Yiddish, Ashkenazi Jews and Jewishness

Jun 3, 2010 by

Speaking of Yiddish and Ashkenazi Jews who speak it, there has long been a question of whether Ashkenazi Jews are related to other (namely, Sephardic and/or Oriental) Jews. Some writers, for example, Arthur Koestler in his 1976 book The Thirteenth Tribe, have argued that the Ashkenazis stem from a Turkic tribe in Central Asia called the Khazars, who converted to Judaism in the 8th century. And historian Shlomo Sand of Tel Aviv University argued in his book The Invention of the Jewish People, translated into English last year, that most modern Jews do not descend from the ancient Land of Israel but from groups that took on Jewish identities long afterward.

However, the latest such study, published today in the American Journal of Human Genetics, shows a genetic connection among all Jews, despite widespread migrations and intermarriage with non-Jews. A team led by geneticist Harry Ostrer of the New York University School of Medicine concluded that all three Jewish groups — Middle Eastern, Sephardic, and Ashkenazi — share genomewide genetic markers that distinguish them from other worldwide populations.

Ostrer and his colleagues analyzed nuclear DNA from blood samples taken from a total of 237 Ashkenazi and Middle Eastern Jews in New York City and Sephardic Jews in Seattle, Washington; Greece; Italy; and Israel, and compared these with DNA from about 2,800 presumably non-Jewish individuals from around the world. Several analytical approaches were used to calculate how genetically similar the Jewish groups were to each other and to the non-Jewish groups, including a method called identity by descent (IBD), which is often used to determine how closely two individuals are related.

Individuals within each Jewish group had high levels of IBD, roughly equivalent to that of fourth or fifth cousins. Although each of the three Jewish groups showed genetic admixture with nearby non-Jews, they shared many genetic features, suggesting common roots that go back more than 2000 years. Ashkenazi Jews, whose genetic profiles indicated between 30% to 60% admixture with Europeans, nevertheless clustered more closely with Middle Eastern and Sephardic Jews, a finding the researchers say is inconsistent with the Khazar hypothesis. Ostrer’s conclusion:

“I would hope that these observations would put the idea that Jewishness is just a cultural construct to rest.”

Thus, the most recent study confirms the results (and the conclusions) of earlier studies, such as the one by Hammer and Bonne-Tamir* who concluded:

“Diaspora Jews from Europe, Northwest Africa, and the Near East resemble each other more closely than they resemble their non-Jewish neighbors.”

Similarly, Nebel and Oppenheim** state:

“…if the R-M17 chromosomes [the dominant Y chromosome haplogroup in Eastern Europeans] in Ashkenazi Jews do indeed represent the vestiges of the mysterious Khazars then, according to our data, this contribution was limited to either a single founder or a few closely related men, and does not exceed ~ 12% of the present-day Ashkenazim.”

While both of the abovementioned studies looked at the Y-chromosomes (which only men carry), other researchers asked themselves “What about Jewish women? Where do they come from?”. The earlier assumption has been that the Ashkenazi communities of Northern and Central Europe were founded by men who came from the Middle East, perhaps as traders, and by the women from each local population whom they took as wives and converted to Judaism. But the newer studies suggest that the men and their wives migrated to Europe together.

For instance, Behar et al.*** showed that about half of Ashkenazi Jews alive today (approx. 8 million) are descendants of just four women, who may have lived 2,000 to 3,000 years ago in the Middle East.


* Hammer MF, Redd AJ, Wood ET, Bonner MR, Jarjanazi H, Karafet T, Santachiara-Benerecetti S, Oppenheim A, Jobling MA, Jenkins T, Ostrer H, Bonné-Tamir B (2000) Jewish and Middle Eastern non-Jewish populations share a common pool of Y-chromosome biallelic haplotypes. Proc Natl Acad Sci USA 97:6769–6774

**Nebel A, Filon D, Faerman M, Soodyall H, Oppenheim A. (2005) “Y chromosome evidence for a founder effect in Ashkenazi Jews”, European Journal of Human Genetics 13, 388–391.

***Behar DM, Metspalu E, Kivisild T, Achilli A, Hadid Y, Tzur S, Pereira L, Amorim A, Quintana-Murci I, Majamaa K, Herrnstadt C, Howell N, Balanovsky O, Kutuev I, Pshenichnov A, Gurwitz D, Bonne-Tamir B, Torroni A, Villems R, Skorecki K (2006) “The Matrilineal Ancestry of Ashkenazi Jewry: Portrait of a Recent Founder Event”, Am J Hum Genetics 78(3): 487–497.

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