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Legacy: A Genetic History of the Jewish People by [Ostrer MD, Harry]
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.".. 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)

..". 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)

Featured in the Quarterly Review of Biology.

Product Description

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.

Product Details

  • Format: Kindle Edition
  • File Size: 6734 KB
  • Print Length: 300 pages
  • Publisher: Oxford University Press; 1 edition (Aug. 10 2012)
  • Sold by: Amazon Digital Services LLC
  • Language: English
  • ASIN: B008MWL9HG
  • Text-to-Speech: Enabled
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  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: #391,411 Paid in Kindle Store (See Top 100 Paid in Kindle Store)
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews on (beta) HASH(0x9c464774) out of 5 stars 26 reviews
37 of 38 people found the following review helpful
HASH(0x98c9f5d0) out of 5 stars Fascinating and Intelligent Look at a Rapidly Evolving Field June 5 2012
By Sandy Hack - Published on
Format: Hardcover
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. Upon emigrating from Libya to Israel in 1948, some unusual genetic diseases were detected, including a type of Mad Cow disease resulting from a mutation in the prion gene. Dr. Ostrer is careful not to make claims beyond what the science shows; he points out that although the CMH seems linked to Biblical priestly status, this marker is also found in some non-Jewish Middle Eastern and African Lemba groups. He is also circumspect in discussing theories of intelligence, and a theory attempting to link genetic selection for intelligence and certain disease genes. He makes it clear that most scientists view this theory as flimsy and circumstantial.

Three key benefits to genetic research have already become evident according to Ostrer:
1. Tay Sachs screening has reduced the incidence by 90%.
2. Progress in treating some genetic diseases, e.g. Gaucher disease is effectively treated now by replacing a missing enzyme.
3. Genetic testing for breast and ovarian cancers, through detection of the BRCA1&2 genes. Since half of Ashkenazic carriers have a negative family history, population-based screening may be considered in the future.
Ostrer makes a disturbing point: as a result of widespread Tay Sachs screening, the rate of mutations is increasing. Is this true? The topic is not developed further.
There is an unfortunate grammatical error on page 188.

The final chapter, "Identity", seems almost an afterthought. Some of the comments deserve more analysis, especially the fact that this topic has relevance to everyone, not only Jews. The Jewish genetic population is a model for population genetics of humanity as a whole. As more progress is made, other groups' genomes and histories will be disclosed.

Ostrer acknowledges the risk of this type of research providing fodder for anti-Semites. I suspect he is correct here, only this time the risk is more likely to come from Islamists with a political agenda to delegitimize the State of Israel. Ostrer has stated that his goal as a geneticist is "to understand the history of Jews from their genomes and to understand the genetic basis for diseases". It will be unfortunate if others attempt to distort his research.
15 of 17 people found the following review helpful
HASH(0x981ace4c) out of 5 stars Good overall. Chapter organiztion was a bit strange/ confusing. Sept. 6 2012
By Leib Gershon Mitchell - Published on
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).
a. Chapter 1 (Looking Jewish): We started out with craniometry, but for some reason skipped going directly to blood groups (which I'd have thought to have logically been next since blood groups were known about much before some of these diseases).
b. Chapter 2 (Founders): From there, we went to observation of genetic diseases as a way to deduce ancestry. This chapter started just after/ around the time of the founding of Israel.
c. Chapter 3 (Genealogies): Here is where we get into the genetics of the various genetic groups (where the author introduces concepts such as "haplotypes" and "CNV" and "SNP") and coalescence time-- basically, all the things that we wanted to know and the reason that we might have bought this book.
d. Chapter 4 (Tribes): After all the latest DNA papers, we go *back* to bloodwork (which would have logically been placed after craniometry) as a way to measure the genetic distance between different Jewish groups (Sephardim/ Ashkenazim). This work hearkens back to the 1960s (before markers got as big as they have).
e. Chapter 5 (Traits): We go into another area that has the potential to be a minefield. Intelligence (and Jewish ancestry). There is no logical place that this should have been put in the book, but it seems like the author states a lot of what we already knew without coming to any firm conclusions and saying basically that "more research is needed to clarify the problem." There are other topics (i.e., mental illness, genetic disease screening).
f. Chapter 6 (Identity): A bit of discussion of Jewish identity ("Who is a Jew? And do genetics or the rabbinate have the final say?") and Israel's aliyah policy. Not strictly within the purview of genetics, but not uninteresting nor so wordy as to derail the book.
There are a lot of concepts we already know. Natural selection. Genetic drift. Founder effect. Various Jewish genetic diseases (Tay Sachs, Gaucher, Niemann-Pick, etc).

Overall: The prose seems to fairly flash by, but the diagrams are hideous. Even the magnification feature doesn't help clear up some of the diagrams. Figure 3.3 is a haplotype diagram that is just vomited up with no clear explanation of what it means or how it is to be intepreted.

As far as the various Jewish diseases (and who knew there were so many! over 100!), he makes a very plausible case (especially as a geneticist) that they are the founder effect on steroids. A very few families settled in small places and kept to themselves for enough generations and there you have it.
7 of 7 people found the following review helpful
HASH(0x9764abdc) out of 5 stars The Genetic Basis for Jewish Identity Feb. 17 2014
By Paul Froehlich - Published on
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.”
In short, Ostrer writes, “Genetic differentiation is enhanced by geographic separation and by inbreeding (endogamy) over extended periods of time and is reduced by mating between populations.”

Most contemporary Jewish populations are descendants of one of three groups:

1. Middle Eastern (or Mirrahi) Jews who lived in contemporary Israel and Palestine as well as Iran, Iraq and the Arabian peninsula. They are descendants of the Jews carried into captivity in Babylon (in present day Iraq) in 586 B.C.E.

2. Sephardic Jews who resided in Spain and Portugal until they were expelled around 1500 and migrated to North Africa, Italy, Turkey, Lebanon, and Syria.

3. The Ashkenazi Jews who moved north of the Alps probably from Italy during the first millennium A.D. They moved into Germanic states and developed Yiddish. During the 12th & 13th centuries they were expelled from Western Europe and moved to Poland and Lithuania. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Ashkenazi Jews immigrated to the U.S., Canada, South America, South Africa, Australia and the UK.

Ostrer explains that a Y-chromosomal pattern among Jews demonstrates they are descendants of people who once lived in the Middle East. “The study of Jews is occurring against the backdrop of worldwide efforts to use Y-chromosomal and mitrochondrial lineages as a basis for understanding the deep ancestry of all major human populations.”

Genetic analysis indicates that European Jews had a mixture with European populations of 5-8 percent. The presence of European lineages is the major difference between Ashkenazi and Middle Eastern and Sephardic Jews. The genetic analysis of contemporary Jewish populations points to origins in the Middle East, with Diaspora populations having specific founders, and with some of those populations having greater admixture than others.

The science of human genomics – the study of entire genomes – has recently mapped and sequenced the content of the human genome. Differences throughout the entire genome, not just Y chromosomal and mitrochondrial, were identified. A good book on this topic, also reviewed on Amazon by this reviewer, is DNA USA (2012) by Brian Sykes. Goldstein et al (2009) found they could perfectly distinguish Ashkenazi Jewish Americans from European Americans with 100 percent accuracy.

Ostrer launched the Jewish HapMap Project in NY City, the second largest Jewish city in the world. This project demonstrated that Jewish populations from the major Diaspora groups – Ashkenazi, Sephardic and Mizrahi – form a distinctive population cluster that is closely related to Semitic and European populations. Within this larger Jewish cluster, each of the populations formed its own subcluster. Each group demonstrated Semitic ancestry and had variable degrees of admixture with Europeans. The genetic split between the Ashkenazi and Middle Eastern groups occurred about 2,500 years ago. “Overall the typical degree of sharing (among Jewish communities) was what might be expected for fourth and fifth cousins; this, indeed is the degree of relatedness within Jewish communities.”

Not one to shy away from controversy, Ostrer also addresses genetic susceptibility to certain diseases and whether intelligence is derived by inheritance. The fact is that Ashkenazi Jews test higher on IQ tests than any other American ethnic group. Jews won 29 percent of the Nobel Prizes in four categories during the second half of the 20th Century. Ostrer suggests that culture alone does not account for these facts. As Charles Murray puts it, Jews are not only nurtured to be smart, but also bred to be smart.

The recognition of Jewish susceptibility to certain diseases specific to Diaspora Jewish groups was popularized by Chaim Sheba, an Israeli geneticist. Some 40 diseases – including Tay-Saks, Gaucher, Niemann-Pick, Mucolipidosis IV, as well as breast and ovarian cancer -- have been found disproportionately among Jewish populations. Sheba established the notion that these diseases served as genetic markers for the particular populations that had been relatively isolated genetically.

Ostrer explains that currently Ashkenazi Jews are screened for Tay-Sachs and 16 other conditions; there are now more infants born with Tay-Sachs among gentiles than among Jews. New cases of Ty-Sachs have dropped by 90 percent due to screening programs to identify carriers of Tay-Sachs and due to pregnancy testing to detect fetuses with the disease. In short, via genetic screening, the prevention of marriage by Tay-Sachs carriers and the like, “contemporary Jewry is transforming the genetic makeup of future Jewry.” A century ago, this would’ve been called eugenics.

There is a widespread belief in the USA and other western countries that Jews constitute a religion rather than a group with common genetic heritage. Genomics challenges that belief as out of date. Evidence for biological Jewishness raises the question of whether Jewish should become a category in the U.S. Census.

Genetics should not replace Jewish law and culture, Ostrer writes, “but it will take its place in the formation of group identity alongside shared spirituality, shared social values, and a shared cultural legacy.” ###
2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
HASH(0x981ace94) out of 5 stars Scientifically accurate book on Jewish history; perhaps the most neutral book on a controversial subject. March 27 2016
By Matthew William Cohen - Published on
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
I was very much satisfied reading Harry Ostrers book. I have followed much of his work on FamilytreeDNA and his DNA studies on Ashkenazi Jews.

The book covered pretty much everything I had expected. I fully understood the testing that was being utilized and as a result, have a much deeper appreciation on the history and background behind population genetics and genetic diseases.

The book covers the history of anthropology on Jews and the original dismissal of Jews being one people before genetic testing was available, yet society could still pick out a Jewish person from 1,000 people.

The book does go further into history, I felt some of the history may have been slightly weak, however, Harry Ostrer does state that he was relying on resources for the history of the Jewish people. Harry Ostrer does mention the Khazar theory and that it appears genetics have widely disproven this theory, he also explains the Rhineland Theory and that Jewish people do not appear to actually be descendants of just one specific people but rather a tapestry of various ethnic groups over time with Southern European converts, and also mention regarding later conversion of Idumean people during the Hasmonean empire which Idumeans were force converted to Judaism.

Genetic data seems to cover early work on population clustering and subclade origins, it explains how frequency and length would identify ancestral haplogroups which was more consistent with distant ancestry than blood tests. Over time, haplogroups identified a core ancestor but not necessary evidence that a population group came recently from those same ancestors, a perfect example of this was neolithic migration of people who came from the Middle East to Europe prior to the existence of the Semitic peoples and would share the same haplogroups, this is where single nucleotide polymorphisms and subclades start to show recent mutations that indicate common origins of those populations.

Harry Ostrer also covers the Cohen Modal Haplotype admitting the early 6 marker test was not reliable as non Jews and even other groups such as the Lemba in South Africa were showing these same 6 markers using Short Tandem Repeat tests in the J1 group, so while it may not indicate one is a descendant of Cohens or even a Jew, it could be used to prove a connection to the middle east perhaps to the Semitic speaking populations, however the dating/time is a problem, as a result, Ostrer explains the newer 12 marker tests that generally show up in individuals with a known Jewish ancestor from the paternal line. Ostrer also indicates that the CMH shouldn't be used to specifically rely on Jewish ancestry or even Cohen ancestry, but it is a good indicator for those who already have some sort of oral history, and I did like the way it was presented in the book.

Harry Ostrer further covers Jewish intelligence, the section seemed slightly out of place, but Harry Ostrer does mention that there is still ongoing debate regarding genetic influence of intelligence or if it is a result of other factors such as wealth, urbanization, education, etc.

Medical studies were quite interesting which shows evidence how genetic screening has practically eliminated Tay-Sachs from the Ashkenazi population and that it is actually more common in Non Jews now than it is Jews. Other mentions are Gauchers disease and other genetic diseases that seem to be found in different Jewish populations not found in the Ashkenazi population.

Overall, the book was a pleasure to read, I felt that it refined my knowledge on the subject and that I had a better understanding on bottle neck populations and population clustering compared to before. The book by no means is pro Zionist or Anti-Semitic or even Pro Khazar/Anti Khazar. Infact, the book does quite the opposite as Harry Ostrer mentions that he refused to be influenced in some sort of political role to promote a concept of Jews being a single ethnicity/race or that they did not have any Hebrew origins. Harry Ostrer seems to promote a message of science, and I firmly believe this is why his book has been misunderstood by both sides of the spectrum. On one hand, you have the religious Jews who in some cases do not want to acknowledge that Jews are a race or a ethnicity but rather a religion, Harry Ostrer does mention that American Jews are the few people who do not want to be seen as a race which is understandable considering how Hitler alienated Jews in Nazi Germany and treated them as inferior, but does not warrant an excuse why scientific genetic studies should not be used to encourage and promote scientific studies.

On the other hand, the non religious, or perhaps those who are politically opposed to Israel or even perhaps anti-semitic may feel that Harry Ostrer is politically promoting Zionism or perhaps that the Jews are identifying themselves superior genetically, in other cases, individuals who oppose the historical context of Israel or the Jews even descending from the Israelite people may also feel that Harry Ostrer is promoting a very one dimensional view on the Jewish people.

From the viewpoint of Harry Ostrer, it appears once again that he states in his book that this is not the focus, and even goes on to state that Israels law of return does not use genetics/DNA to allow citizenship and that even converts to Judaism are able to "return" to the state. Harry Ostrer seems more keen on identifying a signature common in Jews to a core ancestor that bottlenecked and had mixed with other populations that separates them genetically.

From a personal viewpoint, I have used genetic testing from both FamilytreeDNA and 23andme and have learned a lot about my mixed Ashkenazi/Sephardic ancestry and my Kohanim paternal ancestors. I have also learned about genetic diseases that my family has inherited as a result. I cannot recommend this book enough to those who are also involved in genealogical testing and I feel Harry Ostrer did a great job despite minimal complaints on a few topics. 5 stars for a wonderful book.
12 of 18 people found the following review helpful
By A.E. Prero - Published on
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.