Commentary Magazine


Wandering Jews—and Their Genes

It was not long ago that genetic research on Jews suggested little beyond an occasional rare disease, to be discussed on the science pages of the newspaper. Not any more. Recently, three studies on Jewish genetics have made it to the front page—and from there, with still more to come in the wake of the mapping of the human genome, they are undoubtedly headed for the pages of the Jewish history books of the future.

The first of these studies, released in 1997, deals with the class of Jews known in Hebrew as kohanim and in English as “priests”—a largely honorary title in postbiblical Judaism. A kohen, while supposedly a direct descendant via his male ancestors of the priestly clan originating in Moses and Aaron, and entrusted by the Bible with a large number of important rites, has had limited religious functions and obligations since the destruction of the Second Temple in the year 70 C.E.; moreover, since most kohanim today are not religiously observant, most no longer practice even these few functions. Still, possessing either a family tradition of kohenite origins or one of many last names that derive from the word kohen (Cohen, Cahan, Kahn, Kogen, etc.), many still know or believe that they are priests.

Armed with lists of kohanim and techniques for analyzing variations in the DNA of the Y chromosome, which determines that a baby will be male and (random mutations excluded) has the unique feature of passing unchanged from father to son over an unlimited number of generations, a team of scientists from the University of Arizona, the Haifa Technion, and the center for genetic anthropology at University College, London, set about looking for a distinct priestly Y chromosome—and found it. Whereas only 3 to 5 percent of all male Jews have certain “kohen-specific” Y-chromosome haplotypes or DNA markers, these patterns, the team’s research showed, are found in just under half of all self-declared Ashkenazi kohanim and just over half of all non-Ashkenazi ones. Moreover, since the difference between kohanim and non-kohanim points to a single common ancestor for the former, and the average rate at which this ancestor’s Y chromosome would have mutated over time is known from statistical tables, it is possible to estimate how long ago he lived: namely, 106 generations. Allowing 25 to 30 years for a generation, this gives us a date between 650 and 1180 B.C.E. The earlier of these takes us back close to the time in which a historical Moses would have lived.

A second research project, making use of these findings and made public last year by a joint London-Oxford University team, examined a black, Bantu-speaking tribe in northern South Africa and Zimbabwe named the Lemba. Today largely Christian, the Lemba have an oral tradition of being descended from Jews and of having maintained since time immemorial such Jewish practices as circumcision, ritual slaughtering of animals for food, and abstention from pork. These claims were never taken seriously by scholars, one of whom, Tudor Parfitt, a London-based academic and writer, published a charmingly skeptical book on the subject in 1992. But hearing of the kohanim project, Parfitt returned to Africa to test the Lemba for Jewish priestly genes. The results were astounding. Nine percent of the Lemba sampled—two to three times that of known Jewish populations—had kohenite Y chromosomes, while in one particular clan, held by Lemba lore to be that of the tribe’s founder, the figure soared to 53 percent.

Finally, published in last June’s Proceedings of the National Academy of Science were the results of a study conducted by an international team of scientists led by Michael Hammer of the University of Arizona and Batsheva Bonné-Tamir of Tel Aviv University. Ignoring the kohen variation indicating specifically priestly descent, this study sorted instead for a more general “Jewish” profile of Y chromosomes. Based on genetic samples from 1,371 males chosen from seven Jewish population groups (Ashkenazi, Roman, North African, Kurdish, Near Eastern, Yemenite, and Ethiopian) and sixteen non-Jewish groups including the Lemba, its main conclusions are:

  1. With the exception of Ethiopian Jews, all Jewish samples show a high genetic correlation. Male Jews of Russian and Polish ancestry have a Y-chromosome profile more like that of male Moroccan, Kurdish, and Iraqi Jews than like that of Russian and Polish non-Jews; male Jews of Yemenite ancestry are closer to Jews from Rome than to Muslims from Yemen.
  2. Besides being closely related to each other, Jewish male populations correlate highly with Palestinian Arabs, Syrians, and Lebanese.
  3. In descending order after these Middle Easterners, Ashkenazi Jews correlate best with Greeks and Turks; then with Italians; then with Spaniards; then with Germans; then with Austrians; and least of all with Russians. The Y chromosomes of non-Ashkenazi Jews correlate best with Egyptians and Tunisians.
  4. When Lemba not having kohenite genes are averaged in, the Lemba-Jewish correlation decreases sharply. Even then, however, the Y-chromosome haplotypes of Lemba men are more like Jewish ones than like those of any other sub-Saharan Africans.

Although related, each of these studies deals with a different population or set of them. Taken separately and together, what do they teach us about Jewish history?

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II

The first thing that might be said is that they shore up, and they undermine, some traditional notions.

On the one hand, the existence of a kohenite Y chromosome traceable to a single progenitor who lived near the supposed date of the Exodus supports, if not the Bible’s account of the priesthood’s origins, at least the antiquity of the institution and its hereditary nature. At a time when a radical “biblical minimalism” denying the historicity of the entire Pentateuch has been gaining ground among scholars, the kohenite Y chromosome is thus a striking argument for a more conservative reading of biblical texts.

On the other hand, there are the Lemba. Out of the blue, as it were—for nowhere in any Jewish or non-Jewish source are they even hinted at—we find an ethnic group near the southern tip of Africa with a genetic tie to Jews elsewhere. Where did they come from? How did they get to be where they are? If they lived totally apart from other Jews for hundreds or thousands of years while retaining a distinct “Jewish” identity, can this have happened in other places, too? Did the Jewish people have another, “shadow” history, inhabited by groups that we know little or nothing about?

And once more on the side of tradition: the Hammer/Bonné-Tamir report would seem to corroborate the age-old Jewish belief that, allowing for a relatively small increment of proselytes throughout the ages, the Jewish people forms a biologically closeknit family originally hailing from the Fertile Crescent and Palestine. On the face of it, then, these findings refute various “revisionist” theories proposing that, not only in remote regions like Ethiopia and Yemen but even in such great Jewish population centers as Eastern Europe and the Mediterranean basin, much or possibly most of the Jewish community resulted from a massive conversion of non-Jews.

And on the other hand again: whereas the traditional explanation of East European Jewish origins was that most Ashkenazi Jews reached Poland and Russia from eastern and northeastern Germany in the Middle Ages; eastern Germany from the Rhineland; the Rhineland from northern France; and northern France from southern France, this version has come under increasing challenge in recent years on both demographic and linguistic grounds. Most Jews, the challengers maintain, must have arrived in Eastern Europe not from the west and southwest but from the south and east—that is, via northern Italy and the Balkans; Asia Minor and the Greek Byzantine empire; the Volga kingdom of the Khazars (a Turkish-speaking people partially converted to Judaism in the 8th through 10th centuries); or a combination of all three. Now comes the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science report, which appears to bear out the newer version of events. Ashkenazi Jews, it informs us, have a more significant admixture of Italian, Greek, and Turkish genes than of Spanish, German, or even Austrian ones.

Of course, things are not so simple. Even without questioning the study’s highly technical procedures, different interpretations could be put on them. It could be argued, for example, that the resemblance of Jewish to Greek and Italian Y chromosomes is traceable to proselytization in the Mediterranean world during the period of the Roman Empire, long before the main Jewish migration to Eastern Europe began. Or, alternately, this resemblance could go back to pre-Jewish history—that is, to an age in which, before a Jewish people existed, shared genes were being swapped by frequent migratory movements around and across the Mediterranean. Just as the strong similarity among Jewish, Palestinian Arab, Syrian, and Lebanese Y chromosomes does not necessarily indicate intermarriage or conversion in one direction or another, but simply a common eastern Mediterranean gene stock, so the somewhat weaker similarity among Jews, Italians, and Greeks might be explained the same way.

As for the Turks, an originally Central Asian people who reached the Mediterranean only 1,000 years ago, here the data need to be clarified. Were the Turkish Y chromosomes sampled similar to those of non-Mediterranean Turkish peoples living in Central Asia today, which would strengthen the case for a Khazar contribution to East European Jewry? Or were they more like those of present-day Greeks, the relatives of the inhabitants of Asia Minor prior to the Turkish conquest, whose descendants may still account for the bulk of Turkey’s gene pool?

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Other questions may be asked, too. Take this conclusion of the report in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science:

Our results indicated a relatively minor contribution of [originally non-Jewish] European Y chromosomes to the Ashkenazim. . . . If we assume 80 generations since the founding of the Ashkenazi population, then the rate of admixture would be <0.5 percent [less than half of one percent] per generation.

Seemingly, this would indicate an extremely low average rate of accretion through proselytes.1 Would it be enough, though, to answer the common objection that, since Ashkenazim tend to look so different from non-Ashkenazim, the two cannot be closely related genetically? It would appear to be, for what the objectors overlook is that even a small genetic input, when continued over many generations, can have a large cumulative effect.

Thus, if a tribe of 1,000 people absorbs five new members via exogamous marriage, the increment is indeed but one-half of one percent of its overall numbers. But the percentage could be considerably higher among the tribe’s child-bearers, since many tribesmen would be already past child-bearing age and some potential parents might die before marriage or marry out; and if this same rate continues for 80 generations, or forms the average over such a period, “foreign” genes may come to constitute close to half the tribe’s gene pool and be found in nearly everyone. This would certainly be adequate to explain such apparently puzzling features in many Ashkenazim as blond hair and blue eyes, infrequently encountered among other Jews.

What must also be remembered is that Y chromosomes tell us only about males. But we know that in most societies, women are more likely to convert to their husband’s religion than vice-versa. Moreover, since polygamy was occasionally practiced among Ashkenazim until a thousand years ago, and among other Jews well into this century, it is logical to assume that many more females than males would have joined the Jewish people over time. The one-half-of-one-percent male accretion rate may thus be far lower than the combined male-female average.

If true, this might also explain a number of differences between the Hammer/Bonné-Tamir study and earlier research on the geographical distribution of specific Jewish diseases, blood types, enzymes, and mitochondrial DNA.2 Although these studies, too, indicated a degree of genetic connectedness among most of the world’s Jews, their statistical correlations were lower than those of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science report, especially as between Ashkenazim and non-Ashkenazim.

In both groups, a predominance of female converts might provide the answer. It might also explain opposed findings on Jews from Yemen, who in earlier tests matched poorly with other Jews. This particular result was understood to support the theory that Yemenite Jewry originated in the widespread conversion of non-Jews under the Himyarite kings of southern Arabia in the first centuries of the Common Era. But now the Hammer/Bonné-Tamir report shows that the Y chromosomes of Yemenite Jews have typically Jewish haplotypes. The contradiction could be resolved by positing that Jewish men, in all likelihood traveling merchants, reached Yemen from further north in the Arabian Peninsula, where Jewish tribes existed; married local women; and founded a Jewish community that survived, despite its isolation, in more or less sustained contact with the Jewish world.

Minus such contact, the story of the Lemba—whose Jewish ancestors, Tudor Parfitt now hypothesizes, possibly a single family of kohanim, sailed down the Red Sea from Yemen to an East African port and moved inland to their present abode—might be similar. One thing that seems certain is that they have no connection with Ethiopian Jews, currently believed by most scholars to descend from Judaizing Christians in the Middle Ages. For the moment, the Lemba remain an enigma, although one not without parallels in the greater enigma we call the history of the Jews.

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III

This history has known both Judaizing movements and tales of “lost” Jews. The former lie in the realm of fact, the latter are generally considered pure legend.

Judaizers are groups of non-Jews who have adopted Jewish practices and beliefs, sometimes without significant contact with other Jews. At times this has resulted in conversion or an ultimate affiliation with world Jewry, as happened in the last century (if such indeed is their background) with the Falashas of Ethiopia. Other Judaizers have stopped short of such steps or never contemplated them. The Russian Molokans, for example, a once-sizable sect that still survives in small numbers, observed circumcision and the Jewish Sabbath, refrained from pork and other prohibited foods, and denied the divinity of Jesus, but never sought to merge with Russian Jews.

Such movements have had varied and interrelated causes. They have been motivated by, among other things, a simple conviction of the truth of Judaism; by the same drive for religious differentiation that has led to a proliferation of sects and denominations in many societies; by a search on the part of central authorities for a sophisticated monotheistic faith; by the attractiveness of an association with a people deemed wealthier, more worldly, more caring of its own, and less threatening than others. The pagan kings of Khazaria who opted for Judaism in the 8th century were—or so at least the literary sources tell us—genuinely persuaded of its verities. But there is no doubt, too, that they wished to introduce into their kingdom an intellectually advanced religious tradition different from Christianity and Islam, the faiths of their enemies; and the fact that Jews had worldwide commercial links, a high degree of international solidarity, and no political or military designs on anyone must have been a consideration as well.

Although the world may have run out of pagan kingdoms looking for a suitable brand of monotheism, the motives of Judaizers have not changed much over time—at least not if judged by a new book by James B. Ross, Fragile Branches: Travels Through the Jewish Diaspora.3 A professor of journalism and the author of a previous work on the Jews of China, Ross has here written an account of his travels to a number of exotic places in which small communities are trying to live as—or what they think of as—Jews. These include the Abayudaya of Uganda;4 the “Bnei Avraham” of the Peruvian city of Trujillo; the “Bnei Menashe” of northeast India; the mestizo descendants of Jewish merchants in the Brazilian Amazon, whose upriver counterparts in Peru are the subject of another recent book, Ariel Segal’s Jews of the Amazon;5 and the “Bnei Anusim,” a congregation of Judaizers allegedly descended from Marranos in the Brazilian coastal city of Recife.

None of these communities is officially recognized by the Jewish world, though some have forged ties with Jewish individuals and organizations. Two of them, the Bnei Avraham and the Bnei Menashe, have managed in part to emigrate to Israel, where they have undergone or are undergoing Orthodox conversion and naturalization

Numerically insignificant (the largest and best organized of them, the Bnei Menashe, numbers some 4,000 members), these groups are interesting because of what they have in common. All are purely indigenous developments. All have grown up among people raised in Christianity. Most owe their origin to one or more charismatic leaders who discovered Judaism from reading the Bible and comparing the New Testament with the Hebrew Scriptures, the latter of which seemed to them to offer a purer and more rational faith than Christianity. All give their followers, most of them economically of the lower or lower-middle class, a welcome feeling of being special. And all inspire the hope of attracting the attention of world Jewry and benefiting from its resources.

All are characterized by an impressive tenacity, too. Even the two Amazonian groups, which by their own admission were recently formed—they consist of the grandchildren, great-grandchildren, and great-great-grandchildren of Jewish traders who flocked to the area during the early-20th-century rubber boom, took Indian mistresses, fathered illegitimate offspring, and left when the boom collapsed—have by now kept a “Jewish” identity alive for three and four generations with minimal outside Jewish help in a strongly Catholic society.

Letting one’s mind roam, one could imagine such groups preserving this uniqueness indefinitely, whether apart from the Jewish world like the Lemba or reincorporated into it like the Yemenites, their Y chromosomes correlating highly with those of other Jews and their mitochondrial DNA not at all. Perhaps, given enough generations, these mestizo descendants of Jewish merchants might even forget who their ancestors were; look for the answer in the Bible; and decide that they hailed from one of the “Ten Lost Tribes,” exiled, according to the biblical book of Kings, from northern Israel by the Assyrians in the 8th century B.C.E. and never heard from again. Figuring out how such a tribe could have reached South America need not be a problem: it was already done by numerous 16th- to 18th-century authors, among them the renowned rabbi Menasseh ben Israel in his influential Spes Israelis published in 1650.

Indeed, “lost tribe” identifications in improbable places continue to this day. As recently as 1975, lineage from the tribe of Dan was officially granted to the Falashas of Ethiopia by an Israeli rabbinical court, and Israelite ancestry is currently being claimed by groups from New Zealand to Nigeria. One of the largest of these, from which come the Bnei Menashe, is a heavily Christianized people of approximately two million living along the Indian-Burmese border and most commonly known as the Mizo.

With these people, I happen to have some personal acquaintance.

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IV

“An enchanting tale,” Ross calls the belief of many Mizo that they descend from the biblical tribe of Menashe, “first suggested by 19th-century Christian missionaries eager to connect Mizo tribal rituals to passages in the Bible and to attract converts.” Although Ross’s dates are too early (the first English missionaries did not set foot in Mizo territory until 1897), the theory seems plausible and has been subscribed to by the handful of Western scholars who have given the matter any thought. But they are almost certainly wrong.

My own first visit to the hill country of northeast India took place in the summer of 1998, when I accompanied Eliahu Avichayil, a Jerusalem rabbi mentioned frequently in Ross’s book, on a journalistic assignment to Asia. Avichayil has made a career of looking for stray Jews, especially remnants of the Ten Lost Tribes, believed by him—contrary to accepted scholarly opinion—to have had a genuine historical existence. I traveled with him to an ethnic minority called the Chiang in southwest China; to the Karens of northwest Thailand; and to Aizawl, the capital of the Indian state of Mizoram, which means “land of the Mizo” in the Tibeto-Burmese language of the area. (Other dialects of it are spoken in the adjacent state of Manipur and in Burma by groups known respectively as Kukis and Chin.) It was Avichayil’s theory that the Chiang, Karen, and Kuki-Chin-Mizo were all related and descended from ancient Israel, and while I found this an unlikely notion, I gladly went along for the adventure.

Unlikely, China and Thailand indeed proved to be. Where Avichayil saw lost Jews everywhere, I saw only wishful thinking. But Aizawl, to which the rabbi had been before as the spiritual patron of the Bnei Menashe, was another story. In contrast to the Chiang and the Karen, who had no idea that they were supposed to be a lost tribe or any noticeable interest in being one, the Mizo I met were acutely conscious of the proposition and enthusiastically in agreement with it. Not only that: many of them, whether believing Christians or Judaizers, were eager to supply supporting “evidence”—alleged customs from the pre-Christian Mizo religion that were curiously like those in the Bible; old oral texts with biblical parallels; chants and prayers invoking an ancestor named Manmasi who was none other than Joseph’s son Menashe; and so on. It did not take long to realize that I was dealing with a national obsession.

A good deal of it was clearly pure fantasy. One morning I was called upon by an eager young man who wanted to show me “a great miracle”—no, he would not tell me what it was, I had to see for myself. So off we went to one of Aizawl’s lower neighborhoods (most of the town, a ramshackle affair stacked on hilltops, resembles a huge bungalow colony in which the only directions are up and down), where I was ushered into a house of expectant faces and shown a large goblet that was—here, you can hold it yourself—the silver divining cup used by Joseph in Egypt. I did not have the heart to point out the barely legible London silversmith’s stamp on the bottom.

But it was not all like that. There were things that were puzzling, even baffling: an ancient song, for example (well, everyone swore it was ancient), that seemed to be about the crossing of the Red Sea; or childhood memories of grandfathers and great-grandfathers sacrificing on four-cornered altars to a supreme God named Ya. Not that this had to go back 3,000 years. Imagination, coincidence, or Christianity could no doubt account for every bit of it. Still, if an entire society was reinventing itself for reasons I did not understand, it seemed worth making the effort to do so. Last year, having negotiated a book contract with an American publisher, I returned on an expedition to Mizoram and Manipur at the end of the monsoons, taking with me two Bnei Menashe interpreters from Israel.

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For several weeks I thought I understood brilliantly. There were reasons, it turned out, for the Mizo to like being a lost tribe, a belief that had begun to circulate among them in the early 1950’s after being revealed in visions to two members of a Pentecostal church. A proudly independent people of hunters and warriors led by fighting chiefs, the Mizo, though located within the borders of British India, had long been left alone by the British government, their jungle territory too remote and economically worthless to justify military pacification. It was not until the 1870’s that the British army had moved to subdue them, followed by the first Baptist and Presbyterian missionaries.

Yet once Christianity took root among them, it grew by leaps and bounds. In 1905 there had been scarcely a Christian Mizo; by 1920 there were many; by 1960 the old animist religion was dead. Their new faith suited the Mizo well. It freed them from the old one’s host of malevolent spirits and gave them education and a prestigious association with a ruling class while reinforcing their sense of superiority to the Hindu, Muslim, and Buddhist neighbors formerly raided by them for slaves and plunder.

And yet the Mizo had a problem. Christianity had brought them great benefits. They were devoted to it. (They still are: for sheer around-the-clock, hymn-singing fervor, a Mizoram Sunday is hard to beat.) But it had also destroyed something vital, leaving them stripped of their identity. Once fearless headhunters and stalkers and slayers of animals in the jungle and upon the altar, they now had the second highest literacy rate in all India, farmed their rice patches on hillsides denuded of wildlife, tended shops with names like “Zion Hardware” and “Jerusalem Bazaar,” and listened to Presbyterian sermons. Based on the New Testament, of course. The Hebrew Bible went untranslated by the missionaries, perhaps out of an appreciation of its dangers.

But when it finally was translated, the Mizo loved it. Here were no namby-pamby apostles but real men and women who fought, killed, lusted, took prisoners and slaves, and worshiped God with animal blood. And who were God’s chosen! Suppose—just suppose—that Manmasi was Menashe and they the lost tribe of his descendants: then this, the world of Genesis, Leviticus, Joshua, Judges, and Kings, had all been theirs and the Christianity that brought them the Bible had destroyed nothing. On the contrary, it had restored them to their truest selves! No wonder the conviction was now spreading like wildfire. It was touching—and comical: at a convention I attended in Aizawl, a large hall full of delegates cheered and waved “Israel People” flags as it voted to demand international recognition as an official lost tribe.

Climbing the town’s grimy stairways, or sloshing through the mud of country roads in four-wheel vehicles in search of this or that person fabled for longevity or knowledge of a way of life wiped out by the missionaries, I found the whole thing clear. It was obviously—no, not a hoax, no one was guilty of deliberate deception, but a case of mass autosuggestion.

A commonsense conclusion. And then (for reasons to be detailed in my forthcoming book) it fell apart. I came to know too much. The more oral texts and memories I gathered, the more I was forced to acknowledge—bewilderedly, even reluctantly, for one does not easily give up a sensible explanation for an absurd one—that these texts and memories were genuine; that they predated the first missionaries and could not be attributed to the influence of Christianity, Islam, or postbiblical Judaism; that Ya was Yahweh and Manmasi was Menashe; and that a little-known people living in a remote part of southeast Asia had a historical link—the first demonstrable one on record—with one of the Ten Lost Tribes.

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V

And yet why not? Would it be any stranger than what we now know about the Lemba?

Actually, the case of the Mizo is less strange, since it is easier to account for a migration from the eastern Mediterranean to southeast Asia than for one to southern Africa. Not even our present-day biblical minimalists, who accuse the Bible of exaggeration, and maintain that most of the Ten Tribes remained in Palestine after the Assyrian conquest and eventually became Samaritans, Christians, and Muslims, can deny that Israelites were deported northward and eastward after the destruction of the kingdom of Samaria. We know this from Assyrian records, which speak of 27,290 deportees in 722 B.C.E. alone.

Such population transfers, in which the exiles were allowed to retain their ethnic and religious identity, were standard policy in the Assyrian empire, which stretched to the Zagros mountains of Iran. Moreover, when Assyria fell in the 7th century to the Babylonians, who in turn were swallowed by the Persians in the 6th, the empire’s borders were extended as far east as present-day Afghanistan, and merchants and nomads moved safely within them along well-traveled routes. Although this tells us nothing about the fate of the Israelites, there is no reason why some of them could not have reached the gates of India within a historically short time. Alexander the Great did it from Greece in seven years, fighting most of the way, and until fairly recently there were Afghani Muslim tribes with clear traditions of descending from the beni isra’il or “sons of Israel,” by which they did not mean the later yahud or Jews.

There is in fact some oral evidence linking the Manassite strand in Mizo history with both eastern Afghanistan and the southernmost of the northern silk routes, which skirted the Takla Makan desert while hugging the base of the Tibetan plateau. And it was presumably from this plateau, or from the Himalayan foothills to the east of it, that, some time during the first millennium C.E., the Mizo people began the southward migration that brought them to the Chindwin River valley of Burma and, from there, westward into the hills they now inhabit. Exactly how, when, and where they met and incorporated the Manassites, some of whose beliefs and customs fused with their own, does not seem to me at the moment determinable. But it did, I believe, happen.

Jewish history knows nothing of such an event. Why should it? If the Manassites (as appears to be the case) soon lost touch with their fellow Israelites, they would simply have disappeared beyond the horizon as did most or all of the other deportees. There is no way of knowing how long they might have preserved a clear memory of their own traditions; as far as those embedded in the old Mizo religion and culture can be reconstructed, they do not add up to a coherent narrative. Rather, it was Jewish memory that, in a more general sense, preserved the deportees in the form of legends about the Ten Tribes that became an essential part of Jewish folklore.

Vague, confused, and romanticized, these legends sometimes located the tribes beyond “the River Sambation” or “the Mountains of Darkness” and sometimes in real places like Ethiopia, Arabia, and India. In some cases they were pure figments of the imagination; in others, they were inspired by distant rumors of Jews like the Khazars, the Falashas, or the Beni Israel of India’s west coast who lived “free of the yoke of the gentiles.” And perhaps they also reflected the chance encounters of Jewish travelers with groups similar to the Lemba or the Manassites, errant bodies spun out of Jewish orbit entirely. Why should these two have been the only ones?

All that can be said for a certainty—and this, too, must be pieced together from tantalizing bits of ancient, medieval, and early modern accounts—is that more varieties of Jews once existed in more far-flung places than have been seriously reckoned with. There is reliable testimony from the 15th century to a colony of Jewish merchants in West Africa, near the headwaters of the Niger; to Jews throughout the Tartar and Mongol kingdoms of Central Asia; to Jews all over China. There is a remarkable passage by Rustichello of Pisa, the “as-told-to” author of The Travels of Marco Polo, that appears to have escaped the attention of Jewish historians altogether. It tells how,

when Messer Maffeo, Marco’s uncle, and Messer Marco himself were in the city of Fu-Chau, there was in their company a certain Saracen who spoke to them as follows: “In such-and-such a place there is a community whose religion nobody knows. It is evidently not idolatrous, since they keep no idols. They do not worship fire. They do not profess Mahomet. And they do not appear to observe the Christian order. I suggest that we should go and have a talk with them.”

Marco Polo and his uncle did just that. At first, writes Rustichello, the members of this mysterious community were reluctant to talk,

for they were afraid that their visitors had been sent by the Great Khan to make this investigation in order to get them into trouble. But Maffeo and Marco attended the place so regularly day after day, familiarizing themselves with these people and inquiring about their affairs, that they discovered that they did indeed hold the Christian faith. For they possessed books. And Maffeo and Marco, poring over them, began to interpret the writing and translate it word by word from one language to another, till they found that they were the words of the Psalter. Then they inquired from what source they had received their faith and their rule; and their informants replied: “From our forefathers.” It came out that they had in a certain temple of theirs three pictures representing three apostles of the seventy who went through the world preaching. And they declared that it was these three who had instructed their ancestors in this faith long ago, and that it had been preserved among them for 700 years; but for a long time they had been without teaching, so that they were ignorant of the cardinal doctrines.

Convinced they were dealing with ignorant Christians, the two Italians proposed informing the Great Khan. Rustichello’s account concludes:

[And] the Great Khan ordered that they should be granted privileges whereby they should be acknowledged as Christians, and the status accorded to Christians should be applicable to all who professed their rule. And it was found that throughout the province of Manzi, here and there, there were more than 700,000 households who adhered to this rule.

The seaport of Fouchou still exists in Fukien, one of the nine provinces of Marco Polo’s “Manzi,” a term used by him to refer to all of southern China up to the Yangtze River, which divided it from “Cathay” to the north. (Kaifeng, historically the best-known Chinese Jewish community, was in Cathay.) Whether or not “700,000 households”—three million souls or more!—is an exaggeration, it is probable that Marco Polo (who mentions elsewhere meeting Jews in Beijing and Hangzhou) was unknowingly conversing not with Christians but Jews in an advanced stage of amnesia. Why else would they have possessed a book of Psalms while denying that they were Christians, a tolerated and successful religion in China at the time? Who but the patriarchs Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob could their “three apostles” have been? For what other reason would they have remembered them and not Jesus?

Indeed, just as it is a historical fact that Jews were the trailblazers of monotheism throughout the Mediterranean world and the Arabian peninsula, paving the way for a Christianity and Islam that displaced them, the same may have been the case in much of Asia. The difference perhaps was that in Asia, far beyond the periphery of rabbinic control and creativity, Jewish communities that lost the exclusive copyright on monotheism lapsed into a religious stagnation that spelled their extinction.

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VI

Can genetics tell us more about such matters? Undoubtedly it can, but only if given firm guidelines. It is hardly practicable to sample the world’s billions randomly for Jewish Y chromosomes and mitochondrial DNA, and hardly sensible to do so with every population currently claiming Jewish roots. Even when specific targets are pinpointed, the statistical complications could be insuperable. The Mizo, for instance, have been divided historically into warring endogamous clans, not all of whom would necessarily carry Jewish genes even if some did. And where are the needles of such genes to be looked for in, say, the haystack of southern China? The money might be better spent on curing diseases and improving rice strains.

Already, however, the new Jewish genetic studies have added significantly to our knowledge. If their conclusions appear both revolutionary and conservative, this is because in both cases they are telling us that traditions need to be taken seriously; that old legends may have kernels of truth; and that a critical attitude toward them demands, first of all, resisting the temptation to dismiss them out of hand. This is good news, because it means that Jewish history is still full of wonder.

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Footnotes

1 It stands to reason that in some places and ages in Ashkenazi history, the rate of proselytization was higher and in others lower. The fact that Jewish-Slavic Y-chromosome correlation is low despite the long sojourn of Ashkenazi Jews in Eastern Europe would indicate that converts to Judaism in the region were very rare—and, conversely, it may be that during the shorter period of the Roman empire, or of the Jewish kingdom of Khazaria, proselytization was more common.

2 Mitochondria are organelles within the cell cytoplasm that produce metabolic enzymes and are, for research purposes, the female equivalent of the Y chromosome. Unlike other DNA, which is inherited from both parents and has the capacity to “recombine” in different ways in each offspring, mitochondrial DNA is inherited by both sexes from the mother alone and—random mutations again excluded—never changes in its transmission from one generation to the next.

3 Riverhead Books, 240 pp., $23.95.

4 See also “Among the Abayudaya” by Irwin M. Berg in COMMENTARY, January 1997.

5 Jewish Publication Society, 340 pp., $29.95.

_____________


About the Author

Hillel Halkin is a columnist for the New York Sun and a veteran contributor to COMMENTARY. Portions of the present essay were delivered at Northwestern University in March as the Klutznick Lecture in Jewish Civilization.




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