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Legacy: A Genetic History of the Jewish People [Hardcover]

by Harry Ostrer
3.9 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (14 customer reviews)

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Book Description

May 2, 2012 0195379616 978-0195379617 1
Who are the Jews--a race, a people, a religious group? For over a century, non-Jews and Jews alike have tried to identify who they were--first applying the methods of physical anthropology and more recently of population genetics.

In Legacy, Harry Ostrer, a medical geneticist and authority on the genetics of the Jewish people, explores not only the history of these efforts, but also the insights that genetics has provided about the histories of contemporary Jewish people. Much of the book is told through the lives of scientific pioneers. We meet Russian immigrant Maurice Fishberg; Australian Joseph Jacobs, the leading Jewish anthropologist in fin-de-siècle Europe; Chaim Sheba, a colorful Israeli geneticist and surgeon general of the Israeli Army; and Arthur Mourant, one of the foremost cataloguers of blood groups in the 20th century. As Ostrer describes their work and the work of others, he shows that to look over the genetics of Jewish groups, and to see the history of the Diaspora woven there, is truly a marvel. Here is what happened as the Jews migrated to new places and saw their numbers wax and wane, as they gained and lost adherents and thrived or were buffeted by famine, disease, wars, and persecution. Many of these groups--from North Africa, the Middle East, India--are little-known, and by telling their stories, Ostrer brings them to the forefront at a time when assimilation is literally changing the face of world Jewry.

A fascinating blend of history, science, and biography, Legacy offers readers an entirely fresh perspective on the Jewish people and their history. It is as well a cutting-edge portrait of population genetics, a field which may soon take its place as a pillar of group identity alongside shared spirituality, shared social values, and a shared cultural legacy.

Frequently Bought Together

Legacy: A Genetic History of the Jewish People + Abraham's Children: Race, Identity, and the DNA of the Chosen People + Jacob's Legacy: A Genetic View of Jewish History
Price for all three: $56.73

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Editorial Reviews


"... for the specialist and anyone touched by the enduring debate over Jewish identity, this book is indispensable." - The Jewish Daily Forward

"fascinating book" -
Library Journal

"Ostrer approaches the whole subject from a scientific stance, and he has something provocative but also important to say to any reader who has wondered about what it takes to be an authentic Jew." -- Jonathan Kirsch, The Jewish Journal of Los Angeles

"The story of the Jews-their origins and migrations-is encoded in their DNA, and Ostrer (a geneticist at the Albert Einstein School of Medicine) shows how the story can be told without ideological ax-grinding."
-- Jewish Ideas Daily (a 2012 notable book)

About the Author

Harry Ostrer, MD is Professor of Pathology and Genetics at Albert Einstein College of Medicine and Director of Genetic and Genomic Laboratories at Montefiore Medical Center. In October 2010, he was named to the Forward 50 list of "people who have made an imprint in the past year on the ways in which American Jews view the world and relate to each other."

Product Details

  • Hardcover: 288 pages
  • Publisher: Oxford University Press, USA; 1 edition (May 2, 2012)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0195379616
  • ISBN-13: 978-0195379617
  • Product Dimensions: 8.3 x 5.5 x 1.1 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 14.9 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 3.9 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (14 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #386,130 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews
31 of 32 people found the following review helpful
It is a treat to read a book on such a complex topic that manages to maintain a balance between over-academic writing and over-simplified science. In my opinion Dr Ostrer has succeeded in bringing us a very contemporary account of a field that is continually evolving. His primary contribution to the study of Jewish genetic analysis is the Jewish HapMap project, in coordination with the Einstein College of Medicine. Jewish communities worldwide were tested and the results demonstrated that the major Jewish Diaspora groups (Sephardic, Ashkenazi and Mizrachi) form distinct population clusters with Mideast ancestry and varying degrees of European admixture. The findings are consistent with Jewish history and origins in the Middle East.

There is a lack of coherence between some of the chapters, and "Looking Jewish" is an odd title for a chapter that begins with a history of some early medical research, and discussion of migratory patterns following the destruction of the Jewish kingdom over 2000 years ago. An excellent graph illustrates the changes in Jewish population over the centuries in conjunction with relevant historical events. Despite some early [discredited] theories, anyone who has spent time in, say, Tel Aviv (with its population originating from dozens of countries throughout the world), would instantly recognize how absurd the idea of "looking Jewish" is.

For those with an interest in genetic genealogy, a wide variety of topics are discussed: the research leading to the discovery of the Cohanim Modal Haplotype (CMH), attempts to discern genetic links to King David, and the unique history of Libyan Jews. The Libyan Jewish community turns out to be extremely old, dating from around 300 BCE, and spent the last 400 years isolated from other Jewish populations.
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10 of 12 people found the following review helpful
Format:Kindle Edition|Verified Purchase
For purposes of a helpful review, I'll use the Jon Entine book, Abraham's Children: Race, Identity, and the DNA of the Chosen People for comparison. Of the two, I would definitely recommend this book more, and that is for several reasons:

1. There is also a bit of ancient history here (destruction of the Second Temple/ Hasmoneans/ etc), but not enough to make the book bloated-- and actually about 200 pages shorter than the Jon Entine book. There were a few stories around which to wrap the genetics, but they were much shorter and felt secondary to the science.

2. This particular book was actually written by a geneticist who was familiar with the meaning of the genetic techniques, and his familiarity came through in the writing. It was a scientist writing like a journalist for a popular audience and not a journalist trying to write like a scientist for a popular audience.

3. This book is much more current, and so some things have been updated. For instance: The Cohen Modal Haplotype was discussed at some length in the Entine book, but in the Ostrer book that discussion was expanded by talking about the limitations of the old model (6 markers) and improvements of the extended Cohen Modal Haplotype (12 markers).

4. There are also lots (!) of coalescence times (of the diseases and other things), which were notably absent in Entine's book.

Of the book alone:

1. In some ways, it reads like a broadside.
2. The organization was a bit strange (though the book was only six chapters, so the strange organization was not enough to destroy the whole book).
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12 of 18 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Wow! July 9, 2012
By alissa
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
I bought this for my husband, who's an actual PhD scientist and has very high standard for any kind of scientific research or writing. He said it's everything he was hoping it would be. His only complaint is that it holds his interest so much that he'll finish it too soon and regret not having it to read.
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5.0 out of 5 stars The Genetic Basis for Jewish Identity February 17, 2014
Format:Kindle Edition
Is Jewishness best defined by religion, culture or race? For most of the past century, it been believed that Jewishness is formed by culture and religion, but not by genes. Harry Ostrer argues otherwise.

The Professor of Pathology and Genetics at Einstein College of Medicine, Ostrer published a scientific article in 2010 demonstrating a biological basis for Jewishness. New techniques in genetic analysis reveal the Jewish genome shares DNA threads. “This degree of shared genetic segments is greater among Jews than between Jews and non-Jews.”
Not everyone welcomes this news. To those who question his motives, even if not his findings, Ostrer explains that his purpose is to understand Jewish disease susceptibilities, and to understand Jewish origins and migrations. Since Ostrer is Jewish, he has an interest in constructing a sophisticated family tree.

As far as the debate about what constitutes a race and whether race exists, Ostrer prefers the term “cluster” to the more inflammatory term. He explains genetic similarity of clusters by citing a consensus view from the journal Genome Biology (2002) by N. Risch and his co-authors:

“Probably the best way to examine the issue of genetic sub-grouping is through the lens of human evolution. If the human population mated at random, there would be no issue of genetic sub-grouping because the chance of any individual carrying a specific gene would be evenly distributed around the world. For a variety of reasons, however, including geography, sociology, and culture, humans have not and do not currently mate randomly, either on a global level or within countries such as the US.
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Most Recent Customer Reviews
3.0 out of 5 stars Not what I expected
some very good discussions on this topic, and some superfluous fluff. it also lacked information on the various Hebrew haplotypes and their ancient levant origins.
Published 3 months ago by R. J. Rega
1.0 out of 5 stars The miracle claiming Ostrer, who refuses to make his supposed data...
Dr. Eran Elhaik "The Missing Link of Jewish European Ancestry: Contrasting the Rhineland and the Khazarian Hypotheses" Genome Biol Evol (2013) 5 (1): 61-74. doi: 10. Read more
Published 8 months ago by Brent
3.0 out of 5 stars AS scientific discussion
Good for someone with some genetic scientific background. It explains, in simple terms, the concepts of genetic drift, etc. and is not for light reading.
Published 9 months ago by Docger
2.0 out of 5 stars Legacy: A Genetic History of the Jewish People
Not very well written. As a molecular geneticist and professor of biology, I'm not the average lay reader of this book. However, I did not think that the science (i.e. Read more
Published 14 months ago by droufa
5.0 out of 5 stars A compelling read of genetics and history
First I must disclose that Dr. Ostrer and I trained in the same residency program and worked together. Read more
Published 15 months ago by Lawrence Kurlandsky
5.0 out of 5 stars A Landmark Book!
This is a landmark book for Jews, because it gives scientific evidence of a genetic lineage to the ancient Israelites. Read more
Published 18 months ago by BookHimDan
4.0 out of 5 stars Jewish Genetics
After taking both an mtDNA test and a Y-DNA test, I found this book to give me understandable answers to some of my questions. Read more
Published 18 months ago by Aryeh
Dr. Paul S. Appelbaum, the Dollard Professor of Psychiatry, Medicine & Law at Columbia, and author and historian Diana Muir Appelbaum both strongly dispute Ostrer's "discovery" of... Read more
Published 19 months ago by Jeremy Gruber
5.0 out of 5 stars Fascinating Reading
I found this book to be fascinating reading. Ostrer uses genetics to help show migration of various groups of Jews throughout history, and to explain their interrelatedness. Read more
Published 21 months ago by Life Long Student
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