One of the great things about the spread of ‘direct to consumer’ genomics is that it’s increasing sample size in countries where for various reasons there isn’t much coverage. It was brought to my attention that My Heritage DNA results have been analyzed by the company, and yielded the surprising result that Hungary has been most impacted by Ashkenazi Jewish admixture in the Diaspora. This is surprising since it is well known that the United States of America is home to the second-largest Jewish community in the world, with more than 90 percent of that being Ashkenazi.
The main issue here is the distinction between genetic and cultural definitions. Ashkenazi Jews are a coherent population genetic classification, emerging out of a series of admixtures during the medieval period as a strong endogamous group. This means that this community has a distinctive genetic profile, just as Finns or Cambodians have distinctive genetic profiles. But Ashkenazi Jews are also a cultural and religious entity. Because of social and cultural constraints imposed by Christian societies, Jews could leave their religious identity, but Christians could not become Jewish.
In the United States, the massive wave of Jewish migration occurred around 1900. This is not so many generations in the past, so not too many people have very distant Jewish ancestry. Additionally, anti-Semitism has been a more marginal factor on the American landscape, so Jewish ancestry has been less hidden (though not always).
The situation in Eastern Europe is very different. A massive wave of demographic expansion occurred among Ashkenazi Jews after 1500. In the 18th-century Jewish fertility was far greater than gentile fertility in Poland. This resulted in an increase in the Jewish proportion over time, but likely also assimilation of some Jews into Christian society. The “Jewish Enlightenment”, spanning the 100 years between 1780 and 1880, was also a period when massive defections occurred from the more integrated elements of the Central European Jewry. Moses Mendelssohn’s last male descendant to practice Judaism died in 1871, after one century of assimilation and conversion.
Overall, this result confirms what history would suggest to us. I believe if My Heritage DNA looks specifically at IBD tracts they will see that an early peak of admixture would center around 1830, during the height of the Jewish Enlightenment, in Central Europe. The admixture will be later further east in Europe, due to the later period of assimilation of Jews in those societies. In contrast, in the USA exogamy rates for Jews remained at 10% as late as 1960. Only in the past few generations have been risen to around 50% or more.