Throughout the Middle Ages, Northern and Eastern European Jews — called Ashkenazim — lived entirely separate lives from their Christian neighbors (who occasionally turned into their Christian persecutors). By monarchs’ mandates, Jews were forced to live in ghettos (generally the worst part of a city), barred from most professions, and made to pay higher taxes. (One monarch forced Jews to buy rejected porcelain that his factories couldn’t sell on all celebratory occasions.) Jews had to wear a yellow patch on their clothing and were frequently forbidden to travel or even leave the ghetto. The blood libel that Jews murdered Christians and used their blood for rituals became common, and entire communities were either forcibly converted or murdered because of it. Some countries expelled all Jews from within their borders, including England. The idea that a Jew could be noble or trustworthy was laughable.
Even without these restrictions on Jews, Jewish communities knew to remain separate from the outside Christian world: there’s even a line from the Ethics of the Fathers that warns against getting involved with the government.1 To marry outside the faith was seen as an act of rebellion, of rejecting the basic precepts of Judaism, and those who did were considered dead to the community. Most Jews in Eastern Europe could read and speak Hebrew but not the language of the kingdom in which they lived: in their daily lives they instead spoke a dialect of Yiddish, reserving Hebrew for prayer and study. A relatively small number of Jews lived outside of the ghetto, protected by their position and wealth.
The state of Jewish thought in that time was relatively poor. While most men and women were at least literate in Hebrew in prayers, few had any personal connection to the words. For the most part, Jewish thought was learning by rote the sayings of the generations before them. The people frequently reverted to mystical beliefs and messianism — most famously Shabbatai Tzvi, the 17th century mystic who many thousands of Jews believed was the embodiment of the Mashiach, the one who will bring about the redemption of the Jewish people. When in 1666 Tsvi was given the option of death or conversion to Islam and picked the latter, Jewish faith was thrown into disarray.
Jewish standing in the world changed perhaps irrevocably because of the Enlightenment, which preached — for the first time in the history of Western Civilization — that all people are created equal, including the Jews. Along with the Enlightenment rose a new movement, the Jewish Enlightenment, called the Haskalah, which comes from the Hebrew word for “intellect”.