The Jewish people are an ethnoreligious community rather than solely a religious grouping. Judaism guides its adherents in both practice and belief so that it has been called not only a religion, but also a "way of life". This makes it difficult to draw a clear distinction between the cultural production of members of the Jewish people, and culture that is specifically Jewish.
Throughout history, in eras and places as diverse as the ancient Hellenic world, in Europe before and after the Age of Enlightenment, in Islamic Spain and Portugal, in North Africa and the Middle East, in India and China, and in the contemporary United States and Israel, Jewish communities have seen the development of cultural phenomena that are in some sense characteristically Jewish without being at all specifically religious. Some factors in this come from within Judaism, others from the interaction of Jews with others around them, and others from the inner social and cultural dynamics of the community, as opposed to religion itself. This phenomenon has led to considerably different Jewish cultures unique to their own communities, each as authentically Jewish as the next.
For at least 2,000 years, there has not been a unity of Jewish culture. Jews during this period were always geographically dispersed, so that by the 19th century the Ashkenazi Jews were mainly in Europe, especially Eastern Europe; the Sephardi Jews were largely spread among various communities in North Africa, Turkey, and various smaller communities in a diverse range of other locations; Mizrahi Jews were primarily spread around the Arab world; and other populations of Jews were scattered in such places as Ethiopia the Caucasus, and India.
Although there was a high degree of communication and traffic between these communities - many Sephardic exiles blended into the Central European Ashkenazi community following the Spanish Inquisition; many Ashkenazim migrated to the Middle East, giving rise to the characteristic Syrian-Jewish family name "Ashkenazi"; Iraqi-Jewish traders formed a distinct Jewish community in India; and so forth - many of these populations were cut off to some degree from the surrounding cultures by ghettoization, by laws of dhimma, and other circumstances.
Medieval Jewish communities in Eastern Europe displayed distinct cultural traits over the centuries. Despite the universalist leanings of the European Enlightenment, many Yiddish-speaking Jews in Eastern Europe continued to see themselves as forming a distinct national group. But, adapting this idea to European Enlightenment values, they assimilated the concept as that of an ethnic group whose identity did not depend on religion.
Constanin Măciucă writes of "a differentiated but not isolated Jewish spirit" permeating the culture of Yiddish-speaking Jews. This was only intensified as the rise of Romanticism amplified the sense of national identity across Europe generally. Thus, for example, Bund members - that is, members of the General Jewish Labour Union in the late 19th and early 20th centuries - were generally non-religious, and one of the historical leaders of the Bund was the child of converts to Christianity, though not a practising or believing Christian himself.
The Jewish Emancipation movement in Central and Western Europe created an opportunity for Jews to enter secular society. At the same time, pogroms in Eastern Europe provoked a surge of migration, in large part to the United States, where some 2 million Jewish immigrants resettled between 1880 and 1920. During the 1940s, the Holocaust uprooted and destroyed most of the European Jewish population. This, in combination with the creation of the State of Israel and the consequent Jewish exodus from Arab lands, resulted in a further geographic shift.
Defining secular culture among those who practice traditional Judaism is difficult, because the entire culture is, by definition, entwined with religious traditions. Gary Tobin, head of the Institute for Jewish and Community Research, said of traditional Jewish culture, "The dichotomy between religion and culture doesn't really exist. Every religious attribute is filled with culture; every cultural act filled with religiosity. Synagogues themselves are great centres of Jewish culture. After all, what is life really about? Food, relationships, enrichment; so is Jewish life. So many of our traditions inherently contain aspects of culture. Look at the Passover Seder - it's essentially great theatre. Jewish education and religiosity bereft of culture is not as interesting."