The Genetic Legacy of Jewish Catholics

By Berman, Daphna | Moment, July-August 2012 | Go to article overview

The Genetic Legacy of Jewish Catholics


Berman, Daphna, Moment


When Francesc Calafell, a geneticist at the Institute of Evolutionary Biology in Barcelona, first began swabbing cheeks as part of an effort to study the genetic makeup of men across the Iberian Peninsula, the project was purely an academic exercise. Together with a team of researchers across Europe, he published a 2008 paper in a well-respected journal, the findings of which surprised everyone, himself included: 20 percent of Catholic men in Spain and Portugal had Y chromosomes that indicated they were of Sephardic Jewish ancestry. "We expected very low numbers because of the pogroms in the 14th century and then the expulsion," Calafell says, referring to the Spanish Inquisition, which resulted in mass forced conversion and displacement of Jews. "And yet even though ethnically and religiously the Jewish legacy vanished some time ago, it seems that the Jewish genetic legacy in Spain has persisted."

The results were even more surprising for personal reasons: Calafell's own Y chromosome indicated that he likely has Jewish ancestors. "It's a relatively small percentage of my ancestry, but it definitely made me curious," says Calafell, who was raised Catholic.

Calafell is hardly an anomaly. At the time of the expulsion of 1492, Sephardi Jewry comprised the vast majority of world Jewry, totaling about 400,000 people. "These people didn't just die," says Jon Entine, author of Abraham's Children: Race, Identity, and the DNA of The Chosen People. Their descendants are alive and well today, where they live in considerable numbers across Spain, Portugal, Italy and in large concentrations in what was then hailed as the New World, where many fled in hopes of practicing their faith.

"It's impossible to say how many people are descendants of Jews, but there are a lot of Catholics running around who have Jewish descent," says Bennett Greenspan, president and CEO of Family Tree DNA, a genetic testing service. "Certainly, the number of people of Jewish descent is much larger than the number of Jews today." He says that some estimates put this number as high as 10 million in Brazil alone.

The advent of accessible and affordable genetic testing has buttressed claims of Jewish ancestry, once solely based on anecdotal evidence such as family traditions of lighting candles on Friday night, refraining from eating pork or covering mirrors after someone dies. "Anyone can go online and for about $130 find out a lot of things you want to know--and maybe some things you don't want to know--about who your ancestors are," says Michael Freund, founder and chairman of Shavei Israel, which sends emissaries throughout the world to seek out "lost Jews" who may be descendants of Jewish victims of persecution, exile and forced conversion, with the hopes of returning them to the Jewish community. …

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