Sunday, September 28, 2008

Conversion - Anusim - Genetic basis?

Smithsonian Magazine: [referred by Jersey Girl]
One september day in 2001, Teresa Castellano, Lisa Mullineaux, Jeffrey Shaw and Lisen Axell were having lunch in Denver. Genetic counselors from nearby hospitals and specialists in inherited cancers, the four would get together periodically to talk shop. That day they surprised one another: they'd each documented a case or two of Hispanic women with aggressive breast cancer linked to a particular genetic mutation. The women had roots in southern Colorado, near the New Mexico border. "I said, 'I have a patient with the mutation, and she's only in her 40s,'" Castellano recalls. "Then Lisa said that she had seen a couple of cases like that. And Jeff and Lisen had one or two also. We realized that this could be something really interesting."

Curiously, the genetic mutation that caused the virulent breast cancer had previously been found primarily in Jewish people whose ancestral home was Central or Eastern Europe. Yet all of these new patients were Hispanic Catholics.

Mullineaux contacted Ruth Oratz, a New York City-based oncologist then working in Denver. "Those people are Jewish," Oratz told her. "I'm sure of it."

Pooling their information, the counselors published a report in a medical journal about finding the gene mutation in six "non-Jewish Americans of Spanish ancestry." The researchers were cautious about some of the implications because the breast cancer patients themselves, as the paper put it, "denied Jewish ancestry."

The finding raised some awkward questions. What did the presence of the genetic mutation say about the Catholics who carried it? How did they happen to inherit it? Would they have to rethink who they were—their very identity—because of a tiny change in the three billion "letters" of their DNA? More important, how would it affect their health, and their children's health, in the future?

Some people in the valley were reluctant to confront such questions, at least initially, and a handful even rejected the overtures of physicians, scientists and historians who were suddenly interested in their family histories. But rumors of secret Spanish Jewry had floated around northern New Mexico and the San Luis Valley for years, and now the cold hard facts of DNA appeared to support them. As a result, families in this remote high-desert community have had to come to grips with a kind of knowledge that more and more of us are likely to face. For the story of this wayward gene is the story of modern genetics, a science that increasingly has the power both to predict the future and to illuminate the past in unsettling ways.

Expanding the DNA analysis, Sharon Graw, a University of Denver geneticist, confirmed that the mutation in the Hispanic patients from San Luis Valley exactly matched one previously found in Ashkenazi Jews from Central and Eastern Europe. The mutation, 185delAG, is a variant of a gene called BRCA1. When normal and healthy, BRCA1 helps to protect breast and ovarian cells from cancer. An extremely long gene, it has thousands of DNA letters, each corresponding to one of four chemical compounds that make up the genetic code and run down either strand of the DNA double helix; a "misspelling"—a mutation—can occur at virtually any letter. Some are of no consequence, but the deletion of the chemicals adenine (A) and guanine (G) at a site 185 rungs into the DNA ladder—hence the name 185delAG—will prevent the gene from functioning. Then the cell becomes vulnerable to a malignancy. To be sure, most breast and ovarian cancers do not run in families. The cases owing to BRCA1 and a similar gene, BRCA2, make up less than 10 percent of cases overall.

By comparing DNA samples from Jews around the world, scientists have pieced together the origins of the 185delAG mutation. It is ancient. More than 2,000 years ago, among the Hebrew tribes of Palestine, someone's DNA dropped the AG letters at the 185 site. The glitch spread and multiplied in succeeding generations, even as Jews migrated from Palestine to Europe. Ethnic groups tend to have their own distinctive genetic disorders, such as harmful variations of the BRCA1 gene, but because Jews throughout history have often married within their religion, the 185delAG mutation gained a strong foothold in that population. Today, roughly one in 100 Jews carries the harmful form of the gene variant.

Meanwhile, some of the Colorado patients began to look into their own heritage. With the zeal of an investigative reporter, Beatrice Wright searched for both cancer and Jewish ancestry in her family tree. Her maiden name is Martinez. She lives in a town north of Denver and has dozens of Martinez relatives in the San Luis Valley and northern New Mexico. In fact, her mother's maiden name was Martinez also. Wright had been diagnosed with breast cancer in 2000, when she was 45. Her right breast was removed and she was treated with chemotherapy. Later, her left breast, uterus, fallopian tubes and ovaries were removed as a precaution. She had vaguely known that the women on her father's side were susceptible to the disease. "With so much cancer on Dad's side of the family," she said, "my cancer doctor thought it might be hereditary." Advised by Lisa Mullineaux about BRCA testing, she provided a blood sample that came back positive for 185delAG.

When Wright was told that the mutation was characteristic of Jewish people, she recalled a magazine article about the secret Jews of New Mexico. It was well known that during the late Middle Ages the Jews of Spain were forced to convert to Catholicism. According to a considerable body of scholarship, some of the conversos maintained their faith in secret. After Judaism was outlawed in Spain in 1492 and Jews were expelled, some of those who stayed took their beliefs further underground. The exiles went as far as the New World. [...]


  1. Halacha and Judaism's decison making priciples are not based on genetics and one wishes Jersey girl would not bring in these tendentious articles.

    A Ger Tzedek can have a 100% gentile genetic pool and will be regarded as a 100% Jew according to Halacha upon a valid conversion, whereas a person who has lived among the gentiles for hundreds of years and has even been a Christian to boot having no CHAZAKA of Jewish ancestry in the LIVING sense of parents, grandparents and great-grandparets known to be Jews, is a 100% goy and would require a full conversion in order to be considered a Jew according to Halacha. This is no chidush.

    While anthropology, genetics, history and sociology may point to some people's "Jewish" roots way back in time, those factors mean nothing in front of Bais Din that would have to decide the status of such a person before them. And it would be well to have in mind that anthropological, genetic, historical and sociological factors mean nothing in deciding NATIONALITY which is determined by specific laws of citizenship such as having being born in a country or fulfilling all residence and studying requirements.

    Thus, say someone whose great-grandparents were both Americans but had renounced their US citizenship and moved to Russia, and if one day one of their greatgrandkids decides to return to the USA and claim citizenship stating that he had strong traces of Yankee blood and genes in him (while all true), he would be told to go get lost and go fly a kite and apply for citizenship like any other regular new immigrant.

    Why this has to be explained over and over again is worrisome and tiresome.

    Perhaps, the reason is that the subject of "anusim" and "secret Jews" has become glamorized as a cover and distraction for the genuine 100% Jews (according to Halacha born so) who have left and are leaving the fold of Klal Yisroel and don't care nor give a darn about Yiddishkeit, so that people, both secular and religious Jews, need to find some sort of comfort and FALSE self-assurance in seeking out and looking under the proverbial rugs for the "long lost cousins" who just aren't there! Let's all stop chasing ghosts please and start to deal with, and face up to, the bitter and ugly realities in order to create s table and healthy future built on 100% Halachic Jews and not "genetic" ones or such-like anusim wannabe Jews.

    Shana Tova and a Kesiva VeChasima Tova all Jews, and peace to the world!

  2. R&P.

    What "halachic decision" was made in this article?

    I fail to see anything tendentious about a pure attempt to understand scientific observation.

    I don't see the article claiming these people are halachikly Jewish.

    I would see someone who was motivated to convert because there was scientific evidence that they had Jewish blood, as a good thing. Surely someone who then "feels" they want to reclaim their family and heritage and religion is precisely the definition of a Ger Tzedek? Kabolas Hamitzvos is the manifestation of such a pure desire! The desire is the start point. Isn't this about unearthing those who may very well have great and correct motivation to start the process?

    One difference between your take and mine is that I don't class this as some "glamorous" topic. Rather, such scientific observation is an opportunity to see which of those who discover they may have had Jewish blood are prepared to take a next step.

    We don't do that by classing such activities as "chasing ghosts" or "ugly realities". Let's be nice.

    כתיבה וחתימה טובה

  3. isaac balbin,

    "Surely someone who then "feels" they want to reclaim their family and heritage and religion is precisely the definition of a Ger Tzedek? "

    There are plenty of non-Jews with no genealogical connection to the Jewish people who have become converts. For such people, how would the desire to "reclaim their family and heritage and religion" even come into the picture?

    I'm not saying that such sentiments do not ever play a role in the decisions of individual gerim to convert. However, stating it as a definition of a ger tzedek seems exceedingly odd to me.

  4. To Isaac Balbin: My comments were NOT addressed to the article or to its contents at all, but rather I was adrressing myself to poster Jersey girl and her intentions in bringing this type of stuff to bolster her well-documented views (on this blog) about sympathising with the cause of anusim even tho she is aware of the real Halachic barriers validly blocking the entry of anusim into Klal Yisroel with these kind of "moral/genetic justifications" that Jersey girl is implying by deploying these kind of articles that romanticize and dress up anasuim and their cause when they require neither sympathy nor any outreach to bring them closer to Halachic Judaism which can do without them.

  5. Enough of this "curious" debate . I know the individuals in the mentioned article in the article and they are very happy to remain christians. They view the fact that they have a possible Jewish connection as a curious fact. They are proud of the fact but have no desire to convert. I personally have a secret-jewish grandmother who was proud to be identified as a "hebreo" but would not have decided to "convert" to the religion. I find the Jewish religion to be a beautiful faith but I am turned off by the constant contention. I prefer to not be a christian but a compassionate believer in the spiritual love of my fellow human beings and realize that, when all said and done, we all are searching for the utimate truth, "God", peace.

    Shakespear said, "me think's thee protests too much"

    David D.

  6. Chizki,
    I meant that such a person would satisfy the definition of a Ger Tzedek.

    Clearly the article can't support any halachik view espoused by Jersey Girl, however, I am more sympathetic to reacting positively to someone who is motivated to convert because they have discovered they had Jewish blood at some stage (and perhaps were also Anusim) than it would appear you are.


please use either your real name or a pseudonym.