Where do Ashkenazi Jews come from? (And if Jews are clever enough to come up with, as I count, from recent articles, about a baker’s dozen transliterations of knaidel, why can’t they find a spelling for Jews of northern European descent that doesn’t end in the letters “nazi?”). These questions are prompted by my recent experience in having my DNA scanned by the genetic company 23andme, which offers a genetic scan for 100 bucks. (This is not a testimonial, but if you want to spit into a vial and discover your inner Neanderthal, go ahead.)
Before I did this, I must say, I had little interest in my genetic make-up. Whatever dark genetic secrets lie in my twisted strands of DNA and RNA, I have managed to reach the age of 59 without serious illness. Whatever happens from now on, happens. But my wife, a geneticist, did the 23andme scan, and wanted some other data to present to her classes. She’s an Irish-Scottish-Italian-Albanian mix. Me, I’m, as far as I know, a pure-bred Ashkenazi Jew, which is confirmed by 23andme, which tells me than I am 93.0% of Ashkenazi descent, and a whopping 99.2% of European ancestry, with a measly 0.1% of me from sub-Saharan Africa (although I long felt that ever since my ancestors left Africa, some 50,000 years or so ago, I have been in diaspora). So there are few surprises in my ancestry. “You’re a dull Jew,” my wife complained.
So where do Ashkenazi Jews come from? It’s always been something of a mystery. According to that always reliable source, Wikipedia, in the 11th
century only 3% of the world Jewish population was Ashkenazi (though by that time our ranks already included such rabbinic luminaries as Rashi). In 1930, the world Jewish population was 92% Ashkenazi. Today, the figure is somewhere around 80%. Given that…
- at the time of the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 CE there were presumably almost no Ashkenazic Jews,
- there’s no reported mass migration of Mediterranean Jews to cooler northern climes at any point in Jewish history,
- and the history of Ashkenazic Jews in northern Europe from the First Crusade to the Third Reich, was at least as murderous (and almost certainly more so) than the situation faced by Sephardic Jews…
how did Ashkenazi Jews become so numerous?
The traditional explanation for the origin of Ashkenazi Jews is that a stream of Italian Jews moved into the Rhineland in the centuries before Charlemagne, where they were fruitful and multiplied, eventually migrating eastward. For many, this has never quite seemed adequate, and there has been a search for another source of genetic and demographic ballast for Eastern European Jews. The legend of the Khazars, a Turkic people living in the Black Sea region that converted in Judaism in the 10th century in whole or in part, has been popular among Jews since the time of Yehuda Ha-Levi, and the “Khazar hypothesis,” arguing that they were the ancestors of most Eastern European Jews, has had its proponents, Arthur Koestler for one , and it has recently been revived by a prominent population geneticist. I’m skeptical, but I am in no position to hazard a very educated supposition on this matter.
You might ask, so what? The “what” is establishing a biological basis for Jews, Judaism, or whatever you want to call it.
As Mitchell B. Hart has demonstrated in a recent anthology, Jews and Race: Writings on Identity and Difference, 1880-1940, in the late 19thand early 20th century, Jews, as well as Antisemites, eagerly tried to prove the existence of a biological Jewish race. And the new explosion of interest in genetics has revived this, in much more sophisticated ways. A recent book on the subject, Harry Ostrer’s very instructive volume for genetic naïfs, Legacy:A Genetic History of the Jewish People,argues that “the evidence for biological Jewishness has been incontrovertible” and this incontrovertible truth will impact many long standing questions, including, “the heart of Jewish claims for a Jewish homeland in Israel.” Gad, I hope not. I can’t think of anything more irrelevant, or more likely to generate heat than light than a genetic argument for Israel.
More about my genes. My haplotype (I’m still not entirely sure what that is, something to do with dear old mom’s mitochondria) is K1a9, a haplotype I share with 1.7 million Ashkenazi Jews. The same haplotype can be found among 17% of Kurds, 16% of Druze, 10% of Palestinians and (for those who like the Khazar hypothesis) 11% of ethnic Georgians. 23andme only goes back 500 years in searching for haplotypes. If we went back to the time of the Second Temple, at a time when there were approximately 6 million Jews in the world (that number again), and extrapolate forward, most of those living in the Middle East, as well as Ashkenazic Jews, and many Asians and Africans, can claim some degree of genetic Jewishness, in stronger or more attenuated forms. (It is more mass conversions, especially to Islam, rather than mass murders, I think, that is largely responsible for there not being more than 15 or 16 million Jews in the world today.)
Now to get to the moral of this story: I love and affirm the 93% of my DNA that is Ashkenazic Jewish, and equally love and affirm the 7% of me that is not. As Jews and non-Jews have over the centuries learned to share their genes, so Jews and non-Jews must learn to share the land of Israel. If modern genetics has established a biological basis for Jewishness, it has also established that Jewishness and non-Jewishness cannot easily be separated. We humans have a predisposition (probably genetic) to divide and try to force things into mutually exclusive categories but this is constantly defeated by the complexities of history and life. Whatever else we learn from modern genetics it is that all things are more complicated than they appear, and that almost all dichotomies presented as unbridgeable, between Jews and non-Jews, between the Jewish state and non-Jewish states, can in fact be bridged.
This is something we have all inherited.