, the "people of Israel" lived in a territory similar to the modern State of Israel (plus Palestine).
Archaeological evidence of the aforementioned individuals, as well as the Egyptian slavery and desert wandering, has not been found. Therefore, some modern scholars believe that the above stories are not historically based, in which case the Jewish people's actual origins are as an offshoot of the Canaanite population. As such, the Israelite religion would have originated in the polytheistic Canaanite religion before later becoming monotheistic.
First Temple period
According to the Bible, the people of Israel lived several hundred years as a loose tribal confederation, after which they established a monarchy in about 1000 BCE. The second king described in the Bible is King David, and the third is King Solomon, both of whom are well known to this day for their leadership and literary/spiritual works. It was David who established Jerusalem as the national capital and holy site, a status it retains to this day. Solomon then built the first Temple in Jerusalem, which was the focus of worship for the entire nation.
After Solomon's death, the kingdom split in two. (However, some scholars believe that it was always split, and the Biblical stories of a unified national kingdom under David and Solomon are incorrect.) The northern kingdom was called Israel, as it contained 10 of the 12 tribes of the people of Israel. The southern kingdom was called Judah, since it was dominated by the powerful tribe of Judah. The southern kingdom had its capital in Jerusalem. The capital of the northern kingdom was originally in Shechem (modern-day Nablus), but wandered several times before settling in Samaria (in the northern West Bank, now called Sebastia).
In the 8th century BCE, the Assyrian Empire (with its capital in Nineveh, modern-day Mosul) arrived on the scene, conquering the kingdom of Israel and exiling its inhabitants. The population of this kingdom was dispersed and eventually lost its Jewish identity. But to this day, there are scattered groups around the world who claim ancestry from the "ten lost tribes of Israel" and membership in the Jewish people.
After the destruction of the kingdom of Israel, only the kingdom of Judah remained to carry on Jewish life and religion. In fact, the terms "Judaism" and "Jew" (or rather their Hebrew equivalents) date to this period, and they have come to refer to the entire people of Israel.
Later the Babylonian Empire (with its capital in Babylon, modern-day Iraq) rose to power and conquered the Assyrians. Babylonia captured the southern kingdom of Judah in 597 BCE. After a Jewish rebellion, in 586 BCE the Babylonians returned and reconquered the kingdom of Judah, destroying its cities as well as the Temple in Jerusalem, and exiling its inhabitants to Babylonia (and elsewhere). These exiles maintained cohesion in exile. Their longing to return home is expressed in the famous line from the Biblical Book of Lamentations "If I forget thee, O Jerusalem, let my right hand wither."
Second Temple period
After Babylonia was conquered by the Persian Emperor Cyrus in 539 BCE, he encouraged those Jews who wanted to do so to return to the Land of Israel and rebuild their Temple in Jerusalem. The re-established community was initially very small, but gradually grew into a significant province within the Persian Empire, known as Judah or Judaea, centered around Jerusalem and the southern West Bank.
The history described in the Bible ends at this point. The Bible contains many books that were authored by different people at different times, and which were formed into a single collection during the Persian period.
After Alexander the Great of Macedonia conquered the Persians, the Jewish community had to contend with Hellenistic influence. Many Jews were deeply influenced by Greek culture, while others resisted. For a time, a group of anti-Hellenistic Jews called the Maccabees ruled Judea. The holiday of Chanukah celebrates their victory over the Syrian-Greek king Antiochus Epiphanes in 165 BCE, in a revolt beginning in Modiin.
Judaea later fell under Roman influence and was eventually made a Roman province. In 66 CE the Jews rebelled against Roman rule. The revolt was put down in 70 CE with the capture of Jerusalem and the destruction of the Second Temple, with the last few rebels holding out in the Masada fortress until 73 CE. In about 132 CE a second rebellion broke out, under the leadership of the self-claimed messiah, Simon Bar Kochba. This revolt too was put down (in 136 CE) and the Judean Jewish community was dispersed for centuries to come; their land was renamed Syria Palæstina after the Philistines, an ancient people who were the Jews' Biblical arch-enemies. Jerusalem was rebuilt as a Hellenistic/Roman city named Aelia Capitolina with a temple to Zeus/Jupiter in its center and Jews barred from entering. The word for dispersion in Hebrew is Galut, and in Latin and English, it is called the Diaspora.
The Diaspora was accompanied by significant changes in Jewish thought and practice. Most notably, since the Temple was destroyed and animal and vegetable sacrifices could not be offered there, the synagogue became the main site of Jewish worship. There were also changes in leadership: in the late Second Temple period Jews had been divided among sects with different theologies, but after the destruction a group called the rabbis was recognized as the Jewish religious leadership. "Rabbinic Judaism", as the approach of the rabbis is known, focuses on the "oral law" (a body of traditions alongside the written text of the Bible). The debates of ancient rabbis are preserved in works such as the Talmud (mostly composed in ancient Iraqi cities such as Pumbeditha [now Fallujah]), which form the basis for modern Jewish law. Meanwhile the role of kohanim (Temple priests) lost most of its significance after the destruction.
The biggest issue in the Diaspora was communal survival. Jews were sometimes physically threatened, and sometimes pressured to convert to other religions. While the pagan Romans did not really mind how the Jews worshiped, as long as they didn't rebel, when the Roman Empire became Christian, things got much worse for the Jews. Christians believed that their New Testament made them the true replacement of the Jews, which would make the Jews willful sinners rejected by God. Similarly, Muslims saw Jews as believing in a distorted, incorrect version of the original monotheistic revelation. Treatment of Jews had its ups and downs under both Christianity and Islam. But generally, the worst persecutions were among Christians, for example the First Crusade (1096–1099, in which many Jews in the Rhineland were massacred), the expulsions of all Jews from Spain and Portugal (1492 and 1496), the Spanish and Portuguese Inquisitions, and the massacre of Ukrainian Jews in the Khmelnytsky Uprising (1648). Many Spanish and Portuguese Jews converted only outwardly and one of the main tasks of the inquisitions was to find out those "crypto-Jews". Whether or not they or their descendants count as "real" Jews continues to be an issue of theological debate, but both the Spanish (in the person of King Juan Carlos among others) and Portuguese (in particular former president Mário Soares) states have since apologized for the wrongs done to their Jews and officially invited their descendants back. There were a few major persecutions under Muslim rule, like those of the Almohads in 12th-century Spain, but generally those were much rarer.
At times, though, Jews also had more or less good lives under Christian protection. One of those times was during the empire of Charlemagne (740s-814), who invited Jews to settle in the Rhineland. This area was called Ashkenaz in Hebrew, and therefore, the descendants of this community, who through later expulsions and migrations eventually made their homes throughout most of Europe, are known as Ashkenazim.
Another community of Diaspora Jews settled in Iberia, and as Spain is called Sefarad in Hebrew, the descendants of these Jews are known as Sephardim. Sephardic Jews were extremely successful and contributed greatly to the advanced civilization of the Islamic Golden Age (8th-13th centuries). Probably the most famous Jewish thinker during that period was Maimonides (c. 1135-1204), who in addition to being a great rabbi and leader of the Jewish community in Egypt, was also a famous philosopher and medical authority, serving as the personal physician of the Egyptian ruler. After expulsions in 1492 and 1496 from Spain and Portugal, Sephardic Jews took refuge in other parts of Europe and the Mediterranean region. Nowadays, many Middle Eastern Jewish communities are somewhat-mistakenly called "Sephardic" due to the prominent role Sephardic exiles played in them.
Many Jews, now called Mizrachim, never left the Middle East. Jews in Muslim lands generally had the status of ahl al-dhimmah (singular: dhimmi), which was lower than Muslims but still protected. In the 20th century, as a result of the Arab-Israeli conflict, most of these communities were wiped out from their historical homelands, though offshoots of these communities now continue in Israel, France and elsewhere.
Later Jewish movements
Kabbalah is a mystical form of study which became popular around the 13th century among Spanish Jews. After the Spanish expulsion of Jews, the center of kabbalah study moved to Safed.
Chasidism is a Jewish movement that was founded in the first half of the 18th century by Baal Shem Tov, a Ukrainian rabbi. He was inspired to create a new style of Jewish practice, emphasizing a joyful connection with God in the forms (for example) of communal singing and dancing. The Baal Shem Tov's followers became known as the Chasidim, and they eventually divided into different sects, named after the village or town where their first rebbe (rabbi and spiritual leader) came from. So, for example, the Satmarers originated from Satu Mare, Romania, the Lubavitchers from Lyubavichi, Russia, and the Breslovers from Bratslav, Ukraine. Nowadays, the largest concentrations of Chasidim are in Jerusalem and New York City (particularly Borough Park, Williamsburg and the northern part of Crown Heights in Brooklyn). Other concentrations are found in various cities in Israel, the U.S., and Europe. One Chasidic movement - Chabad - does not limit itself to enclaves, but sends individual families to establish a Jewish presence in communities throughout the world. They are a good address for people looking for a Jewish experience while traveling anywhere. Chasidic men can be recognized by their dressing in suits and black hats at all times.
The Haskalah or "Jewish Enlightenment" was the Jewish response to the Enlightenment in Christian countries, beginning in the late 18th century. It strove for rational thought and integration within non-Jewish society. "Maskilim" (followers of the Haskalah) had a broad spectrum of goals - from conservative rabbis who wanted a rationalist approach to study to radicals who wanted massive social and theological change. One offshoot of the Haskalah was the Reform movement, which reformed Jewish ritual and theology to be more in line with the sensibilities of secular culture. The Zionist movement (see below) was another offshoot.
The modern era
Beginning with the French Revolution, European goverments began to "emancipate" Jews, that is grant them the same civil rights as other citizens. But hatred of Jews persisted, sometimes basing itself on "racial" (rather than religious) criteria, which its 19th-century proponents started calling anti-Semitism to sound more "scientific".
In the 19th and early 20th centuries, there were numerous "pogroms" (violent riots against Jews) in Eastern Europe, particularly in Czarist Russia. To escape this brutality and to search for opportunity, there was a modern exodus of Ashkenazim from Eastern Europe to the United States, Canada, South Africa, Australia, Latin American countries including Argentina, and Western Europe.
While Jews had always longed to return to Israel, since the Crusades very few had actually lived there. The number of Jews moving to Israel increased in the late 19th century, due to pogroms and also the growing "Zionist movement", which called for establishing a Jewish state in Israel. Zionism gained many followers after the Dreyfus affair, which led many Jews to conclude that even "civilized" progressive countries would not protect Jews from anti-Semitism, and a specifically Jewish country was needed. Zionism started out as a minority movement (as late as the 1930s, the most popular Jewish party was the anti-Zionist Yiddishist Socialist Bund), but by the 1930s there were hundreds of thousands of Jews living in Israel/Palestine, and international governments were seriously considering splitting the territory into a Jewish and an Arab state.
In 1933, the Nazi party rose to power in Germany, with the goal of exterminating all Jews everywhere. During World War II they murdered about 6 million Jews before being defeated, in what is known as the Nazi Holocaust, also called the Shoah. (See Holocaust remembrance for a guide to some of the Nazi extermination, transit and slave labor camps and memorials on their sites.) The large Jewish communities of Europe were essentially eliminated by the Holocaust, except for Russian and British Jews living outside German control.
The modern state of Israel declared independence in 1948. It was immediately invaded by Arab armies attempting to destroy it. But it survived this attack, and over the next few decades it steadily grew in population and strength, repelling other attacks in the process and acquiring large territories in the 1967 war, some of which it returned for peace treaties. As of 2017, approximately 45% of the world's Jews live in Israel.
While the state of Israel has thrived, the Arab-Israeli conflict increased animosity toward Jews living in Muslim countries. Between 1948 and 1970, the vast majority of these Jews fled or were forced out of Muslim countries, with most of them going to Israel, France or the United States. By the 1960s, few Jews remained in Muslim lands where their ancestors had lived for centuries. For example, Baghdad went from being almost a quarter Jewish to almost completely non-Jewish in a few years. Vestiges of Jewish communities continue to survive in Iran, Turkey, Morocco and Tunisia, but they have been virtually wiped out in the rest of the Middle Eastern and North African Muslim lands.
Today, the largest Jewish communities are in Israel, the United States, France, Canada, the United Kingdom, Argentina, Russia, Germany, Brazil, Australia, and by some measures, Ukraine. The largely secular Jews in the former Soviet Union started emigrating in large numbers in the 1970s, with the pace increasing after the fall of communism in the 1990s. The Soviet government repressed religion, so these Jews tend to be very secular but proud of their nationality.
The most frequent Jewish occasion is Shabbat, the Sabbath, which occurs every week from 18 minutes before sunset Friday to whenever three stars are visible in the Saturday night sky. During this period, any form of work (very broadly defined) is strictly forbidden. Observant Jews visit the synagogue on Shabbat, particularly on Shabbat morning, but also on Friday evening when Shabbat begins. Trips to the synagogue by Orthodox Jews must be made on foot, as the operation of machinery or harnessing of horses is considered to be work under Orthodox interpretations of Jewish law, and hence prohibited during the Sabbath. Like Shabbat, major Jewish holidays also have prohibitions on work, though some are more lenient than on Shabbat.
The Jewish calendar is lunar, so the dates of all yearly holidays shift fairly widely in relation to the standard (Gregorian) calendar. The number of the calendar year is supposedly calculated from the time of the Earth's creation. For example, 1 April 2015 is 12 Nisan 5775 in the Jewish calendar, meaning that the world had supposedly existed for only 5775 years. The first day of the Jewish year is called Rosh ha-Shanah.
The most widely celebrated holidays are:
- Rosh ha-Shanah and the fast day of Yom Kippur nine days later are called the High Holy Days, when even many otherwise unobservant Jews return to synagogues to pray with the community.
- Passover, the spring festival when the story of the Exodus from Egypt is retold and celebrated and the foremost family holiday of the Jewish year. The Seder, on the first night (or two nights) of Passover, is a festive family meal celebrating the Exodus.
- Purim, commemorating the Jewish victory over their enemies in ancient Persia.
- Chanukah, on which candles are lit. Chanukah used to be considered a minor holiday, but it gained in importance among Jews in Christian-majority countries as an alternative to Christmas.
Some other major holidays include:
- Succot, a fall harvest festival when Jews eat meals in temporary booths with greenery like palm fronds on the roof, recalling the temporary dwellings their ancestors are said to have lived in during the Exodus.
- Simchat Torah, literally "Happiness of the Torah", when the yearly cycle of Torah readings ends. Torah scrolls are carried through the synagogue and frequently out onto the street, where joyous congregants dance with them.
- Shavuot, a late spring harvest festival that also celebrates God's gift of the Torah at Mount Sinai and is traditionally marked by all-night Torah study.
- See also: Holy Land
- 1 Jerusalem. Judaism's holiest city, former location of the Temple and current location of the Western Wall.
- 2 Hebron. A city with a long Jewish tradition, only briefly interrupted between the 1929 massacre of Jews and the 1967 reconquest by Israeli forces. Controversially, a small Jewish community now lives here again.
- 3 Tiberias. A center of Jewish scholarship in the Byzantine and early Muslim eras. In the 18th century it became known as one of the "four holy cities" in Israel.
- 4 Safed. The center of Kabbalah study in the 16th century and since then. Now a very picturesque mountaintop town.
- 5 Tel Aviv. Only founded in 1909 by early Zionists, it is now the center of the world's largest primarily Jewish metropolitan area. The population and culture are mostly secular.
- Qırmızı Qəsəbə — also known as the "Jerusalem of the Caucasus", this is perhaps the only all-Jewish community outside of Israel. It is home to about 3,000 "Mountain Jews", descendants of the Persian Jews settled in the Caucasus area in the 5th century CE with a unique culture, combining ancient Jewish traditions with local Caucasian influences.
- Montreal — Though it was historically the heart of Canadian Judaism, many of Montreal's largely-Anglophone Jews have moved on to English-speaking areas since the Quiet Revolution and the rise of the Quebec sovereignty movement. However, the Mile-End neighborhood is still home to a fairly vibrant Jewish community, and remains the best place to sample two Jewish-derived staples of local cuisine: Montreal-style bagels (at Fairmount Bagel and Saint-Viateur Bagel) and smoked meat sandwiches (at Schwartz's in the nearby Plateau). The Outremont area also continues to be home to Canada's largest Chasidic Jewish community.
- Toronto — with the large exodus of Anglophone Jews from Montreal, the Toronto area — particularly Thornhill, a small suburb just north of the city line — is currently home to Canada's largest Jewish population.
- Kaifeng — historically home to a small, well-integrated Jewish community that nevertheless retained many Jewish customs, the community has dispersed since the fall of the Qing Dynasty, though their descendants continue to be scattered throughout the city. Sadly, the synagogue fell into disrepair and was destroyed in the 1860's, the site now being occupied by a hospital. Unlike other Jewish communities, the Kaifeng Jews recognised patrilineal rather than matrilineal descent, meaning that they are not recognised as Jewish by the Israeli government unless they undergo an orthodox conversion.
- Shanghai — the city had a significant number of Jews from the 19th century on and got many more as life became difficult for Jews in Germany in the 1930s. During the Pacific War, the occupying Japanese established the Shanghai ghetto in Hongkou District; Jews often lived in appalling conditions alongside their Chinese neighbours. Today, the former synagogue has been converted to a museum commemorating the Jewish refugees of that era.
- 6 Prague. Its rich Jewish history and cemetery were not destroyed by the Nazis, because they wanted to preserve them as a museum. The Jewish museum, chevra kadisha, cemetery, and synagogues are the most ancient in Europe.
- Paris — Paris has a long and checkered history of Jewish settlement. Jews have participated in every facet of civic life since freedom of religion was declared during the French Revolution, but they were also targeted for mass murder during the Nazi occupation, with the enthusiastic assistance of the Vichy collaborationist government and a mixture of collaboration and resistance from their non-Jewish fellow citizens. The resistance was more successful in saving Jewish lives in France than in many other Nazi-occupied countries, and the previously mostly Ashkenazic Jewish community was augmented by a large-scale immigration of Sephardic Jews from France's former colonies in North Africa in the 1950s and 60s. The center of Jewish life in Paris is in the Marais, where you can find kosher delicatessens and various Jewish shops. Unfortunately, the Jewish community of Paris has in recent years come under murderous attacks in between a constant level of everyday harassment, mostly nowadays from extremists within the local Muslim community, Europe's largest, which prior to being partly radicalized used to have peaceable relations with their Jewish fellow citizens. As a result, French Jews have lately been immigrating to Israel at the rate of a few thousand a year, but the French Jewish community is still one of the world's largest.
- Berlin - in the Mitte neighborhood, the beautiful Neue Synagoge survived Nazism due to the insistence of a policeman on protecting the building on Kristallnacht. Elsewhere in Mitte, there is a moving Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe. In the East Central neighborhood is the Jewish Museum in Berlin.
- Dresden - the original synagogue (built to plans by Gottfired Semper, the architect of the eponymous opera) was destroyed by the Nazis and the "replacement" built in the early 2000s looks emphatically "not like a synagogue" and was decried as something of an eyesore initially. However, this was deliberate at least in part, as the new synagogue is intended not only to show the resurgence of Jewish life, but also that there was a break in Jewish tradition and what caused it. Unusual for a synagogue in Germany, there is no metal scanner or other visible safety measures and frequent guided tours are in keeping with this "open" approach.
- Worms - The best-preserved of the old German-Jewish communities of the Rhineland. The Jewish quarter is largely intact. See the Rashi synagogue reconstruction and the cemetery.
- Munich has one of Germany's most notable and architecturally interesting synagogues built after the war. It was inaugurated on the anniversary of the 1938 Pogrom in 2006
- Thessaloniki — known as "the mother of Israel" due to its once large Jewish population (for centuries when it was under the Ottoman rule, Thessaloniki was the only city in the world which had a Jewish-majority population), the city lost most of its historic Jewish quarters during the Great Fire of 1917 and the Holocaust that followed later. However, a Jewish museum and two synagogues still exist.
- Budapest/Central Pest — Central Pest contains the Jewish Quarter of Budapest. The Jewish community, though it was reduced in number by the Nazis and their collaborators and by emigration, is still substantial, with kosher eateries and shops and various synagogues, including the Great Synagogue on Dohány Street, which in recent decades was renovated with contributions by the late American actor, Tony Curtis, the son of two Hungarian Jewish immigrants to the United States. On the second floor of the same building, with a separate entrance, is a Jewish Museum that displays many beautiful antique Jewish ritual objects.
- Tehran — although its population has dwindled substantially since the Islamic revolution, Iran is still home to the largest Jewish community of any Muslim-majority country, as well as the second largest Jewish community in the Middle East after Israel.
- Florence — like other Italian cities, its Jewish population was much reduced by the Nazis after they occupied the country in 1943, but its attractive synagogue is still active and along with the Jewish Museum in the same building, it is a secondary attraction in this city of incredible attractions
- Rome — the Jewish Quarter of Rome, which housed the city's ghetto starting in the mid 16th century, is often visited nowadays; Roman cuisine was also influenced by its Jewish community as, for example, carciofi alla giudìa (Jewish-style artichokes) is a local specialty
- Venice — this city gave the world the word Ghetto, used to describe a neighborhood to which Jews were restricted; the Venice Ghetto still exists and is still the center of Jewish life in the city, though the Jewish community is now quite small and its members have the same rights as all other Italian citizens
- Penang — Once home to a small but thriving Jewish community, much of the community fled abroad in the wake of rising anti-Semitism since the 1970's. Sadly, this community is now extinct, with the last Malaysian Jew having died in 2011, though descendants of the community now live in countries such as Australia and the United States. The sole reminders of this community are the Jewish cemetery, as well as the former synagogue, which has since been repurposed.
- Casablanca — home to what is currently the largest Jewish population in an Arab country. Morocco has long history of providing refuge to Jews fleeing persecution, first during the Spanish and Portuguese expulsions in the 15th century, and more recently from Nazi-occupied Europe during World War II.
- 7 Fez. The Bab Mellah (Jewish quarter) is almost 600 years old. The Ibn Danan Synagogue was built in the 17th century, and elsewhere in the city you can find a house lived in by Maimonides in the 12th century.
- 8 Krakow. Has an old Jewish quarter. It's surreal to see so many tiny shuls within spitting distance of each other. There are "Jewish" themed restaurants, and a Jewish festival in the summer.
- 9 Birobidzhan. Founded in the 1930s as the capital of the Jewish Autonomous Oblast, which Stalin set up to be an alternative to Zionism. While the Jewish population of the city has always been fairly low (the Soviet Jews traditionally inhabited the European parts of the country west of the Urals), it is interesting to find Yiddish signs with Hebrew lettering, menorah monuments, and synagogues in the far east of Russia, near the Chinese border.
- Although small, various members of Singapore's Jewish community have played a prominent role in the history of the city state, with the most notable Singaporean Jew perhaps being David Marshall, Singapore's first chief minister and later ambassador to France. Singapore is also home to two beautiful colonial-era synagogues: the Maghain Aboth Synagogue and the Chesed-El Synagogue.
- Toledo - The Jewish quarter here contains two beautiful and very old synagogues: the 1 Sinagoga de Santa Maria la Blanca, the oldest surviving synagogue building in Europe (built in 1180, now a museum), and the 2 Synagogue of El Transito (built in about 1356).
- 10 Girona. Has a long Jewish history that came to an end when the Spanish Inquisition forced the Jews to convert or leave. The Jewish quarter today forms one of Girona's most important tourist attractions.
- 11 Jodensavanne. Dutch for the "Jewish Savanna," this was a thriving agricultural community in the midst of the Surinamese Rainforest founded by the Sephardic Jews in 1650. It was abandoned after a big fire caused by a slave revolt in the 19th century. Its ruins, including that of a synagogue, are open for visits.
- Edirne — once among the cities with the largest populations of Ottoman Jews, Edirne's Grand Synagogue, the third largest in Europe, was restored to a brand new look in 2015 after decades of dereliction.
- Istanbul's Karaköy district, arguably deriving its name from Karay — the Turkish name for the Karaites, a sect with its own purely Biblical, non-rabbinic interpretation of Judaism — has a couple of active synagogues as well as a Jewish museum. Balat and Hasköy on the opposite banks of the Golden Horn facing each other were the city's traditional Jewish residential quarters (the latter also being the main Karaite district), while on the Asian Side of the city, Kuzguncuk is associated with centuries old Jewish settlement.
- Izmir — the ancient port city of Smyrna had a significant Jewish presence (and it still has to a much smaller degree). While parts of the city, especially the Jewish quarter of Karataş, have much Jewish heritage (including an active synagogue and the famed historic elevator building), their most celebrated contribution to the local culture is boyoz, a fatty and delicious pastry that was brought by the Sephardic expellees from Iberia as bollos and is often sold as a snack on the streets, in which the locals like to take pride as a delicacy unique to their city.
- London - Home to one of the largest Jewish communities in Europe. While most of the Jews in the area have since moved on to other neighbourhoods, Beigel Bake on Brick Lane remains an excellent place to sample London-style beigels with salt beef.
- Greater Boston, and particularly Brookline, has a longstanding Jewish presence. Jews in the area run the gamut of levels of observance, but it's interesting that Boston has its own hereditary dynasty of Chasidic rebbes. The current Bostoner Rebbe has his congregation in Brookline.
- A short distance northwest of New York City, for much of the 20th Century the Catskills were a summer destination for Jewish New Yorkers who were largely segregated from other resort areas. The campgrounds, vacation hotels, and mountain lodges of the so-called "Borscht Belt" or "Jewish Alps" nurtured the fledgling careers of soon-to-be-famous comedians and entertainers such as Jack Benny, Jackie Mason, and Henny Youngman. Though that golden era came to an end in the 1960s and '70s (see the movie Dirty Dancing for a fictionalized glimpse at its last days), the region still contains a great deal of summer homes belonging to New York-area Jews, and a few lingering remnants of the old Borscht Belt still soldier on.
- Charleston, South Carolina contains the South's oldest Jewish community, originally Sephardic and begun in 1695. Kahal Kadosh Beth Elohim Synagogue was founded in 1749 and moved to a larger building with a capacity of 500 people in 1794. That building burned down in a fire in 1838 but was rebuilt in Greek revival style two years later. This congregation is also important in that it founded American Reform Judaism in 1824. Also associated with the congregation is Coming Street Cemetery, the oldest existing Jewish cemetery in the South, founded in 1754.
- Los Angeles is home to a substantial politically and civically active Jewish population, particularly in the Westwood neighborhood of West L.A. Hollywood has traditionally been a redoubt of brilliant creative and business-minded Jews in all facets of the film industry.
- New York - The world's main center of Jewish culture outside Israel, New York has the largest Jewish community of any city in the world. New York Jews have been very prominent and successful in numerous walks of life, including the arts, the sciences, academia, medicine, law, politics and business, and many of New York's educational, healthcare and cultural institutions have benefited hugely from the philanthropy of prominent local Jews. The Jewish community has also left a large impact on the city's culinary landscape, with bagels and pastrami being among the mainstays of New York cuisine. Yiddish is still spoken to a greater or lesser extent by some New York Jews and the use of Yiddish-derived expressions in English has been popularized by Jewish and non-Jewish entertainers from the New York area and filtered into the common speech of many New Yorkers of all backgrounds. Jews in New York vary from atheist to Chasidic, with Chasidim most prevalent in the Brooklyn neighborhoods of Borough Park, Crown Heights and South Williamsburg, many Modern Orthodox Jews in Midwood and also on Manhattan's Upper West Side and Conservative, Reform and secular Jews in many neighborhoods including Brooklyn's Park Slope.
- The Lower East Side, parts of which are now in Chinatown, was the first destination of nearly 2 million Jewish immigrants to the US in the late 19th and early 20th century. At the time, this was the most densely populated neighborhood in the world, with a thriving Jewish culture. Notable sites that remain today include the Bialystoker Shul, Tenement Museum, Eldridge Street Synagogue, and Kehila Kadosha Janina (the only Greek Rite synagogue outside of Greece, with museum).
- Philadelphia and its suburbs have a very significant, longstanding Jewish community. The city has had Jewish residents since at least 1703. Its earliest Jewish congregation, Mikveh Israel, was founded in the 1740s and continues to operate a Spanish-Portuguese synagogue in a new building that was opened in 2010; its former home at 2331 Broad Street, built in 1909, has a beautifully intact interior and now functions as an Official Unlimited clothing store. Philadelphia is also well-known among American Jews for hosting the headquarters of the Jewish Publication Society since 1888. The JPS translation of the Tanakh is widely used in the United States and beyond.
- South Florida is another epicenter of American Judaism. Beginning in the mid-20th century, the region became a popular retirement destination for Jews from New York and other Northeastern cities. Later on, the retirees were joined by Jewish immigrants from Latin America (especially Mexico, Venezuela, and Argentina), and now Miami-Dade County has the largest proportion of foreign-born Jews of any metro area in the United States.
- Skokie, Illinois - The only Jewish-majority suburb of Chicago, and home to Jews of many different national origins, with the Ashkenazic, Sephardic and Mizrachi communities all having a presence here. The Kehilat Chovevei Tzion is one of the few "dual synagogues" that caters to both Ashkenazic and Sephardic worshippers, with two separate halls for the respective communities to carry out their respective rites.
Most synagogues welcome visitors of all faiths as long as they behave respectfully, though in areas where anti-Jewish violence is a more immediate threat, a member of the congregation might have to vouch for you and you might even be barred entry.
When entering any Jewish place of worship, all males (except small children) are normally expected to wear a hat, such as a skullcap (called a kipah in Hebrew and a yarmulke in Yiddish). If you have not brought a hat with you, there is normally a supply available for borrowing, for example outside the sanctuary in a synagogue. Both men and women can show respect by dressing conservatively when visiting synagogues or Jewish cemeteries, for example by wearing garments that cover the legs down to at least the knees, and the shoulders and upper arms. Orthodox Jewish women wear loose-fitting clothing that does not display their figure, and many cover their hair with a kerchief or wig.
There are some terms that can be controversial among Jews. Use "Western Wall" to refer to the Jerusalem holy site, not the somewhat archaic-sounding "Wailing Wall", which in some Jews' minds gives rise to Christian caricatures of miserable wailing Jews, rather than dignified, praying Jews. When speaking about the mass murder of Jews by the Nazis, the terms "Holocaust" and "Shoah" are both acceptable. (The word "holocaust" originally referred to a burnt offering for God, so the term could imply that the mass killing of Jews was a gift to God. Nevertheless, "Holocaust" is still the most common English name for the tragedy, and should not cause offense.) The phrase "Jew down", meaning to bargain, is offensive, due to its implication of Jews as cheap and perhaps dishonest. In general, it is fine to use "Jew" as a noun, but as an adjective, use "Jewish" (not phrases like "Jew lawyer"), and never use "Jew" in any form as a verb.
In general Jews will have all manner of opinion on all aspects of politics, including the politics of the State of Israel, but reducing a Jewish person to their opinion on that subject - or worse yet taking offense at whatever their opinion may be - is likely to be as counter-productive as reducing an African-American to their opinion on race relations and civil rights.
Hebrew and Aramaic are the ancient holy languages of Judaism, and are used for worship in synagogues throughout the world. The two languages are closely related and used the same alphabet, so anyone who can read Hebrew will have little trouble with Aramaic.
Modern Hebrew, revived as part of the Zionist movement starting in the late 19th century, is the official and most spoken language in Israel. Other languages often spoken by Jews are the languages of the country they reside in or used to live in before moving to Israel (particularly English, Russian, Spanish, French, Arabic and German) as well as Yiddish, the historical language of the Ashkenazi Jews, which developed from Middle High German with borrowed words from Hebrew, Slavic languages and French, but is written in Hebrew letters rather than the Latin alphabet. (Many languages used by Jews have been written in Hebrew letters at some point, including English.) Before the Nazi Holocaust, Yiddish was the first language of over 10 million people of a wide range of degrees of Jewish religious practice; now, it is spoken by a smaller (but once again growing, thanks to their propensity for large families) population of a million and a half Chasidim.
Ladino, similarly, was Judeo-Spanish, and used to be widely spoken among Sephardic Jews living in Turkey and other Muslim countries that had given them refuge, and also in the Greek city of Thessaloniki. While Yiddish is still very much alive in both Israel and parts of the US and quite a number of Yiddish loanwords have entered languages such as (American) English and German, Ladino is moribund and only spoken by a few elderly people and hardly any children or adolescents. There are some musicians (both Jewish and non-Jewish) that make music in Ladino, often using old songs, and Jewish languages are studied academically to varying degrees.
Unlike the Ashkenazi and Sephardic Jews, there is no historical unifying language among the Mizrahi Jews, who primarily spoke languages such as Persian or Arabic, whichever was dominant in the area they lived in, in addition to using Hebrew for liturgy.
Many synagogues, especially those built in the 19th century in Europe when Jews obtained civil rights for the first time, are architecturally spectacular and most of them are willing and able to give tours. Sadly many synagogues (especially in Germany) were destroyed by the Nazis, and if they were rebuilt at all, some of them show a somber reflection about the destruction of Jewish life in the past. Others, however were rebuilt very much in the original style and are truly a sight to behold.
- 3 El Ghriba synagogue (Djerba Synagogue) (in Djerba, Tunisia). Built in the 19th century on the spot of an ancient synagogue. The building, which has a beautiful interior, is a historic place of pilgrimage for Tunisia's Jewish community, and one of the last remaining active synagogues in the Arab world..
- 4 Grand Synagogue of Paris. Often known as the Victoire Synagogue, located in central Paris. Among others, Alfred Dreyfus had his wedding here. Unfortunately, it is usually impossible to enter.
- 5 Touro Synagogue, Newport (Rhode Island). The oldest surviving synagogue building in the United States, built in 1762. The original members were Sephardic refugees from the Inquisition. In 1790, the synagogue was the proud recipient of a letter from President George Washington, testifying to the new republic's full acceptance and embrace of its Jewish citizens. Be sure to look for the trapdoor, concealing a underground room which may have been intended as a hiding place from pogroms (which never occurred in the US - but the builders didn't know that!)
- 6 Córdoba Synagogue. Built in 1315, this synagogue is full of beautiful, well-preserved carvings.
- 7 Bevis Marks Synagogue, 7 Bevis Marks, City of London. Arguably the Diaspora synagogue in longest continuous use
- 8 Amsterdam Esnoga. Built in 1675.
- 9 Ostia Synagogue. Located in Ostia Antica, the ancient port of Rome. This is arguably the oldest synagogue known outside Israel, dating from the 1st century. Its ruins are located somewhat away from the main Ostia Antica ruins, in the southern corner of the site, just before the road.
- Shuls for modern architecture geeks: Congregation Shaarey Zedek in Southfield, MI (Albert Khan), and Temple Beth El in Bloomfield, MI (Minoru Yamasaki).
- 10 Paradesi Synagogue, Kochi, India. The oldest synagogue in India, built in 1568.
- 11 Mikvé Israel-Emanuel Synagogue, Willemstad, Curaçao. Opened 1674, the oldest surviving synagogue in the Americas.
- 12 Kahal Shalom Synagogue, Dossiadou and Simiou Streets, Rhodes. The oldest surviving synagogue in Greece, built in 1577. Located in the picturesque Juderia (Jewish quarter) of Rhodes.
- 13 Sardis Synagogue. An archaeological site with the ruins of a Roman-era (approximately 4th century) synagogue, one of the oldest in diaspora. The native Lydian name for this ancient city was Sfard, which some think is the actual location of Biblical Sepharad (identified by the later Jews with Iberia).
Museums of Judaism and/or Jewish history exist in many places, and are often full of beautifully decorated Jewish religious books and ritual objects, as well as historical information.
- 14 Anne Frank House, Prinsengracht 263-265, Amsterdam.
- 15 US Holocaust Memorial Museum, 100 Raoul Wallenberg Place, SW Washington, D.C..
- 16 POLIN Museum of the History of Polish Jews, 6 Mordechaja Anielewicza St, Warsaw.
- 17 Jewish Museum, Berlin. If not the best, easily the most architecturally stunning in Germany, designed by Daniel Libeskind (himself of Jewish descent), the museum goes into detail on Jewish history in Germany from the earliest beginnings in the Roman era to the Shoah and ultimately the unlikely rebirth of Jewish life after WWII.
- 18 Museum of Tolerance, 9786 West Pico Blvd, Los Angeles. Focuses on the Holocaust, but its overall subject is racism and intolerance in general.
- 19 Istanbul Archaeology Museums. Holds two important artifacts from ancient Jerusalem: the inscription from King Hezekiah's Shiloach aqueduct, and the sign from the Second Temple "soreg" in Greek.
- 20 National Museum of Damascus. Holds the Dura Europos synagogue murals. Warning - war zone!
- 21 Auschwitz-Birkenau and 22 Majdanek are probably the two most worthwhile Nazi concentration camps to visit. Auschwitz had the highest death toll and attracts the most visitors, while Majdanek is the best preserved.
- 23 Tomb of Esther and Mordechai, Hamadan, Iran.
- 24 Tomb of Daniel, Susa, Iran.
- Tombs of 25 Ezra, 26 Ezekiel and 27 Nahum in Iraq (Warning: war zone)
- 28 Tomb of the Baal Shem Tov (Medzhybizh, Western Ukraine). The Baal Shem Tov is significant for founding Chasidism. The village surrounding the tomb looks like the old-time Ukraine.
- 29 Tomb of Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav (In Uman, Ukraine). Each fall, for the Rosh Hashana holiday, tens of thousands of Jews make a pilgrimage to this site.
- 30 Hunts Bay Jewish Cemetery (In Kingston, Jamaica). A 17th-century cemetery that includes the graves of Jewish pirates, some with Hebrew text next to the skull and crossbones.
- 31 Tomb of Rachel. The Biblical matriach is traditionally considered to be buried here. While generally considered part of Bethlehem, the tomb is more easily accessed from Jerusalem, specifically by taking bus 163.
- Cairo Geniza Project at Cambridge University, UK - there is usually a public exhibition of texts, including a handwritten letter by Maimonides and other unique items. If you are a scholar, you can ask to view items not in the exhibition.
- 32 Mount Nebo (Outside Madaba, Jordan). See Israel from a unique angle, the same angle Moses saw it from before dying, according to the Bible.
- Pesach and Sukkoth in the Southern Hemisphere - most Jews live in the Northern Hemisphere, so to experience these holidays in the opposite seasons is thought-provoking
- 770 - the center of the Chabad movement in Brooklyn.
- Yeshivas - these academies for Talmud study are typically loud, bubbling, chaotic rooms full of people arguing and debating the Talmudic texts. If you go up to a local person outside a yeshiva and explain that you want to see this, they will likely be happy to show you (but beware that in some places Jewish institutions have to be vigilant about possible terror attacks, so if you don't have a Jewish connection they might look at you suspiciously). A good place to see this is Beis Medrash at Yeshiva Gehova in Lakewood, New Jersey.
- 33 Casa Bianca Mikvah (In Syracuse (Italy)). The oldest surviving mikvah (ritual bath) in Europe, dating to around the 6th century or possibly earlier. Located about 20 meters underground.
- Attend a service — If you are interested in experiencing the practice of Judaism, not only Jews but non-Jews are welcome at many synagogues. Many synagogues have services every day, but particularly on Friday nights and Saturday mornings for Shabbat, the Sabbath, whose observance is one of the Ten Commandments. If you would like to listen to brilliant cantillation (chanting), ask around to find out which local synagogues have the most musical cantors. If there's no synagogue, Chabad, also called the Lubavitcher Chasidim, has many far-flung outposts around the world, and if you are Jewish or travelling with a Jew, they are happy to invite you to a service at their house or a meeting room.
- Go to an event at a Jewish center — There are Jewish centers in many places where there are classes, lectures, performances, film showings and art exhibitions. Most of them have online calendars.
- Charity — Tzedakah is the Hebrew word for "charity", and it is a central mitzvah (commandment) of the Jewish religion. Jews tend to give generously to charity, and there are many Jewish charities, some of which specifically focus on helping other Jews in need, but many of which serve the poor of all creeds. If you would like to be charitable, seek out a Jewish or non-sectarian organization or one run by members of whichever religion you adhere to that focuses on a cause you believe in, or just take out the time to personally help someone who could use a hand.
If you are interested in buying Jewish ritual objects and other things Jewish, look for Judaica stores. Popular items to buy include Shabbat candlesticks; menorahs (9-branched candelabras for Chanukah); jewelry with traditional motifs including the Hebrew letters chet and yod for chai, the Hebrew word for "life", and a silver hand, representing the hand of God; Torahs, prayer books, and books of commentary; mezuzot (miniature scrolls of parchment inscribed with the words of the Shma Yisrael prayer, beginning with the words "Hear O Israel! The Lord is our God; the Lord is One!" in decorative cases, to be used as doorposts); and Jewish cookbooks.
Under traditional Jewish dietary laws, only kosher food may be eaten by Jews; see Kashrut. As Jewish law forbids starting a fire on the Sabbath, a special Sabbath cuisine has developed that deals with this issue and often produces "slow-cooked" meat and vegetables.
Although many eateries serving Jewish cuisine are no longer kosher, the Jewish diaspora has made significant contributions to the culinary cultures of many of their home cities. The cities of New York, London and Montreal in particular are well known for their Jewish delis and bagel/beigel shops in the Ashkenazi tradition. The quintessential British dish fish and chips is also believed to trace its origins to Sephardic Jewish refugees fleeing the Spanish and Portuguese Inquisitions who settled in England.
Wine is used sacramentally on the Sabbath (Shabbat) and other Jewish holidays. Some of it is highly fortified with sugar, but nowadays, much excellent kosher wine is produced in Israel, the United States, France, Italy, Spain, Australia, New Zealand, and various other countries. Wine for Passover must be Kosher l'Pesach, so if you are invited to a seder (a festive Passover meal), look for that special designation when purchasing wine for your hosts.
Most Jews consider alcoholic drinks other than wine to be per se kosher, with only a few obvious exceptions (e.g., mezcal con gusano, as grubs are treif). However, drunkenness is at the very least strongly frowned on, except on two holidays: Passover, when according to some interpretations of law, every adult should drink 5 full cups of wine (though in practice, grape juice is commonly considered OK to substitute) and Purim, when there's a tradition that you should drink so much wine that you can't tell Mordecai (the hero of the holiday) from Haman (the villain).
Any Orthodox (or "Shomer Shabbat" — that is, guarding the Sabbath) Jew cannot violate the Jewish law against traveling on Friday nights and Saturdays, which also applies to most Jewish holidays. Therefore, s/he must arrange to sleep somewhere close enough to walk to a synagogue on those days, or in the case of communal holidays that take place in homes (for example, Kabbalat Shabbat to welcome in the Sabbath on Friday night, the Seder on Passover, or the reading of the Megillas Esther [Biblical Book of Esther] on Purim), to the place where the ceremony and festive meal are taking place. It is therefore traditional for Orthodox Jews to open their homes to other observant Jews visiting from far away. If you are a Sabbath-observant Jew and don't know anyone in a place where you are traveling during a Sabbath or holiday, you can usually contact the local Chabad office for advice, as long as you call them before the holiday starts, or you could also try calling a local synagogue.
Some hotels cater to Orthodox Jews by making arrangements for the Sabbath, turning off automatic doors and/or providing special "Shabbat elevators" that operate automatically so guests don't have to push the buttons.
Unfortunately, the threat of possible anti-Semitic violence is a constant concern throughout the world, though the degree of danger varies with time and place. As a result, it is very common for there to be a police presence or/and armed guards at synagogues, yeshivot, Jewish community centers and other places where Jews congregate. However, the chances that you will happen to be at a place when someone attacks it are very low. In case you need to stand in line to have your bag searched or go through a metal detector, allow extra time just as you do when going to the airport. Being or looking visibly Jewish (e.g. wearing a kippah) can attract unwanted attention, verbal abuse or even violence even in some neighborhoods of major first world cities.
- Israel - the place of origin of Judaism and today the only Jewish state in the world as well as home to many Jews