About the origins of the Ashkenazi Jews

The Arch of TItus. (Wikimedia Commons)
The Arch of TItus. (Wikimedia Commons)

We live in times of vividly proliferating political correctness, when deviating remarks from the declared “all humans are equal” attitude is met with vociferous rejection of real or self-declared progressives. Dealing with differences in ethnicity, or even with so-called racial differentiation is nowadays covered by thick layers of taboos, even though it is nothing condemnable to speak about specifically frequent features in groups of people – as long as this does not contain any pejorative connotation or is linked to different treatment. If viewed in a rational way and without any valence, it is absolutely acceptable and scientifically sincere to recognize and to discuss different frequencies of certain properties among individuals, groups of people, clans, tribes, nations and even races. The latter, may be viewed in a strict anthropologically correct context as distinct populations, according to which Jews are not a separate race, such as Europides (Caucasian), Negrids and Mongolides (Asians) are, but a Caucasian subgroup like many others.

All of us have made the experience to recognize fellow Jews by their appearance or being themselves recognized by others. Obviously, distinctive Jewish features exist; otherwise, that instant recognition would not have happened. I do not want to focus on stereotypes assigned to Jews such as being money loving or having a specific nose shape, which are the first ones to be listed by the mentioned gentile experts. I suspect a whole combination of physiognomic features that are maybe combined with some behavioral elements. The often-cited large or convex Jewish nose might even be part of it. Nevertheless, as with any ethnic characteristic, features of this kind must not be present in all individuals of any group, not even in their majority, but it is sufficient to be found more frequently than in others to consider them as group-specific. There are many blonde Jews with tiny upward oriented nostrils as well as there are even negroid and asian ones. But among a random group of Caucasians, the probability that an individual is Jewish is higher if he/she exposes one or some of those physiognomic traits, which are considered to be typically Jewish. Anytime when reasoning about these stereotypes, in my imagination inevitably appears Jennifer Gray’s face in “Dirty Dancing” as it looked before she decided to have that “nose job”, a surgical intervention that dispossessed her of both, her Jewish charms and her appealing photogenic personality.

The question is, how comes that ashkenazy Jews expose certain features with a higher frequency than other caucasian contemporaries do? Behind this circumstance lies the same mechanism as is the prevalence of red hair among the Irish, pale skin and light blond hair among Swedes, as well as dark eyes among Greeks. All these populations are descendants of a much smaller number of ancestors, in whom these traits were very common, while differing ones were either very rare or not existent at all. The phenomenon that a founding generation of a people was once long ago small in numbers and its descendants became quite numerous in present is called a “bottleneck”. For the Ashkenzim this circumstance was even more pronounced, and according to recent research they might derive from a such a bottleneck that comprised only a few hundred individuals. They lived in the middle ages in Asheknaz: this is a relatively small circumscriptive geographic region close to the Rhein, Mosel and Main rivers. The nucleus of this region is traditionally called “ShUM”, which is the acronym of the most important Jewish settlements in the region consisting of Speyer (for Sh), Worms (for U, transliterated from “vav” to W) and Mainz (for M). Accidently, “shum” also means garlic in Hebrew (nota bene a plant often associated with Jewish culinary preferences causing certain exhaled odors by many of its consumers), thus eventually indicating another carefully cultivated Jewish stereotype of olphactory type.

The fact that millions of today’s Ashkenazi Jews derived from a bottleneck with less than a thousand founding individuals may be actually viewed as an unusual success story, in spite of the many tragic attempts to prevent their survival and proliferation. The proverbial quintessence of Jewish holidays “they tried to kill us, we survived, let’s eat!” is more than just a funny simplification; it actually is based on well-known facts and habits. However, for the sake of accuracy, we should look a bit more into details about the formation of the Ashkenazim, which additionally also will elucidate the origin of their presumed typical features.

The Jewish diaspora has been built up by different waves of emigration from the Levant, either by economical attraction or much more so by historical catastrophes and deportation. The one that probably is closest associated with the later founding of the Ashkenazi population, was the Bar Kochba revolt and its cruel suppression by the Romans around 136 CE. The roman consul of Greek origin Cassius Dio reported that 580’000 Jews perished in the war and many more died of hunger and diseases, while Judean war captives were sold into slavery*. Women and children were in the eyes of the victors worthless and were starved or killed to the extent of a genocide, while the male prisoners of war represented a certain value on the slavery market. However, the sudden surplus of male slaves caused a significant knockdown of the prices for a while. The effect of terminating the existence of a Jewish homeland, the massive population loss and the pronounced gender imbalance among the predominantly male survivors caused a severe handicap to the further existence of the Jewish people. The future existence of the Jewish nation literally depended on a silk thread. This was exactly the ultimate reason that lead to the mentioned bottleneck of those few hundred founders of today’s Ashkenazim.

Although the Roman culture and society was very bellicose and inclined to celebrate violence, it also had a certain predisposition to justice and a somewhat queer but rational view on humanism. This was manifest by the generally practiced rule that slaves, who served their masters and purpose in a decent way, were set free after 25 years of duty. Such persons even could become roman citizens. Considering the huge number of Jews, who started their carrier in Roman custody after being enslaved, there must have been certainly at least a considerable number of them, who later became free and enjoyed the usual freedoms and obligations of Roman citizenship. Probably their vast majority assimilated over few generations into the dominant society and ceased to be counted as Jews. Therefore, it is not surprising that there are genetic and pronounced phenotypical similarities between Jews, Italians, Greeks or other Mediterranean people, who inhabited those regions where the Jewish diaspora initially developed.

During its largest expansion period following the rein of the emperor Traian during the 2nd and 3rd century CE, the Roman Empire incorporated all of western Europe, and in the North-East it bordered to the unoccupied Germanic territory east of the Rhine and to the north of the rivers Main and Danube. It is plausible to assume, that among the Roman colonists deployed to that region, there were also descendants of the Jewish slaves that by time became citizens of the empire. As for people with a laborious and enterprising inclination, these “frontier” regions were probably especially attractive, because they offered more chances for profitable trading activities. We might assume that such conditions could have been especially interesting for Jewish people, who had a long tradition in this respect, and probably also disposed of established networks with their coreligionists, which for itself represented a precondition to perform long-distance trading. However, we should not overestimate their numbers. It’s quite plausible that without having coreligionist partners to maintain a sustainable Jewish family life, and considering the small amount of available rabbinical care, many, if not the majority of descendants of Jewish slaves assimilated and melted into the general Roman population. Those who succeeded to maintain their Jewish identity must have been the exemption, because in order to do that for generations, they needed in the first plane one indispensable ingredient: Jewish wives. Exactly this kind of persons might have been a very rare commodity due to the tragic fact that during the abatement of the revolt, women and children were viewed as useless burden and mercilessly massacred. The few Jewish male citizens of the Empire, who wanted to establish a Jewish family life, had to resort to the only available alternative to procure Jewish partners, which was to convert willing gentile women to Judaism.

We should not forget that during those times, Judaism represented a widely accepted religion among the contemporary elaborate kaleidoscope of faiths of the empire, and only later, the meteoric rise of the much more appealing Christianity to the heathen masses precluded its propagation. However, there were certainly enough women of Latin, Celtic, Germanic and other origins, who converted to Judaism and became eligible to become the starting point of a Jewish matriarchic lineage for those rather few ambitious Jewish men. The assumption, that from numerical point these beginnings must have been very humble, is substantiated by the mentioned “bottleneck” hypothesis, according to which the number of the Ashkenazi founding population was in the range of a few hundred only, albeit these data refer to the situation of a few centuries later (around 1000 CE). The described phenomenon of a small founding population consisting of Jewish males with Levantine origin and local convert females was probably widespread throughout the whole empire, where Jewish presence accumulated. In particular, the Ashkenazi nucleus in the Rhineland succeeded very well in withstanding assimilation and creating a long lasting continuance of Jewishness. The predominant females in the Rhine region were of Germanic origin, which led to the accepted hypothesis, that the origins of Ashkenazi people is half Levantine, from their paternal side, and half Germanic from maternal side. This is not only obvious by the visual European type appearance of Ashkenazi Jews with all those European like eye and hair colors and with a paternally transmitted slight preponderance towards darker versions.

These allegations are supported by recent genetic investigations, which have shown a high frequency of Middle-eastern haplotypes in the paternal Y-chromosomes and of northeastern European haplotypes in the maternal mitochondrial DNA. The growth of the Ashkenazi population from the times of the bottleneck to the size of 16 Million in the prewar period is an amazing success, in particular if we also take into account the unprecedented level of oppression, persecution and even genocide. The later proliferation was probably due to more favorable conditions, which they found after their expulsion from the Rhineland and their migration to the regions of today’s Poland, Lithuania, Byelorussia and Ukraine during the 13th and 14th century. There the temporarily flourishing Ashkenazi population might have additionally incorporated an undefined influx of Slavic genes as well.

We can speculate that the limited genotypic and phenotypic variety of today’s Ashkenazi people is caused by the humble size of the founding population (the mentioned bottleneck in the medieval Rheinland), composed by males of Judean provenience and females of Germanic origin, who converted according to the halakhic rules of the time. Both seemingly contradictory findings that one hand Ashkenazi Jews have in average a European (Caucasian) appearance as well as the obvious ability to recognize of being Jewish by coreligionists and gentile “experts” on the other, can be deducted from this peculiar circumstance. Any small, inclusive and predominantly closed group of people show an increased level of endogamy, which naturally leads to the persistence of hereditary traits, especially if they are either useful or neutral in the evolutionary sense. Among the occasionally found disadvantageous traits, we can summarize the so-called “Ashkenazi diseases” such as breast cancer, colon cancer, Tay-Sachs amaurosis and several others. Among the positive traits with a presumed hereditary component we may assume the in average 10% higher IQ of Ashkenazi Jews as compared to the surrounding population with the same cultural background; however, this circumstance is certainly not mono-causal and has many other involved factors.

Inbreeding favors the persistence of extremes while its opposite, the assimilation into a large population with very diverse genetic material, favors to some extent mediocrity for all kind of traits. The latter and in particular the descendance from diverse mixed origins seems to produce more healthy and beautiful individuals, such as Californian beach life-savers, Brazilian pageant beauties and Israeli sabras.

The rather rapid Ashkenazi proliferation over a few centuries had the effect of simple multiplication of the available genetic traits, which were already present in the founding population. This lead to the prevalence of a limited number of visible phenotypical features that became characteristic and recognizable as markedly Jewish. Of course, there was always an exogenic genetic influx caused by occasional conversions or rape, but the quantitative effect of this process remained marginal. Therefore, the visible characteristic Jewish features are a reality and might lead to the initially mentioned ability of mutual recognitions of Jews in mixed crowds as well as the seemingly striking revelations by gentile “experts.”

*Mor, M. The Second Jewish Revolt: The Bar Kokhba War, 132-136 CE. Brill, 2016. p471

About the Author
As a single child of Shoa survivors, I emigrated from socialist Romania to Germany in 1970. Two decades later I moved to Switzerland, where I work as a Senior Physician and Professor of Anesthesiology.
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