My Forefathers Were Yurt-Dwelling Siberians

The thorny issue of just who belongs to the Chosen People is, in my opinion, likely to remain unresolved forever, or at least until the Messiah arrives with the answer. And to be honest, that’s just fine with me, since this whole issue doesn’t concern me directly. You see, I happen to boast an unassailable Jewish pedigree, so the question of “Who is Jew?” has no resonance for me, at least on a personal level.

There is, however, another question not entirely unrelated that could potentially render brittle my strictly kosher certification. For me, the real question isn’t “Who is a Jew,” but rather “Who is a Q?”

Let me explain.

Several years ago, I watched a “60 Minutes” segment on genetic genealogy research taking place at the University of Arizona and Technion in Haifa. In particular, investigators were studying the paternally inherited Y-chromosomes of Cohens, the Jewish high priestly class, and a designation passed down since antiquity from father to son. Cohens constitute about 5% of the world’s 12 million Jews.

What the investigators found was astounding: About half of all Cohens — across all Jewish backgrounds — possessed a distinct Y chromosome marker, or mutation, which traces their collective ancestry back in time to a single man that lived in the Middle East 3,000 years ago, or around the time that Aaron, brother of Moses and the first Cohen, was supposed to have existed. If true, such a finding could confirm the Torah tradition, which until now there was no way to prove. (Not that devout Jews would ever need any scientific confirmation for their beliefs.) The story was my introduction to the new field born of the marriage of biology with anthropology, the sweeping new world of genetic anthropology. More revelations on Jewish genealogy followed.

Research has shown that a major element of most contemporary Jewish populations worldwide were connected to ancient Middle Eastern Israelite populations, as well as that an ancient familial relationship existed between Jews and Eastern Mediterranean Arabs and that Jews were also closely related to Kurds in southeastern Turkey. This connection was especially intriguing, considering the Torah’s description of Abraham’s family ties to Haran, a city in Turkish Kurdistan.

Some time later I discovered National Geographic’s Genographic survey, whose mission to “map humanity’s genetic journey through the ages” would be accomplished by taking DNA samples of as many millions of people as they could, everywhere around the world. A simple swab taken from the inside of my cheek would, according to the survey, “reveal [my] deep ancestry along a single line of direct descent and show the migration paths they followed thousands of years ago. [My] results [would] also place [me] on a particular branch of the human family tree.”

It seemed I’d finally be able to certify my kosher pedigree linking myself inextricably to King David and the prophet Isaiah. And so it came to pass that I sent away for what may be, at $100, the world’s most expensive swab, which I then rubbed inside my cheek and returned to a lab in Texas.

My test results appeared on the Genographic Web site three months later. The result? This glatt Jew was a member of a certain Haplogroup Q.

Who, you might ask, is a Q?

Q, it turns out, is a branch of humanity that arose about 20,000 years ago with “a man born in the savagely cold climate of Siberia.” In other words, I am a direct descendant not of a swarthy Judahite shepherd or Galilean Bronze Age fig farmer, but of a burly yurt-dwelling Siberian sharing tundra turf with herds of still-extant mammoths.

The Siberian would have been justifiably proud of his progeny. His descendants wandered east through the ages, crossing the Bering Strait to become the first Native Americans. Some yikhus.

Now I may be an American native, but I’m certainly not Native American. So you ask, what am I to Q?

Well, America wasn’t the sole destination of the Siberian’s progeny. Some cousins headed to Scandinavia and others to the future Poland and Hungary. My father, as it so happens, was born outside Budapest.

So who, indeed, is a Q? While research is still ongoing, it is possible that Qs are descended from the Khazars, the mysterious Central Asian nation that converted to Judaism 1,200 years ago. Haplogroup Q would become one of the founding lineages of Ashkenazi Jewry, which emerged 1,000 years ago. So while several of these Ashkenazi lineages, such as Haplogroup J, link to ancient Israelites, mine does not.

Despite the revelation, I didn’t join a heritage tour to Tajikistan to recover my long lost history along the Caspian Sea. Likewise, I never felt a particular affinity for Hungary. My father may have been born in the Budapest metropolitan area, but he most certainly wasn’t Hungarian.

He was a Jew — and so am I.

No nation is genetically homogenous and Jews, a potent mix of Canaanite with a splash of Egyptian, never were.

So who is a Q? I am Q. Come to think of it, we are all Q.

Uzi Silber is a New York-based writer.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect those of the Forward.

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Uzi Silber

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