A genetic history of the Jewish people
Dave Shafer CHJ
The Torah gives a lot of Jewish
genealogies that start with Noah
and go for many generations. But
this is not science, it is hearsay.
Here we will look at DNA evidence
to trace some of the long history of
the Jewish people.
DNA research on ancestry
is quite complicated and
very technical and has
nuances and fine points
that we will skip over to
give a simpler view of this
Much of this material comes from this 2012 book
by genetic scientist Harry Ostrer, M.D., Professor of
Pathology and Genetics at Albert Einstein College of
Medicine and Director of Genetic and Genomic
Testing at Montefiore Medical Center. He has spent
over 20 years researching Jewish genetic history.
Any discussion of racial differences is a highly charged
and possibly dangerous activity. Yet there is an
increasing amount of hard scientific genetic facts that
throw much light on Jewish history as well as that of
other groups. Why should this be suppressed? Should it
be? We will discuss this after this talk. Genetic research
can reveal surprising things about our distant past.
Neanderthal man takes a selfie.
Neanderthals were very similar to
us, but with 13% larger brains than
us. Like us, when nude they always
walked with the right leg forward, to
conceal the naughty bits.
Recent genetic studies have shown that most of us
are about 3% Neanderthal in our genetic makeup, due
to this mixing shown here. But none of sub-Saharan
Africa has any and the Basques in the Pyrenees have
more than us. Genetics can show the history of a
population group’s travels very long ago.
People with an anti-Jewish and/or anti Israel
agenda can look toward this new and evolving
information in hopes of finding ammunition against
– for example – the idea of an ancient Jewish
historical “right” to the land of Israel.
Any information about innate differences
between races can lead to bad outcomes, as history
has painfully shown. But within the Jewish
community this material can lead to a better
understanding of the long span of Jewish history,
with its many separate diasporas.
At CHJ and SHJ, whether you were born Jewish
or came to Judaism, this material here ought to be
of interest as part of one’s general education about
all things Jewish.
Maurice Fishberg was a
in NYCity and wrote
this classic study in
1911. Today most
avoid the word “race”
and use euphemisms
which mean exactly the
The extreme crowding of living and
working conditions on the Lower East Side
led many to think that these Jewish
immigrants were an unhealthy presence in
the city, with TB and other illnesses being
rampant. And that therefore Jewish
immigration should be reduced.
Maurice Fishberg set out to find the facts,
using census and medical records. The facts
proved to be the opposite to the popular
beliefs. Jewish TB rates were much less
than those of surrounding ethnic “ghettos”
in New York. He speculated that this might
be due to eating kosher food and fewer risk
factors like syphilis and alcoholism.
Annual TB deaths by ward in
New York City, 1897-1899
Lowest TB rates were
in wards 10, 11, and
13, where the % of
Jews was the highest
Was there something special about the
Jews who came to America, from other
countries, to account for this unexpectedly
good health statistic? Fishberg did more
Why was Jewish
health better than
that of gentiles?
It turns out that world-
wide, back in the early 1900s,
Jews outlived Christians
everywhere. In Budapest the
life expectancy was 37 for
Jews, 26 for Christians (much
infant mortality) while in
London it was 49 years for
Jews, 37 for Christians.
Despite a low birth rate this
longevity (due to several
causes, like better hygiene,
kosher food preparation, etc. )
led to an increase in Jewish
Tsk! Tsk! Smoking is bad for you
Using the crude tools at his disposal,
Maurice Fishberg, back in the early 1900s,
started to do some basic research on a very
simple question - who are these people, the
Jews, his people? And associated with that
is the age-old question – who is a Jew?
Fishberg started out by looking for easily
measurable physical aspects of Jewish
people (eye color, hair color, head shapes,
etc.) and assembled some statistics that
sometimes led to surprising conclusions.
Fishberg approached his studies as a
scientist, with an open mind. Decades later
the Nazis would do their own studies of
this type, with a racist agenda that was
happy to fudge data to suit their pre-
Fishberg measured the cephalic
index (ratio of head height to width)
of several thousand New York
Jews, both men and women. 40
years later the Nazis would make
their own measurements as part of
their racial purity campaign.
Jewish men showed a sharp peak in their data,
sharper than other ethnic groups, implying a tighter
genetic base and little intermarriage. Jewish
women showed two separate peaks, implying two
different genetic strains.
Head shape data
Fishberg also considered the status of blonde or red
head Jews – was this evidence of intermarriage? But
the Torah talks of several red headed Jews –King
David, Esau, and others. And blue eyes and fair skin
may also go back millennia in the Jewish genetic
Woody Allen as
a Hassid in
Worldwide about 4%
of Jews have red or
especially beards in
men. About 20% of
Jews have blue eyes,
with a lot of country
variability. Here is
movie star Kirk
Douglas, with blue
eyes and auburn hair.
He was born Issur
Young Kirk and his 6 sisters
Maurice Fishberg, 100 years ago, thought that
Jews were a distinct group in appearance and
said that “One can pick out a Jew from a
thousand non-Jews without difficulty” If that is
true it is probably only true of Jews recognizing
other Jews. Maybe there is sometimes a Jewish
expression, more than distinctive facial features,
that other Jews can recognize. This expression
may come from life experiences.
There was a Get Smart episode where two Arab
KAOS agents dressed in sheik's robes were
rhapsodizing about the impending destruction of
several free world capitals:
ARAB 1: "New York."
ARAB 2: "Gone!"
ARAB 1: "London."
ARAB 2: "Vaporized!"
ARAB 1: "Paris"
ARAB 2: "Obliterated!"
ARAB 1: "Tel Aviv"
ARAB 2: "Uh, no. Not Tel Aviv."
ARAB 1: "Why not?"
ARAB 2 whispers something in ARAB 1's ear.
ARAB 1: "Funny, you don't look it."
The old joke with the punch line “That’s funny, you don’t look
Jewish” goes back to the early 1900s and was a staple in vaudeville
and early TV. But I remember as a kid in the 1950s watching Myron
Cohen (I think) on the Ed Sullivan show tell this old joke – and he
changed the key word to “German” instead of “Jewish”. A joke told
with a heavy Yiddish accent but the word “Jew” was never
The classic question – “who is a Jew?”
When George W. Bush was president Hu became premier of China. Here is an imagined conversation, back then, between Bush and Marty, a
Bush – “You look pensive Marty, what’s on your mind?”
Marty – “Who is a Jew?”
Bush – “What? You’re kidding! He certainly looks Chinese to me!”
Marty – “Who?”
Bush – “Hu”
Marty – That’s what I said – “Who?”
Bush – “I’m saying, Hu doesn’t look Jewish!”
Marty - “Who doesn’t look Jewish? - What an odd thing to say!”
Bush - “Hu looks Chinese”
Marty – “Who looks Chinese? Sorry boss, I’m just not following you here. Etc. Etc.
(Credit here is due to playwright Jim Sherman for this concept)
The Nazis had no trouble answering the question “Who is a Jew” and considered all possible
family tree variations. For them it was purely genetic. These are the Nuremberg Laws of 1935.
In some rare instances
a Jew could be given
the status of an
“honorary Aryan by
marriage” when the
gentile spouse was a
very important person.
An extremely rare pristine copy of a Nazi-
prepared picture book for school children,
showing them how to recognize Jews and the
dangers they posed. Here the Jewish man is
offering them candy and says you can have more
if you come with me. Fishberg found that the
stereotype with the hooked nose was actually
rare in his survey of NYCity Jewish immigrants
from all over Europe.
The book, called “The
Poisonous Mushroom” warned
that Jews are like poisonous
mushrooms, that children
should stay far from.
From the same Nazi children’s book. A
lecherous Jewish doctor is about to examine
and then abuse a pure German girl. She
bashes him in the face and runs away. A
different page in the book homes in on the
Jewish nose as a sure way to spot those who
children should stay far away from. Note here
his exaggerated nose.
These days the internet
makes it much easier for anti-
Semites to inform the public
how to spot Jews by sight – it
is that telling Neanderthal
look. But did the Neanderthals
Of course you have to be
careful with info you get from
the internet. Reality is often
somewhat different from what
you find there. For example,
you may read on the internet
that the North Korean air force
has launched a training
exercise. But shown here is the
reality. Online anti-Semitic
rants depend on an uncritical
acceptance of their “facts”.
My info on Jewish genetics
comes from multiple reliable
sources and not primarily the
Some early genetic results have had to be revised
due to more sophisticated analysis techniques.
The field is still evolving and it is a good idea to
take a skeptical stance towards what you see on
the internet about genetic research.
South Korea is 99.9% Korean and .1%
Chinese. North Korea is probably
100.000% Korean and has a very proud
view of itself as an extreme of racial purity.
Race has always been a very charged
topic world-wide. In the Torah (Numbers
12:1) we read that Moses had a black wife
and his sister Miriam spoke of this is a
denigrating way. Later we will hear about
the flip side of that coin.
Genetic heritage is just one possible way
to think about being Jewish. CHJ and SHJ
do not consider it relevant, if one self-
identifies as a Jew.
Feelings of racial
“purity” often go hand in
hand with feelings of
superiority. That 0.1% of
South Korea that is Chinese
really dilutes the gene pool
and makes North Korea
clearly the place to be.
When it first came out a
few years ago about our
material some black South
Africans, who have none of
it, proclaimed that they
were the only ones 100%
Now, over 100 years after
Fishberg’s pioneering studies,
we have DNA analysis to give
new data. We can read the
human genetic code and look
for genetic hints about Jewish
For example, the European
population group most closely
related to Ashkenazi Jews are
…..the Italians, specifically
northern Italians! Stay tuned
for the explanation, which is
Probably not what you were expecting - it is not Russia, or Poland, or Hungary,
the Czech Republic, or Germany. It is northern Italy!
It is easy to assume that in ancient times
the Jews wandered out of Israel and went
directly to Fiddler on the Roof shtetls in
Poland and Russia. Genetic evidence,
however, shows that a much more likely
scenario involves going from Israel to Italy,
hanging around Rome for a very long time,
intermarrying with local Italian women, and
then eventually settling Northern Europe and
then Eastern Europe and Russia. Not what
you would think.
Overall, at least 80 percent of Ashkenazi
maternal ancestry comes from women
indigenous to Europe, and 8 percent from the
Near East, with the rest uncertain, the
researchers estimate. But there is some
dispute about the actual % values.
We inherit genetic material
from both our father and our
mother and it is an amazing fact
of genetics that these two inputs
can be traced back separately
thousands of years.
Many people find it surprising
that human evolution is still
proceeding, and at a rate far faster
than what one might expect.
Mutations, like lactose tolerance –
which most of the world does not
possess – can arise and become
dominant in a population group in
just a few thousand years. There
have been some genetic changes
involving resistance to certain
diseases, in some population
groups, that have happened within
Rome has one of the oldest continuous Jewish communities in the world – over
2000 years of history. Roman Jews are fond of saying that they are neither
Ashkenazi or Sephardic, because they predate those two dispersals of Jews
outwards from Italy over 1000 years ago. They lack some of the disease mutations
that later occurred among the Ashkenazi and Sephardic communities elsewhere,
after they were expelled from Rome.
The ancient Roman empire included Israel as well as Egypt
(think Julius Caesar and Antony and Cleopatra). Jewish wars
of rebellion, put down by Rome, resulted in many Jewish
slaves being taken to Rome. In Egypt the city of Alexandria
was a great commerce center and Jewish traders there often
went to Rome and sometimes settled there.
Shortly before Christianity began there was much Jewish
proselytizing (surprised by this!?) and many converts were
made as well as a lot of intermarriage. The word “proselyte”
originally meant a convert to Judaism. At one time an
estimated 10% of the Roman Empire was Jewish, mostly
converts! (That’s funny, you don’t look …..). But that
rapidly changed once Christian persecution started.
We know about Chabad
proselytizing but don’t think
of this as also something
from the distant Jewish past.
Intermarriage has made it difficult to discover any
simple genetic story about long-term Jewish history,
migrations, etc. This table here shows a recent
survey but it would be a mistake to think that
intermarriage is a relatively recent phenomenon.
From biblical times onward any time Jews are in
any place for any time span there is always some
intermarriage. Including some rather unlikely ones.
We don’t know what she was thinking but we
certainly know what he was thinking.
It would be
interesting to see
divorce rates of
Throughout Jewish history converts have
played a very important role. The biblical
character of Ruth was a convert and she was
the great grandmother of the great King
David, whose descendants are supposed to
include the Messiah when he comes.
Bill ponders going kosher
If Queen Esther had children with King Ahasuerus
they would have been half-Jewish by birth and gone
into the Jewish genetic pool.
In the interest of space we will
focus here almost exclusively on
Ashkenazi Jews and not cover
Sephardic Jews or Mizrahi-
Iranian Jews, the other two
distinct genetic groups.
Jews with one or
Mormons claim that
Native Americans are
very distant Jewish
descendants of the
biblical Joseph and were
transported here to the
USA by the hand of God
a few thousand years
ago. It is well known
that Native American
DNA indicates that they
came from Siberia as
well as very solid
for a route across the
Bering Strait land bridge
near Alaska. There is
almost no DNA overlap
with Jewish DNA.
Yet Mormon scientists have put forth ingenious
arguments to explain this clear contradiction between
their faith and genetic facts. Some of it is very
technical while other ideas include a route into here
through Central America and then very extensive
genetic mixing with the much larger existing
populations. Here we will take no position on this but
will not be including the Sioux in our discussion of the
Jew. See this link here for more about the Mormons.
Ashkenazi Jewish men have a complicated mix of genetic
strains that indicate ancient Near Eastern origins mixed with
people from the Russian steppes, and then Eastern Europe (more
recently). Ashkenazi Jewish women, however, have a distinctly
different genetic heritage – small Near Eastern strains and mostly
Central Europe population types. Remember our earlier slide
showing head shapes and how Jewish woman had two different
data peaks, unlike the single one of men.
It may be that Jewish men leaving the Near East in ancient
times partly intermarried with local populations during their
migration into Europe, along a southern route. They then settled
a lot in Italy and the Vatican in Rome had a large Jewish
population for a long time. After some of this intermarriage with
local Italian women they were eventually expelled from Rome
and Italy, over 1000 years ago, and moved north into Germany
and into Eastern Europe, like Poland and parts of Russia. There
the Ashkenazi settled for a long time until the Holocaust.
A Turkish-Mongol king converted to
Judaism, about 1200 years ago, and then by
fiat made his whole country convert. But
this did not last long and neither Ashkenazi
men or women have much of a genetic strain
from that population group. The writer
Arthur Koestler wrote an influential book –
“The 13th Tribe” in which he speculated that
Ashkenazi Jews were mostly descendants
from these Khazars and were not genetically
related to biblical Jews. Recent genetic
analysis shows that he was wrong, although
there are some Khazar lineages but it is not a
major component. It mainly shows up in the
Levites but not the Cohens.
Our story has complicated chapters
As Europe expelled the Jews,
sometimes more than once, they often
moved into Eastern Europe and
Russia into an area known as the Pale.
After a few hundred
years of living in the
Pale, some intermarriage
with local people led the
Ashkenazi to acquire
some of that genetic
Here you see some of
the movement out of
Europe as the Jews were
expelled in waves from
It is estimated that in the 11th century Ashkenazi Jews composed only three percent of the
world's Jewish population (most Jews were still in the Near East or in Spain) while at their peak in
1931 they accounted for 92 percent of the world's Jews. Immediately prior to the Holocaust, the
number of Jews in the world stood at approximately 16.7 million. The contemporary population
of Ashkenazi Jews is between 10 and 11 million. In a rough calculation of Sephardic and Mizrahi
(Iranian) Jews it looks like Ashkenazi make up a definite majority of Jews worldwide.
toll, as a fraction of
Mixed marriages have always
been more common than popular
belief. In the German Empire
between 1901 and 1907 about 19%
of all Jewish marriages were
mixed. In Amsterdam, with a
sizable Orthodox population,
between 1902 and 1903 it was 15%
of Jewish marriages. Today there
is only 2% Orthodox intermarriage.
Some genetic sensitivities or illnesses are very specific to Ashkenazi or Sephardic Jews. Some
Sephardic Jews are highly sensitive to fava beans and can have a fatal reaction. For one person
simply smelling fava plant flowers made him ill. Ashkenazi Jews have no reaction at all. There
are sometimes evolutionary correlations between the genes that result in these medical
susceptibilities and resistance to malaria or other diseases.
The prevalence of “stub thumbs”- missing a joint, was once though to be common among Jews.
It is not and is actually twice as common among Arabs. The subject of specific Jewish diseases
like Tay-Sachs is a big one and will not be covered here.
Actor Sasha Baron Cohen, is a Cohen – from the traditional priestly class. The
distinctive Cohen genetic lineage is estimated to have started about 4,400 years ago.
The Lemba people of Zimbabwe were found to share this some of this genetic history. They trace their
origin to Yemen. Recent studies have tempered somewhat this dramatic story. Although they definitely
have a considerable Semitic genetic heritage, this is not necessarily the same as a Jewish one. Some of
their cultural and religious practices could have an Islamic source. Kosher and halal are not that different.
There is some ambiguity in the genetic evidence to specifically tie them to the Cohens, contrary to the
initial press coverage of this story, due to more sophisticated recent genetic testing 13 years after the
original results. But there may be bias on the part of some researchers, for religious or political reasons.
And the weight of other evidence is heavily towards a distant Jewish origin. It is certain that none of the
Lemba women have any Semitic lineage, so the Orthodox do not consider them or their children Jewish.
The Levites (from the
tribe of Levi) were one
step down from the
Kohain (Cohen) in
They had certain tasks
like transporting the
Ark of the Covenant,
some Temple duties,
animal sacrifices, etc.
Moses was a Levite. Recent genetic analysis of Ashkenazi Levis (family name) has shown that their
lineage does not have a clear path as far back as the Cohens. In fact they, today, have multiple
genetic origins that depend on the Diaspora community from which they originally came. This
means that some Ashkenazi Levites are definitely not genetically related to the original Near East
biblical Levites and are probably descendants of ancient converts – like the Khazars. The is not true
of Sephardic Levites, who have a much closer genetic connection to the biblical Levites.
This clearly shows the hazards of looking too closely into one’s genetic family tree. Unwelcome
results may appear. At CHJ and SHJ all that counts is self-identification with the Jewish people.
I hope this material
that has been given
here is acceptable to
Jews everywhere on
New York, originally called New Amsterdam
by its Dutch settlers, was filled with waves of
Jewish immigrants. First by Sephardic Jews
escaping the Inquisition in Brazil. Then later
by German Jews, then lastly by Polish/Russian
Genetic analysis of current residents today
can easily trace these influxes.
The genetic ancestor testing result that you
can get commercially is kind of like ordering a
mail order bride. The results can be surprising,
not what you had in mind, and maybe are not
very reliable. These ancestry places generally
look at only a small fraction of the possible
relevant genetic data, in order to keep the
analysis costs low. The information here,
however, is based on a much more
sophisticated genetic analysis and takes many
different genetic markers into account.
Jews excel in certain types
of intelligence but do worse
than gentiles in spatial
Ashkenazi Jews score higher
on IQ tests than any other
A 1958 survey of yeshiva students found an average verbal IQ of 125
Although Ashkenazi Jews make up 2.2% of
the US population they make up 30% of the
faculty at elite colleges and 21% of Ivy
League students. About 50% of chess
grandmasters are Jewish, like Bobby Fischer
Music ability is partly genetically determined. Just before the Russian
Revolution Jews made up 5% of the Russian population but 50% of the students in
St. Petersburg Music Conservatory. In Odessa the situation became absurd. In
1916 in their music conservatory 80% of the students were Jewish. Officials
reacted by establishing an affirmative action scholarship program for gentiles.
The three greatest pianists of the 19th century are generally agreed to have been
Carl Tausig, Anton Rubenstein and Franz Liszt, shown here from left to right.
Tausig and Rubenstein were Jewish. Tausig worked very closely with Richard
Wagner and lived with the Wagner family for years. Liszt was Wagner’s father-in-
A brief interesting digression, not related to Jewish topics. If you know what to
look for it is possible to tell at a glance from the outside surface of the brain whether
it belongs to a violinist or a pianist. A violinist develops a distinctive fold at a
certain position on the surface of the right brain lobe and a pianist develops one at a
similar position on the surface of the left lobe. Amazing!
If there are more Jewish “geniuses”, as a percentage,
than are in other groups what could be the reason?
There are two possibilities. One is a broader IQ bell
curve than normal but with the normal average = 100
That is the case with Scottish men and women and it
gives more Scottish men than women geniuses because
the men’s bell curve extends out further on both ends.
But the average IQ is the same for both = 100
The other possibility that would give a
disproportionate amount of high IQ Jews is if
The Jewish IQ bell curve has the same width as
that of the general population but a slightly higher
average than 100. It only takes a small shift in the
average, such as to 105, to make a big difference
in the percentage with very high IQs. In fact
Ashkenazi Jews in general have an average that is
about 112 compared to the general European
population. 4 out of every 1,000 Northern
Europeans is 140+ IQ, but 23 out of every 1,000
Jews is 140+, or 6 times higher percentage. In
America the Ashkenazi average is more like 108
compared to the general American population. In
a 1954 study of the NYCity schools, 28 students
were identified with an IQ above 170, which is
extraordinarily high. 24 of the 28 were Jewish.
Very high IQ
% of population
You can see that at a particular high IQ value the
% value height of the blue curve is several times
higher than that of the red curve. This ratio
becomes more pronounced as you go to higher and
higher IQ values. Yet the two curves are not
dramatically different in their average values.
It is very likely that the most brilliant mind in all of human history was that of John Von Neumann (1903-1957), a genius
in many fields, a child prodigy, and a polymath who was born into a wealthy Hungarian Jewish family. Fluent in Latin and
Greek at the age of 6 he could also then divide 8 digit numbers in his head. He had massive memorization ability with
essentially total recall and could effortlessly recite at will whole books he had read years earlier. He made major
contributions to many branches of mathematics and physics, invented game theory and computer science. He was a key
member of the team that developed the atom bomb in the Manhattan project. He could instantly perform complex
mathematical calculations in his head and with a speed that stunned famous genius-level colleagues. Einstein was truly a
piker in brilliance compared to Von Neumann and Einstein’s contributions were just to physics while Von Neumann made
very important advances in math, physics, economics, computers and other fields. Every famous physicist or
mathematician who knew him said that he had the fastest and most brilliant mind they had ever met. He was a great wit
and liked to play practical jokes on Einstein, when they were both at the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton.
Edward Teller, father of the H-bomb and famous as a genius in his own right said that he could never begin to keep up
with Von Neumann. Nobel Prize wining physicist Hans Bethe said "I have sometimes wondered whether a brain like von
Neumann's does not indicate a species superior to that of man“
In his personal life he was very sociable and liked to throw big parties. He liked to drive - often while reading a book,
was a fancy dresser, married twice, loved to eat and drink and liked Jewish jokes.
In the endless nature versus nurture debate it is still not clear what role each plays in these high
Ashkenazi IQ values. Furthermore Sephardic Jews do not have this characteristic. But more and
more genetics is showing that IQ is mostly hereditary. Identical twins separated at birth and
raised separately clearly shows this. Various theories have been put forth about how natural
selection over centuries may have had a role in emphasizing the genetic component.
• The survival advantage of high IQ in a hazardous anti-
Semitic environment may have resulted in this being
reinforced over many generations, through Darwin’s
natural selection (an awful term when applied to
• Jewish culture placed high value on learning. High IQ
makes one much more of a marriage catch, resulting in
more and earlier children than poor marriage
• The few trades allowed to Jews (finance, medicine)
rewarded math and science aptitudes.
You may have thought that all those young yeshiva boys and
nerdy Asian students who are wearing glasses are doing so
because their vision changed because of all those many hours
studying books at close reading distance. Recent research has
shown, however, a correlation between high IQ and early vision
problems. In fact, it seems to be genetic and high IQ children
have it before they start to read and they need glasses early.
Of course being a
smart person with
musical ability does
not also make you a
good person. It is a
very perilous bridge
to cross to try to go
from genetic data of a
group to speculations
The historical hazards of considering race above individual
characteristics are well known. I only got about 6 feet out on
this bridge here, in Germany, before quickly turning back. I
hope that this talk today has also managed to steer clear of
most of the missteps that one might make.
This topic of IQ is very controversial and emotionally charged. It might be that cultural
differences (the nurture part of nature versus nurture) explain a lot of the IQ differences
among different ethnic groups. But recent science tends very much to not support that
idea. It might be that there are some areas of knowledge that are best left unexplored.
Furthermore, there is a lot more to a person than just their IQ. That is a great lead in to
our discussion, which starts now.
All views should be allowed airtime
Please note that this whole slideshow
has only been about Jewish genetics
and not about culturally transmitted
traits - like hypochondria, anxiety,
non-athleticism, etc. or about what
makes for being a mensch.