To better understand the life of the Jewish people in Diaspora we need to identify first the places of exile and the identity of the Jews living in different geographical areas.
There are three distinct groups based on living locations that can be identified without major problems as the Jewish communities of those groups have never changed or deviated from original Jewish heritage.
Mizrahim are Jews who never left the Middle East and North Africa since the beginnings of the Jewish people 4,000 years ago. In 586 B.C.E., the Babylonian Empire (ancient Iraq) conquered Yehudah (Judah), the southern region of ancient Israel.
Sephardim are among the descendants of the line of Jews who chose to return and rebuild Israel after the Persian Empire conquered the Babylonian Empire. About half a millennium later, the Roman Empire conquered ancient Israel for the second time, massacring most of the nation and taking the bulk of the remainder as slaves to Rome. Once the Roman Empire crumbled, descendants of these captives migrated throughout the European continent. Many settled in Spain (Sepharad) and Portugal, where they thrived until the Spanish Inquisition and Expulsion of 1492 and the Portuguese Inquisition and Expulsion shortly thereafter
The Ashkenazi Jews were referred to Jews living along the Rhine River in northern France and western Germany. The center of Ashkenazi Jews later spread to Poland-Lithuania and now there are Ashkenazi settlements all over the world. The term “Ashkenaz” became identified primarily with German customs and descendants of German Jews.
Let us examine a little bit closer each group and it history.
The Mizrahi Jews were the product of Babylonian captivity. Babylonians occupied the Land of Israel and exiled the Yehudim (Judeans, or Jews), as captives into Babylon. Some 50 years later, the Persian Empire (ancient Iran) conquered the Babylonian Empire and allowed the Jews to return home to the land of Israel. But, offered freedom under Persian rule and daunted by the task of rebuilding a society that lay in ruins, most Jews remained in Babylon. Over the next millennia, some Jews remained in today’s Iraq and Iran, and some migrated to neighboring lands in the region (including today’s Syria, Yemen, and Egypt), or emigrated to lands in Central and East Asia (including India, China, and Afghanistan). Mizrahim traditionally spoke Judeo-Arabic — a language blending Hebrew and a local Arabic dialect. While a number of Sephardim in the Middle East and North Africa learned and spoke this language, they also spoke Ladino–a blend of Hebrew and Spanish. Having had no history in Spain or Portugal, Mizrahim generally did not speak Ladino.
In certain areas, where the Sephardic immigration was weak, Sephardim assimilated into the predominantly Mizrahi communities, taking on all Mizrahi traditions and retaining just a hint of Sephardic heritage — such as Spanish-sounding names. In countries such as Morocco, however, Spanish and Portuguese Jews came in droves, and the Sephardic community set up its own synagogues and schools, remaining separate from the Mizrahi community.
In the beginning of the 16th century the center of Ashkenazi Jewry shifted to Poland, Lithuania, Bohemia and Moravia. Jews were for the first time concentrated in Eastern Europe instead of Western Europe. Polish Jews adopted the Ashkenazi rites, liturgy, and religious customs of the German Jews.
In the 1600s and 1700s, Jews in Poland, the center of Ashkenazi Jewry, faced blood libels and riots. The growth of Hasidism in Poland drew many Jews away from typical Ashkenazi practice. After the Chmielnicki massacres in Poland in 1648, Polish Jews spread through Western Europe, some even crossing the Atlantic. Many Ashkenazi Polish Jews fled to Amsterdam and joined previously existing communities of German Jews. Sephardim there considered the Ashkenazim to be socially and culturally inferior. While the Sephardim were generally wealthy, the Ashkenazim were poor peddlers, petty traders, artisans, diamond polishers, jewelry workers and silversmiths. As the Sephardim became poorer in the 18th century, the communities became more equal and more united. The Jewish community in England also changed in the 1700s. It had been primarily Sephardic throughout the 1600s, but it became more Ashkenazi in culture as growing numbers of German and Polish Jews arrived.