Regional/cultural variance in Jewish diaspora

I’m aware of the two historical branches of Judaism, but I wondered how much variance there was in tradition caused by the diaspora in previous centuries, when mass communication was non-existent, and migration was very slow?

Did revised versions of the Torah get written? Did the pronunciation of Hebrew change? How widely was Yiddish used? Were some traditions adopted in some parts of the world that weren’t strictly Jewish in origin? Are, for example, Hasidic Jews regional or philosophical in their origin?

If there were such variances, have modern communications methods pulled things back into line? I also recall (correct me if I’m wrong) that, prior to the creation of the state of Israel, Hebrew wasn’t widely used outside religious ceremonies. Has the creation of the state of Israel, and the adoption of Hebrew as the national language, affected how Hebrew is used elsewhere?

Someone else will hopefully drop by and take a more comprehensive crack at this than I can, but in general only Ashkenazic Jews used Yiddish. It was the language of the home and everyday life. Sephardic Jews used Ladino (an offshoot of old Spanish) for many of the same purposes. Hebrew was indeed the language of the synagogue and of religious observance; until recently (the past 2 generations), none of the women in my family ever studied it.

There is a huge amount of dialect variation in Yiddish, depending on where it is/was spoken. My grandparents on mom’s side have famillies from the Austrian Partition of Poland (near Nowy Sacz, a bit further from Krakow) and Ukraine, respectively, and they are always arguing with each other about the “proper” way to say something.

If you want to read some more, check out Leo Rosten’s The Joys of Yiddish. I’m also extremely fond of Claudia Roden’s * The Book of Jewish Food: An Odysssey from Samarkand to New York. * It’s not just a cookbook (although it’s certainly a wonderful one, as far as that goes); it has lots of cultural and historical commentary on how dishes changed over time and from region to region. I was bawling by the time I got through the introduction. Considering how important food is in Jewish culture and religious observance, it might help explain some things.

Which is sort of a simplification, because there’s also Judeo-Italian, Judeo-Greek, Judeo-Turkish, Judeo-Georgian, etc.

But, yes, the seperation did cause some major differences. For example, for Passover, Sephardim are allowed to eat corn, rice, lentels and beans for Passover, while Ashkenazim aren’t. Here’s a look at the reasoning behind the difference.

In general there are a variety of Jewish cultural observances around the world, even though the core religious tenets (and the text of the Torah) remain the same from community to community. Eva Luna has already pointed out that only Ashkenazic Jews used Yiddish, but usage of Yiddish among Ashkenazim was not universal (some groups were more likely to use the vernacular of their “host” country).

Pronunciation of Hebrew varies as well. A few vowels and consonants are pronounced differently by Sephardim and Ashkenazim. Even among groups of Ashkenazim there are different pronunciations and strange vowel shifts (JHW imagines his Galicianer uncle reading the Haggadah…) Hebrew had not been a conversational language for a long time when the State of Israel was created, although it was the language of the Torah, of prayer, and of religious study (the classic Jewish religious commentaries are mostly in Hebrew). A linguist in the early 20th century (his name escapes me at the moment) set about creating a “modernized” Hebrew for use by immigrants to then-Palestine. This involved the creation or adaptation of a lot of words and a simplification of some of the structures of biblical Hebrew. There was eventually a consensus that this modern Hebrew would become the principal language of Israel. For a time, though, even German was considered (I remember reading this but can’t provide a cite – sorry) Presumably this was because a lot of the movers and shakers of early Zionism were German-speakers.

Someone please correct me if I’m all wrong (or even part wrong).

Nope…that’s one of the amazing things about the Jewish religion. Somehow, despite the existence of isolated communities and lack of a central authority (e.g., the Pope), the Torah managed to remain the same.

Yes, in some consonant and vowel sounds there has been a bit of divergence.

Very widely amongst Ashkenazic (Central - Eastern European) Jews. Not at all amongst Jews from the Middle East or South Europe (i.e., Southern Italy, Greece, etc.)

The split of Hasidim from the others (known as Misnagdim, which means “opponents” - i.e., to Hasidim) was philosophical, within Judaism.

The only non-Jewish practice I can think of that has risen up amongst Ashkenazic Jewry has been the adoption of an anti-polygamy decree by Rabbi Gershom (Light of the Exile) of France, circa 1000 CE.

There are some customs adopted by Ashkenazim and not by Sephardim or vice versa, but I don’t think their origin is from a non-Jewish source.

Well, since the State of Israel absorbed pretty much the entire Sephardic population of the Middle East in the late 40’s-early 50’s, Sephardic Rabbis have acgreed to accept upon their communities the anti-polygamy decree as well. Is that the sort of thing you mean?

Yes, conversational Israeli Hebrew is now routinely used in many American Jewish schools for Bible translation (i.e., the teacher will teach the students to translate a Biblical verse into modern Hebrew as well as into English). That’s just one example.

I have heard of a sect of Ethiopian Jews that was isolated from the main body of Judaism so long that there was some question as to whether they even were Jews, and thus eligible for Israeli citizenship.

Here is some more info on Ethiopian Jews:

I’m not sure how different the details of their religious practice are. I understant that the had an incomplete set of religious documents when they became isolated.

So I guess they were mainly different in that they lacked talmudic information and commentary.

Sorry, I meant outside Israel. Use of modern Hebrew in America is one answer to this.