If you ever get your DNA tested, you might be surprised to discover a certain percentage of Ashkenazi Jewish DNA. Many people with European ancestry who are not practicing Jews and know of no Jewish ancestors do discover some Ashkenazi in them. There is a lengthy discussion on the topic on 23andme.com, a popular DNA testing site. People are using the discussion to try to determine their Jewish ancestors and their origins after discovering they are descended from some of the Ashkenazi population. Here’s what you need to know about the Ashkenazi Jewish people, and how they are different genetically from the general Jewish community.
The name Ashkenazi comes from a Biblical person named Ashkenaz. He was the eldest son of Gomer. Gomer was a grandson of Noah through Noah’s son Khaphet. This makes Ashkenaz a great-grandson of Noah. The Jewish population in eastern and central Europe began being distinguished from the Holy Land Jewish people by the use of the name Ashkenazi in the early Medieval period of history. There was a Christian custom at this time of calling areas of Jewish settlement in Europe with Biblical names, which is how the Ashkenzazis received their name. By the later Medieval period, the term Ashkenazi was used for the German and French Jewish populations alone and was even adopted by the Jewish people and scholars of the area themselves.
How the Ashkenazis got up into Germany and France is a matter of speculation. There are historical records that talk of Jewish settlements in the southern part of Europe during the pre-Christian era. Most of these Jewish people were living in Roman communities. Jewish people were granted full Roman citizenship and all the privileges and rights that came with it in 212 A.D., but began to be pushed to the outskirts of society and shunned when Christianity became the dominant religion of Rome in 380 A.D.
There is also evidence of Jewish people living in ancient Greece. The Greek historian Herodutus knew Jewish people and called them Palestinian Syrians. The Jewish people in ancient Greece were included in the lists of the naval forces who fought for Greece against the invasion parties of Persians. Though the Jewish people practiced monotheism, while the ancient Greeks practiced polytheism, there was no mixing of their religions and no persecution that was recorded. Both communities appear to have lived in harmony with one another. In fact, the lifestyle of ancient Greece was attractive to wealthy Jewish people. There are at least three known ancient Jewish synagogue ruins in ancient Greece, which shows the Jewish people were there, practicing their religion, and allowed to do so.
While there were definitely Jewish people in ancient Greece, no trace of them exists above or east of Germany before the age of the Romans. Through the Roman period and into the Middle Ages, the Jewish people in Europe migrated into eastern Europe and France, and some of them became assimilated into the local cultures. Some converted to Christianity, while others, like the Ashkenazis, maintained their Jewish customs and religious practices.
It was only with the rise of Emperor Charlemagne, who joined the mini-kingdoms of France into one country in 800 A.D. that the history of the Ashkenazi Jewish people in Europe becomes well documented. Charlemagne gave them the same freedoms they once enjoyed under the Romans, and they began opening businesses in finance and commerce. They also got into banking, as Christians were prohibited from charging interest by their religion. By the 11th century A.D., the Ashkenazi Jewish people were well known for their Talmudic studies and halakhic learning. They were also criticized by Jewish people in the Holy Land for their lack of knowledge in traditional Jewish law and the Hebrew language. They spoke Yiddish instead, which was a combination of traditional Hebrew and various German dialects from the communities in which they lived. The Yiddish language was still written with Hebrew letters, however, while also being influenced with Aramaic.
If you have Ashkenazi Jewish DNA, you come from a line that goes into antiquity. The Ashkenazi Jews moved away from the Jews of the Holy Land so early on that their DNA is now distinct from other Jewish people. If you discover Ashkenazi Jewish DNA in your DNA profile, explore it and see where it leads. You may be surprised by what you discover.