Could our sense of who we are really turn on a sliver of DNA? In our multiethnic world, questions of individual identity are becoming increasingly unclear. Now in ABRAHAM'S CHILDREN bestselling author Jon Entine vividly brings to life the profound human implications of the Age of Genetics while illuminating one of today's most controversial topics: the connection between genetics and who we are, and specifically the question "Who is a Jew?"
Entine weaves a fascinating narrative, using breakthroughs in genetic genealogy to reconstruct the Jewish biblical tradition of the chosen people and the hereditary Israelite priestly caste of Cohanim. Synagogues in the mountains of India and China and Catholic churches with a Jewish identity in New Mexico and Colorado provide different patterns of connection within the tangled history of the Jewish diaspora. Legendary accounts of the Hebrew lineage of Ethiopian tribesmen, the building of Africa's Great Zimbabwe fortress, and even the so-called Lost Tribes are reexamined in light of advanced DNA technology. Entine also reveals the shared ancestry of Israelites and Christians.
As people from across the world discover their Israelite roots, their riveting stories unveil exciting new approaches to defining one's identity. Not least, Entine addresses possible connections between DNA and Jewish intelligence and the controversial notion that Jews are a "race apart." ABRAHAM'S CHILDREN is a compelling reinterpretation of biblical history and a challenging and exciting illustration of the promise and power of genetic research.
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Grand Central Publishing
October 24, 2007
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Excerpt from Abraham's Children by Jon Entine
THE DEAD SEA SCROLLS OF DNA
Moses called the blistering sands of ancient Canaan "a great and terrible wilderness." On a cloudless day, on a plane at 10,000 feet, the allure is immediately apparent. The vast plateau of the Negev, the northern Sinai in Egypt, and Jordan's southern desert rarely looks like the sweeping, endless dunes of popular imagination. More commonly, it resembles a visually dissonant landscape of dusty hills lined with scarps and dotted with scraggly bushes and rocks. It is untamed beauty, with barren stretches interrupted only by Bedouin tent villages and archaeological oases that seem to come and go with the wind.
My throat clogged in the heat of the afternoon desert air as I walked off the small Arkia jet and onto the melting tarmac in Eilat, Israel's Red Sea beach town at the tip of the Negev Desert. Set in a stunning location along the Gulf of Aqaba, which divides the Sinai from the Arabian Peninsula, this palm-fringed city had thrived by attracting sun-worshippers from France, Italy, and Scandinavia. Scuba divers still explore the deep aqua waters, ablaze with coral reefs, that wash on its shores. But like the rest of Israel, this oncegleaming resort is struggling, another casualty of the tension that engulfs the Middle East. My beachfront hotel stood empty, save for a large group of unruly students from suburban Tel Aviv vacationing on the cheap.
Israel is central to Western culture and religion despite-or perhaps because of-its challenging topography, where the identity of the Israelites was forged. This scruffy region is a "land flowing with milk and honey," as God promised to Moses as he began his desert sojourn in Canaan, but mostly in the spiritual sense, for life here has always been a test. The desert did not share in the prosperity spilled along the fertile banks of the bountiful rivers that spurred the rise of two other centers of ancient civilization, along the Nile in Egypt and the Tigris and Euphrates in Mesopotamia. The "mighty" Jordan River that divides Israel and Jordan-ancient Judea* and Samaria to the west and Edom to the east-was always richer in folklore than volume. Today in many spots it is little more than a trickle.
My visit to Israel was a deeply personal journey, spurred by the tragedy that DNA has visited upon my family. Although raised as a Reform Jew, dutifully bar mitzvahed and confirmed, and even though I had majored in religion and philosophy in college, I had long since lost my faith. The final break came in my teen years, in 1970, when my mother died of ovarian cancer, an unrelenting disease that spread to her brain. She had fought courageously for years, undergoing chemotherapy that left her bloated and caused her hair to drop out. My father, a dentist turned drug sleuth, scoured the world for potential treatments, eventually finding a promising new drug in Israel, unapproved at that time in the United States, that he smuggled home in his luggage in a desperate attempt to keep her with us a little longer. Her doomed struggle has left me with a haunting memory. Although I was only fifteen when she began the secret therapy, she asked me to give her the daily injection that we all viewed as her long-shot lifeline; she believed I would administer the shot more gently than my dad. I watched her every day, too closely, as the cancer spread.
My mother was neither the first nor the last person in my family to suffer from cancer. Two years before, my grandmother, living in our home, passed away from breast cancer. It also took my mother's younger sister, in her thirties. Because science was not yet able to explain the origins of this type of cancer, our family believed the three deaths were tragically unfortunate coincidences. As we were later to learn, my mother and her family were victims not of bad luck but of a bad gene.
A few years ago, I received a horrific call from my older sister, Judy. She too had been diagnosed with breast cancer, a rapidly spreading kind similar to the version that had savaged our aunt, grandmother, and mother. Thirty years after my mother died, the science of genetics had come a long way. Judy underwent a genetic test that revealed that her cancer was almost certainly caused by a mutation on one of her genes. Identified just over a decade ago, it was dubbed the BRCA2, or BReast CAncer 2 mutation 6174delT, one of three breast cancer mutations that are particularly common among Jews. My family tree disappears into the nineteenth-century eastern European diaspora, so it's difficult to trace the history of this wayward gene in my maternal line. The only thing that can be said with near certainty is that it's a tragic marker of our family's Jewish ancestry.