OK, here’s what I know about Judaism and my own story, which maybe will help explain it all to you. Every so often, people ask me, an American Jew, what “nationality” I am, and I say I’m Jewish, and they ask me what that’s all about. You have to remember that as a “nation” without a country (until 1948 and Israel), Jews were scattered throughout Europe, Asia, and North Africa, and then later other continents. While they did have different local traditions due to the local diet, climate, etc., much of what makes a Jew a Jew is consistent regardless of where you live. Obviously, the level of freedom that the majority culture allowed influenced the amount of interaction Jews had with the majority cultures in the country of residence, and that influenced things too. The Kurds are a good analogy of a dispossessed people like the Jews spread around different “nations”, though they are still of the same primary religion as the majorities in Turkey, Iraq, and Pakistan.
There is only one major cultural divide within the Jewish peoples, and that is that there are two branches of Judaism, Ashkenazic and Sephardic. (The Ethiopians mentioned previously are a unique tiny group that, if culturally related to the others, broke away hundreds or thousands of years ago). The Ashkenazic Jews lived primarily in Northern and Eastern Europe, and comprise most of the Jews that are in the United States today. They had fairer skin and spoke “Yiddish” (a hybrid polyglot of Hebrew, German, Russian and eastern tongues). Jews from France, Romania, Russia, Germany, Poland and other widespread portions of that range were all Ashkenazic and had many cultural similarities. (Remember that these were people that over history were often cast out of one country and ended up elsewhere.)
Sephardic Jews came primarily from the Meditteranean, North Africa/Spain, and portions of Asia we now call the Middle East, including, of course, what is today Israel. They have a similar hybrid language called “Ladino”, which included elements of Spanish and Hebrew. Interestingly, there are two spoken forms of Hebrew, Ashkenazic and Sephardic, and the primary difference is that Sephardic hebrew slurs the “S” sound into “T”, much as Castilian spanish (I believe) has a similar dialect compared to other forms of Spanish. (Someone correct me if I don’t have that right about Castilian). These Jews were the ones dealing with the Spanish inquisition, and many ended up in Holland. The philosopher Spinoza was one of them.
OK-- my family-- my maternal Grandfather (who’s still alive by the way, he’s 93) actually came through Ellis Island. He was a Jew from Russia, and his whole family emigrated to the US over a period of about 10 years to escape persecution. He would never say he was a “Russian”, because the Jews in his community were a distinct minority, with a totally different culture, different religion, different diet, etc. than the Russians surrounding them (and persecuting them). My maternal Grandmother’s family emigrated from Romania, but again, were not Romanians. Despite the different countries of origin, their families would settle together in New York and intermingle, as one cultural entity. Similarly, I always tell people that my father’s father and mother were both Austrian Jews (not Austrians). While some groups of more assimilated American Jews (the ones that got here earlier in the 19th century, like German Jews) looked down on the unwashed masses like my grandparents, after a few generations, all Jews in the United States pretty much think of themselves as one cultural entity and don’t even pay much heed to what country their grandparents or great grandparents escaped from.
I am not a regularly-practicing Jew, but I absolutely think of myself as a Jewish-American, much as an Irish-American or Mexican-American thinks of themselves as having the identity of their ancestors.