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.
Tracing the Matrilineal Line
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.
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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 have One Genetic Group
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)
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.
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The Origins of the Ashkenazim
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)
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
Updated on December 2, 2020.