Glossary Of Jewish & Judaism Terms |

Posted By on September 16, 2022

by Min Straussman

In 1585, a mining expert named Joachim Gans landed on Roanoke Island in the New World. He is considered the first Jewish person to visit the Americas. Almost 70 years later, in 1654, the first Jewish community was founded in what was then known as New Amsterdam, and what we today call New York City. They came, like so many other early Europeans to the continent, in search of religious freedom. In the time since, the Jewish community in the United States has continued to grow significantly. Today, more Jewish people live in the United States than anywhere else in the world except Israel.

May is Jewish American Heritage Month, which is an opportunity to recognize and celebrate the long history and rich diversity of Jewish life in the United States. Needless to say, things have changed a lot since 23 Sephardi Jews fleeing the Portuguese Inquisition first settled in 1654. We are going to use the opportunity this month to talk about terms like Sephardi Jews, what they mean, and how they help us understand the many different kinds of Jewish American heritages.

The Jewish community is tiny in comparison to the population of the United States. As a result, many people only know about Jewish American life from sources like television shows or movies. This can lead to stereotyping or worse about Jewish people and culture. To help set the record straight, we are going to talk about a variety of aspects of Jewish American life and language many may not be entirely familiar with.

Note: Some sections of this article mention anti-Semitism as well as politics concerning the nation of Israel. While we understand the topics are very sensitive, its important to recognize them within the larger context of Jewish identity, life, and culture.

For many years, especially following World War II and in reaction to the anti-Semitic use of the word, it was considered offensive to refer to someone as a Jew, using the proper noun form of the term. Instead, it was preferable to use the adjectival form, Jewish. We see this in the phrase Jewish American.

However, in the past decade, there has been a movement to reclaim use of the word Jew by some members of the Jewish community. Essentially, instead of saying I am a Jewish person, some choose to say I am a Jew. Despite this movement, when using the term it is important to pair it with the indefinite article a or no articles at all, rather than the definite article the. While the difference may seem minor, using the definite article implies a stereotypical, monolithic Jewish figure, which is anti-Semitic. Lastly, the use of Jew as a verb is undeniably offensive.

Additionally, the spelling of anti-Semitic itself is controversial, with some arguing that the hyphen should be dropped. You can read a summary of this debate here.

Like in any community, there are a wide variety of preferences and opinions within the Jewish community about how we wish to be described. As a general rule, it is always best to ask someone what their personal preferences are. That said, there are some basic guidelines to consider when using the terms Jewish or Jew.

Like any religion, Judaism has many different denominations or internal religious divisions. In the United States, liberal Jewish traditions such as Reform and Conservative Judaism are especially prevalent. Here are some of the Jewish practices you can find in the US:

Regardless of the tradition they practice, Jewish people give immense importance to the holiday of Passover. Learn about the significance of the holiday here.

In the United States, there are Jewish people of every race, color, ethnicity, national origin, language group, you name it. Despite common stereotypes, there is no particular way a Jewish American looks or sounds or acts or is named. To put it bluntly, not all Jewish Americans are white Ashkenazim who live in New York City and eat lox and bagels. Like all Americans, theyre an incredible mix of cultures and experiences. We cant possibly cover all of these experiences here, but we wanted to touch on a few of the different Jewish cultural groups in the United States:

By the middle of the 18th century, most Jews in the United States were Ashkenazi, of German or Eastern European descent. The language many members of this Jewish community spoke was Yiddish, a mix of German, Hebrew, Polish, and other languages. Yiddish is written using the Hebrew alphabet and is read from right to left. Today, only the Orthodox speak exclusively Yiddish, but many American Ashkenazi Jews still sprinkle their language with Yiddish words and phrases. Some of these terms have filtered into the wider American lexicon and you may recognize them:

If youre interested in learning more words and phrases that come from Yiddish, check out our primer here.

While Jews of different denominations and cultural backgrounds have different practices, there are some terms that come up across the board.

Zionism is a global, political movement for the creation and support of a Jewish state in Israel. There is a long history of American Jews supporting Zionist movements and causes. However, it is important to note that Zionism is a political movement, not a religious one. That means not all Jews are Zionists and not all Zionists are Jews. For example, an evangelical Christian who supports a Jewish homeland in Israel is a Zionist, even though they are not Jewish.

Today, many Jewish Americans, especially and increasingly younger ones, are critical of Israel. One popular outlet for this criticism is BDS, or Boycott, Divestment, Sanction, a movement that puts economic pressure on Israel to change its policies towards Palestinians.

The question of support for Israel is a highly contentious one for the Jewish American community. That said, we should keep in mind that the Jewish American community is distinct from the Israeli one in many ways. As we have seen, there is a lot more to Jewish American cultural and religious life than Zionism.

There are hundreds of Jewish American organizations that have worked for decades to create political and social change. Some of these groups support Jewish Americans specifically, others work on behalf of marginalized communities regardless of religious denomination. A few examples of prominent Jewish American organizations are:

This article has drawn on a variety of sources about Jewish American culture. Obviously, weve only highlighted some of the key elements here, and we encourage you to keep learning more on your own. We found these sources invaluable, and theyll provide a great start to your own studies:

If youre interested in hearing even more from us about the unique history of the Jewish people in the United States, check out our entry on Jewish American Heritage Month. With over 400 years of history in North America, there is a lot to discover about Jewish American life, past and present.

Min Straussman is a freelance writer and educator from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. A frequent contributor to and, his work has also appeared inHey Alma,beestung, and other publications. He lives in Paris.

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Glossary Of Jewish & Judaism Terms |

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