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Researcher tracing Jewish genes meets the Kohanim of Africa [VIDEO]

By Peter Ephross

August 20, 2008 | 10:45 pm


Dr. David B. Goldstein from Duke's Institute for Genome Sciences and Policy talks about tracking the genetic history of the ancient Jewish priesthood (kohanim) and the Lost Tribe of Israel, the focus of his new book, "Jacob's Legacy".


For many people, genetics research conjures up frightening notions of racial or religious superiority -- or the possibility of genetic discrimination. David B. Goldstein isn't worried about either of these things.

"I take the view that there isn't anything to be afraid of in our genetic makeups. So I really think that it's interesting, fascinating even, sometimes important, but there isn't anything scary lurking there," said Goldstein, a professor of molecular genetics and the director of Duke University's Institute for Genome Sciences and Policy's Center for Population Genomics &Pharmacogenetics.

Goldstein, 44, even applies his open-research policy to a scientific study a few years ago that linked genetic diseases to intelligence among Ashkenazi Jews. He calls that work "speculative," but he doesn't rule out research into the issue.

"That doesn't mean that you don't have to be really careful in how you present what's been done," he said. "I think you do, and I think we've seen mistakes in how work is presented. I think it's really reckless to overstate results. But I don't think there are any areas that are unwise to investigate, because I'm just not afraid of what we're going to find."

In "Jacob's Legacy: A Genetic View of Jewish History," recently published by Yale University Press, Goldstein uses the latest genetic methods -- including genetic mapping and advanced DNA testing -- to illuminate compelling issues in Jewish history like the biblical priesthood, the Lost Tribes, Jewish migration, and Jewish genetic diseases.

Goldstein's most startling finding: There are enough Y chromosome similarities among many who call themselves descendants of the Cohanim, the biblical priestly caste, to argue for genetic Cohen continuity.

He and his colleagues tested these similarities by comparing the Y chromosomes of Cohanim with the chromosomes of other Jews. Sure enough, the majority of the self-identified Cohanim, whether Ashkenazi or Sephardi Jews, had the same type of Y chromosome. Further testing by Goldstein and friends leads him to estimate that the Cohanim were founded before the Roman era -- and perhaps before the Babylonian conquest in the sixth century B.C.E.

Even Goldstein was blown away.

"The apparent continuity of the Cohen Y chromosome was an out-and-out stunner; I would have never predicted that to be the case," he said.

He also finds genetic evidence for the idea that the Lemba tribe in Africa might have some Jewish origins, a finding that the media simplified by saying he had shown the Lemba are one of Judaism's 10 Lost Tribes.

In the section on the Lemba, and indeed throughout the book, Goldstein is careful about his conclusions. For him, the research is more about shedding light on themes of Jewish history, such as exile and Diaspora. As he puts it in the book, "What makes a people a people? What binds them together through time? What alienates them from some and aligns them to others?"

As admirable as the book's scholarship is its readability. Goldstein's jargon-free writing and sense of humor courts readers who are not hard-core scientists. At different points in the book, he calls himself a "lousy mathematician" and as "having a bit of the gambler in my genes," and, in the section about the alleged link between genetic diseases and intelligence, he writes, "Now we geneticists have a genuine kerfuffle on our hands."

Don't be misled -- Goldstein's book isn't "Jewish Genetics for Dummies." But he has taken cutting-edge science and made it accessible to the general reader willing to make an effort.

It wasn't easy, admitted Goldstein, whose academic work focuses on medical genetics -- specifically, why some people control HIV better than other people and why some people respond better to some medicines than other people.

"I started writing this just about 10 years ago. The discussions of the science were dreadful, incomprehensible. And so I just tried it again and again until I found ways that worked and that people didn't complain about when I showed it to them."

Part of the motivation for the book, Goldstein says, stems from guilt he feels because he remained in graduate school at Stanford and didn't go to Israel when the 1991 Gulf War broke out.

"I did feel like I should do something. And I think doing some work eventually at least gave me some kind of connection to read about Jewish history as part of my job, and that definitely made me feel better. I guess I finally got over it and started going to Israel regularly, which I still do."

He's frank about the limitations of genetic history. "[G]enetics can never, however, replace, or even compete with, the painstaking work of archaeology, philology, linguistics, paleobotany and the many other disciplines that have helped resurrect some of the lost stories of human history," Goldstein writes.

Understandably, though, he's proud that his research has yielded some insight into some vexing issues, and shares the notion that what he is doing on some issues -- say, the Cohanim -- borders on the fantastic.

"The continuity of the Cohen paternal line is an astounding thing," he said. "And it's a little tiny bit of history that genetics tells you about."

Peter Ephross' articles and reviews have appeared in the Village Voice, the Forward and Publishers Weekly, among other publications.

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