Jon Entine’s Latest Book Asks, “Who is a Jew?”

Review by James Pylant

Jon Entine is not afraid to tackle touchy topics. He’s the best-selling author of Taboo: Why Black Athletes Dominate Sports and Why We’re Afraid To Talk About It. The Emmy award-winning Entine, who was Tom Brokaw’s producer at NBC News, has written another provocative book, Abraham’s Children: Race, Identity, and the DNA of the Chosen People.

“The story contained in our DNA raises the taboo issues of race, disease, and intelligence,” says Jon Entine. “Genetic differences, and sometimes just one gene, can confer near-certain death sentences, while other people are mysteriously spared.” Entine illustrates this with the story of Beatrice Wright.

In 2000, Wright received the results of a biopsy; she had a rare form of breast cancer. Initially, her doctors thought the cancer was environmentally induced. Her age—forty-five—did not place her in a high-risk category for breast cancer any more than her Spanish-Catholic ethnicity. Other than a grandfather’s death from throat cancer, she was unaware of any other family members dying of the disease.

But then she learned that her grandmother survived breast cancer, followed by the discovery that four aunts died of ovarian cancer. Wright’s study of her family medical history revealed nineteen relatives had some form of cancer in a two-generation span.

The next year, Beatrice Wright was given the BRACAnalysis, a breast cancer genetic screen. The results showed she carried an extremely rare, yet deadly gene known as 185delAG. Although the gene is almost non-existent in non-Jewish women, several more cases surfaced among Hispano women in the San Luis Valley area along the southern Colorado and northern New Mexico border. And that’s where both the paternal and maternal relatives of Bea Wright lived. “It seemed so unlikely that every woman from the valley who claimed Spanish ancestry and tested positive had this particular mutation,” said genetic counselor Lisa Mullineaux. “We suspect that Bea’s family might very well be descendants of Jews who fled to the Americas during the Spanish Inquisition.”

But Entine notes another possibility: “Some scientists believe that an Ashkenazi Jew could have passed the mutation to Hispanos in the San Luis Valley in recent centuries—perhaps a trader coming during colonial times.”

The results of DNA testing are profound, even outside of genetic screening. For William Sánchez, a parish priest in New Mexico, the outcome has become controversial. Sánchez—”Father Bill” to many—submitted his DNA for testing and received a call with the results. “You have a marker that suggests you carry a common Jewish mutation—a rare genetic marker that’s found most commonly in Jews,” he was told. For some members of his extended family, this news was not surprising, for there had long been rumors of Jewish ancestry. But church officials were irate with the priest for his outspokenness in discussing his Jewish roots.

Abraham’s Children explores the role of genetic genealogy in answering the question of what makes one Jewish. Author Jon Entine goes beyond DNA and delves into Jewish history. Historically, the bloodline and a sense of divine closeness were the cohesive factors for the ancient, exiled people without a homeland. But some were more apt to identify with nationalism over their bloodline, as in the case of many German Jews in the nineteenth century.

Entine does not shy away from pondering about possible connections between DNA and Jewish intelligence, and he devotes a chapter on that subject. He also provides an appendix of “Jewish Diseases,” defining those among Ashkenanzi and diseases common to Shepardic, Oriental Jews, and other Jewish populations.

“Can one be a Jew by DNA?” asks Entine. “Or asked more broadly, can or should a sliver of one’s ancestry determine identity—religious, cultural, or legal?”

Abraham’s Children: Race, Identity, and the DNA of the Chosen People. By Jon Entine. Hardbound (2007), 420 pp., illus. Grand Central Publishing. $27.99 (US); $32.50 (CAN). Also available from Amazon.com (affiliate link)

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