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]


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