Is Being Jewish All in the Genes?
Genetic studies bolster traditional notions of peoplehood, but Jewish leaders' reactions to the findings may surprise you.
BY: Lea Winerman
The Center for Human Genetics at New York University is filled with the constant hum of busy students, doctors, and patients. There's nothing to indicate that the work researchers are doing here has the potential to radically alter millennia-old conceptions of Jewish peoplehood.
Incongruous as the setting might seem, though, scientists at the Center for Human Genetics are investigating some of the most fascinating and longstanding questions of Jewish history. Dr. Harry Ostrer, the head of the center, is one of the many scientists around the world using the tools of modern genetic research to uncover the ancient roots of the Jewish people, long the exclusive province of historians. The results of genetic research could have a tremendous impact on the way Jews view themselves and their community.
The recent investigations into Jewish origins are, in some ways, a natural outgrowth of earlier studies of genetic diseases. Jews have long been a favored test group for research on genetic susceptibility to certain diseases. Centuries of living behind ghetto walls and marrying amongst themselves created Jewish populations with relatively homogenous gene pools, making the genetic variations linked to specific diseases easier to spot.
As a medical student at Columbia University in the 1970s, Ostrer, who is Jewish himself, helped to organize a Tay-Sachs screening program in the Bronx. (Tay-Sachs is an inherited syndrome common in Ashkenazi Jews.) As the amount of genetic data he collected grew, he, like many other Jewish scientists, began to wonder what other information might be hiding in his database.
"Eventually," he says, "we developed a rather marvelous database of DNA samples. And then, since we were studying Ashkenazi Jews, we figured 'why not look at other [Jewish] populations as well, and look at origins.'"
Now, many scientists who began their careers studying genetic diseases are employing the same research techniques to delve into the historical roots of the modern Jewish people.