Thursday, March 09, 2006

Where did we come from?

Most of the 13 million or so Jews in the world, myself included, are Ashkenazim. That is, a thousand years ago our ancestors were mostly living in central Europe ("Ashkenaz" is an old word for Germany in Hebrew and Yiddish) and then over the next few centuries were expelled from almost all of western and central Europe and wound up in eastern Europe, mostly in the former Kingdom/Republic of Poland and Lithuania (which was later partitioned between Russia, Germany, and Austria-Hungary, and then re-partitioned several times since). Starting in the late 19th century we began leaving (or fleeing from) eastern Europe, with occasional new waves of emigration as recently as the end of the Soviet Union, and the ones who didn't were mostly murdered by Hitler, so most of us now live in the U.S. or Israel.

Apparently, science has now determined that almost half of us Ashkenazim are descended from just four matriarchs who lived in Europe sometime between a thousand and two thousand years ago.
Although they probably weren't named Sarah, Rebekah, Rachel and Leah, four Jewish "founding mothers" who lived in Europe 1,000 years ago have been credited with being the ancestors of nearly half of all Ashkenazi Jews, who constitute the majority of the current Jewish population.
About 3.5 million people — or 40 percent of Ashkenazi Jews currently alive — are descended from these matriarchs, who were among a small group, probably after migrating from the Middle East, according to the Israeli researchers, who also provide evidence of shared maternal ancestry between Ashkenazi and non-Ashkenazi (Sephardi and Oriental) Jews.
An AP report puts the timing somewhat differently, but conveys the same basic picture:
Some 3.5 million of today's Ashkenazi Jews — about 40% of the total Ashkenazi population — are descended from just four women, a genetic study indicates.
Those women apparently lived somewhere in Europe within the last 2,000 years, but not necessarily in the same place or even the same century, said lead author Dr. Doron Behar of the Rambam Medical Center in Haifa, Israel.
=> This may mean that I am related to the celebrated African-American scholar and Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates, Jr., who recently discovered that on his matrilineal side he is descended from an Ashkenazi Jewish woman. See this piece by Christopher Hitchens (who discovered his own Jewish heritage not that long ago), "Shalom, Professor Gates":
Shalom, then, to Skip. I wouldn't exactly say welcome to the club, since most American clubs have gone to inordinate lengths to screen out these Semitic particles of mitochondrial DNA. However, the discovery late in life that one is connected to a diaspora — or even two diasporas — is not so rare and will become increasingly common.

It happened to Madeleine Albright, who only learned that three of her four grandparents were Jewish when she was informed of it by a Washington Post reporter. It happened to me, when my grandmother told me as an adult that both she and my mother were Jewish, and it sent me looking for my forebears on the German-Polish border. It happened to Sen. John Kerry in 2003. And it has happened, less happily, to any number of couples who unexpectedly produce a child with the Tay-Sachs blood disorder and only then examine their family histories.

Professor Gates was already in my own family history, since all of us originate in Africa. But it's nice to find that we are related twice over. I knew about the Falasha of Ethiopia, who have kept a version of Judaism alive since before the dawn of recorded history. And since the availability of DNA testing we have also made the amazing discovery that the Lemba people of Namibia — on the other side of the continent — have a Jewish background as well.

It can't have been much of a surprise to Skip that there was an Irishman on his father's side (recent research in Kentucky has shown that the same is true of the man I shall always think of as Cassius Clay), but the Jewish and the African combo is more, well, exotic.
As Hitchens correctly concludes:
The latest tidings tell us in a sense what we already knew, and knew before the DNA string was unraveled and decoded: We are all brothers and sisters under the skin. No, let me amend that cliche: We were all brothers and sisters under the skin long before pigmentation was evolved. The only surprise is that we are still surprised; but then we do still live in the prehistory of our species. When we eventually get over this, one of the toasts will certainly be l'chaim.
Jeff Weintraub