When is a religion not a religion?

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.


7 responses to “When is a religion not a religion?

  1. Judy – genetic predispositions to certain diseases don’t usually persist unless they also confer some survival advantage (sickle cell anemia & malaria resistance for example). My favorite is Irishism & HyperSobriety.
    wikipedia (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tay%E2%80%93Sachs_disease#Controversy_over_heterozygote_advantage) has a good article on the subject – including the following tidbit.
    Research in the late 20th century demonstrated that Tay-Sachs disease is caused by a genetic mutation on the HEXA gene on chromosome 15. A large number of HEXA mutations have been discovered, and new ones are still being reported. These mutations reach significant frequencies in several populations. French Canadians of southeastern Quebec have a carrier frequency similar to Ashkenazi Jews, but they carry a different mutation. Many Cajuns of southern Louisiana carry the same mutation that is most common in Ashkenazi Jews. Most HEXA mutations are rare, and do not occur in genetically isolated populations.

    p.s. good critical thinking for a 14 y.o.
    p.p.s. Let us know when you’ve grokked that the distinction between moot and irrelevant is, well – irrelevant. Or moot.
    LOTWO (laughing on the way out)

  2. I figure if I’m Jewish enough for Hitler to want to murder me, that’s good enough for me. On the plus side, since my mother is German Protestant, I am less likely to have some of those fun Jewish diseases. Hmm… At last count, though, I do have one minor health problem more prevalant in Jewish women. I also have blue-grey eyes (so did my Jewish father, but my brown-eyed Aryan mother only has the recessive gene). And let’s not talk about my spontaneous mutation… Maybe Jews and Germans aren’t supposed to mix after all? Please take all this with many grains of salt… Kosher salt.

  3. great ending, Judy. I’m wondering if I’m Waspish. However, wasps are pre-disposed to delusions of superiority. So I must not be that. I’m one of those faithful fox-hole people. we’re all related, and carry that same genetic predisposition to dying. Eventually. Dying and paying taxes. Not sure if that’s the right order, though.

    Anyhow….loved your write up. Smart kids, too. They must have a tendency towards being Jewish, as I have heard Jews are smarter than most other religious groups. Maybe I’ll convert? Is Tay-Sachs really painful? I don’t know a lot about the disease. I just don’t want to suffer when I go.

    • I don’t think you need to worry about Tay-Sachs. It generally kills you when you’re a kid. There is a “late onset” flavor but I think it’s much rarer even than the infant version. As for converting, come on over! Anyone who can argue with authority figures like you can is a natural!

  4. There was a Doogie Howser episode about Tay Sachs. Doogie couldn’t figure out why a person had it when they weren’t Jewish and didn’t have some other genetic component (how accurate the info was, I have no idea), but then found out an ancestor had hidden the family’s Jewish identity. That’s how I learned about the disease and its Jewish link.

  5. @Theresa – It’s funny you mention the Doogie episode, because that’s how I found out about it, too. Then, in turn, searching for info on that episode — having read just yesterday about the BRCA1 mutation that’s higher with Ashkenazic ancestry — brought me to this link. One thing I’m finding is hard to hunt up online* is any research specifically addressing the relative genetic risks for those of us who are genetically only half-Jewish. (* hard in that the attempts at a good search string with terms like [“Ashkenazi” AND “genetics” AND (“half-Jewish” OR gentile OR Christian)] tend to open ENTIRELY the wrong can of worms and put you in rather unpleasant company/territory!).

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