Sephardi and Mizrahi and Communities
in the UK
Jews have lived in the Middle East, North Africa and Iran since ancient times. When the Sephardi (Hebrew word for ‘Spanish’) Jews of Spain and Portugal were expelled in the 15th century, many were welcomed by the Ottoman Empire. These Sephardi Jews joined the local Jewish communities and put down roots in the region.
Jews in the Middle East and North Africa were often referred to as Sephardi Jews, as they broadly followed customs and traditions of Sephardi Judaism. This terminology has gradually changed, and Jews from the region are now more commonly referred to as Mizrahi (the Hebrew word for ‘Eastern’).
The term Mizrahi can be used to describe Jews from all over the Middle East and North Africa, as well as those from Iran, and Bukharan Jews from Afghanistan and Uzbekistan. It also includes members of these communities who moved to India and other countries in the far east in the 19th century. However, not all Jews from these areas describe themselves as Mizrahi. Those with Spanish and Portuguese ancestry refer to themselves as Sephardi, as do many others who prefer the broader term.
Jews in the Middle East, North Africa, and Iran spoke a wide range of languages, including Arabic, Persian, various dialects of Judeo-Arabic, English, French, Italian, Ladino and even Aramaic.
In the mid-20th century, there were at least 850,000 Jews living in these regions. The vast majority of these Jews left in the latter half of the 20th century. After leaving their home countries, many emigrated to Israel. Some decided to move to North or South America. Others settled in Europe with concentrations of emigration in France, Italy and the UK.
It is estimated that there are 280,000 Jews currently living in the UK, of these it is estimated that no more than 6% are from the Middle East, North Africa or Iran. The vast majority of these live in London, and Manchester. Despite this relatively small number, Middle Eastern, North African and Iranian Jews have made a large impact on British society. Amongst our interviewees are prominent business people, authors, artists, politicians, musicians, composers, physicians, Rabbis, philanthropists and photographers.
Many Jews from Middle East, North Africa and Iran joined communities belonging to the Spanish and Portuguese Synagogue when they arrived in the UK. Others chose to form new synagogues that followed more geographically localised customs. There are more than thirty independent synagogues around the UK, each community practices Judaism in accordance with the customs and traditions of their home countries, passing on their heritage to younger generations. In addition to this, young Sephardi and Mizrahi Jews in the UK have been active in establishing grass-root communities where they can simultaneously celebrate their heritage and practice Judaism in a way that is meaningful to them.
The Sephardi Voices UK Exhibition at the Jewish Museum, London: 2017
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You might also be interested in hearing the opening speeches from the Sephardi Voices Exhibition