It came up during dinner conversation the other night that the fatal disease, Tay-Sachs, is more likely to be found in Jews than other ethnic groups. My daughter thought (since we’re Jewish) that I was expressing some bizarre form of reverse bigotry, making a gross generalization. I explained that no, Jews had a genetic predisposition to the disease.
She pointed out that we have good friends who are Jews-by-choice, so they’re not more likely to carry Tay-Sachs than non-Jews, ergo, being Jewish had nothing to do with it. I allowed as how converted Jews probably didn’t carry the genes, but it didn’t change the fact that Jews by birth were at higher risk than the general population.
I explained that all ethnic groups have some genetic predispositions when it comes to diseases (not that I can name any, other than maybe hemophilia for descendants of European royalty) and that Jews were no different. It was clear that even post-Bat Mitzvah, my fourteen-year old still hadn’t fully groked the fact that we’re not just Jewish by religion, but by dint of our ethnic group. (What did she think the Nazis were going on about?)
The knowledge that Jews, as a group, share genetic traits, should help explain why there are so many Jews who are also atheists: there’s more to being Jewish than the religion. For many of us, the cultural identity far outweighs the religious aspect, and for some, the whole g-d part is irrelevant, if not moot. (I’m not admitting to my own beliefs one way or the other, but let’s just say I’m starting to appreciate the wisdom of the old saying, ‘there are no atheists in foxholes’.)
I always wondered why Jews were the only religion that carried the -ish suffix. Christians are Christian, Muslims are Muslim, but Jews are Jewish. The suffix can mean (among other things) being, as in British (of Britain), or inclined or liable to, as in bookish. That supports my contention that I am part of an ethnic group (Jewish) and inclined toward the religion (Jewish).
I recently found out that Ashkenazi Jews are also slightly more prone to breast and ovarian cancer. As a matter of fact, it turns out there are a whole host of Jewish genetic diseases I didn’t know about. It’s enough to make me want to convert, until I remember that it doesn’t matter what I say, it’s in my DNA.