Can the “Jewish gene” prove who is Jewish and who is not?
We know that the world’s 13 million Jews are strongly linked by religion and culture. But linking us through our genes is something that until now, has been far more complicated.
Rabbi Dr Akiva Tatz, however, maintains that there is a recently discovered gene that while not yet solid enough to base a firm Jewish identity on, is prevalent among Ashkenazi Jews, and has some “fascinating consequences”.
Tatz discussed the ramifications of this recent discovery and other issues surrounding Jewish genetics with students at Hatzolah House in Sydenham last Wednesday. He was invited by The Arch and the South African Union of Jewish Students.
Having practised as a doctor in South Africa and the United States, Tatz moved to Israel, where he practised in hospital and general medicine in Jerusalem, and engaged in a number of years of Talmudic study, later teaching Jewish thought and medical ethics in Jerusalem.
For years, the debate around the existence of a Jewish gene has raged amongst researchers, with some flatly denying that there is any basis to such a theory. According to Tatz, while this field might still be in relative infancy, there is more to discover about ourselves as Jews than we previously thought, and genetics makes it possible.
“You don’t need to be a doctor or medical student to know that medicine is going very strongly in the direction of genetic bases,” says Tatz. “Almost every journal published nowadays has at least one article about genetic sequences, and medicine today almost doesn’t move without genetic studies.”
The role of genetic identification within Judaism can be difficult to pin down, he says. According to the Talmud, if a body or part of a body is found and it cannot be identified, if there is a unique feature from which it can be assumed who the person was, it is good enough.
The question, however, is what is considered unique. “The Talmud doesn’t say, and doesn’t give any statistics,” says Tatz. “From the 16th century, halachic authorities have tried to define it. They said that if the uniqueness of the feature was one in a thousand, that was good enough.
“However, genetic identification is much more accurate. Better, but not absolute. Major rabbinic figures in this field have said that if we need to identify someone and have positive genetic identification and some other piece of surrounding evidence, it is halachically acceptable.”
Tatz explains that experts in Jewish genealogy and history have determined that 40% of all Ashkenazi Jews are descended from just four Jewish women who left the Middle East more than 1 000 years ago and settled in Europe.
He says mitochondrial DNA, the genetic material present in cellular bodies called mitochondria, is inherited exclusively from a person’s mother. Therefore genetic markers in this DNA can be traced back many generations to determine a person’s maternal ancestors with a high degree of certainty.
“We have about 20 000 to 30 000 genes. The human genome is found in the nucleus of the cell, in the mitochondria, which contains 25-30 genes. Uniquely, these are inherited only from the mother.
“It so happens that in this DNA, there is a unique Jewish feature. And it just so happens that you are Jewish because your mother is. The two match up perfectly.”
Tatz stressed, however, that this research has not made it enough to prove Judaism just by doing a genetic test. Not yet. Still, it has already had major consequences the world over.
“The evidence suggests that most Ashkenazi Jews are descended from men who came from Israel before the time of the Roman exile, and Roman women who converted to Judaism at the time. It turns out that Ashkenazi Jews are far more closely related to Tuscan Italians than to other Jews from other parts of the world.”
Another case cited is that of the Lemba, an ethnic group native to Zimbabwe and South Africa. This group has some religious practices and beliefs similar to those in Judaism, which they say were transmitted by oral tradition.
“The Lemba tribe have a story of descending from King Solomon through Africa, and claim to be Jewish,” says Tatz. “A number of them do, in fact, have the gene. Although the research needs to be carried further, the case may have some standing thanks to the evidence so far.”
Another application of genetics to identify Jews is effecting an extremely painful and bitter story developing in Israel. In the 1950s, Yemenite Jews were brought to Israel and settled in tent camps around the country. Living under such conditions, many of their babies fell ill, and were taken to Israeli hospitals, where many disappeared.
“When the parents came for their child, they were told it had died, and where it had been buried,” Tatz says. “The accusation is that the hospitals sold the babies, or gave them away to Holocaust-survivors without children. Since then, commission after commission has been set up to bring the situation to a close, but it has never been resolved.”
Last month, the Israeli Knesset passed a law allowing for the graves to be opened and for genetic analysis to be carried out on the remains. “Within a couple of weeks, perhaps once and for all, this will be laid to rest,” says Tatz. “Unfortunately, it’s not simple, as in Israel people are not buried in coffins. The graves of these babies are small, and the ground shifts. It’s not clear exactly where each individual child is located, but there is great hope that this scar on modern Israeli history may be resolved.”
The practice of tracing genetic genealogy amongst Jews is not necessarily new. One example is that of the lineage of Kohanim, and their descendants today.
“A Kohen gene has been said to exist in certain men claiming to be Kohanim. Before, they were believed only on the basis of their own testimony,” says Tatz. However, a very high percentage of people claiming descent have a unique Y-chromosomal polymorphism, which suggests that all Kohanim on the earth today descended from one man who lived about 2 000 years ago.
“Thanks to genetic research, we can tell how closely related any two human beings are on earth. A recent study found that any two Jews on earth are 10 times more closely related than any two random people living in New York.”
Teen vaccinate, or not teen vaccinate? Not a question, say doctors
As the news broke that South Africa would allow children aged 12 and up to get vaccinated with a first Pfizer shot, some parents were thrilled but others expressed fear, uncertainty, even anger.
“As the daughter of a polio survivor and the mother of an asthmatic child, I feel strongly that we need to get vaccinated, not just for ourselves, but for others,” says Vanessa Levenstein, a copywriter at Fine Music Radio in Cape Town. “My son, Sammy, is 14 and my daughter, Safra, is 17, and this past Shabbat, we all said how grateful we were that the vaccine was now available to them. I feel we are privileged to have it.”
Her husband, Jonathan Musikanth, an attorney, agrees. “We look forward to giving our children some sort of normality again,” he says. Levenstein adds, “We’re living in a society with huge social inequalities: someone living in a crowded Manenberg flat cannot self-isolate if they get infected. The only way to stop the spread is through the vaccine roll-out. ‘If I’m not for myself, who will be for me? And being only for myself, what am I?’ The words of Hillel still ring true.’”
The SA Jewish Report asked parents on Facebook what they thought, and a mother responded, “The judgement and anger towards people who don’t want to be vaccinated is extreme and frightening.” For this reason, she asked to be quoted anonymously.
“My children are healthy and have been exposed to COVID-19 and didn’t have any symptoms,” she said. “I don’t feel that I need to vaccinate them against something that I feel isn’t dangerous to them. They didn’t have any symptoms, so I don’t feel I need to protect them from dying. The fact is that nobody in the world knows the long-term effects of this vaccine. I’m not willing to risk it.
“It’s all well and good saying we should do it for herd immunity, but I won’t allow my children to get vaccinated to protect others when they don’t need the protection themselves,” she said. “Also, I don’t feel that 12 year olds are old enough to make a decision about this. My kids would agree.”
Asked how she felt about her children navigating a post-COVID-19 world unvaccinated, she said it was “a huge concern”.
“I’m concerned that their freedom will be taken away because of this. However, is that a good enough reason to go against what I wholeheartedly believe to be the truth about the vaccine?” she asked. “I don’t believe that by not vaccinating kids, I’m putting anyone else’s life in danger.”
Johannesburg pulmonologist and parent Dr Anton Meyberg told the SA Jewish Report, “This is definitely a scary and emotive time in our lives as parents. It’s one thing to vaccinate ourselves, the adults, but now we are being asked to trust science with our own children. Whereas we know that children definitely don’t get as sick as adults, they definitely can still get sick [from COVID-19]. And some get severe multisystem inflammatory syndrome while others can suffer from ‘long COVID’.
“There are so many myths and misconceptions about vaccination and they need to be dispelled,” he says. “As a doctor on the frontline, it’s a ‘no brainer’ to me that my daughter and children over the age of 12 should be vaccinated. As parents, we have the responsibility of safekeeping and caring for our children, and vaccinating them allows us to do this. No doubt by vaccinating our teens, we’re protecting their parents and grandparents, but we’re also making sure that schools can remain open and our children can lead almost normal lives.
“The most documented side effect in children after the second dose of the Pfizer vaccine, mainly in boys 16 to 30 years of age, is myocarditis [inflammation of the heart muscle],” Meyberg says. “Males aged 12 to 17 are more likely to develop myocarditis within three months of catching COVID-19 at a rate of 450 per million infections. This compares with 67 per million after the vaccine. The condition is self-limiting and easily treatable, and it’s crucial to avoid exercise for up to a week post vaccination in order to decrease the chances of its occurrence. Widespread vaccination is a critical tool to help stop this pandemic. The question shouldn’t be if you’ll vaccinate, but rather when.”
Jeffrey Dorfman, associate professor in medical virology at Stellenbosch University, says “the arguments for vaccinating children are very strong in countries such as South Africa and the United States where there’s still a lot of COVID-19 transmission and the potential for more waves. Children may be at lower risk of severe COVID-19 disease than adults, but not zero. In the United States, more than 63 000 children have been hospitalised since August 2020, and more than 500 have died. More than 4 000 have been diagnosed with multisystem inflammatory syndrome, which is dangerous.
“Additionally, the vaccines in use prevent many COVID-19 infections – not 100%, as we all know about breakthrough infections, but even for the Delta variant, vaccination prevents about 70% of infections based upon current studies,” he says. “That’s enough to matter to the people around children who are vaccinated, and may be enough to stop or reduce school outbreaks. Vaccination will certainly reduce the risk of a child bringing a COVID-19 infection home to vulnerable adults. It’s certainly not unheard of for children to bring an infection home from school resulting in the death of a caregiver, and this is tragic and preventable.
“Additionally, I know of cases of children who were asymptomatically infected and had to move away from vulnerable grandparents,” he says. “It was scary for the people involved. The children had no symptoms and were tested only because they had a COVID-19 positive contact. Were the contact not known, they would have continued to live with the grandparents, who would have been at risk. Even children who have had COVID-19 can have it again, and a large study from Kentucky in the United States shows that vaccination further reduces the risk of COVID-19 re-infection. We aren’t going to get on top of COVID-19 unless we use the tools at our disposal. As a society, we can’t afford serious lockdowns and have to use less disruptive tools. Vaccines should be high on everyone’s list.”
A third mother expressed mixed feelings about vaccinating her teenage sons. However, after reading a letter by Johannesburg family physician Dr Sheri Fanaroff, she has decided to go ahead with it. In the letter, Fanaroff laid out all the questions and concerns to show that “the risk of getting COVID-19 infection far outweighs the risk of vaccination in teenagers. I can say without hesitation that I will be relieved to have my own teenagers at the front of the queue to get vaccinated this week so that they can return to a more normal lifestyle.”
She explained amongst other points that “vaccination reduces the risk of teenagers dying: the virus was the fourth leading cause of death for those aged 15 to 24 and the sixth leading cause for those aged five to 14”.
Fanaroff also explained that “vaccination reduces the risk of severe infections, hospitalisation, and the need for oxygen and intensive care in teenagers. Recent figures from the US show that the hospitalisation rate among unvaccinated adolescents was ten times higher than that among fully vaccinated adolescents.
“There’s no biological reason or proof that a COVID-19 vaccine can interfere with the progression of puberty. There’s also no biological mechanism whereby hormones associated with puberty can have an impact on immune responses to COVID-19 vaccines. There’s no evidence that the vaccine has any impact on fertility.”
During the health department briefing on Friday, 15 October, acting Director General of Health Dr Nicholas Crisp stated that based on the Children’s Act that allows children aged 12 to 17 to consent to medical treatment, children in this age group don’t require their parents’ consent to have a COVID-19 vaccine. Teens can register and consent to being vaccinated without permission.
Hijacked mom warns motorists after being taken hostage
A Sandton mother of two was last week taken on a joyride from hell after being hijacked at gunpoint by two attackers at her local shopping mall in broad daylight.
Nicky Sher is always vigilant when it comes to her safety. Last Tuesday, 12 October, however, she was caught completely off guard when her assailants took her hostage as they made their getaway from the Morning Glen Shopping Centre in Gallo Manor.
“It was one of my worst nightmares come true,” she told the SA Jewish Report this week.
“It’s a different story being hijacked and left stranded without your car, that’s horrific enough, but being forcibly taken in the car takes it to another level.”
Sher arrived at the centre at about 12:20 to do a quick shop at the centre’s Pick n Pay and Mica Hardware. She parked outside the hardware store, and remembers thinking that there weren’t the usual number of eager car guards offering to help her when she emerged with her trolley a short while later. In fact, she didn’t see any.
“I thought that I could have done with the help as I had a heavy load of parcels which needed to be put into the boot of my car,” she said.
She also didn’t see any security guards on patrol, something that went through her mind fleetingly.
After offloading her trolley, she was about to climb into the driver’s seat of her seven-year-old white Mercedes Benz CLA 200, when the two men “came out of nowhere”. They somehow forced her into the passenger side of the vehicle as one man took the driver’s seat while the other one sat behind with a gun pointed towards her.
“I started screaming for help. I screamed and screamed,” she said, but the men fled the centre at high speed with no regard for whatever was in their way, bumping into things.
“I saw a flash of a car guard and another man who I believe reported his suspicions to centre management.”
In the blink of an eye, a petrified Sher found herself trapped inside her own car with two crazed men who threated to shoot her if she continued to scream. The driver made a sharp right onto Bowling Avenue, driving at high speed.
“I continued to scream, I didn’t know what else to do,” she said, pointing out that in hindsight, she knows it wasn’t wise as the men continued to threaten to shoot her.
A few hundred meters after Kelvin Drive, in the direction of South Road, Morningside, she saw a metro traffic police road block up ahead, and felt hope and relief. “I thought Hashem was watching over me, and I was going to be rescued. I even tried to open the door, which caused the driver to become very agitated,” she said.
Her relief soon turned to disappointment and dismay when the police seemingly did nothing to stop her attackers from hurtling away after they had half-heartedly tried to flag the speeding vehicle down. “That’s when I knew I was on my own. Strangely, I became calm at that moment,” she said, even though her life flashed before her.
“It’s going to sound weird, but all I could think about was Mark Kopelowitz, who was murdered the day before.” (Kopelowitz was killed after walking into an armed robbery taking place at his jewellery store at the Centurion Mall on Monday, 11 October.)
“I thought yesterday it was Mark, today it’s going to be me,” she said. “I tried to calm down because screaming and trying to open the car door hadn’t worked. I begged them to let me out, told them I was a mother, hadn’t seen their faces, and couldn’t identify them.”
She was forced to hand over her handbag with all its belongings inside. They wanted the pin numbers of her credit cards.
“I couldn’t remember one of them, and they said they’d shoot me if I told them the wrong numbers,” she said.
She assumed they’d drive to the nearest ATM and keep her hostage until they had withdrawn as much money as they could. Instead, they hastily stopped the car on the corner of Marlboro Drive and Lilium Street, Marlboro, and told her to get out.
She ran towards the nearest garage and frantically told the owner she had been hijacked.
It was then that she called her husband, Clifford, and her two daughters.
“It’s a family trauma when something like this happens. Everybody is shaken,” she said.
She decided to tell her story as a warning to other motorists to be extra vigilant, especially when approaching one’s vehicle at shopping malls.
She believes they targeted her for her car.
Sher took part in a Zoom security meeting with centre management last week, and relayed her story. She was told that according to CCTV footage, her attackers watched her drive into the centre and had casually followed her to see where she parked. They waited for her on a low wall in the underground parking. They wore peak caps so as not to be recognised by cameras.
“I know I had protection from above because I escaped relatively unscathed and I’m here to tell the tale. But we get so complacent especially at the centres we go to often. It’s important to be aware of your surroundings at all times, get in your car, lock the doors, and drive away quickly without bothering with things like Bluetooth and music.”
She said that since the incident, she has been overwhelmed with support from total strangers, family and friends. “It has been life affirming.”
Shopping malls have become hotspots in Johannesburg, and this isn’t the first time that hijackings have taken place at this centre.
CAP Chief Operating Officer Sean Jammy said this week, “This unfortunate incident underlines the need for competent security to be in place in any environment we frequent. To mitigate the threat and impact of this type of incident, we encourage all community members to practice situational awareness. Ensure that your family can track you via a cell phone platform, and that vehicles have tracking installed. Try and let people know where you are, and what time you should be returning.
“Be aware of risks in your environment. If anything looks suspicious, treat it as a threat and remove yourself from harm’s way. Most importantly, create an alert as early as possible, and train your family and those that care about you to do the same.”
At the time of going to press, the centre management hadn’t responded to questions about increasing security measures.
Habonim’s return to machaneh ‘a dream come true’
The Habonim Dror slogan “Don’t call us thy children, call us thy builders”, rang true this week, when the Jewish Zionist youth movement announced that it would hold a machaneh this December, taking the brave step of building something new and vibrant in a post-pandemic world. Machanot were cancelled last year for the first time in decades – a huge blow to movement morale.
In a video titled simply, “We are going home”, Habonim announced on Sunday, 17 October, that after 23 months of waiting, a machaneh will finally be held at its Onrus campsite. It will be called “Lachlom Mechadash” (To Dream Again) because the movement sees it as a dream come true. It will be shorter (from 9 to 20 December), with fewer people, and everyone will need to be vaccinated.
Rosh Machaneh Aaron Sher explained how this dream became a reality. “From the moment our va’ad poel [steering committee] for machaneh was elected this year, we were thinking about how we could make machaneh a reality. After consultation with medical professionals and those who have had summer camps overseas, many permutations of machaneh were drawn up.
“Some were on the more optimistic side, and some with more conservative thinking,” he says. “Throughout this time, the South African Zionist Federation [SAZF] was holding meetings for the youth movements, the Community Security Organisation [CSO], and other community figures to discuss how machaneh could happen, often attended by [local virology expert] Professor Barry Schoub. A common point was the vaccination of adolescents. It left room for optimism for December. Without these meetings and the support of these communal bodies, December machaneh couldn’t happen.”
With the announcement on Friday, 15 October, that vaccination would open to 12 to 17 year olds in South Africa, “the va’ad poel and our staff were in a panic, but excited. A golden opportunity had fallen into our laps that would allow us to bring machaneh to fruition. It’s almost impossible to describe the happiness we felt.”
Asked about the impact of not having machaneh or in-person events, Sher says, “In a word, devastating. Habonim Dror thrives on in-person interaction. For generations, we have been a space for Jewish youth to come together to have fun, discuss world issues, create change, and become strong leaders. Online activities don’t bring the ‘Habo magic’ that we need to feel.”
Habonim Manhig Wayne Sussman says, “The impact of not having a machaneh last year or any major in-person events has been absolutely devastating. Not just to Habonim, but to all South African youth movements. Camps and in-person events are a core part of the South African Jewish youth experience. They’re one of the things which make our community so great, and it’s absolutely critical that our kids return to camp sooner rather than later.”
Since the announcement, he says, “I have seen a youth movement come alive. I’m seeing renewed vigour, renewed energy, which has been lacking amongst our very brave and committed youth movement leadership for the past 20 months.”
Sher says “a full COVID-19 protocol policy document has been prepared for our machaneh with the help of medical professionals and those who have successfully run summer camps overseas. This will be available as soon as our sign-ups are open so that all parents and madrichim know exactly how we are keeping safe before they sign up.”
Says Sussman, “Of course, we’ll also limit numbers, and we are going to launch this properly and open sign-ups only once we’ve properly engaged with community leadership and the CSO.”
“Vaccination will be required by anyone on the campsite, a negative COVID-19 PCR test will have to be presented on arrival, and general COVID-19 protocols will have to be adhered to,” Sher says. “Anyone who tests positive will have to isolate immediately and will unfortunately be sent home. Those who have been in close contact with them will have to isolate and await a PCR test.”
What will stay the same and what will be different? “Fortunately, with a vaccine blanket over our campsite, a lot of what we love about machaneh can continue,” says Sher. “There will still be ruach [spirit], Havdalah, the beach, and everything we love about machaneh, just with some slight adjustments.” The youngest age groups, Garinim and Shtilim, won’t be able to attend.
“Should there be a fourth wave during December, Habonim Dror is committed to ensuring that we are able to adapt or at worst cancel,” he says. “The safety and health of our campers will always come first. We will make sure that we make the correct decisions in the interest of our community.”
Says Sussman, “Of course, there’s a chance that we might have to pull the plug on this. But as long as that door is open, as long as kids know that if they get vaccinated, if they’re responsible, and if they really want to attend machaneh, we’re going to do what we can to give them best summer.”
Since making the announcement, “We have had an overwhelming response from parents, kids, bogrim, and ex-chaverim all over the world,” says Sher. “People have been reaching out offering support and services. I couldn’t be more thankful to our Habonim and Jewish communities. We’re going home.”
SAZF executive member Anthony Rosmarin says, “December machanot have, for decades, played a vital role in strengthening Jewish identity and building young leaders. Recognising the impact that COVID-19 has had on the ability to host these pivotal annual events, the SAZF created a platform that brought together youth movements, medical and security advisors, and stakeholders to discuss the feasibility of December machanot.
“Given the fluid nature of the ongoing pandemic, this assessment is continually being updated and we recognise that each youth movement must come to its own determination as to whether or not to move forward with camp preparations for 2021. We are committed to providing support and advice on how best to approach this complex decision in a safe and responsible manner.”
The mazkir of Netzer South Africa, Jason Bourne, says “Netzer has decided that it won’t be running a full, in-person summer machaneh this year. Instead, we will be running day camps in Cape Town, Durban, and Joburg. Though vaccinations are being administered and cases are declining, we feel that there are still too many unanswered questions to have a sleep-away camp. As things unfold and more people are vaccinated, we may open a small weekend sleepover element to our day camp experience for older, vaccinated participants only.”
A community leader, speaking anonymously, says “Bnei Akiva would love to have a camp at the end of the year but it’s looking at all the medical and logistical issues. No decision has been made and over the next few days, it will explore it all carefully and come to a conclusion.”
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