Jews - Orientation

Identification. The Jews of North America are a relatively assimilated ethnic group in the United States and Canada. The name "Jew" is an Anglicized version of the Hebrew word yehudi, meaning "Hebrew, the language of the kingdom of Judah," and originally referred to the members of the tribe of Judah, one of twelve tribes of Israel in the Middle East about four thousand years ago. Jewish self-identity rests on a number of factors including a unique set of religious beliefs and practices, ancestry from Jewish peoples, a shared understanding of the Holocaust, and a belief in Israel as the Jewish homeland.

Location. Jews in North America live primarily in cities or adjacent suburbs. Although urban Jewish ghettos no longer exist, a pattern of residential isolation persists, with many city neighborhoods or suburban communities defined as "Jewish" because of the large number of Jews who reside there and the Jewish institutions such as synagogues, community centers, and kosher food stores located there. Sixty percent of Jews live on the East Coast of the United States and about 20 percent on the West Coast, with relatively few, save those in major cities, in the South and Midwest. In Canada, the same pattern holds, with two-thirds of the Jewish population living in or near Toronto or Montreal.

Demography. In 1986 the Jewish population in North America was about 6.3 million, with 5.9 million in the United States and 305,000 in Canada. Thus, North American Jews constitute about 43 percent of the 14.5 million Jews in the world. By way of comparison, in Europe there are 4.1 million Jews, in Asia 3.3 million, in South America 600,000, in Africa 159,000, and in Oceania 72,000. The United States has the largest Jewish population in the world and Canada the seventh largest. In North America, the majority of Jews live in twelve large cities, with 1.9 million in the metropolitan New York City region (over 30 percent of U.S. Jews), 500,000 in Los Angeles, 300,000 in Philadelphia, 250,000 each in Miami and Chicago, over 100,000 each in Boston, Washington, D.C., Montreal, and Toronto, and over 50,000 each in Baltimore and San Francisco. In Canada, the other Jewish population centers are Winnipeg, 15,000, and Vancouver, 14,000. The Jewish population has been relatively stable for the past decade, despite a relatively low birth rate, offset somewhat by recent emigrations of Jews from the Soviet Union and Israel to the United States and Canada.

Linguistic Affiliation. The overwhelming majority of North American Jews use English as their primary or only Domestic language, or French in the French-speaking provinces of Canada, with about 20 percent of Canadian Jews bilingual in the two languages. Recent immigrants from Europe and the Middle East often speak the language of their homeland, those from the Soviet Union speaking Russian, those from Syria speaking Arabic, and those from Israel speaking Hebrew. Hasidic Jews use Yiddish, written with Hebrew characters, and some Jews of central and eastern European ancestry speak Yiddish at home. Yiddish, the traditional language of Jews of Eastern Europe, shares common medieval roots with High German and contains Slavic loan-words, although it is usually written with Hebrew characters and from right to left as is Hebrew. A number of Yiddish words have become part of the U.S. English lexicon, including blintze, chutzpah, goy, kibitz, landsman, mensh, nebbish, shlemiel, shlock, shnook, and shmooz.

Hebrew is the religious language for Orthodox and some Conservative Jews, with prayerbooks written in and prayers chanted in Hebrew. Hebrew is a branch of the Canaanite group of Semitic languages. Reform Jews use English in their religious services.

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