Detail of ‘Ashkenazi Jews praying in the Synagogue on Yom Kippur. (1878 painting by Maurycy Gottlieb)

Where are Ashkenazi Jews from? Their Origins May Surprise You


Ashkenazi Jews are a Jewish ethnic group who have their earliest ancestors from the indigenous tribes of Israel…at least on one side of the family tree. A study published in 2013 in Nature Communications has shown their maternal lineage comes from a different, and possibly unexpected, source.

The research shows the origins of the matrilineal line for the Ashkenazi Jews comes from Europe. This goes against the common belief that Jewish people first arrived in central Europe after the Byzantine–Sasanian War of 602–628 and only began settling in Germany in the Medieval period.

Ashkenazi Jews is the term used today to describe these Jewish people – individuals who built religiously-based communities centuries later in Central and Eastern Europe. One of the things they are recognized for is the use of Yiddish – a High German language written in the Hebrew alphabet and influenced by classical Hebrew and Aramaic. 

The Yiddish calligraphic segment in the Worms Mahzor. (Public Domain)

The Yiddish calligraphic segment in the Worms Mahzor. ( Public Domain )

The 2013 study co-author Martin Richards, an archaeogeneticist at the University of Huddersfield in England, said that while Ashkenazi Jews have lived in Europe for many centuries, the results of the study using DNA samples show that most European Jews descend from local people who converted to Judaism, not individuals who left Israel and the Middle East around 2,000 years ago.

Ashkenazi Jews were declared a clear, homogeneous genetic subgroup following a 2006 study. Ashkenazi Jews come from the same genetic group, no matter if their ancestors were from Poland, Russia, Hungary, Lithuania, or another place with a large historical Jewish population. They are all in the same ethnic group.

How could it be that Ashkenazi Jews are just one genetic group? The answer is a relatively simple one: they didn’t reproduce at a noticeable level with others outside their group (not even with other Jewish people). Researchers have shown Ashkenazi Jews were a reproductively isolated population in Europe for about 1000 years.

Rabbi Tzvi Hirsch ben Yaakov Ashkenazi (1714). (Public Domain)

Rabbi Tzvi Hirsch ben Yaakov Ashkenazi (1714). ( Public Domain )

Previous studies have found that 50-80% of the Ashkenazim DNA from the paternal lineage originated in the Near East. It is not surprising that there was a common belief that Israel and the Near East was their ancient homeland.

But the 2013 study showed 80% of Ashkenazi Jews’ maternal line comes from Europe - only a few people had genes originating in the Near East. As Professor Richards said at the time, “This suggests that, even though Jewish men may indeed have migrated into Europe from Palestine around 2000 years ago, they seem to have married European women.”

A Jewish couple from Worms, Germany, with the obligatory yellow badge on their clothes. The man holds a moneybag and bulbs of garlic, both often used in the portrayal of Jews. 16th century. (Public Domain)

A Jewish couple from Worms, Germany, with the obligatory yellow badge on their clothes. The man holds a moneybag and bulbs of garlic, both often used in the portrayal of Jews. 16th century. ( Public Domain )

It appears that the majority of the European converts to Judaism during the early years of the Diaspora were women. That helps explain why the Ashkenazim can trace their female lineage to southern and western Europe.

In conclusion, Richards said , “The origins of the Ashkenazim is one of the big questions that people have pursued again and again and never really come to a conclusive view.”

Top Image: Detail of ‘Ashkenazi Jews praying in the Synagogue on Yom Kippur. (1878 painting by Maurycy Gottlieb) Source: Public Domain

 By April Holloway


did you know that hitler’s Y-DNA (aka haplogroup) is E1b1b1 which is Ashkenazi Jew? so basically one of you, your offspring is responsible for holocaust.

Shake any European family tree and you can be sure that a Yid will fall out.

Shake any European family tree and you can be sure that a Yid will fall out.

Well I discovered I am of Jewish descent only about 8 years ago –I’m now 79– and I guess I’m an Ashkenazi Jew, if I want to claim anything particular, since my mother was Swiss & my father of English/Irish descent. I have never heard some of the terminology used by other commenters since I do not ‘belong’ to any defined Jewish groups, but I do like to read as much about this subject as possible. I do know now that there are many Europeans whose families hid their Jewish roots & like me have no idea who their ancesters were – some of those getting all Nazi lately may well be Jewish themselves !!!  I tell everybody about this, but watching what is happening now in both the US & UK - is it time to go into hiding again ?  Good grief humans, why are you so predictable?  I have always felt outside all the human nonsense since I’m an Introvert anyway, not given to ‘joining’ the silly stuff going on all around me, but now what – do we all have to worry about other people’s gang mentality – I had thought we had all grown above this stuff since WW2...but apparently not !   I’m sorry, I refuse to join the ‘human gang’ – I’m just me, free to see the world my own way, and nobody tells me what to be ! If I do not keep my nose above the clouds I will only get bogged down in the quagmire that is human life ! And everybody SHOULD be able to just be the soul they are, living inside a shell they did NOT choose – we just arrived & found ourselves here – that is the true reality, so any ‘category’ is pure nonsense really ! 

Ariella Lang's picture

There are two things the study does not take into consideratuion. the first is Jewish law regarding marriages. A Cohen is not allowed to marry a convert. The law originated in Biblical times when Cohens had a lot of power and prestige. There was a fear that if converts could marry cohens, some women would convert to acquire power and not out of religious conviction. The law still holds, though, and if a Cohen breaks this rule his children do not have teh status of a Cohen. The existence of Cohens among Ashkenaz Jews is proof that at least in those families, the original immigrants married women who were born Jewish and no one in their patrilineal line ever married a woman who was not born Jewish. The other factor the study ignores is the Holocaust. Those Jews in Europe who had enough European DNA to pass a s Aryan had a much higher survival rate. They could obtain false papers and then live in occupied Europe under a false identity or cross into Switzerland posing as non-Jewish immigrants. If that didn’t work out, they had a better chance of being hidden. People were more likely to take in Jews who looked like they were only half-Jewish. Those who looked Aryan also had a better chance of being accepted by Polish partisans, who sometimes murdered Jews they found hiding in the forests. Allof this adds up to a drastic change in the genetic makeup of post Holocaust Ashkenaz communities. Those with the highest perecentage of Middle Eastern DNA were simply more likely to be sent to concentration camps and killed. Any study conducted on Ashkenaz Jews today has to take his into consideration. It is not a study of the historic Ashkenaz community but rather of the 1/3 of that comunity who surviived a genocide as well as their descendants.  If a similar Holocaust had happened to African Americans, and those who could pass as white had a higher survival rate than those who could not, today’s African Americans would all look slightly more European than African, and DNA tests would show a lot of European ancestry. No one would use that fact to rewrite African American history, and with good reason.  Using a community’s tragedy to deny them their heritage is  immoral. 



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