Researcher tracing Jewish genes meets the Kohanim of Africa [VIDEO]

Dr. David B. Goldstein from Duke’s Institute for Genome Sciences and Policy talks about tracking the genetic history of the ancient Jewish priesthood (kohanim) and the Lost Tribe of Israel, the focus of his new book, “Jacob’s Legacy”.

For many people, genetics research conjures up frightening notions of racial or religious superiority — or the possibility of genetic discrimination. David B. Goldstein isn’t worried about either of these things.

“I take the view that there isn’t anything to be afraid of in our genetic makeups. So I really think that it’s interesting, fascinating even, sometimes important, but there isn’t anything scary lurking there,” said Goldstein, a professor of molecular genetics and the director of Duke University’s Institute for Genome Sciences and Policy’s Center for Population Genomics &Pharmacogenetics.

Goldstein, 44, even applies his open-research policy to a scientific study a few years ago that linked genetic diseases to intelligence among Ashkenazi Jews. He calls that work “speculative,” but he doesn’t rule out research into the issue.

“That doesn’t mean that you don’t have to be really careful in how you present what’s been done,” he said. “I think you do, and I think we’ve seen mistakes in how work is presented. I think it’s really reckless to overstate results. But I don’t think there are any areas that are unwise to investigate, because I’m just not afraid of what we’re going to find.”

In “Jacob’s Legacy: A Genetic View of Jewish History,” recently published by Yale University Press, Goldstein uses the latest genetic methods — including genetic mapping and advanced DNA testing — to illuminate compelling issues in Jewish history like the biblical priesthood, the Lost Tribes, Jewish migration, and Jewish genetic diseases.

Goldstein’s most startling finding: There are enough Y chromosome similarities among many who call themselves descendants of the Cohanim, the biblical priestly caste, to argue for genetic Cohen continuity.

He and his colleagues tested these similarities by comparing the Y chromosomes of Cohanim with the chromosomes of other Jews. Sure enough, the majority of the self-identified Cohanim, whether Ashkenazi or Sephardi Jews, had the same type of Y chromosome. Further testing by Goldstein and friends leads him to estimate that the Cohanim were founded before the Roman era — and perhaps before the Babylonian conquest in the sixth century B.C.E.

Even Goldstein was blown away.

“The apparent continuity of the Cohen Y chromosome was an out-and-out stunner; I would have never predicted that to be the case,” he said.

He also finds genetic evidence for the idea that the Lemba tribe in Africa might have some Jewish origins, a finding that the media simplified by saying he had shown the Lemba are one of Judaism’s 10 Lost Tribes.

In the section on the Lemba, and indeed throughout the book, Goldstein is careful about his conclusions. For him, the research is more about shedding light on themes of Jewish history, such as exile and Diaspora. As he puts it in the book, “What makes a people a people? What binds them together through time? What alienates them from some and aligns them to others?”

As admirable as the book’s scholarship is its readability. Goldstein’s jargon-free writing and sense of humor courts readers who are not hard-core scientists. At different points in the book, he calls himself a “lousy mathematician” and as “having a bit of the gambler in my genes,” and, in the section about the alleged link between genetic diseases and intelligence, he writes, “Now we geneticists have a genuine kerfuffle on our hands.”

Don’t be misled — Goldstein’s book isn’t “Jewish Genetics for Dummies.” But he has taken cutting-edge science and made it accessible to the general reader willing to make an effort.

It wasn’t easy, admitted Goldstein, whose academic work focuses on medical genetics — specifically, why some people control HIV better than other people and why some people respond better to some medicines than other people.

“I started writing this just about 10 years ago. The discussions of the science were dreadful, incomprehensible. And so I just tried it again and again until I found ways that worked and that people didn’t complain about when I showed it to them.”

Part of the motivation for the book, Goldstein says, stems from guilt he feels because he remained in graduate school at Stanford and didn’t go to Israel when the 1991 Gulf War broke out.

“I did feel like I should do something. And I think doing some work eventually at least gave me some kind of connection to read about Jewish history as part of my job, and that definitely made me feel better. I guess I finally got over it and started going to Israel regularly, which I still do.”

He’s frank about the limitations of genetic history. “[G]enetics can never, however, replace, or even compete with, the painstaking work of archaeology, philology, linguistics, paleobotany and the many other disciplines that have helped resurrect some of the lost stories of human history,” Goldstein writes.

Understandably, though, he’s proud that his research has yielded some insight into some vexing issues, and shares the notion that what he is doing on some issues — say, the Cohanim — borders on the fantastic.

“The continuity of the Cohen paternal line is an astounding thing,” he said. “And it’s a little tiny bit of history that genetics tells you about.”

Peter Ephross’ articles and reviews have appeared in the Village Voice, the Forward and Publishers Weekly, among other publications.

VIDEO: Duke professor searches for ‘kohanim’ genetic marker

Dr. David B. Goldstein from Duke’s Institute for Genome Sciences and Policy talks about tracking the genetic history of the ancient Jewish priesthood (kohanim) and the Lost Tribe of Israel, the focus of his news book, “Jacob’s Legacy”.

Sephardic Survival

“Survivor” as inspiration for Jewish programming?

It seems strange that the divisive show where deceit, backstabbing and empty promises are de rigueur would serve as the inspiration for a Shabbaton that stresses the importance of religious and cultural continuity. Yet Sephardic Tradition and Recreation (STAR) has seized on this pop culture phenomenon and infused it with a positive spin.

STARvivor 2, STAR’s follow-up to its popular STARvivor Shabbaton, is set for Dec. 7-9 at Gindling Hilltop Camp in Malibu. The first STARvivor, held last April in Malibu, separated 20 teens into three tribes — Issachar, Levi and Judah — complete with their own tribal banners. After Shabbat, the tribes squared off in timed, Jewish-themed competitions: in one, the tribes squeezed juice from grapes into a cup and then recited the “Kiddush,” while another had them build a makeshift home in order to affix a mezuzah.

“You’re basically competing with MTV,” said STAR Media Director Abraham Raphael, 29, who developed the Shabbaton idea. “You want to make sure that whatever you do is going to be sophisticated and exciting.”

Locally, there have been few, if any, events geared toward Sephardic youth outside of synagogues. As a result, many Sephardic teens end up choosing between assimilation or participation in an established system of programs steeped in Ashkenazic traditions.

While there has never been a formal Sephardic population study in Los Angeles, rough estimates by Sephardic organizations place the number somewhere between 75,000 and 150,000, and most agree that the population is dwindling.

“You see a desperation among parents who want to get their kids involved,” Raphael said.

It’s this growing assimilation and loss of Sephardic culture that prompted philanthropist Hyman Jebb Levy to found STAR in 1998. The organization reaches out to students, from elementary to senior high school, with year-round social and recreational programming that emphasizes Sephardic community involvement, the preservation of traditions, and a pride and love for Israel.

“We try to incorporate something in the ritualistic aspect of Judaism, always in the Sephardic minhag [custom],” said Rabbi Brad Schachter, 31, STAR’s executive director. “Whatever it may be, this is how the Sephardim do it.”

Taking another cue from “Survivor,” campers were also videotaped during competitions and at tribal council, where each tribe selected one person to give an impromptu speech about Jewish survival. The resulting footage fueled parents’ demand for a second STARvivor.

“When people saw what we did, they said ‘I want my kids on that. I didn’t realize it was going to be that good.’ Now it’s on to round two,” Raphael said.

During next week’s STARvivor 2, the campers will be separated into four tribes — Simon, Levi, Judah and Issachar — and face all new competitions.

Thankfully, the similarities between the Shabbaton and the television series end when it comes to food. STARvivor 2 will serve authentic kosher Sephardic cuisine, whereas “Survivor” contestants have had to consume such Third World delicacies as grubs, rats and cow’s blood.

STARvivor also differs from other Shabbatons in that it has set a cap at 40 students.

“If you have too many kids it becomes impersonal,” Schachter said.

Danit Namvar, 14, said STAR won over both her and her friends during the Shabbaton by giving the campers a voice.

“At other camps they lecture you, but with STARvivor we get to do fun activities and talk about issues. The people who didn’t go heard how much fun it was, and now they want to go,” Namvar said.

Schachter, who is Ashkenazi, said he welcomes the opportunity to reach out to kids and is more than comfortable working with Sephardim. During a seven-year stint in Israel, Schachter spent four years living in the Old City, where he often sought out Sephardic minyanim.

“Even though I’m not a Sephardi, I feel very connected to their heritage, their history and their passion for Judaism,” said Schachter.

“As far as the customs, I’m learning more and more every day,” he said. “That’s what we’re trying to get across, teaching [Sephardi] their own customs that unfortunately have been lost over the generations.”

Despite STAR’s plethora of entertaining activities, it isn’t always fun and games. In March 2000, Levy’s daughter passed away following a battle with cancer. STAR took 30 Talmud Torah students from Sephardic Temple Tifereth Israel in Westwood to visit with Levy as he sat shiva. The sight of the students brought tears to Levy’s eyes.

“We brought them in, and they saw the Sephardic traditions of mourning,” Schachter said. “This was an opportunity to teach them.”

For more information about STARvivor 2, call (818)
782-7359, or visit .

The Arts

Far Beyond Tears

For his portrayal of Primo Levi in’The Truce,’ John Turturro tried to approach the subject as Levidoes: delicately and subtly

By Naomi Pfefferman,

Senior Writer

In March 1996, John Turturro packed a trunk filledwith Primo Levi’s books and traveled to a remote part of the Ukraine.His destination was the set of “The Truce,” Francesco Rosi’s filmbased on Levi’s searing 1963 memoir “The Reawakening.” Portraying theHolocaust author, Turturro sensed, would be the most difficult roleof his life.

The epic film follows Levi as he is liberated fromAuschwitz in mid-winter and begins the long, tortuous, journey backhome to Turin, Italy. It explores Levi’s human reawakening, as hemeets heroes and thieves, Gypsies and intellectuals in the settlementcamps and Red Army convoys of chaotic, post-war Europe.

The role is something of a departure for Turturro,who is best known for portraying complex, edgy ethnic characters,often Italian or Jewish, in the films of the Coen brothers or SpikeLee. He has been Bernie “The Schmatte” Bernbaum, a homosexual, Jewishgrifter, in the Coens’ “Miller’s Crossing.” A Clifford Odets-type inthe Coens’ “Barton Fink.” A nerdy Jewish contestant, Herb Stempel,in “QuizShow.” Adysfunctional widower-to-be in“Unstrung Heroes.”

John Turturro is best known for portrayingcomplex, edgy ethnic characters, often Italian or Jewish, in thefilms of the Coen brothers or Spike Lee. Above and lower left as heappears in Francesco Rosi’s film, “The Truce.”

But playing Levi in“The Truce” immersed Turturro in a wakingnightmare. Especially painful was the opening sequence in which Leviand the other human skeletons silently stare at their approachingRussian liberators.

“The scenes behind barbed wire were almostimpossible to do,” admits the 41-year-old actor-director, betweenediting sessions for his upcoming film, “Illuminata.” “I tried toapproach the subject as Levi does: delicately and subtly. His booksare not histrionic. They are not about him venting, though that wouldhave been valid. People going through that experience didn’t cry;they were far beyond tears.”

Turturro is Italian-American, but his ties to thesubject of the Holocaust run deep. His wife of 13 years, KatherineBorowitz, is Jewish. Their 7-year-old son, Amedeo, is named after thepainter, Amedeo Modigliani, who like the younger Turturro is Italianand Jewish. In the interfaith household, “We have Chanukah everyyear, and my wife sort of gets through Christmas,” the actorsays.

John Turturro learned about World War II from hisfather, who lived under fascist indoctrination in Italy until heemigrated to America at the age of 6. As a young man, he served inthe Navy and was sunk aboard a U.S. destroyer on D-Day. He was sofiercely opposed to fascism that he required his son to watch myriaddocumentaries about the Holocaust. “At 7 or 8, I saw all thesehorrific images, and they burned in my mind,” Turturro recalls. “At avery young age, I realized, ‘This happened. This reallyhappened.'”

During his childhood in working-classneighborhoods of Queens, Turturro devoured books on the Holocaust. Itwas a private preoccupation as he pursued his very public interest inthe theater.

Turturro graduated from the Yale School of Drama;earned a 1984 Obie and caught Spike Lee’s attention with hisperformance as a neighborhood psycho who throws his mother out thewindow in the 1988 film, “Five Corners.” Lee knew Turturro would beperfect as Pino, the racist pizza-maker who helps incite the riot in”Do The Right Thing.”

As his career took off, Turturro earned areputation as an intensely physical actor who is obsessive aboutresearch. For “Do the Right Thing,” he worked in a pizza parlor; for”Quiz Show,” he interviewed and re-interviewed the real HerbStempel.

But for “Miller’s Crossing” and “Mo’ BetterBlues,” Turturro received criticism that seems ironic in light of hispresent role. In “Mo’ Better,” Turturro and his younger brother,Nick, portray money-grubbing Jewish jazz club owners, Moe and JoshFlatbush. On the set, the actors performed a cartoony, vaudevillianschtick, which,Turturro says, was ineffectually edited during post-production. Theactor, however, was surprised when everyone from Time magazine to theAnti-Defamation League of B’nai B’rith denounced the characters asanti-Semitic stereotypes. “Obviously, if I had thought the film wasanti-Semitic, I would never have done it,” he insists.

Similar accusations haunted the release of”Miller’s Crossing,” in which Turturro plays a gay-Jewish hustler whois both pathetic and sleazy. “People were calling the Coenshomophobic and anti-Semitic,” Turturro recalls. “But Joel and Ethanmake fun of everyone. They make paraplegic jokes in ‘The BigLebowski.'”

Turturro is sick of answering the accusations andhe isn’t much happier with questions about his ubiquitous ethnicroles. “No one ever tells Kevin Costner, ‘Gee, it’s too bad youalways play WASPs,” he snaps. “Yes, I’m dark, I have curly hair, Ihave a prominent nose. What do you want me to do, have plasticsurgery?”

“Look, my characters are always diverse,” he adds,on a softer note. “I’m not frustrated, so what’s the bigdeal?”

When Turturro was approached to do “The Truce” in1991, he was, coincidentally, portraying Hitler on-stage in Brecht’splay, “The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui.” Actually, Martin Scorsesewrote him a letter about Rosi’s project, adding that Turturro wouldbe perfect for the role. Apparently, Rosi had obtained Levi’spermission to do the film just a week before the author had committedsuicide in 1987.

Turturro had never read any of Levi’s prose orpoetry, but he was quickly taken with the writer. He read every oneof his books; practically memorized Levi’s Auschwitz memoir, “If ThisIs a Man”; read “The Monkey’s Wrench” to his son; and did extensiveresearch at the U.S. Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C. He spokewith Holocaust survivors and traveled to Turin to interview Levi’sfriends, who had dissenting opinions about whether the writeractually had committed suicide.

Turturro also haggled for a year to obtain a BBCinterview with the author, though he was initially hesitant to watchit. “I worried that I would be disappointed,” the actor says,sheepishly. “But Levi was really the quiet, penetrating man who hadwritten those books. I felt, as I had as a reader, that he and I wereintimate friends involved in conversation.”

Nevertheless, the actor was nervous as he left for thegrueling, 17-week shoot in the Ukraine. He believed it would be”impossible” to truly enter Levi’s world, though the freezing setsand desolate landscapes helped. To prepare for the most difficultscenes, which inevitably had little dialogue, he read and re-readpassages of “The Truce” or perused the many other Holocaust volumeshe had brought to the set.

Turturro, who had lost 30 pounds for the film,returned home to Brooklyn thin and exhausted. The emotional toll wassuch that he did not travel to Italy to promote his two other filmsat the Venice Film Festival. Even his mother repeatedly remarked thathe had changed.

“Levi’s experience was unimaginable, but I had theteeniest window on what it must have been like,” the actor says. “Yetin a way, the film was also a beautiful experience, because there isa beauty to Levi and his work.”

Turturro, who hopes “The Truce” will introduceLevi to a whole new audience, recently watched the film with Amedeo.He spoke with his son about the Holocaust, just as his father haddone with him when he was 7 years old. “I think he understood some ofit,” he says. “He was a bit upset, because the movie is very sad. Iexplained certain things I thought he could handle, and as he getsolder, I’ll share more with him.”

The Truce opens April 24 in LosAngeles.