The Jewish Journalism of Joel Shurkin

Friday, January 13, 2006

How many Jewish mothers does it take to produce the Ashkenazi Jewish population? Four, of course

You never write, you never visit, you never compliment the soup--Apparently, about half of us can trace our ancestry back to four women. We’ll call them Leah, Rachel, Sarah and Rebecca. I made up the names--sort of--but not the genetics.

Researchers in Israel, using mitochondrial DNA analysis, have found that many of the Ashkenazim, Jews mostly of central and eastern European origin, descended from the four matriarchs. mtDNA [do you capitalize the first letter of a lowercase name when it leads a sentence?] is passed through the female line, mother to daughter. If a woman has no daughter, her mtDNA ends with her. Using DNA analysis, Doron Behar of Rambam Medical Center in Haifa and Karl Skorecki of the Technion-Israel Institute of Technology, traced the ancestry of 3.5 million Ashkenzim back to the four. No one knows when they lived, but it was probably within the last 2,000 years, and no one knows where. They could have been contemporary but maybe not. We don’t know who they are at all, only that they produced a line of females that produced 40% of the 8 million living Ashkenazim, including, for all I know, moi. They are of Middle-Eastern origin and their descendents were apparently most fruitful and multiplied greatly in the last 1,000 years. Is that cool or what? It’s published in the American Journal of Human Genetics.

Ashkenazim originated, like all Jews except converts, in what is now Israel and surrounds, and with the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem and the failed rebellion against Rome, spread out to Europe, mostly through Italy. They soon found their homes in places like Germany, Poland, Ukraine and Russia and by World War 2, there were 10 million of them. (After World War 2, there were 4 million of them). Sometime between that diaspora and now (probably earlier than later) the four women began their long line. Ashkenazim represent 8 of the 13 million Jews now alive.

We ought to at least write. And dont forget to compliment the chopped liver.

[Illustration: Mothers of the 12 Tribes, Barbara Mendes, used with the permission of the artist. See www.barbaramendes.org]

Sunday, January 08, 2006

What right does the government have to tell me what to suck. UPDATED and AGAIN

Hey, that was before the election. Now it’s after the election. Leave that penis alone!--There is no place where the battle between church and state gets nastier than when science and medicine are involved. Remember Ms. Schiavo? A particularly nasty one is going on in New York and the fault is with the politicians. We've reported on it before, but now it is even more interesting. It involves an ancient and widely discredited procedure accompanying the circumcision of Jewish males. The practice is called metzitzah b'peh, and in it, the mohel, the rabbi who performs the circumcision, “cleans” the penis after the slice by sucking on it. [I’m not making this up] It’s an ancient practice, going back to the time before germ theory and antiseptics.

[In mid-June, a compromises was reached. See below]

Before we start, I must add that the practice was dropped long ago by most mohels. [mohelim] Liberal jews, which are most of us, likely never heard of such a thing [I hadn't] and are appropriately repelled. We use antiseptics, thank you. Even most Orthodox Jews reject it. It is practice generally restricted to a few Hassidic cults, especially the Satmars, the very extreme right wing of Judaism. You have your right wing nuts; we should have our right wing nuts. It’s only fair. About 4,000 are performed in the city each year, mostly by parents who parked their critical faculties at the synagogue door and forgot to reclaim them. Proponents believe the procedure was mandated in the Talmud, the rabbinic writings that far preceded Pasteur.

We move now to New York City, where those cults are alive, well and very noisy. One mohel, Rabbi Yitzchok (Isaac) Fischer, came under the scrutiny of the New York City Department of Health when three children came down with herpes. One of them died. It seemed Rabbi Fischer had herpes and passed the viruses onto the children during metzitzah b’peh. The city’s health commissioner, Dr. Thomas R. Frieden (Jewish), threatened to take away Rabbi Fischer’s license. The small community the mohel served, went ballistic. They insisted the herpes came from the mothers (it didn't, tests showed) but they agreed to keep Fischer from performing more circumcisions. Meanwhile, three more babies were infected, one with brain damage. It is not known who did the snipping. Fischer took a blood test but the results have not been made public. Self-serving rumor in the Orthodox community insists his blood was clear but no one else is buying that, especially the authorities.

Now it seems there was a mayoral election coming up, with the incumbent mayor, Michael Bloomberg (Jewish) and he has enjoyed considerable support from the Orthodox community. Bloomberg promised the city would not ban the practice and he would let a rabbinic court decide the issue since Jewish law was involved and it is at least as wise as the laws of the State of New York. Fine, except the court didn’t. In an almost impossible situation, caught between civil law, Jewish law, and some seriously demented proponents who have been known to behave like thugs, the court still has not ruled. One Orthodox expert, a famous bioethicist, denounced the practice and was harassed by advocates.

The election came and went, Bloomberg was reelected and now Frieden has issued an unprecedented warning that practice endangered the lives of Jewish babies, a clear violation of Jewish law [which it is]. And the extremists are in total uproar, claiming the ruling violates the separation of church (or schul) and state [which it doesn't] and accused Bloomberg of reneging on a promise not to obstruct their mohels. They threatened to show up at his inauguration wearing yellow Stars of David, the patch the Nazis made Jews wear, yet another example of Godwin's Law in real life. When that was met with outrage by the rest of the community, they held back. The directive from the health department stands and most Members of the Tribe cringe with embarrassment.

The city board of health, apparently not intimidated, has ordered reporting of cases of neonatal herpes in order to track the problem.

The point is that if Bloomberg had the courage to tell the thugs to shove in the first place, he wouldn’t be in this jam. But then there was this election.... So babies are endangered. In God’s name, of course. The trick, as Joyce Purnick wrote in the Times, is not to try to finesse your way out of difficult situations, but to do what's right and the hell with it.
In other words, some Jewish New Yorkers were ready to display a symbol of Nazi persecution at City Hall because the health department issued advice to parents about a procedure than can kill babies [she wrote].

The would-be protesters restrained themselves, a welcome decision to those who might have been troubled to see anyone in 21st-century New York equating a letter from public health professionals to the horrors of the Holocaust.

That anyone even thought of invoking - and demeaning - the Holocaust underscores something we suspect Mr. Bloomberg has figured out by now: There's no winning the really tough ones, so he may as well follow his own advice. Mayors, he advised in a speech last September, "solve problems not by taking both sides of big issues, but by deciding what's right and then going after it."

You wouldn't think that took a lot of courage would you?

UPDATE--Finally, some kind of compromise was reached when the state and the rabbis reached an agreement to make this seriously disgusting practice at least conform to 19th century standards.

The new state guidelines require mohels, or anyone performing metzizah b'peh, to sanitize their hands like a surgeon, removing all jewelry, cleaning their nails under running water and washing their hands for up to six minutes with antimicrobial soap or an alcohol-based hand scrub

The person performing metzizah b'peh also must clean his mouth with a sterile alcohol wipe and, no more than five minutes before it, rinse for at least 30 seconds with a mouthwash that contains 25 percent alcohol.

The circumcised area must be covered with antibiotic ointment and sterile gauze after the procedure.

And, lest you non-Jews out there cluck at our crazies, did you hear about the three Christian ministers who snuck into the Senate to bless the seats of the hearing where Sam Alito’s confirmation hearings will be held. They applied “holy” oil to help assure his confirmation.

I’m not making up any of this.]
Illustration: The Sacrifice of Isaac, Caravegio, 1602]