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January 10, 2008
Cincinnati, Ohio

Judaism — Religion or Race?

by Sauni Lerner
Managing Editor

In Jon Entine’s latest book “Abraham’s Children: Race, Identity, and the DNA of the Chosen People” the answer to that question proved to be both straightforward and complex: Yes.

“Abraham’s Children” attempts to put concepts of race in context. The first sentence in the book reads, “Moses called the blistering sands of ancient Canaan “a great and terrible wilderness.” This statement seems appropo today to the field of genetics. Entine takes us on a journey retelling the story of the Bible through the prism of DNA, at the same time illuminating one of today’s most controversial topics: the connection between genetics and identity, and specifically the question, “Who is a Jew?”

Spurred on by his own personal history — his sister, mother, grandmother and aunt were all diagnosed with cancer linked to a genetic mutation common among Jews, Entine vividly brings to life the profound human implications of the Age of Genetics.

Entine writes, “The Jewish tradition sometimes referred to as ‘exceptionalism,’ relentlessly reaffirmed throughout the centuries in scattered communities of Jews around the globe, has left a deep genetic footprint. The key to survival, Jews reckoned, was fidelity—to their religion and their spouse. It was a brilliant strategy for a minority community and would evolve into a unique formula of ethnocentrism that would be emulated in exile for millennia to come.”

Entine tells us that the diaspora history of the “wandering Jew” makes it impossible to draw up a simple genetic profile of Jewish identity. But the DNA pruning process has preserved an ethnic core population with a common ancestry that many Jews believe defines Jewishness.

Many Jews can indeed trace their ancestry back to the Holy Land in Biblical times. Entine tells the story of how in the early 1990’s Neil Bradman, a retired businessman, along with his son Robert, who was looking for a third-year project to complete his graduate genetics degree, came up with the idea to study Jewish Priests as the summer project. Robert Bradman’s only requirement was that the research had to be in Israel, because he was dating an Israeli (whom he would later marry).

Bradman rang up the one person in Israel who he knew would level with him about whether the idea was even workable: Batsheva Bonne’-Tamir. It was the second call she had received on this offbeat idea in a matter of weeks.

She had been contacted by Karl Skorecki, a scientist with the same question: to test whether they could find markers for Aaron’s descendants. She told both to contact Michael Hammer in Tucson. Bradman received a call from Skorecki and the circle started to come together.

They set up shop at the Western Wall in Jerusalem during the Jewish High Holy days in the fall of 1995, where they were sure to find an ample supply of Jewish priests. On Rosh Hashanah, and Yom Kippur, after the prayers, the researchers gathered off to the side as many as would participate. The Cohanim swished and spit, filling tubes with DNA-bearing saliva in an exercise that looked like an orchestrated communal dental cleaning.

The research team examined the Y chromosomes of nearly two hundred Jewish males—half of them Ashkenazim and half Sephardim, a third of who claimed to be Cohanim. And what did they find?

Embedded in the data was pure dynamite: almost every one of the Cohanim shared a cluster of six identical markers that the geneticists named the Cohen Modal Haplotype or CMH. What is more notable is that these Cohanim included males from every corner of the Jewish Diaspora, looking very different form each other—all carried within their DNA identical genetic markings.

The geneticists had traced paternally inherited traits over three or four thousand years of history. This was the first time ever that it had been possible to make a correlation with the ethnographic record over this timescale. That’s fifty generations! Other studies continued, which, when taking into account mutations, increased the percentage of those sharing the CMH to almost 98 percent.

The researchers and Entine staunchly maintain that although the work does show a common male ancestor of the Cohen family it cannot prove the existence of Aaron, or Moses, or the story of the Exodus. Nevertheless it does strengthen credence in the Biblical account and gives us a glimpse of the possibilities of future DNA research.

What about Jewish women? One of several fascinating discoveries in the book discusses the belief that most Jews are descended from the ancient Israelites. This turns out to be a very male-centric perspective. Entine writes that, “throughout history women have often assumed the religion of their husbands.“ (Ruth 1:16 Wherever you go, I will go, Your people shall be my people, and your God my God.”)

In a 2002 the Center for Genetic Anthropology conducted a study of nine geographically separated Jewish groups, It found that most Ashkenazi Jewish women appear to be descended from non-Jewish Europeans. There were no signature mutations found on the female DNA—no significant founding event—as there were for Jewish men, and few recent genetic ties to the Middle East for about half of Jews along the female line.

It appears that Jewish men often didn’t bring along spouses as they traveled. They established local populations, villages, independent of one another, probably with local women. But once the community was founded, they slammed the doors shut to new converts.

If this explanation holds, based on the matrilineal determination of Jewishness, many of the founding mothers of Ashkenazi Jews may be the descendants of righteous converts, or maybe even women living as Jews who never converted—by Israeli law.

In early biblical times, a woman was a form of property, and marriage outside the clan was common, So, despite Judaism’s matrilineal traditions, many of the oldest matrilineal DNA markers come from non-Jewish pools.

So what genetic research shows us is that the only way to understand how similar we all are is to first learn how we differ.

“Abrahams Children” ends with five detailed, fascinating appendixes:

Migration Maps, Case Studies, Diseases Common Among Jewish Populations and Helpful Resources. You can use these resources to trace your ancestry and family history using DNA.

Author, Jon Entine, a resident of Cincinnati, and congregant at Wise Temple will be discussing “Jewishness and DNA” on Sunday, Jan. 13, at 9:30 a.m. as part of the Eitz Chayim program. Jon will be joined by Bennett Greenspan, president of Family Tree DNA, the world’s largest genetic genealogy service. Family Tree DNA pioneered the use of Y-chromosomal testing in genealogy and uses the most markers, which significantly enhances the reliability of the results. They test about twenty thousand people a year. Anyone interested in finding their Jewish or Semitic roots will be able to get a DNA test kit at the program on the 13th.

Jon Entine, author of the bestseller “Taboo: Why Black Athletes Dominate Sports and Why We’re Afraid to Talk about It,” is an international columnist, adjunct fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, and consultant on business and media ethics. He spent twenty years as a producer and executive with NBC News and ABC News and has taught at numerous universities, including Miami University (Ohio) and New York University. He has been awarded many fellowships and prizes for his journalism, including a National press Club award and two Emmys.