Skip to comments.The Roots of Jewishness
Posted on 08/09/2012 6:34:33 PM PDT by neverdem
Scholars of all kinds have long debated one seemingly simple question: What is "Jewishness?" Is it defined by genetics, culture, or religion? Recent findings have revealed genetic ties that suggest a biological basis for Jewishness, but this research didn’t include data from North African, Ethiopian, or other Jewish communities. Now a new study fills in the genetic map—and paints a more complex picture of what it means to be Jewish.
Modern Jews, who number more than 13 million worldwide, are traditionally divided into various groups. They include Middle Eastern Jews, who live in Iraq, Iran, and other places in the Levant; Sephardic Jews from Spain and Portugal; Ashkenazi Jews from Europe, who comprise 90% of American Jews; North African Jews from Morocco, Algeria, and other countries north of the Sahara; Ethiopian Jews; and many other communities scattered across the globe. In the Bible, the roots of Jewishness reach back 4000 years to Abraham and his descendants. But historians have suggested the story of Jewishness is more complicated, and may not include a single ancestor. Some have even argued that most modern Jews are descended from converts to Judaism and don’t share genetic ties at all.
Recent studies have turned to DNA for answers. In 2010, human geneticist Harry Ostrer of the Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York City and colleagues found that three of the major Jewish groups—the Middle Eastern, Sephardic, and Ashkenazi Jews—share a genetic connection going back more than 2000 years, and are more closely related to each other than to nearby non-Jewish groups. Genetic ties within each of the groups were even closer, about the equivalent of fourth or fifth cousins. But that study didn't include North African Jews, who represent the world's second largest Jewish population, or any groups whose claim to Jewishness has been controversial, such as Ethiopian Jews.
So Ostrer and his colleagues gathered new DNA samples from Jews living everywhere from Morocco to Yemen. Using three distinct strategies for identifying genetic similarities, including a method called identity by descent (IBD) that can determine how closely related two individuals are, the team compared these DNA samples to each other, to the samples from their 2010 study, and to samples from non-Jews. Most of the sampled groups shared genetic features, indicating a common heritage dating back to before Roman times, the team reports today in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. North African Jews—and Moroccan/Algerian Jews in particular—showed a close genetic connection to Ashkenazi and Sephardic Jews, and little evidence of interbreeding with contemporary non-Jewish populations in North Africa. Georgian Jews shared genetic features with Middle Eastern Jews, instead. Yemenite Jews were distantly related to Middle Eastern Jews, while Ethiopian Jews formed their own cluster and shared little IDB with other Jewish populations. Each group showed little interbreeding with local non-Jewish groups. Moroccan/Algerian Jews, for example, were about as close genetically as third or fourth cousins; Jews from the Tunisian Island of Djerba were as close as first cousins once removed.
"I didn’t know what to expect," Ostrer says. "I've been surprised to learn there's such a shared biological basis for Jewishness." The team's results suggest that while most Jewish groups are genetically related, some are not and instead arose from converts to Judaism. But regardless of their origins, Jewish groups remained genetically isolated once formed.
The results complement historical accounts of multiple Jewish migrations and expulsions. The genetic ties between North African Jews and Ashkenazi and Sephardic Jews may reflect the expulsion of European Jews from Spain and Portugal during the Spanish Inquisition in the late 1400s, and their limited breeding with local North African populations in the centuries that followed. Distinct populations, such as Ethiopian Jews, likely arose from Jewish founders who converted the local population by proselytizing but did not intermarry. "This is certainly the most extensive genomic study of Jewish populations to date," says geneticist Sarah Tishkoff of the University of Pennsylvania, who was not involved in the work. "And it shows there's both a genetic and a cultural component to being Jewish."
Identifying the genetic component of Jewishness—though controversial because the Holocaust was predicated on the idea that Jewishness was a genetic trait that could be eliminated from the German population—could have medical as well as historical value, Tishkoff adds, because many Jewish populations have high incidences of genetic disease. Knowing more about the groups' biological makeup could enable doctors to provide more informed genetic counseling to Jewish couples, or better personalize courses of treatment. Tishkoff notes that the little-studied Jewish populations of India, sub-Saharan Africa, China, and Burma weren’t examined in the latest analysis. Ostrer says his team plans to include their DNA in a future study to complete what he calls "the tapestry of Jewishness."
i believe the OT has a pretty good breakdown of this....
I grew up believing my great grandfather was an Austrian immigrant but it turns out that he was a Polish Jew from Buchovina which I believe is in the Ukraine today.
I’d say Abraham.
A quick Wikipedia search shows Bukovina in the extreme eastern part of the old Austro-Hungarian empire. Many of its inhabitants were German-speaking.
I have family from what is now the Slovene Republic. They spoke both German and Slovenian which is close IIRC to Serbo-Croatian. There were surnames misspelled on Ellis Island, relatives who may or not have been Jewish, and my grandfather who if he hit his thumb instead of the nail was careful to swear in anything but English if there were kids nearby.
One thing’s for sure. They all spoke nothing but English as soon as they were able, served in the Army which they said made them 100% Americans, and blessed the new land that gave them a good life.
My great grandfather was from German Jewish stock.
Ashkenazim I suppose.
There were large boxes of old photos from Germany in my grandparents attic... many scenes of life during WW1.
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It sure seems like this study assumes most Jewish communities were isolated from each other when actually only a few were. Just tracing Jewish religious education shows many points of contact between geographically separated groups.
North African Jews are the second largest Jewish group? Seems wildly inaccurate.
No mention of Jews who never left Israel. Wonder why not?
My granddad was too young to serve in WWI but that was basically what he fled on the horizon in 1912. He came in to Detroit by way of Canada. He sailed from Antwerp on the SS Mount Temple which was sunk by the Germans a few years later. (The Mount temple had a short but eventful service life that can be found online. In fact its at the bottom of the atlantic full of dinosaur bones.)
When prohibition rolled around he worked for the Purple gang in Detroit as a diver. They would strap barrels of whiskey on the hulls of boats and he went under and brought them to the surface. During the winter they drove across or dragged it on sleds behind horses.
His “refusal” to speak german was one of the clues my great aunt gave me. She said that it wasn’t till she was an adult that she realized he couldn’t speak german but he would speak Polish on occasion to poles who didn’t speak english yet.
Buchovina (Bukovina) was one of those constant conflict areas where someone was always being chased around or wiped out.
Being raised a 3rd generation Christian, I guess my “Jew-dar” was busted.
Blessed be the convert.
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I’ll just bet Bukovina is a beautiful place however blood soaked.
Just read a book about German dam builders. Thought I’d be bored but there are vast areas of Eastern Europe that after thousands of years have never been fully settled. Half of this book was about the Pripet Marsh region in eastern Poland. The American Wild West has nothing on this place.
My wife doesn’t understand why I’m reluctant to travel now that we’re retired (both military). My saying “Why should we travel? We’re already here!” won’t cut it.
Must be my immigrant background.
Get your DNA tested sometime. I bet you’d be surprised.
(But I’ve suspected it all along. Mazel tov!)
I suppose that's as far as I'll get unless I end up mega rich and have the time to do a real thorough search. Maybe if Romney becomes president he'll give us all one free swing through the mormon/Jewish archives.
This makes sense as my Yemenite ancestors have a tradition that we left Israel prior to the fall of the first Temple on the orders of the prophet Jeremiah. That is also why our liturgy and pronunciation is different since we were never in the Babylonian captivity
No. African Jews: Sephardic. From Morocco to Egypt, esp. Libya, Tunisia. A friend of mine was named Roumani (from “Roman”) and his family dated back 2,000 years in Libya. Most were expelled by King Idrish and then Qaddafi.
Another friend, a leader of the Jewish community in Egypt until expelled in 1967 was named “Romani”. Guess where that came from.
Many Sephardic Jews lived in Spain until expelled in 1492. They had a large, educated community there under the Moslems, though they were still treated as dhimmis (2nd class citizens).
Some went to Israel when it was founded. Others went to Europe or the US.
Re Poland/Ukraine/Austro-Hungarian Empire. Same places, different names. My grandmother/father came from Lemberg, later Lviv and Lvov (now in the Ukraine). This city and others in the “Pale” were trade gateways between Eastern Europe and Western Europe, esp. Austria and Germany. Jewish businessmen/traders moved across these areas with ease and learned to speak several languages so that they could conduct business in the major cities.
My grandfather/mother on my father’s side came from Russia. My grandfather spoke five languages (Russian, Yiddish, Hebrew, German, and later, English). When he came to America, immigration changed the family name a bit but we survived it.
Oh, did you here about the Jewish immigrant from Eastern Europe who had his named changed to an Irish one by immigration officials? When they asked him what his name was, he thought that they were asking where he was going (it was written on a piece of paper). He told them, in Yiddish, “forgessen” (I forgot). So they wrote it down as “Ferguson”. He then learned to celebrate St. Patty’s Day.
Interesting as these would be descendants from the Tribe of Judah. You wonder what the DNA of the missing tribes would tell?
Judah? At the very least the tribes of Levi and Benjamin are included, as well as ‘remnants’ of the other tribes that were loyal to the Kingdom of Judah. The ‘lost ten tribes’ is mostly myth, and their ‘Jewish’ DNA would have quickly diluted, as other studies have indicated.
Not really news.
Its been known for centuries that Ashkenazi were converts, not Hebrews, and there was never any reason to believe that the Ethiopians were Hebrews, since they had been added in during Solomon’s time for ‘political’ reasons.
Most Hebrew descendents are scattered throughout the world, and do not currently identify with their Hebrew roots at all, due to the complete dispersion of the “northern kingdom.”
Most that have studied the matter believe that Jacob’s prophecy over Ephraim and Manassah has been fulfilled, and that the descendents of those northern tribes have been ruling the affairs of the world for a millenium.
>> “You wonder what the DNA of the missing tribes would tell?” <<
No way of knowing, since we have no samples of any tribes DNA but Judah, Benjamin, and Levi.
There are still 700 Samaritans. And some members of the Northern Tribes fled south to escape the Assyrian invasion.
While Samaritans are descended from Abraham, they are not of Jacob.
Part of the northern tribes (Dan) went to Macedonia, and scicily, but do not live as Hebrews. Alexander is commonly believed to have been Danite. My maternal grandfather’s family is partly Danite, and partly separtic. They are from Sicily, and the family there are catholics.
My understanding of the Samaritans is they are the remnants of the northern Hebrew tribes who, when they broke away after Solomon died, immediately reverted to idolatry, and a truncated form of Judaism (only accepting parts of the Tanak), and of course an extensive syncretism (mixing religions) with gentile paganism, while they intermarried extensively with the surrounding gentiles.
When the Assyrian empire conquered the northern tribes from 732 BCE forward, they used a strategy of moving their own peoples in, and killing and enslaving the Hebrew peoples—intermarrying even further—increasing the dissolution of any Hebrew identity.
However the original tribes of the north, descendants of Jacob (just NOT Judah)—which were so compromised as to be called “lost,” eventually were identified with the Samaritans.
Still a form of monotheism survived, which is mentioned in the Christian bible with Jesus’ conversation with a Samaritan woman in the Christian bible’s book of John ch. 4. None the less, what was notable in this interaction is that even at that time, there was a huge degree of antipathy between the Jewish people and the Samaritans, and I’ve heard this hostility was based on the Samaritan religion being a kind of sub-Mosaic cult, NOT at all full Judaism, as well as the virtually extinguished Hebrew ethnic identity of the Samaritans—even back in the 1st Century.
Also the famous parable of Jesus’ of the “Good Samaritan” (where a Samaritan was kind and helpful to a man wounded by robbers, while a Levite and a Priest ignored him) seemed to have been intended to pierce the prejudices against the Samaritans (and remember Jesus’ followers during his life were ALL Jewish), showing righteous character is shown in ethics and action—not based on position or ethnic purity....
It’s funny people are discovering their Jewishness.
Half my family spent generations adopting gentile names and practices to avoid being sh-t upon.
“Its been known for centuries that Ashkenazi were converts, not Hebrews”
This genetic refutes the position that Ashkenazi are converts.
Reading is fundamental.
“Its been known for centuries that Ashkenazi were converts, not Hebrews”
This genetic study refutes the position that Ashkenazi are converts.
Reading is fundamental.
How about reading the sages commentary over a period of close to two millenia?
This is popular stuff, to Ashkenazi descendents, but it doeth reek!