Ashkenazi Origins: Israel to Italy to Rhineland to Eastern Europe

Roman Triumphal arch panel copy from Beth Hatefutsoth, showing spoils of Jerusalem Temple. (Wikimedia Commons)

A recent article in The Washington Post about the increasing diversity of the American Jewish community stated that “many American Jews have roots in Eastern Europe” in contrast to Jews with roots in the Middle East and other non-European regions of the world.

But Ashkenazi Jews, the diaspora subgroup that most American Jews belong to, are Middle Eastern as I wrote about in a previous TOI blog post and there is plenty of genetic, textual and archaeological evidence to back up the Rhineland theory of Ashkenazi Jewish migration from Israel to Italy to the Rhineland to Eastern Europe.

Ashkenazi Jews descend from Middle Eastern Jews taken in slave ships from Israel to Italy following the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 CE.

According to Fabrizio Lelli, associate professor of Hebrew Language and Literature at the University of Salento (Lecce, Italy), the future Roman Emperor Titus brought 8,000 Jewish captives from the First Jewish-Roman war to Apulia in Southern Italy. Lelli asserts that “the European Diaspora began in Apulia” as Jews who settled in Southern Italy from Judea spread throughout the Italian peninsula and across Europe.

“At the time of the transition of power from the Byzantines to the Normans, many Jews migrated to northern Italy and from there to the Rhineland,” writes Lelli. “Where they contributed to the formation and enrichment of Ashkenazi liturgical and philosophical traditions.”

The Kalonymos family of Talmudic scholars followed a similar route to the Rhineland as other Jews — from Apulia to Lucca to Mainz. The Kalonymos rabbis were instrumental in developing the Ashkenazi religious rite around 900 years ago in the Medieval Rhineland-Palatinate ShUM cities of Mainz, Worms and Speyer.

Jews also migrated to the Rhineland region from the French Midi (Southern France) during the Middle Ages. The Jews of Southern France came up from Southern Italy during an earlier period.

According to the book “Jews in the Medieval German Kingdom” by Alfred Haverkam, “for Jews in these Mediterranean lands, who like many of their Christian neighbors suffered from continuing Muslim raids until far into the second half of the tenth century, the Empire north of the Alps gained attractiveness after the end of the Hungarian incursions. In Byzantine Italy, moreover, Jews had been targets of renewed persecution during the second quarter of the century.”

As we have seen throughout Jewish history, the tolerant times didn’t last long for these Southern Italian Jews who settled in the Rhineland region of Germany. A series of Crusader massacres culminated in the Erfurt massacre of 1349 when Jews were blamed for the Black Death sweeping across Europe. The persecutions of Jews in German lands led to eastward migrations to what at the time was the more tolerant Slavic lands such as the Kingdom of Poland and other areas of Eastern Europe.

So Ashkenazi  Jews were in Eastern Europe only since the Late Middle Ages and in Germany for an even briefer period beginning in the Early Middle Ages.

The roots of Ashkenazi  Jews are not in Eastern Europe or Western Europe or Southern Europe. The roots of Ashkenazi Jews are in the Land of Israel where the ethnogenesis of the Jewish people occurred some 4,000 years ago.

Ashkenazi Jews were exiled to Europe. Ashkenazi Jews are not European. Ashkenazi Jews are Middle Eastern and are 100% indigenous to the Land of Israel.

About the Author
Joshua Robbin Marks is a Jewish journalist based in Southern California. He has written for The Jewish Journal of Greater Los Angeles, Washington Jewish Week and many other publications.
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