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Abraham's Children: Race, Identity, and the DNA of the Chosen People Hardcover – October 24, 2007

4.4 out of 5 stars 66 customer reviews

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Jewish law is quite clear on the question "Who is a Jew?" (anyone whose mother is Jewish), yet the question remains vexing, calling up issues of religion, history, culture and sometimes politics. In his second foray into the world of genetics and race, Entine (an American Enterprise Institute fellow and author of Taboo: Why Black Athletes Dominate Sports and Why We're Afraid to Talk About It) shows the degree to which genetics has been thrown into the mix. He presents fascinating evidence from DNA studies: the genes of Jewish males around the world can be traced back to the ancient Middle East; the genes of Jewish women cannot. Among Africans who claim Jewish ancestry, the Falashas of Ethiopia do not have Jewish genetic markers; but the less well known Lemba of South Africa do. A majority of cohanim, or priests, have a common genetic marker, but Levites (of whom priests are supposedly a subset) do not. But Entine can be sloppy (his grasp on the respective roles of high priests, priests and Levites is shaky; he seems unclear whether the Pilgrims were Quakers or Puritans), and he digresses from science to potted history, myths about the 10 Lost Tribes and an account of his trip to the West Bank. More problematic, his account of genetic science and DNA analysis is vague. Entine's final chapters broach the contentious topics of whether one can speak genetically of race and whether "Jewish genes" confer intellectual superiority on Ashkenazi Jews. While he cites scientists, some of the assumptions and conclusions (such as that medieval Jews' role as moneylenders contributed to a high IQ) are speculative.
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Entine (Taboo: Why Black Athletes Dominate Sports and Why We're Afraid to Talk About It, 2000) tackles the thorny matter of Jewish identity. Some of his conclusions may be surprising.

The author, a secular Jew and an adjunct fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, has been driven by family health crises to seek out the genetics of Judaism. In doing so, he unravels an epic tale of "The Chosen People." DNA acts as a starting point for discussion of Jewish origins--Chapter 1 is entitled, "The Dead Sea Scrolls of DNA"--as Entine explains how it is now possible through genetic testing for apparent non-Jews to discover Jewish ancestry, and for Jews (and others) to learn more about their origins. The author disputes conventional wisdom, which cautious scientists have advanced recently, that genetic differences between individuals are minute and superficial. Instead, he embraces genetics as a method of discovering more about the diverse breadth of humanity. Nevertheless, Entine realizes that Jewish DNA does not necessarily make a Jew. To explore the question of Jewish origins, Entine takes the reader on a global tour, exploring both mythic and factual migrations of Jews across Europe, the Middle East, Africa, Asia and finally into the Americas. DNA testing has allowed scientists to explore the validity of direct ancestry claims for far-flung Jewish communities in such places as South Africa and India, while it has also identified hidden enclaves of "crypto-Jews" in places such as the American Southwest. Entine goes on to discuss the touchy subject of race, and how Jewish identity has been perceived by both Jews and non-Jews through recent history and into the present. He also bluntly approaches modern (and historic) stereotypes of Jews and offers possible reasons for their formation, as well as their potential validity in certain cases. Because the author's approach is broad and inclusive, the book is sure to cause controversy, but it serves as an excellent catalyst for discussion as many continue to ask the question, "What does it mean to be Jewish?"

Engaging and informative reading for Jews and non-Jews alike. -- Kirkus Reviews

This book informs us of who were are, how we got here, and, why we do what we do. New methods of genetic study turn up fascinating connections and differences between the Ashkenazim and Sephardim, not only in language and customs, but also in DNA. For example, studies of women's diseases show that one group has a higher incidence of breast cancer, and the other, a higher incidence of cervical cancer. Maps detail migration routes, and chapters discuss the history and rituals of various tribes and families. The book is full of information and it is a fascinating popular read. Highly recommended. -- Association of Jewish Libraries Newsletter, September/October. Reviewed by Lee Wixman


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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 432 pages
  • Publisher: Grand Central Publishing (October 24, 2007)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0446580635
  • ISBN-13: 978-0446580632
  • Product Dimensions: 6.4 x 1.5 x 9.2 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.4 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.4 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (66 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #191,837 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Format: Kindle Edition
This is a racily written amalgam of a book. The hard part of it is about genetics (and this is enlivened by journalistic sketches of some of the scientists involved in the work). As an appetizer, we learn about CMH (the Cohen Modal Haplotype) - 98½% of Jews who describe themselves as Cohanim (the descendants after 3,000 years of the Jewish priesthood in biblical times) do in fact have the same haplotype, compared with only 3% of the general Jewish population.

Then the book goes into the history of the Jews, their relations to other peoples and their migrations and dispersions. The early part of this is linked to the accounts in the Bible, with the caveat that the biblical assertion that the Samaritans were not proper Jews was unjustifiable and politically motivated: the Samaritan DNA shows that the lineage of this group is even more homogeneous and over a longer time than that of the Jews who returned from the Babylonian captivity.
The fact that from Ezra's time onwards Jewish teaching prohibited marriage between Jews and non-Jews - reinforced later by Christian rulers also forbidding it - contributes mightily to Jewish genetic identity.

However, these prohibitions come relatively late in the history of Jewish genes, and are not likely to have been observed by the earliest male Jews who moved into new areas where there were no Jewish women. In any case, before the prohibitions, Jewish men did often marry non-Jewish women - there are plenty of references to this in the Bible. The male Y chromosome is pretty stable among a majority of Jews, and there is "powerful DNA evidence that Jews from around the world [i.e. whether Sephardi or Ashkenazi] share a common Near or Middle Eastern ancestry".
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Format: Hardcover
Jon Entine is the rare author who gets the science and the history correct. I am qualified to say the former because I have been involved in DNA research since the mid seventies, when my thesis work was published in the journal Biochemistry on gene expression in developing muscle. I am an amateur concerning the history of the Jewish people, but it has been a focus of much of my reading for the past decade. Therefore, I will concentrate on the author's brilliant framing of the study of race.

I have a number of colleagues that study mutations in the human genome that produce blindness, cystic fibrosis, and susceptibility to cancer. In order to receive funding from the overly political funding agencies, I would bet that the word "race" does not appear in their grant applications, even though it is clear from the pioneering work on sickle cell anemia that disease markers are powerful indicators of one's genetic legacy. Publishing articles using the term "race" in many of the leading (politically correct) journals would also meet with knee-jerk rejection.

The author explains clearly how the idea that there is no genetic basis for race corrupted the field of population genetics for the past few decades. The author shows intestinal fortitude by naming the culprits central to candy-coating the subject.

The author does not spend enough time, however, on founder effects. As a breeder of Norwegian Fjord horses, I understand what it takes to get traits stably integrated into a population. Unfortunately, this subject is only taught at agricultural colleges, and not at prestigious universities and medical schools. Founder effects, coupled with population bottlenecks, can make profound changes to a population's phenotype.
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Format: Hardcover
This weighty work encompasses genetics, history, spirituality, religion and includes travelogues to Israel and Jordan and many interviews.

In Part One: IDENTITY, Entine explains how genetics became a personal concern after tragic deaths in his family due to particular gene faults. He calls the tome a story of faith and science, contending that religious identity extends beyond belief. And in a symbolic and literal way, a blood current with its source in the ancient Hebrews runs through Western civilization.

The book addresses questions like: Did Abraham, Aaron, Moses and David really exist? What happened to the lost tribes of Israel? Can some modern Jews trace their ancestry to Aaron the High Priest? What happened to Spanish Jews who were forcibly converted during the Spanish Inquisition? What determines Jewishness? and Did people with Israelite ancestry have a hand in building Great Zimbabwe?

For those readers who would prefer more concise answers to most of the above questions in a much shorter book, I highly recommend DNA and Tradition: The Genetic Link to the Ancient Hebrews by Rabbi Yaakov Kleiman.
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