In the wake of Whoopi Goldberg’s claim that the Holocaust was not about race, because Jews are only a religion and white, the conversation of the status of the Jewish people, and what boxes we fit into, has once again been opened.
Dr. Paul Root Wolpe, the director of the Center of Ethics at Emory University and Karen Grinzaid, the executive director of JScreen, sat down with Allison Josephs to discuss Jewish genetics. Dr. Wolpe explains that people misunderstand the idea of race, and it’s because the meaning has changed over time.
“Race is a social construct. Race is not a biological idea,” he says. However, Dr. Wolpe also explains that “human beings have this desire to categorize each other and next to gender, skin color is the easiest thing to see.” In the contemporary American understanding, race is determined by the color of one’s skin, but in different times and places this was not always the case.
There are many elements that contribute to skin tone. Grinzaid adds that among siblings there can even be variability in skin tones — it mainly depends on which genes each child has inherited. “The genetics is determined by a number of different pigment genes” suggesting that it is much more complex beneath the surface. And so the same family, especially in the Jewish community, can have lighter and darker children.
Dr. Wolpe explains that before modern times, race had a looser meaning, “people talked about Italian blood and Greek blood like what we think now as nationalities, but Italians were a race and Greeks were a race.” This suggests that location defines a race, not the physical attributes of people. Grinzaid expands on Dr. Wolpe’s explanation, “when we do genetic testing and think about genetic risks in ethnic groups, we are really looking at people that are coming from a certain part of the country.”
Because it is the location of origin that determines a large portion of one’s genes, “genetic risks are going to be different for Ashkenazi Jews and for different Sephardic groups,” says Grinzaid. There are Sephardic communities in many different parts of the world, so their genes vary more than the Ashkenazic population that stayed mostly in Europe. “A Sephardic Jew that has the ancestry back in Yemen versus Morocco are going to have different genetic risks,” says Grinzaid.
The genetic makeup of people also depends on the levels of intermarriage within the community. Tay Sachs became a common disease amongst Jews, and Sickle Cell Anemia became a common disease amongst African Americans because both groups tended to marry within their own communities. “As the people continue to marry each other, these genes start matching up,” Grinzaid says. “When people being to carry these genes and marry each other, then they [may] go on to have a child with Tay Sachs.”
So is there some unifying genetic characteristic that unites Jews? Jews are unique from other communities because they are an ethno-religious group, unified by a common religious and ethnic background. Dr. Wolpe explains that the “ethnic component has a certain degree of genetic relatability.” He gives an example of the Cohen Haplotype, which is a particular genetic profile or marker only found in Jewish men who are descendants of Aaron, the first Jewish priest. According to Dr. Wolpe, this shows a remarkable sense of fidelity and the Cohen line can be traced back to biblical times. Additionally, Lembah, an African group who claims Jewish ancestry, were also found to have the Cohen Haplotyle, showing that they do in fact have Jewish roots.
While there is a Cohen Haplotype, Grinzaid says there is no pure Ashkenazi Jew most likely due to rape, conversion, and intermarriage, which led to variations in the gene pool. Dr. Wolpe adds that Jews always accepted converts and treated them as equals. Based on this, Dr. Wolpe says, “we never thought of ourselves as a genetic group, or we would not have let in people from the outside. We had a tribal history, but it isn’t what defines us.”
Because of our genetic similarities, Jews are a must do genetic screening before having children. Due to the multi-mixed background of Jews Grinzaid says that JScreen tests for 200 diseases to “cover all the bases.” “Whether you have Ashkenazi, Sephardic, or a non-Jewish background, that we’re really doing a broad panel to cover you regardless, because we often don’t know our background,” says Grinzaid.
Dr. Wolpe is wowed by the remarkable advances in genetic testing since he and Grinzaid started working together years ago. When Dr. Wolpe’s daughter got married, his gift to her was a prepaid genetic test for preconception testing. He believes all Jews should do this to keep the population healthy. Dr. Wolpe and Grinzaid encourage everyone to be proactive and get tested before having children and for genetic cancer screening.
Jew in the City is proud to partner with Jscreen to promote genetic screening in our community. Genetic testing is an incredible tool that can help ensure a healthy Jewish community today and for generations to come. Our community is at higher risk for certain genetic diseases and hereditary cancers. Knowing your genetic risk factors allows you to take action and be proactive about your family’s health. To get screened visit JScreen.org/SpecialOffer for $72 off.