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Genetics and the Jewish identity
[Daily Edition]
Jerusalem Post - Jerusalem
Author: DIANA MUIR APPELBAUM; Appelbaum, Paul S; MD
Date: Feb 12, 2008
Start Page: 13
Section: Features
Abstract (Document Summary)

Genetic researchers have not neglected more than 90% of Jews who are neither kohanim nor Levi'im. They began with good reason to suspect that a great deal of mixing had taken place during the millennia of dispersion. People had noticed, after all, that the pale-skinned redheads common in Lithuanian Jewish communities do not look much like petite, dark-haired Jews from Yemen. It was assumed that Jews were bound more by tradition than by genetic kinship, that in the distant past Jewish men had followed opportunity to some far-off city, married local girls, persuaded them to separate the meat and milk dishes and founded new Jewish communities. Moreover, it was believed non-Jewish ancestors had continued to mix into the Jewish community. The idea that the traditional story - Jews driven into exile faithfully marrying only fellow Jews - might be largely true was startling. And yet, so it seems.

More studies have been carried out on the genetic history of the Jews than on most ethnic groups, perhaps because there are so many Jewish doctors to take advantage of the fabled willingness of Jews to participate in research. These studies not only show that almost all Jewish populations have origins in the Middle East, but that the DNA of Jews from almost every corner of the Diaspora is more similar to that of other Jews than to any other population. When compared with non-Jewish groups, the closest match is with the Muslims of Kurdistan, not with the European peoples alongside whom Ashkenazi Jews lived for centuries or the Arab neighbors of many Sephardi populations.

The utility of mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA) studies is demonstrated by recent findings concerning one of the least known Jewish groups: the Bene Israel, descendents of 6,000 Jews "discovered" on the west coast of India by Jewish traders from Baghdad in the 1830s. They carry the kohen modal haplotype along with other Middle Eastern genetic markers, and have substantial mtDNA found only in the Indian population among whom they lived - always keeping the Sabbath - for hundreds, perhaps thousands, of years. From the genetic evidence, it looks as though a small group of Jews, all or mostly male, arrived on the Indian coast, married local women and built a Jewish community.

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