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A German town built a granary atop its Jewish cemetery. Now the bones are yielding insights about Ashkenazi DNA.



BERLIN (JTA) – The city of Erfurt in central Germany is home to an impeccably restored medieval synagogue made possible because local Jews had been expelled long before the Nazis began their campaign to destroy Jewish sites.

Now, Erfurt’s long-hidden Jewish past is again offering new insights — this time about the genetic history of Ashkenazi Jews.

Human remains from a medieval Jewish cemetery in Erfurt have allowed what researchers say is the largest ancient Jewish DNA study to date. Conducted without disinterring any remains, in keeping with Jewish law, the study published Wednesday in the scientific journal Cell found that Erfurt’s medieval Jewish community was more genetically diverse than their modern-day cousins, and carried many of the same Jewish genetic diseases — such as Tay Sachs and cystic fibrosis — that affect Ashkenazi Jews today.

“There have been many previous DNA studies, but not of Jews,” said geneticist Shai Carmi, a professor at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, whose search for study material led him to an archaeological dig at the Jewish cemetery in Erfurt. He and his collaborators were able to analyze DNA of 33 individuals who died between 1270 and 1400, using teeth they found there.

The study follows a similar analysis revealed in August by researchers in England, who studied the DNA from skeletons found at the bottom of a medieval well and concluded that the remains were likely of victims of an antisemitic massacre in 1190. Analysis of six individuals prior to their identification as Jewish revealed that Ashkenazi Jews developed a unique genetic variation centuries earlier than realized.

The Erfurt analysis also includes samples from before the epidemic of Black Death that was until recently understood to have created the genetic “bottleneck” that created the genetic markers common among Ashkenazi Jews today.

Erfurt’s Jewish settlement existed from the 11th to 15th century, with a brief gap following a 1349 massacre perpetrated after the Jews were falsely blamed for causing the bubonic plague. Surviving Jews returned there, but after all Jews were expelled once and for all in 1454, the city built a granary on top of the Jewish cemetery.

Karin Sczech participates in the excavation at the medieval Jewish cemetery of Erfurt. (Courtesy of TLDA Ronny Krause)

In 2013, the city approved the repurposing of the unused granary into a parking lot. Because it was an historic site, a rescue excavation was initiated, overseen for the State of Thuringia by German archaeologist Karin Sczech.

Meanwhile, Carmi had been looking for Jewish cemeteries anywhere in the world “where we could analyze remains already excavated,” he told JTA in a telephone interview from Jerusalem. “I consulted historians and eventually reached the archeologist in Erfurt.” Fortunately, he said, “they still hadn’t reburied the remains.”

He approached Sczech, who later became a co-author of the new study. In 2018, with a supportive judgment from Rabbi Ze’ev Litke — an Israeli expert on genetics and Jewish law — and permission from Erfurt’s then-rabbi, Benjamin Kochan, work began to extract and analyze DNA from detached teeth found in the graves. (About 500 Jews live in Erfurt today, most of them having migrated from the former Soviet Union since 1990.)

American geneticist David Reich picked up the teeth and brought them back to the department of human evolutionary biology at Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts, where drilling and DNA extraction took place.

While the skeletons were reburied, the teeth are still stored at the research institutes where they have been analyzed, in case scientists need to retest to verify the result.

The project provides an ethical basis for studies of ancient Jewish DNA, Carmi said. “Of course we couldn’t just go to a cemetery and dig and take out skeletons; this would be prohibited,” he said, referring to Jewish law prohibiting the removal of bones from where someone was buried.

But Litke opined that the study could be done, because the bones already had been disturbed for an unrelated reason. “He recommended using teeth, as the analysis does almost no damage,” Carmi said.

There are many motivations to study Jewish DNA: One can find lost relatives going back a few generations, and answer questions about Jewish origin of partners intending to marry. But the goal of Carmi’s team was “to fill the gaps in our understanding of Ashkenazi Jewish early history.”

There are several non-destructive ways to obtain DNA from human remains, said Carmi, who also works as a consultant to an Israeli firm that helps clients trace their genetic roots.

“You can take an almost microscopic slice of bone and extract DNA in a solution, or put the entire bone in a solution and extract the DNA without drilling, without disturbing the dead. This opens the way to doing studies even without teeth,” he added.

His team found that the Erfurt community appeared to fit into two genetically distinct groups, descending either from Middle Eastern or European populations. This genetic variability no longer exists, Carmi said.

At the same time, Carmi said, the analysis found remarkable continuity in the local community, as well. “One third of the Erfurt individuals descended from one woman through their maternal lines,” he said, adding that evidence suggested that she lived between 1,000 and 2,000 years ago.

In a press statement, geneticist Reich of Harvard said the work “also provides a template for how a co-analysis of modern and ancient DNA data can shed light on the past. Studies like this hold great promise not only for understanding Jewish history, but also that of any population.”

The research team, with more than 30 scientists, included Hebrew University’s Shamam Waldman, a doctoral student in Carmi’s group, who performed most of the data analysis.

The post A German town built a granary atop its Jewish cemetery. Now the bones are yielding insights about Ashkenazi DNA. appeared first on Jewish Telegraphic Agency.

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Phyllis Pollock died at home Sunday September 3, 2023 in Winnipeg, after a courageous lifetime battle with cancer.
Phyllis was a mother of four: Gary (Laura), daughter Randi, Steven (deceased in 2010) (Karen), and Robert. Phyllis also had two grandchildren: Lauren and Quinn.
Born in Fort Frances, Ontario on February 7, 1939, Phyllis was an only child to Ruby and Alex Lerman. After graduating high school, Phyllis moved to Winnipeg where she married and later divorced Danny Pollock, the father of her children. She moved to Beverly Hills in 1971, where she raised her children.
Phyllis had a busy social life and lucrative real estate career that spanned over 50 years, including new home sales with CoastCo. Phyllis was the original sales agent for three buildings in Santa Monica, oceanfront: Sea Colony I, Sea Colony II, and Sea Colony. She was known as the Sea Colony Queen. She worked side by side with her daughter Randi for about 25 years – handling over 600 transactions, including sales and leases within the three phases of Sea Colony alone.
Phyllis had more energy than most people half her age. She loved entertaining, working in the real estate field, meeting new and interesting people everyday no matter where she went, and thrived on making new lifelong friends. Phyllis eventually moved to the Sea Colony in Santa Monica where she lived for many years before moving to Palm Desert, then Winnipeg.
After battling breast cancer four times in approximately 20 years, she developed metastatic Stage 4 lung cancer. Her long-time domestic partner of 27 years, Joseph Wilder, K.C., was the love of her life. They were never far apart. They traveled the world and went on many adventures during their relationship. During her treatment, Phyllis would say how much she missed work and seeing her clients. Joey demonstrated amazing strength, love, care, and compassion for Phyllis as her condition progressed. He was her rock and was by her side 24/7, making sure she had the best possible care. Joey’s son David was always there to support Phyllis and to make her smile. Joey’s other children, Sheri, Kenny, Joshua and wife Davina, were also a part of her life. His kids would Facetime Phyllis and include her during any of their important functions. Phyllis loved Joey’s children as if they were her own.
Thank you to all of her friends and family who were there to support her during these difficult times. Phyllis is now, finally, pain free and in a better place. She was loved dearly and will be greatly missed. Interment took place in Los Angeles.

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Gwen Centre Creative Living Centre celebrates 35th anniversary



By BERNIE BELLAN Over 100 individuals gathered at the Gwen Secter Centre on Tuesday evening, July 18 – under the big top that serves as the venue for the summer series of outdoor concerts that is now in its third year at the centre.
The occasion was the celebration of the Gwen Secter Centre’s 35th anniversary. It was also an opportunity to honour the memory of Sophie Shinewald, who passed away at the age of 106 in 2019, but who, as recently as 2018, was still a regular attendee at the Gwen Secter Centre.
As Gwen Secter Executive Director Becky Chisick noted in her remarks to the audience, Sophie had been volunteering at the Gwen Secter Centre for years – answering the phone among other duties. Becky remarked that Sophie’s son, Ed Shinewald, had the phone number for the Gwen Secter Centre stored in his phone as “Mum’s work.”

Raquel Dancho (left), Member of Parliament for Kildonan-St.Paul, and Nikki Spigelman, President, Gwen Secter Centre

Remarks were also delivered by Raquel Dancho, Member of Parliament for Kildonan-St. Paul, who was the only representative of any level of government in attendance. (How times have changed: I remember well the steadfast support the former Member of the Legislature for St. John’s, Gord Mackintosh, showed the Gwen Secter Centre when it was perilously close to being closed down. And, of course, for years, the area in which the Gwen Secter Centre is situated was represented by the late Saul Cherniack.)
Sophie Shinewald’s granddaughter, Alix (who flew in from Chicago), represented the Shinewald family at the event. (Her brother, Benjamin, who lives in Ottawa, wasn’t able to attend, but he sent a pre-recorded audio message that was played for the audience.)
Musical entertainment for the evening was provided by a group of talented singers, led by Julia Kroft. Following the concert, attendees headed inside to partake of a sumptuous assortment of pastries, all prepared by the Gwen Secter culinary staff. (And, despite my asking whether I could take a doggy bag home, I was turned down.)

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Palestinian gunmen kill 4 Israelis in West Bank gas station



This is a developing story.

(JTA) — Palestinian gunmen killed four people and wounded four in a terror attack at a gas station near the West Bank settlement of Eli, the Israeli army reported.

An Israeli civilian returning fire at the scene of the attack on Tuesday killed one of the attackers, who emerged from a vehicle, and two others fled.

Kan, Israel’s public broadcaster, said one of those wounded was in serious condition. The gunmen, while in the vehicle, shot at a guard post at the entry to the settlement, and then continued to the gas station which is also the site of a snack bar. A nearby yeshiva went into lockdown.

Israeli Defense Minister Yoav Gallant announced plans to convene a briefing with top security officials within hours of the attack. Kan reported that there were celebrations of the killing in major West Bank cities and in the Gaza Strip, initiated by terrorist groups Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad. Hamas said the shooting attack Tuesday was triggered by the Jenin raid.

The shooting comes as tensions intensify in the West Bank. A day earlier, Israeli troops raiding the city of Jenin to arrest accused terrorists killed five people.

The Biden administration spoke out over the weekend against Israel’s plans to build 4,000 new housing units for Jewish settlers in the West Bank. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu also finalized plans to  transfer West Bank building decisions to Bezalel Smotrich, the extremist who is the finance minister. Smotrich has said he wants to limit Palestinian building and expand settlement building.

Kan reported that the dead terrorist was a resident of a village, Urif, close to Huwara, the Palestinian town where terrorists killed two Israeli brothers driving through in February. Settlers retaliated by raiding the village and burning cars and buildings.

The post Palestinian gunmen kill 4 Israelis in West Bank gas station appeared first on Jewish Telegraphic Agency.

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