Our Heritage and Our Health

Seattle Hadassah Presents: Our Heritage and Our Health, June 10th.

Sanofi – Genzyme pharmaceutical company sponsored and Gary Frohlich, certified genetic counselor, presented this program on genetic disorders amongst Ashkenazi Jews.

36 people attended our event at the fabulous Talaris Conference Center location in Seattle.  Folks asked questions all through his talk, and long afterward.

Gary’s presentation covered three areas: a brief history of the Jews, a primer on genetics, and a review of the most common genetic diseases.

Here are some highlights:

  • One in 4-5 individuals of Ashkenazi Jewish descent is a carrier for a Jewish genetic disorder such as cystic fibrosis, Canavan disease, Tay-Sachs disease, Gaucher Disease, or 11 other disorders.
  • That meant that two people at each table today was a carrier!
  • In medieval times, Jews were literate when most people were not (you had to be literate to have a Bar Mitzvah). Since Jews could write contracts and lend money, they were often traders, traveling extensively away from home, widening the genetic pool.
  • However, population bottlenecks in the 10th through 13th centuries decimated the numbers of Jews, so that a surviving genetic defect now existed in fewer Jews, increasing the incidence of certain disorders in our population. Many inhabitants of the shtetls were related to each other.
  • In fact, 42% of modern Ashkenazi Jews are descended from one of four women. Half of us here are probably Mispacha!
  • Many Ashkenazim didn’t even have last names until the mid- 1800s when we were advised by Napoleon II and the King of Poland to take last names so that they could be taxed and drafted into service. Names were then chosen based on geography, or occupation, or items purchased, or just descriptive. **See meanings of last names of some of today’s participants in the chart at the end of this note.
  • Christopher Columbus, his navigator and sailors were all Jewish. They sailed on the 9th of Av, 1492 –the exact date Jews were expelled from Spain.
  • 1 in every 12-15 Ashkenazi Jews are carriers of Gaucher disease.
  • Gaucher affects 1 in 850 Ashkenazi Jews. Individuals with Gaucher disease can experience a range of signs and symptoms with varying degrees of severity, with age variation from young children to folks who are first diagnosed in their 70’s.
  • The symptoms of Gaucher disease can be subtle and easily dismissed or unexplained. Since the symptoms of Gaucher disease can get worse without proper management, testing to determine if you have this condition is essential, especially if you are experiencing fatigue, bone pain, easy bruising and /or bleeding, or if you have an enlarged abdomen.
  • Educating the Jewish population throughout the US about genetic disorders, and encouraging counseling and screening is Gary’s ‘Tikkun Olam.’ The effects of these diseases can be devastating.  He is committed to giving his presentation wherever and whenever it is requested.
  • Another highlight is that if anyone in the audience became concerned about themselves or others during the talk, there were patient education counselors available to speak with them immediately afterward.

Some resources for further information include:




Origin of Names

In addition to his presentation on genetic disease among Ashkenazic Jews, Gary also spoke about the origin of Ashkenazic names. Is yours on the list?

ADLER – Jewish (Ashkenazic): ornamental name meaning ‘eagle’.

BERNSTEIN – Jewish (Ashkenazic): ornamental name from German Bernstein ‘amber’ (from Middle Low German bernen ‘to burn’ + stēn ‘stone.’

DAVIS – Jewish, Welsh, Scottish, English, French, Portuguese, German, Czech, Slovak (Dávid) and Slovenian: from the Hebrew personal name David ‘beloved’, which has been perennially popular among Jews, in honor of the Biblical king of this name.

EMERMAN – Jewish (eastern Ashkenazic): from Yiddish imerman ‘divorced husband.’

FINEMAN – Jewish (Ashkenazic): ornamental name from German Fein, Yiddish fayn‘fine’, ‘excellent.’

GELB – Jewish (eastern Ashkenazic): nickname for a man with red hair, from Yiddish gel ‘red-headed.’ Middle High German gel ‘yellow’, German gelb

GODWIN – English: from the Middle English personal name Godewyn, Old English Gōdwine, composed of the elements gōd ‘good’ + wine ‘friend.’

KAPLAN – Jewish (Ashkenazic): surname used as a translation of Cohen, from German Kaplan or Polish kapłan ‘chaplain’, ‘curate.’

KLEIN – Jewish (Ashkenazic): from Middle High German, Dutch, German klein ‘small’, or Yiddish kleyn. This was a nickname for a person of small stature.

LIEBERT – German: from a Germanic personal name, composed of the elements liub ‘beloved.’

NATHAN – Jewish, English, and German: from the Biblical Hebrew personal name Natan ‘given’ (i.e. by God). Sometimes this is also a Jewish short form of Jonathan or Nathaniel.

RIFKIN – Jewish (eastern Ashkenazic): metronymic from the Yiddish female personal name Rifke (from the Hebrew name Rivka; see Rebecca), with the addition of the Slavic metronymic suffix -in.

ROSEMAN – Jewish (Ashkenazic): ornamental name or name adopted by the husband of a woman bearing the Yiddish personal name Royze.

SHERMAN – Jewish (Ashkenazic): occupational name for a tailor, from Yiddish sher‘scissors’ + man ‘man.’

VINBERG – ornamental name from vin(d) ‘wind’ + berg ‘mountain’, or habitational name from a place named with these elements.

WAGNER – German (also Wägner) and Jewish (Ashkenazic): occupational name for a carter or cartwright, from an agent derivative of Middle High German wagen ‘cart’, ‘wagon.’

WEISS – German and Jewish (Ashkenazic): nickname for someone with white hair or a remarkably pale complexion, German wīz‘white’, German weiss.

ZEITZ – German: habitational name from either of two places so named, both in Saxony-Anhalt.

Thanks to Gary for this lively, educational, and fascinating presentation!