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September 01, 1989 - Image 102

Resource type:
Text
Publication:
The Detroit Jewish News, 1989-09-01

Disclaimer: Computer generated plain text may have errors. Read more about this.

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Are Jews Different

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their typically dark, Mediter-
ranean features, were in some
way related to their fair-
skinned co-religionists a
world away, in the crowded
shtetls of Poland and Russia?
The key question, however,
is: If such a genetic link ex-
ists, does that explain the
cultural isolation of Jews for
more than 25 centuries?
"That is certainly one con-
clusion you could draw from
Karlin's data." Feldman says,
noting that he, himself,
chooses to take a noncommit-
tal positon.
Karlin, however, insists
that "there is no such thing
as a Jewish gene pool unless
you speak of it as . . . an
outgrowth of the Jewish
population bottleneck which
occurred in 1500."
Since "the end of the Mid-
dle Ages," he says, "the con-
tribution of non-Jews to the
Jewish gene pool has been ex-
tremely small," while the
genetic flow in the other
direction from the Jewish
population to the non-Jewish
population via conversion —
was significant.
Other scientists, mean-
while, have interpreted the
genetic data differently. Dorit
Carmelli, a senior biostatis-
tician at the Stanford Re-
search Institute in Menlo
Park, Calif., for example,
worked with Karlin in the
1970s at the Weizmann,
where she received her doctor-
ate.
The author of The Genetic
Origin of the Jews, Carmelli
says succinctly, "I don't be-

TM

lieve that the Jews were iso-
lated." She believes, instead,
that genetic mixing must
have taken place during the
2,000 years of Diaspora life.
Through her own research
of 12 Jewish and 20 non-Jew-
ish groups, in fact, she no-
ticed genetic mixing within
Sephardi and Ashkenazi sub-
groups even though all those
Jews supposedly had a com-
mon Mideastern origin.
That research would sug-
gest that the halachic pro-
hibition against inter-
marriage was, in fact, not
observed.

One thing all three Bay
Area scientists agree on is the
impossibility of determining
anything remotely resem-
bling a "Jewish race."
"It is extremely difficult to
make a racial classification on
what we know about genes to-
day," says Feldman, a native
of Perth, Australia.
By way of example, he
points to his soft curls and
says, "Take my hair. Most
people of African extraction
also have curly hair, but so do
a great number of people of
Jewish and Arab extraction."
As for the future of gene-
tics, Feldman is optimistic.
The possibility of "DNA
fingerprinting" may be in the
offing. And genetic research
undoubtedly will impact on
medical fields.
"A fairly high frequency of
Mediterranean Jews have a
hemoglobin disorder called
thalassemia," he notes.
"Sephardic Jews are known
to have a certain enzyme de-
ficiency that is restricted to
their populations, and, of
course, there's 'Thy-Sachs.
"The closer we get to iso-
lating these diseases, their
populations, and where they
appear on the DNA molecule,
the nearer we get to finding a
cure."
Meanwhile, Carmelli re-
members the first human
genetic conference held in
Jerusalem in 1962, an event
that became a springboard
for studying Israel's distinct
Jewish ethnic groups "while
they still were new immi-
grants and before intermar-
riage would make genetic
research of that kind virtual-
ly impossible."
But no matter what tools
researchers use, she adds,
"one can say that Jews pos-
sess a genetic profile that
makes them more similar
with each other than with
non-Jews."
As the child "growing up in
Israel during the '50s and
'60s" she continues, "you
can't imagine how fascinating
it was for me to hear Jews
speaking so many languages
and looking so different from
one another."
But the inherent homoge-
neity of the Jews, she in-
dicates, ultimately took her
past a quest to find genetic
similarities to visceral ap-
preciation c f Am Yisrael, one
people of Israel.

Winston Pickett is a staff
writer for the Northern

California Jewish Bulletin.

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