Category Archive 'Ashkenazi Jews'

11 Sep 2014

Ashkenazi Jews Descend from 330 Individuals

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A genetic analysis shows that all of the Ashkenazi Jews alive today — of which there are more than 10 million — can trace their roots to a group of just 330 people who lived 600 to 800 years ago.

The new study, which now appears in the journal Nature Communications, involved the genetic analysis of 128 healthy Ashkenazi Jews. These complete genomes were in turn compared to each other, along with the DNA of 26 Flemish people from Belgium.

Writing in the LA Times, Karen Kaplan explains more:

    “Ashkenaz” in Hebrew refers to Germany, and Ashkenazi Jews are those who originated in Eastern Europe. (Sephardic Jews, by contrast, are from the areas around the Mediterranean Sea, including Portugal, Spain, the Middle East and Northern Africa.) About 80% of modern Jews have Ashkenazi ancestry, according to the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. Albert Einstein was an Ashkenazi Jew, as were Gertrude Stein and Carl Sagan. Steven Spielberg and Scarlett Johansson are also Ashkenazi Jews, along with three current members of the U.S. Supreme Court (Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Stephen Breyer and Elena Kagan).

    Despite their close ties with Europe, no more than half of their DNA comes from ancient Europeans, the researchers found. Only 46% to 50% of the DNA in the 128 samples originated with the group of people who were also the ancestors of the Flemish people in the study. Those ancient people split off from the ancestors of today’s Middle Easterners more than 20,000 years ago, with a founding group of about 3,500 to 3,900 people, according to the study.

    The rest of the Ashkenazi genome comes from the Middle East, the researchers reported. This founding group “fused” with the European founding group to create a population of 250 to 420 individuals. These people lived 25 to 32 generations ago, and their descendants grew at a rate of 16% to 53% per generation, the researchers calculated.


Nature Communications:

Sequencing an Ashkenazi reference panel supports population-targeted personal genomics and illuminates Jewish and European origins


The Ashkenazi Jewish (AJ) population is a genetic isolate close to European and Middle Eastern groups, with genetic diversity patterns conducive to disease mapping. Here we report high-depth sequencing of 128 complete genomes of AJ controls. Compared with European samples, our AJ panel has 47% more novel variants per genome and is eightfold more effective at filtering benign variants out of AJ clinical genomes. Our panel improves imputation accuracy for AJ SNP arrays by 28%, and covers at least one haplotype in ≈67% of any AJ genome with long, identical-by-descent segments. Reconstruction of recent AJ history from such segments confirms a recent bottleneck of merely ≈350 individuals. Modelling of ancient histories for AJ and European populations using their joint allele frequency spectrum determines AJ to be an even admixture of European and likely Middle Eastern origins. We date the split between the two ancestral populations to ≈12–25 Kyr, suggesting a predominantly Near Eastern source for the repopulation of Europe after the Last Glacial Maximum.

Hat tip to Karen L. Myers.

18 Jun 2014

The Origin of Yiddish

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Marc Chagall, I and the Village, Museum of Modern Art, New York.

In Tablet magazine, Cherie Woodworth reviews the fascinating debate on the origin of the Yiddish language.

That history revolves around two theories, that proposed by Max Weinrich:

If you want to know not just what Yiddish is but where it came from, how it managed to survive and even to flourish, you can do no better than the new edition of Max Weinreich’s History of the Yiddish Language—but be sure to read the footnotes. They extend for over 750 pages, are now published in English for the first time in the new Yale edition, and contain the most interesting, and controversial, part of what had seemed till now a fairly straightforward and unchallenged historical narrative.

Weinreich’s original text and notes were published in 1973, four years after his death. A partial translation into English—without the notes—was published by the University of Chicago Press in 1980. Yale’s new edition thus finally makes available for the first time the greater part of Weinreich’s work—the notes are longer than the text—thoroughly edited by Paul Glasser. The notes cite research in two dozen languages and took more than a decade to edit and check even after they were translated. These notes are not just the usual formal apparatus, reassuring to any scholarly reader: They are essential to understanding Weinreich’s many-stranded argument about the relationship between culture and language. They also provide a subtle counter-argument to his lifelong thesis. Weinreich was a careful, fair, and judicious scholar, and it was in the notes to his monumental work that he gave place to the vexing confusion of counter-evidence to his main, and beloved, story of Yiddish origins and, by implication, the origins of millions of East European Jews and their descendants in America. …

Weinreich’s basic story of the beginnings of Yiddish in the Rhine valley and its centrality in creating a European Jewish culture are repeated everywhere, and without question. But the pillars of Weinreich’s argument are too broad, their foundations in a millennial-old history too unstable, to be as unshakable as his subsequent readers have made them seem—a fact that Weinreich knew very well. He was too careful a scholar to buy into a simplistic view, as the publication of the notes now clearly reveals.

Weinreich’s first innovation in the History was to argue, against apparent common sense and abundant personal experience, that Yiddish was formed not through isolation but through constant interaction combined with a chosen separateness. The walled-off ghettos of 18th-century European cities, although they preserved Yiddish, were not the environment that gave it life. Weinreich’s innovation was to argue that “Jewish otherness”—and the language that goes with it—“cannot be the result of ‘exclusion’; it is not even the result of exile.”

Where others had persistently told the story of confinement, prejudice, and persecution, Weinreich spoke of independence, self-government, selfassertion, and community building. It was undeniable that “without communal separateness there is no separate language,” and so the separateness of the Ashkenazi community was necessary for Yiddish to arise. But the modern explanation for that separateness, according to Weinreich, got the story exactly backward. Nineteenth-century Jewish activists, demanding rights of citizenship, created the story that the Jews had been locked in ghettos since the Middle Ages, “and thus excluded from society at large and its intellectual development; in this forced isolation”—an influential Jewish assimilationist argued—“both their mode of life in general and their language in particular became corrupted.” …

For Weinreich, based on both the linguistic and historical evidence, there could be no doubt that up until the 18th century “the Jews wanted to be by themselves. … Separate residence (strange as this may appear in the light of present Jewish and general conceptions of rights) was part of the privileges granted the Jews at their own request” so they could worship together; provide for their own slaughterhouse, bathhouse, cemetery, and social halls; study together; run their own rabbinic courts; supervise tax collection; and when necessary, protect themselves from attacks.

Archeology supports this part of Weinreich’s argument. Befuddled tour guides in Prague struggle to explain why, given the expectation of exclusion of Jews, the city’s famous Jewish quarter, Josefov, is so central to the old town. (One misguided explanation is that the Jews were given land near the river that was too marshy for the other city inhabitants, prone to flooding and disease-bearing miasmas.) But Prague’s Josefov is not an isolated case—it is typical. Weinreich’s point is that exclusion could also be exclusivity; restrictions also came with designated privileges. In Trier, Mainz, Aachen, Cologne, Worms, and more than 100 medieval towns in Central Europe, the Jewish district was both a central and a prime location, close to the economic heart of the city. The German Bishop Rüdiger, granting a charter of the city of Speyer in 1084 wrote, “I thought that I would increase the glory of our city a thousandfold if I were to include Jews.” …

Once he demonstrated that Yiddish is an independent language, Weinreich explained how it came to be, first as an altered language formed among medieval Jewish trading settlements in the French–German borderland along the Rhine valley. Weinreich deduced from traces left in early Yiddish that these first Jewish immigrants to the heart of Europe spoke a Romance language, having left Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek behind when they left the eastern Mediterranean, although Hebrew and Aramaic were still languages of study. But early on (in the 10th or 11th century) these Jews from Rhineland France, presumably through contact with Jewish settlements in southern Germany, converted from old Judeo-French to western Yiddish, which was more purely German with some elements of Latin or early French. In subsequent centuries—when, exactly, is a source of considerable debate—this language moved east with Jewish emigrants, settlers, and refugees, either in the 12th century (after the Crusades and persecutions) or in the 14th or 15th. There it picked up a significant cargo of Slavic vocabulary and expressions and became the Yiddish more familiar today: eastern Yiddish.

With his 1,000-year history, Weinreich thus removed the East European Jews from both the poor shtetls (the cliché associated with Jewish immigrants to America of the 19th and early 20th century) and their tragic end. Distancing them from their Slavic neighbors, who had little cultural cachet in America, and bypassing the association with Germany, which had become toxic after 1945, he placed their roots instead in France, where Jews still like to go on vacation.

And the alternative argued by Paul Wexlar:

[H]ow to account, demographically, for the millions of Jews who appear on the records in Poland, Ukraine, Lithuania, Hungary, and elsewhere by the 19th century. Immigration following the medieval Crusades and expulsions from Western Europe, followed by 400 to 500 years of natural biological growth, are not enough to account for the size of the East European Jewish population. The numbers simply don’t add up. Two scholars from disparate fields of inquiry have recently tried anew to solve this puzzle, first noted at least a century ago: Paul Wexler from comparative linguistics and David Goldstein from genetics.

The title of Paul Wexler’s detailed study, The Ashkenazic Jews: A SlavoTurkic People in Search of a Jewish Identity, is not shy about his claim: Yiddish has Slavic grammar, syntax, morphemes, phonemes, and lexicon, with a smaller input from Turkic. Wexler made the case that Yiddish is a “relexification”—a massive borrowing of Germanic words onto a basically Slavic structure, as opposed to Weinreich’s view that Slavic words were added to a Germanic structure. Wexler’s claim applies not only to the language: “The bulk of their [Ashkenazi Jewish] religious practices and folkways also prove to be of Slavic origin” and thus “the Ashkenazic [sic] Jews may be in the main ethnic Slavs”—Wexler added his own italics, in case readers should not get the point. Wexler’s preferred term for modern Judaism was “Judaized pagano-Christianity,” though he used the term rarely on the grounds that it was too cumbersome. …

Genetics might provide us with an exit to this uncomfortable, and vexingly arcane, linguistic argument. Recent studies of markers on the Y chromosome of Ashkenazi men hold out the possibility of determining, with apparent mathematical precision, how many Ashekenazi men share markers distinctive to the European, Middle Eastern, or other (for example, Central Asian Turkic) gene pool. The results are inconclusive, puzzling, and unexpected. David Goldstein, a molecular geneticist at Duke, undertook to trace Y markers among two Ashekenazi subgroups: the Cohanim (the class of priests narrowly defined) and the Levites (liturgical officiants from the tribe of Levi). He found that the Cohanim from both Ashkenazi and Sephardic populations shared an unusual marker on the Y chromosome that set them apart both from the surrounding non-Jewish populations—and from their own communities. He traced the marker to a mutation originating about 3,000 years ago and suggested in conclusion that this showed both groups had a real and unbroken genetic link with the original priestly Jews of Israel. (He received tremendous media coverage as a result.)

The Ashkenazi Levites, on the other hand, showed a puzzling genetic signature: they did not match particularly well with the Cohanim, nor with the broader population of Ashkenazi Jews. Comparing this group with the most common Y-chromosome micro-mutations in European and West Eurasian populations (i.e., Turkic and Caucasian tribes), Goldstein concluded that though he had at first been very skeptical of the “Khazar hypothesis” that Ashkenazi Jews came to Eastern Europe from the Eurasian steppe, rather than from Germany, he now found it “plausible, if not likely” and “worth investigating further.”

In his latest work—more linguistic studies, as well as an etymological dictionary of Yiddish—Wexler argues that the core of what became the Ashkenazi Jews originated not in post-exilic Judea, later dispersed through the Mediterranean Roman Empire, but in Persia: the Azhkenazi(c) Jews were “an outgrowth of Jewish Iranians who brought Judaism to the Khazars, and subsequently migrated westwards with Turkic-origin Jews and non-Jewish Khazars.”

Read the whole thing, and look forward to part two.

22 Jan 2013

New Genetic Study Supports Theory That Ashkenazi Jews Descend From Khazars

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90% of living Jews are European (Askenazi) Jews. There are two theories of the origin of European Jewry: the Rhineland Hypothesis contends that European Jews fled Palestine after the Roman destruction of the Temple in 70 A.D. or after the Muslim conquest of Palestine in 637 A.D., migrated into Europe via Italy and Spain, then settled along the Rhine, before being driven eastward by persecution. The use of Yiddish, a High German dialect, by Ashkenazi Jews provides substantive support for their origin somewhere in Germany.

The alternative Khazar Hypothesis, popularized by Arthur Koestler, argues that nearly all European Jews really descend from the Khazars, a Turkish-speaking people, who converted to Judaism en masse in the 8th century.

New genetic evidence produced by a study by Geneticist Eran Elhaik of the Johns Hopkins School of Public Health in Baltimore, published in the British journal Genome Biology and Evolution, on The Missing Link of Jewish European Ancestry: Contrasting the Rhineland and the Khazarian Hypotheses provides strong support for the Khazar Hypothesis.

Abstract excerpt

Thus far… the Khazars’ contribution has been estimated only empirically, as the absence of genome-wide data from Caucasus populations precluded testing the Khazarian hypothesis. Recent sequencing of modern Caucasus populations prompted us to revisit the Khazarian hypothesis and compare it with the Rhineland hypothesis. We applied a wide range of population genetic analyses to compare these two hypotheses. Our findings support the Khazarian hypothesis and portray the European Jewish genome as a mosaic of Near Eastern-Caucasus, European, and Semitic ancestries, thereby consolidating previous contradictory reports of Jewish ancestry. We further describe a major difference among Caucasus populations explained by the early presence of Judeans in the Southern and Central Caucasus.


In the same issue, Danielle Venton summarized the conclusion of “the first scientific paper to prove the Khazarian Hypothesis and reject the Rhineland Hypothesis.”

When Behar et al. published “The genome-wide structure of the Jewish people” in 2010, Elhaik decided to investigate the question that had intrigued him for so long. Using data published by Behar, he calculated seven measures of ancestry, relatedness, and geographical origin. Though he used some of the same statistical tests as prior studies, he chose different comparisons.

“Results in the current literature are tangled,” Elhaik says. “Everyone is basically following the same assumption: Ashkenazi Jews are a population isolate, so they are all similar to one another, and this is completely incorrect.”

Previous studies had, for example, combined the question of similarity among and between Jewish populations and the question of ancestry and relatedness to non-Jewish populations. Elhaik viewed these questions separately. Jewish communities are less homogeneous than is popularly thought, he says, with Jewish communities along the former Khazarian border showing the most heterogeneity.

His second question centered on ancestry: When comparing Jewish communities to their non-Jewish neighbors, Caucasus or Levant (Middle Eastern) populations—which is the closest to Jews? “All Eurasian Jewish communities are closer to Caucasus populations,” he writes, with Central European Jews closer to Italian non-Jews as the exception. Not one of the eight evaluated Jewish populations were closer to Levant populations.

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