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  • Jacob's Legacy: A Genetic View of Jewish History
  • Joel Zlotogora
Jacob's Legacy: A Genetic View of Jewish History, by David B. Goldstein. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2008. 147 pp. $26.00.

The use of genetic data in order to try to understand history is not new. The first attempts used mainly blood groups; however, nowadays new technical abilities allow much more accurate analyses. In the last decades genetic research has been used more and more to try to verify some of the known history and ask specific questions. This is a short book written by geneticist David B. Goldstein about his research on some elements of the Jewish history aimed at the general public. I think that he did excellent job and wrote a very interesting, easy-to-read book that may be appreciated by everyone.

The book includes four chapters presenting on one side the history and oral tradition and faith of the Jews and on the other side the scientific observations, along with proposed explanations on the link between them. In recent years some of the subjects discussed in the book have been presented in various newspapers, journals, or television programs. However, the book allows for a better understanding of the facts and helps the reader to form a personal opinion about the possible implications of the results on each of the subjects presented. By using markers that allow one to follow the paternal history (male to male inheritance—Y chromosome), scientific observations were made that are compatible with the oral tradition of the Cohanim being direct descendants of Old Testament priests. Similarly, it was shown that the probable origin of an African tribe, the Lemba, was Jewish as it is claimed in their oral tradition. On the other hand, the same methods did not allow the exact origin of the Levites to be determined. This raises several possibilities—in particular, that they are descendants of communities that converted to Judaism, such as the Khazars. Mitochondrial markers were used in order to follow the maternal history (female to female inheritance), since mitochondria are inherited only from women even though they are present in cells of both sexes. Distinct genetic histories of the mitochondrial DNA and of Y chromosomes lead Goldstein to suggest that Jewish males traveled, intermarried with local women, and founded new communities linked to one another. [End Page 206]

The last chapter briefly looks at possible reasons why so many genetic mutations, some leading to severe diseases, are found with increased frequency among Jews. Two main explanations have been proposed in the last decades: random events and selection. Various factors which could have given an advantage to carriers of severe diseases have been raised, in particular a higher intelligence. The author takes the opportunity of this presentation to stress that problems that may arise with such claims are often not scientifically based and are often only hypotheses.

Ultimately I did very much enjoy the reading and have already recommended it to several friends. [End Page 207]

Joel Zlotogora
Ministry of Health


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pp. 206-207
Launched on MUSE
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