I’m an Eastern European Ashkenazic Jew

Philadelphia, PA .

For a long time, I have known that the concept of “race” is a false way to identify or classify human beings. Race is not a biological reality. In the 19th century, in Europe, the concept of ranking people by color was used to justify conquest and slavery. The attachment of slavery to color was born. Prior to that, empires did enslave their conquered peoples but did not attach ideas of superiority based on color to them. Those ideas developed with European colonization and imperialism. European “race” theorists even applied these ideas to different (white) nations and groups within Europe (read “The History of White People” by Nell Irwin Painter.)

Several years ago, I decided I would never again say I was Caucasian again. My ancestors are not from the Caucasian mountains. (Good article in Wikipedia on how Europeans got to be called Caucasian, probably by Professor Painter.) My grandparents were immigrants – Jews who came to the U.S. from Eastern Europe – Russia, Poland, Hungary, and Romania – in the late 19th/early 20th century. They were fleeing persecution and poverty. I decided when I had to state my “race” (such as when donating blood) I would state that I was an Eastern European Ashkenazic Jew, which is what my grandparents were. But I really wasn’t sure what Ashkenazic meant, so I googled it. To my surprise, I found a lot of interesting genetic information. I learned about the National Geographic Human Genome project which uses DNA to trace the migration of people from Africa (about 80,000 years ago?) and to see how they radiated out to different parts of the world. More than 99% of human DNA is the same. The tiny fraction that is different is what causes differences in different populations. The differences arose as humans walked out of Mother Africa and settled in different regions. If they were in isolated areas, they eventually became a gene pool and shared certain characteristics that other groups did not share. Some groups formed a gene pool because social customs forbade marrying out of the group. However, in spite of isolation, there is still more genetic variation within any one group than between different groups. But some individuals or groups never settled – because of wanderlust, exploration, migration, trade, war – and shared their genes with other populations all over the world.

I did get my DNA tested. I got my Mitochondrial DNA tested in 2010, and my autosomal DNA tested in 2016. I’m not a geneticist, or a biologist, and I had to learn lots of new vocabulary and concepts to understand what it meant. It’s nice to know, and it’s anthropology which is fascinating, but that’s it.


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