Kingdom of Priests

Kingdom of Priests

The News That Brittany Murphy Was Jewish

…, in the sense of having a Jewish mother, raises an interesting question apart from the tragic moral enigma of a beautiful young actress’s sudden death. Forgive me if it seems impertinent to ask now, but just how many Jews are there in the world? The figure you always hear is about 13 million. But imagine the implications if we were to take seriously the Jewish idea that Jewish identity is passed down through the mother, regardless of whether someone has a Jewish name, practices Judaism, or has any touch of self-understood Jewish identity at all.

Ms. Murphy, who apparently married in some kind of Jewish ceremony, isn’t really a prime example. Here’s a better one. 
I got an email from a reader the other day, Bruce Carpenter, who relates some news about DNA testing upon himself. He had read my review in National Review of Norman  Podhoretz’s book, Why Are Jews Liberals?, where in passing I wrote about speculation that after the expulsion of the Jews from England, many Jews actually stayed on having converted nominally to Christianity. This left a population of Jews-by-birth who gradually faded into the general background. Bruce Carpenter’s family evidently were among them: 

As an aside, my own family relocated  to Massachusetts in 1638 and were active in religious freedom disputes i.e., the Baptist movement. Recently they were show to have Jewish DNA with a history in trade and finance stretching back to the 1200s in England, especially Norfork and Lincolnshire, a center for Jews until the 12th century. 


He goes on with a bit of family history:

William Carpenter of Rehoboth arrived in Massachusetts in 1638. A close relative, also a William Carpenter, arrived previously and later joined Roger Williams and other free thinkers in the new Providence colony. William Carpenter of Rehoboth was also a Baptist free thinker. He joined secret meetings and was subsequently persecuted by the court. Both Carpenters were proven to have Jewish-Levite Y-chromosome DNA.

His story is very far from being unique. At one point or another during the Middle Ages, Jews were expelled from most of the countries in Europe, in a wave running from west to east. So in Spain, for example, again based on a sample from DNA testing, 8 million or so Spaniards have Jewish backgrounds. Their Jewish ancestors stayed on following the Expulsion after “converting” to Catholicism. Tracing lines of mothers exclusively, you will come up with a bona fide Jewish population in Spain smaller than 8 million but still a lot of people, about half men and half women, though only the women can pass on their Jewishness to the next generation.
I’m constantly hearing from friends, friends of friends, acquaintances, and co-workers, about people discovering their lost or forgotten Jewish roots. Countless Jews over the centuries have disappeared into the larger gentile society. Per the traditional matrilineal definition of a Jew, the men among them left no Jewish descendants but the women did. So did their daughters, and their daughters’ daughters down to today. 
That would make for a heck of a lot more Jews in the world than 13 million. The mathematics that it would take to suggest an approximate number is beyond my pay grade. I wouldn’t know where to begin. Can anyone help? Of course this is leaving aside the famous Lost Tribes, wherever in (presumably) central Asia their descendants may be found living today.
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posted December 22, 2009 at 4:47 pm

I’ve often thought about this issue. I don’t have the mathematical training to really evaluate this. But I think about it this way. Let’s say 1000 European Jews converted to Christianity 1000 years ago (about 40 generations). And let’s say each of them had an average of 2 surviving children, and intermarried fairly randomly with the rest of the population. If all that was so, then they would have over a quadrillion descendants (1000(2^40)) (some of the descendants would be the same people, assuming some inter-breeding). If you say the conversions took place only 500 years ago, over 20 generations, that’s still a billion descendants. This kind of calculation suggests to me that for any living person from any country which experienced significant Jewish conversions 500 years ago or more, the person is virtually certain to be descended from Jews.
However, the number of actual Jews, because of an unbroken mother-daughter connection, must be far lower. If you have 20 or 40 generations, isn’t there a big chance that in one of those generations there will be only men? So let’s say 3000 European Jews converted to Christianity (willingly or not) in the last millenium. I would guess that only a small handful of those managed to have an unbroken line of female children who managed to have female children until the present day. This said, if there are places where significant Jewish conversion to Christianity took place relatively recently, like in the 19th century, then it’s much more likely that a good number of their descendants are halachically Jewish.
There are so many people with claimed Jewish ancestry in Portugal and Spain that a Shavei, a Religious Zionist organization in Israel run by Michael Freund, sends rabbis to those countries (and elsewhere) to help them convert if they want to.

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posted December 22, 2009 at 6:14 pm

An interesting and legitimate point, though I question the linkage of Jewish genes with “free thought” or even “religious freedom issues,” considering that in Judaism one is “free” only to worship Hashem but **no other god.**

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posted December 22, 2009 at 7:11 pm

Noachide, perhaps I missed where anyone made that linkage.

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posted December 23, 2009 at 5:47 am

“regardless of whether someone has a Jewish name, practices Judaism, or has any touch of self-understood Jewish identity at all.”
“A Jewish name” (whatever that means – is “Arthur Miller” a Jewish name?) has never been a requirement for being Jewish in any sense.

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Enezio E. de Almeida Filho

posted December 23, 2009 at 6:22 am

What about those who are Jews deep in their hearts?

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posted November 16, 2012 at 9:29 pm

Brittany Murphy’s maternal grandmother was a non-Jewish woman of Eastern European. The Jewish thing is a stupid web rumour.

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posted November 16, 2012 at 9:29 pm

*of Eastern European descent

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