The Jewish people: religion and culture

The Jews were an ancient people who had resided in Europe for more than two thousand years. The Jews were expelled from Israel by the Romans following the destruction of the Second Temple in AD 70. They had a strong sense of vocation, of being covenanted by God to be a holy people with a special moral mission for mankind. The Jewish religion is monotheistic - based on the belief in a single, all-powerful God. The Jewish doctrine is based on the ten commandments as spelt out in the Old Testament. The Hebrew Bible had provided the foundations for Christianity - Jesus, Mary and the Apostles were all Jews and the origin of many Christian festivals, psalms and beliefs lay in Judaism. But Jews had generally refused to convert to the new faith of Christianity which would come to dominate Europe in the Middle Ages. They stubbornly maintained their separate religious beliefs and their distinct customs and laws. Most European Jews were Ashkenazim (Ashkenaz in Hebrew means Germany) - a term used originally to designate the Jews of Central and Eastern Europe. Before the 20th century they lived mainly in Shtetlach (or small Jewish cities, towns and villages) in the Russian Empire, in Poland, Lithuania, the Ukraine, Rumania, Hungary, Bessarabia etc. They observed the traditional Jewish values, liturgy, ceremonials and way of life. They mainly spoke Yiddish (a medieval Germanic dialect mixed with Hebrew and some Slavic words) and in modern times developed a rich literature in this folk tongue.

The Jews of Eastern Europe began to emigrate in large numbers from their homelands, beginning in the1880s. Between 1881 and 1914 about 2,370,000 Jews fled from poverty and oppression, especially from Tsarist Russia, notorious for its violenct anti-Jewish mobs and pogroms. A great number of these Jews reached the United States and a small minority would establish the first modern Jewish settlements in Palestine. But by 1924 the United States had place strict limits on immigration and the number of Jews admitted was drastically reduced. Other countries soon followed suit and Jews desiring too emigrate or flee from the Nazis found themselves faced with sealed borders throughout most of the world in the 1930s.

Text by Robert Wistrich in "Lessons of the Holocaust", produced by London Jewish Cultural Centreand HET, Second Edition 2000. The text is copyrighted to Robert S. Wistrich (1997).