Lega­cy: A Genet­ic His­to­ry of the Jew­ish People

  • Review
By – April 23, 2012

In Lega­cy, geneti­cist Har­ry Ostr­er explores the intri­cate nature of Jew­ish iden­ti­ty and in doing so takes us on a his­tor­i­cal and sci­en­tif­ic jour­ney of Judaism. We meet the sci­en­tists who explored the fre­quen­cy of var­i­ous traits with­in the Jew­ish pop­u­la­tion (Tay-Sachs, depres­sion, intel­li­gence, etc.), and we see where the sci­ence has been both right and wrong over the decades.

The author gives us a rather tech­ni­cal tour of the genealo­gies of var­i­ous groups with­in the Jew­ish pop­u­la­tion (Ashke­nazi, Sephardic, Cohan­im), as well as oth­er pop­u­la­tions in the Mid­dle East. The book con­cludes with a more ephemer­al ques­tion: what does it mean to feel Jew­ish? We hear from Ein­stein, from a Holo­caust sur­vivor, and from a jour­nal­ist, among oth­ers. We also get a glimpse into Israel’s Law of Return, which for­mal­izes the rela­tion­ship between Jew­ish iden­ti­ty and mod­ern Israel.

Although the genet­ic details are quite dense, the book is a remark­able achieve­ment in its bio­log­i­cal and his­tor­i­cal scope. Ostr­er’s thor­ough research pro­vides a rich and author­i­ta­tive account of Jew­ish iden­ti­ty, a sub­ject whose con­tro­ver­sial nature the author han­dles deft­ly and with great care. References.

Read Har­ry Ostr­er’s Posts for the Vis­it­ing Scribe

Joseph Jacobs: Fight­ing Anti-Semi­tism, Genet­i­cal­ly

Arthur Mourant: It’s All In the Blood

Albert Ein­stein: A High­ly Com­mit­ted Jew by Her­itage and Origin

Discussion Questions