The term "Ashkenaz" is derived from a geographic designation in the Hebrew Bible. It is an ethnonym that at one time was applied rather precisely to the German-speaking areas, especially the Rhineland. Ashkenazic Jews have lived across most of northern, central, and eastern Europe, and they have been culturally distinctive roughly since the time of the Holy Roman Empire. However, no group of Jewish communities fits neatly into the standard concept of a "cultural region." With the exception of contemporary Israel, it has been many centuries since Jews constituted a cultural majority within a given territorial region. In fact, it would be more appropriate to speak of Ashkenazim using Mikhail Bakhtin's notion of the chronotope—a field of human interaction defined synthetically along the dimensions of time and space—which would allow us to see these Jews in their interaction with cultural and historical developments among the surrounding populations.
This becomes clear when we try to define the boundaries of Ashkenazic Jewry, which are coterminous with the boundaries of the Yiddish language area. In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, Amsterdam and Venice were major Yiddish publishing centers. Dialects of Yiddish were spoken as far north as northern Germany. After the first partition of Poland at the end of the eighteenth century, masses of Jews were incorporated into the westernmost portions of the Russian Empire. The "center of gravity" of Ashkenazic Jewry shifted steadily eastward during the latter parts of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries for two reasons. First, the western European Ashkenazic communities lost cultural vigor and distinctiveness with the rise of the western European Enlightenment and the possibility of legal emancipation. Second, the Jews of the Russian and Austro-Hungarian empires experienced a massive growth in population. We might employ geological imagery, therefore, and think of Ashkenazic Jewry as a continent that became largely submerged in the modern period, leaving islands in western Europe—particularly Alsace, where Yiddish was spoken until World War II—and that experienced a gradual buildup and then sudden eruption of a mountain range on its eastern borders.
Owing to assimilation, emigration, and genocide, memoir literature generally constitutes the best source of ethnographic information on Ashkenazic Jews. The only extant communities that should properly be called "Ashkenazic" are those in which Yiddish is still spoken. These fall into two categories. The first consists of groups of elderly, usually secularist eastern European Jewish émigrés, centered in Israel, France, the United States, Canada, and a few other countries. The second includes a number of flourishing Hasidic communities, especially in Israel and New York City. The Hasidic communities utilize Yiddish in newspapers and in schools and adult religious study, and many Hasidic families continue to speak Yiddish at home.
Like Middle Eastern Jews, Ashkenazim display four of the major criteria of a distinctive cultural entity: religion, region, language, and political-economic position.