Whatever could the Romani and the Jews have in common? Today the groups seem different in every way, from geographic dispersion to the role they are perceived to play in global society. Most of today’s Romani live in small communities around Eastern Europe, while most Jews live in the United States, Israel (“the Jewish homeland,”) and Western Europe. Romani have the consistent, and generally undeserved, reputation of being itinerants and face widespread poverty, while enough Jewish people have become part of their home nations’ economic and political elite to fuel the fire of antisemitic conspiracy theories. Most Romani have adopted the dominant religion of the people among whom they live but often remain quite separate culturally; Jews practice Judaism (some more so than others), but often very actively assimilate into their home nations’ society. Romani and Jews live separately, worship differently and have generally developed different social and economic relationships in the nations where they live.Â So why are we addressing them together? Here’s why:
1. ROMANI and JEWS SHARE A SIMILAR NOMADIC HISTORY:
The Romani are an ethnic group generally believed to have originated in northwestern India over 2300 years ago and to have migrated westward, ending up in most regions of Europe. The Romani began migrating in about 300 B.C. and have since spread around the world, sometimes traveling with of their own volition, sometimes facing forced eviction. There are Romani in many parts of the world, such as:
— Roma: in Central and Eastern Europe and Central Italy
— Iberian Kale: in Spain and Portugal
— Finnish Kale: in Finland and Sweden
— Welsh Kale: in Wales
— Romanichal: in the UK, the U.S. and Australia
— Sinti: in German-speaking areas of Europe
— Manush: in French-speaking areas of Western Europe
— Romanisael: in Sweden and Norway
Jews are a race/religion/culture/nation that arose in the area now known as the Middle East over 5000 years ago and scattered around the world after a series of invasions by outside powers. Almost all today’s Jews are either Sephardic (from the Hebrew word for “Spain”)–having descended from Jews who lived in Spain, Portugal, North Africa and the Middle East–or Ashkenazic (from the Hebrew word for “Germany”), having ancestry in Central or Eastern Europe.Â Both Sephardic and Ashkenazic Jews live all over the world, though most American and Israeli Jews are Ashkenazim.
At the turn of the 20th century there were almost nine million Ashkenazic Jews in Eastern Europe. Some Jews were part of the Eastern European mainstream, but a substantial percentage of the Jewish population lived in small, poverty-stricken villages called “shtetls” or in urban ghettos. Over five million Jews lived in “the Pale of Settlement,” which Russian Tsar Catherine the Great established in 1791, effectively segregating Jews within a particular territory within the Russian Empire. (The Pale of Settlement included territory that is now part of present-day Poland, Latvia, Lithuania, Ukraine and Belarus.) Jews in the Pale of Settlement paid double taxes yet they were not allowed to lease land or receive higher education. Around the turn of the 19th century many Jewish villages in the Pale faced devastating attacks (“pogroms,”), often at the hands of Cossacks, which effectively pushed them off their land. Between 1881 and 1914 two million Ashkenazic Jews emigrated to the United States.Â
2. ROMANI and JEWS WERE BOTH ON THE OUTSIDE in EASTERN EUROPE–SOMETIMES THIS WAS THEIR CHOICE, SOMETIMES NOT
The five million or so Romani worldwide have traditionally adopted the religion of their homeland but maintain a separate culture and relatively exclusive society. Romani find unity in a complex moral code known as Romanipen, which refers to the spirit, culture and “law” of being Romani.Â Romani would more likely accept non-Romani (gadjos) who “have Romanipen” than Romani who don’t.Â
While some Roma in Eastern Europe have integrated into mainstream society, many traditionally live in impermanent “squatter” communities or in small, economically depressed villages. Anti-Roma discrimination came to recent worldwide attention when France closed several Roma encampments and deported their residents to Romania.Â While Jews, in the simplest terms, are people who practice Judaism, a significant proportion of the approximately fourteen million Jewish people worldwide are not religiously observant.Â Jews answer the question “who is a Jew?” in a baffling number of ways, considering everything from one’s religious practice to the religion of one’s mother (if one’s mother is Jewish, many Jews today consider that person Jewish, though this hasn’t always been the case) to, most recently, analyses of DNA.Â One can “become Jewish” through formal conversion, though becoming Jewish is not a simple matter.Â Also, not all Jews accept all conversions.Â Despite the lack of an overwhelming number of Jews in Eastern Europe, antisemitism remains.Â
3. DESPITE THEIR STATUS AS OUTSIDERS, ROMANI AND JEWS HAVE BOTH HAD TREMENDOUS CULTURAL INFLUENCE on EASTERN EUROPE, ESPECIALLY in the REALM OF MUSIC
We’ll learn more about Romani and Jewish/Klezmer music below.Â
4. BOTH WERE PART OF “THE FINAL SOLUTION.”Â Â BOTH SUFFERED. BOTH SURVIVED.
During World War II the histories of the Roma and the Jews converged in the worst of all possible ways. An estimated six million Jews and between five hundred thousand and a million Roma perished at the hands of the Nazis. The Jews call this tragedy the Holocaust, while the Roma call it Porajmos or “the devouring.”
Today several million Roma still live in Eastern Europe, dispersed among myriad cities and rural areas. Only several hundred thousand Jews still dwell in Eastern Europe, almost all of them in cities, but the fact that fourteen million Jews do continue to live worldwide, including those in the post-Holocaust state of Israel, is a mark of Jewish pride.Â
Wikipedia on the Romani | Wikipedia on the Roma (includes country by country information about the Roma in Eastern Europe | Wikipedia on the Jews | Ashkenazim and Sephardim | More about shtetls | Hadisidim: A charismatic Judaism that began in Eastern Europe in the 18th century | Remembering the Holocaust | The Roma Porajmos | Continued anti-Roma discrimination in Europe | Continued antisemitism in Europe | Are Ashkenazic Jews really descendants of the Khazars?