Each one of us contains a tiny bit of the full story of all of us. That’s true of humankind in general, and it’s true of Jews in particular.
The trick is finding those pieces and putting them together.
Adam Brown of Englewood, a living testament to the fact that a Renaissance man can live and thrive among the rest of us, is working to help tell that story. His passion, the Avotaynu DNA Project, using cutting-edge research and methodology as it emerges, run by scientists whose day jobs include cancer and other vitally important kinds of research, and by genealogists and historians who can put their work into context and follow it wherever it goes, whether or not it’s fully compliant with received wisdom, is following Y chromosomes to trace the origins and travels of the Jewish people.
Right now, he and the Avotaynu DNA Project are on the hunt for Sephardi and Mizrachi men who will let their cheeks be swabbed (it’s both really easy and entirely painless) so their Y chromosomes can be examined and threaded into the story of the ancient Jewish past.
Yes, that’s a big job; Mr. Brown, who is not a scientist — he’s actually a University of Chicago-trained lawyer, although his day job is in his family business, real estate management — but more a passionate visionary whose talents include the ability to grab people’s imaginations, translate from the scientist-ese to make clear the work that they’re doing, and to do the vital job of convincing people that their DNA is part of the larger story, and to send in the cheek swabs that keep the work fueled.
Or, as he puts it, despite having had a focus on biological anthropology in college, “I did not choose to become a professional scientist, but I have been an amateur scientist. And now because of the internet, I am a citizen scientist.”
Before we can understand Mr. Brown’s work now — before we can parse out what that means — we should put him in context.
Adam Brown, who is 65, is the third son of Melvin and Beatrice Brown. His father’s father came to the United States around the turn of the 20th century; unlike most of his peers, he headed out west, to what still was pretty much frontier. Melvin was born on a dairy farm in Colorado in 1920; the family moved to Denver, where they owned a modest hotel. But that wasn’t a good business to run during the Depression, and it collapsed. “My father worked from the time he was 9 until he died at 56,” his son said. He’d gone to the University of Missour-ah, his son pronounced carefully, and then went to Washington, attracted by President Roosevelt. During the war, he was a Naval officer, a project administrator “who worked on some projects that were quite secret. He was not allowed to be sent overseas.
“He was a good guy; he was not prone to either chatter or days of leisure,” he continued. “He had a big-picture perspective on life. He focused on big problems and how to solve them.”
Beatrice Kaplan Brown, on the other hand, was a Jersey girl, who grew up in Newark, in Weequahic. Her father owned a coffee shop near Military Park there, “and my mother would help. At the end of the day they would load all the leftover food into the trunk of my grandfather’s car, and they’d go to Military Park and give it to the homeless men who were living there, who had abandoned their families out of shame during the Depression, because they could not find work to support them.
During the war, she went to Washington and worked in the government’s public information office.
“The high point of my mother’s experience during the war was when she was in an elevator, and Eleanor Roosevelt walked in.” Mrs. Roosevelt was iconic. Her decency, her intelligence, her work ethic — people loved her (except for the people who detested her, but that’s another story entirely). His mother was so overcome when she saw Mrs. Roosevelt in the actual flesh “that she almost fainted when the door opened and she walked in,” Mr. Brown said. “I cannot imagine anything comparable to that today.”
His mother told her sons about “the day that she and her mother were in the car and they heard the Israeli Declaration of Independence read over the radio. They pulled the car over, and they wept.”
After the war, the young family — they already had two young sons, David and Peter — moved to Hillsdale; Mel Brown worked in a menswear company, Campus Sweater and Sportswear Company of Cleveland — and they flourished.
The family all was very involved in the Jewish community there. They joined Temple Emanuel, long before it made the move to Woodcliff Lake. Rabbi Andre Ungar headed the synagogue; he was one of the most important people in the family’s life, and Adam Brown glows when he talks about his rabbi’s longterm effect on his life. “My entire view of Judaism was colored by Andre,” he said. “He taught me that all areas of study are part of Judaism, and that every interesting and beautiful thing in the world has to do with Judaism, and that there is no division between life and belief. Everything that I do is colored by Judaism.”
Mr. Brown’s mother was president of the Pascack Valley region of Hadassah; his father was president of the shul and of the Pascack Valley school board, among many other organizations. Adam went to public school through eighth grade, and then moved to the Horace Mann School in Riverdale for high school.
One of the many life-shaping things that Bea and Mel Brown did was host American Field Service exchange students for a full academic year. Two of those students, Haile Menkerios and Tesfaye Maru, one from Eritrea and one from Ethiopia, went on to have long, influential, often dangerous careers in public service, including at the United Nations. Both men were greatly influenced by their time with the Browns, with whom they remain very close, and all the Browns, parents and sons alike, were greatly influenced by them, learning from their courage, idealism, creativity, and inherent goodness, Adam Brown said.
Mel Brown had been diagnosed with cancer when he was 29, before his son Adam was born, and he died when Adam was in college, at the University of Michigan. “In my family, if you have lemons you make lemonade,” Adam said. “When my father was ill, we studied his disease and realized that there were many unanswered questions about the origins of cancer. So we approached our father’s oncologist, Dr. Daniel Miller of the Strang Clinic, now part of Weill-Cornell. We said we want to channel contributions in memory of our father, which we knew would be numerous, into something that would support both cancer research and Israel.
“Dr. Miller mentioned that a group of doctors had been considering starting a cancer research fund to support the young scientists in Israel who they believed had the greatest potential, and we and four other families started what became the Israel Cancer Research Fund, which exists to this day.
“It is an institution without walls” — it funds young researchers who already are positioned inside Israeli institutions — and it has funded hundreds of scientists over the last 40 years. Two of those scientists, Professors Avram Hershko and Aaron Ciechanover, won the Nobel Prize in 2004; the family was close to Dr. Ciechanover, who had been a Melvin Brown Fellow, and who “called my mother at 4 in the morning when he heard about the prize. ‘You won’t believe this,’ he said.”
As the first public sign of his belief in “democratizing science” — which absolutely does not mean disregarding science or downplaying its importance — “we were the first fund in Israel to give money to young scientists,” he said. “Our goal was to democratize the funding in Israel, which had used the European model,” with its strict hierarchy and reverence for age. We succeeded because the big shots in the community approved of what we were trying to do. When you applied to us, you came to us with a sponsor, a building, and an idea.”
Mr. Brown has been active in local affairs as well. He and his wife, Gigi, moved to Englewood in 1982, and he belongs to Congregation Kol HaNeshama there. He got involved in the Solomon Schechter Day School of Bergen County when it moved to its home in New Milford — his son was not yet in kindergarten when he joined the board — and he’s now a past president. Both his children, Jacob and Rachel, went to Schechter.
He also does volunteer work in Englewood. “About eight years ago, the mayor asked me to look at the city’s finances. I was shocked at how little understanding there was about city finances, both in and out of city government. And it was no one’s fault. The state of New Jersey had established an accounting system unique to New Jersey municipalities. No one else in the country uses it, and no one other than city auditors can understand it.” The system had been created during the Depression, and generations of city auditors had kept it going because it gave them more power.
That feeds right into one of Mr. Brown’s animating themes, that knowledge must be shared. The body politic is harmed when it cannot understand information. “The enemy of science always has been the self-appointed priesthood of knowledge,” he said. “It has been the enemy of progress. I believe strongly in informed opinion, but I don’t believe that wisdom is reserved to any one class of individuals. You need to have informed citizenry as well as scientists if you want to achieve anything. The leadership class of the nation needs to be educated; there is no substitute for self-education and personal experience.”
That brings us to the personal experiences and self-education Mr. Brown has pursued. Just as Jewish genealogy is one of his great passions, climate and climate change is the other.
“If I could, I would send every American citizen to Antarctica or Greenland to see for themselves,” he said. “It is shocking when part of an iceberg the size of Rhode Island falls off. And if you were in Australia right now, you would have no question about what is going on.”
Mr. Brown has seen Antarctica for himself. For three months at a time, first in 2006 to 2007 and then again in 2008 to 2009 — it was summer in Antarctica, although not summer as we would recognize it — he worked for a private company that did contract work for the government. Because he took Russian for five years in high school (the push to teach Russian after Sputnik led to a glut of Russian speakers and so to Russian classes in high schools during the following decades), had been an amateur radio operator as a kid and remembered how to do it, had a lot of experience in cold-weather camping, had been sailing since he was 5 and learned to fly an airplane at 26, the job was perfect for him, he said.
But nothing prepared him for what it would look like.
“I was flown into the middle of the polar plateau to repair a weather station,” he said. “There were two pilots and a Norwegian guide with me. We were the only human beings within 500 miles.
“It was white. The ground was white. The sky was white. Everything was white except the parka that the Norwegian guide was wearing. That was red.
“It was like being in a sensory deprivation tank, in which every minute expression of human experience had been stripped away. It was as close to the moment of death as I could imagine. It was only you and your Maker.”
In 2016, Mr. Brown went to South Africa “and shipped aboard a scientific research vessel chartered by a private scientific organization and funded by amateur radio operators around the world. We went across the southern Indian Ocean to a place called Heard Island, which is so remote that it is visited about once a generation. It is subarctic, within Antarctica’s waters, but legally it is owned by Australia.
“But it is nowhere near Australia. It is really in the middle of nowhere.”
Mr. Brown launched 11 buoys during the journey — each cost about $30,000 — for the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute and NOAA. There were 16 buoys altogether; each would link with a satellite — it would “phone home,” Mr. Brown said — and then dive first to 3,000 feet and then to 6,000, checking such features as salinity and temperature. Those buoys are still at work, reporting not only to Woods Hole but to other well-known institutions.
With that work done, with his stint on the Schechter board done, with the Israel Cancer Research Fund humming productively along in the background, with the Englewood work not demanding all of his time and prodigious energy, Mr. Brown started thinking more about genetics.
It’s not a new passion for him, he said. As the youngest of eight first cousins, he compared himself to the drain at the bottom of the boat. Eventually, everything would slush down his way. His grandparents were retired by the time he came around, so they babysat for him, and he wrote down their stories. “I was the keeper of old things,” he said. When his mother cleaned out their family house in Hillsdale, before she sold it after her husband’s death, she reminded Adam that he’d left a box of those old things in his bedroom. He reclaimed it, and that made him start to think. “I’ve always been interested in the architecture of things,” he said. “I wanted to understand the architecture of my family.”
The mid ’90s weren’t so very long ago, but technology was entirely different. Mr. Brown invented his own system of labeling family relationships — the person at the top of the tree was A, the oldest child was A1, then A2, and so on. That’s fine as far as it goes — and as long as the family can agree about where it starts — but it’s not nearly as good as a spreadsheet. The introduction of Lotus 1-2-3 made his record-keeping much easier.
Still, though, Mr. Brown said, even after “the PC revolution,” when people started getting their own desktop machines, “it was difficult to share” the information. “I became a priest of knowledge, and I wasn’t comfortable with it.
“As you can tell, I am a storyteller, and the descendant of a long line of storytellers.”
Next, he learned about Geni.com, a commercial website, founded in 2007, that allows people to share family trees. Eureka! “It is a 100 percent collaborative website,” Mr. Brown said. “Collaboration is in my genes. It is my whole life. I cannot understand why people don’t want to collaborate, that they think it can be useful to hoard knowledge.
“I believe that knowledge should be disseminated. You never know where it will go.”
Given all of that, about 20 years ago, when he heard “a lecture by a man named Bennett Greenspan about a little company in Texas that was doing cheek swabs of Jewish men to identify what lineage they came from,” he was fascinated.
“I bought a bunch of testing kits for about 30 bucks and I tested all of my cousins, my fourth cousins, I think about 2,000 of them.” He convinced a huge number of people to be tested, and built a database, almost entirely of Ashkenazim. That was the genesis of the Jewish DNA Project.
But technology kept changing, and scientists “developed a technology where you could look at much larger sections of the genome,” Mr. Brown said. “When we started, we could look at 12 locations on the Y chromosome. In 12 years, we went to 25; to get up to 111 took 17 years.
“In the meantime, they were working on a different technology for whole genome sequencing. Twenty years ago, that cost one million dollars. By three years ago, that same thing cost one thousand dollars. Then a lab learned to do it specifically for the Y chromosome. Now, instead of looking at 111 locations, we are able to look at seven million locations on one swab.
“It’s the equivalent of going from binoculars to the Hubble telescope. For a few hundred dollars, we can look back at the founding of mankind.”
So he is no longer as interested in the family-tree aspect of genealogy as he had been. There now are many companies that do it, it’s easy, and yes it’s interesting, but not nearly as compelling as finding out how long-separated groups of Jews are related.
Mr. Brown and his team now “look at one-time mutations in the Y chromosome,” he said. “It is like walking through a gate. One you’ve had one mutation” — and these are harmless mutations, which seem to occur once every four or so generations and are unnoticeable except through this kind of research — “we can peer back in history and tell when a person became Jewish.”
Not surprisingly, it’s complicated.
First, to be clear, there are three measurable forms of DNA. One is autosomal; that’s what researchers use when they want to find connections between living people, or look just a generation or two back. “It becomes less reliable with each generation, though,” Mr. Brown said; “more than 30 percent of the time it shows that fifth cousins are not related at all.”
Mitochondrial DNA also provides information, but “while the Y chromosome has seven million measurable locations, mitochondrial DNA has only 16,000,” Mr. Brown said. Because although everyone has mitochondrial and autosomal DNA but only men have Y chromosomes, which are passed directly from father to son, unchanged except when they mutate, it is men whose cheek swabs researchers covet.
What about tracing Jews as far back as possible?
Mr. Brown goes back to the Late Bronze Age. “Let’s say 3,200 years ago is our event horizon,” he said. He is not looking at early biblical history; the Exodus already would have happened.
“Before that, there were no people called Jews,” he said. “We know that there was civilization in the Middle East.” There were three empires in the regions — the Assyrian, the Hittite, and the Egyptian — and for the most part they lived relatively in peace.
“Bronze gave them an edge that they did not have in the Copper Age,” Mr. Brown said. “But bronze is an alloy. It requires both tin and copper. Copper is easy to find. Cyprus is full of it. But it was a bear to find tin — you had to go to Spain or Asia. It required sophisticated trading. The big empires had to learn how to deal with each other.”
That was a time when some peacetime arts could flourish. “It was no surprise that spectacular palaces were built then.”
But if we’ve learned anything from history, it’s that nothing ever stays the same. Even great empires eventually crumble. “There was pressure on those civilizations from the sea people, who came from the west,” Mr. Brown said. “Among them were the Philistines. They put constant pressure on the empires, and around 1200 B.C.E. there was a great conflagration, the palaces all were destroyed, and the tripartite peace collapsed. The Hittite and Assyrian and Egyptian empires crumbled.” The vacuum left by their collapse was filled by small tribes, often warring with each other, sparring for the remains. (Consider as analogous the collapse of Yugoslavia, or of the Soviet Union, Mr. Brown suggested.)
One of those tribes, or perhaps tribal unions, were the Israelites.
Mr. Brown and his team decided that it was time to go further back, to get samples from Sephardim and Mizrachim and remote Jewish communities from around the world, and to trace the Jewish people’s movement from the Middle East in every direction. “I put together an all-star team of academics,” he said. “An archaeologist and a demographer from Israel, and the most important person on the team, a non-Jewish biostatistician from Holland. We got IRB approval from the Technion” — that’s the Institutional Review Board, and it’s vitally important for scientific research.
The group is learning that Middle Easterners scattered all around the Mediterranean early on; most likely they were traders. They learned that the Ashkenazim left the sea to go up Europe’s rivers; at first a small group, they got much larger, but because they married each other, their bloodlines tangled.
“We are all part of that Roman-era soup,” Mr. Brown said.
Many of the genetic discoveries tie in with history. Jews moved around in search of opportunity; that’s the advantage of not being tied to land. Despite the assumption that they mainly moved to escape pogroms, “economic opportunity is more important than pogroms,” Mr. Brown said. That’s why our DNA is so mixed; why he found that people who think of themselves as purest Ashkenazi, who have been certified as purest Ashkenazi by 23&Me, have Sephardic DNA if you look far back enough. And he does.
DNA evidence also corresponds with history. Mr. Brown’s team have found a Jewish population bulge in about 800 C.E. That’s because Charlemagne invited Jews to France; he thought they’d be good for the economy, and he treated them well. In the mid-1300s, the Black Death struck, and killed a huge percentage of Europeans. But Casimir, the ruler of Poland, had invited the Jews there, again because he thought they’d be good for the economy, and for some reason (having nothing to do with Jews) the Black Death did not strike Poland. There was another Jewish demographic growth spurt there around then.
“Never judge a Jew by how he self-identifies,” Mr. Brown said. “How you identify as a Jew has nothing to do with what part of the Jewish world you come from. Jewish identity is very fluid — if you scratch the surface of the oldest synagogue in New York” — that is the Spanish Portuguese Synagogue, also called Congregation Shearith Israel, which was established in 1654 — “you’ll find that it was full of Ashkenazim.” That’s because Sephardim had far more social status than the Ashkenazim did; they were wealthier, and had better business connections. Acting like them just made good sense. Some of the Ashkenazim even started speaking Ladino, Mr. Brown said.
That was not uncommon in other parts of the world, he added.
Researchers have found non-Jews with Jewish genes all over the world. That includes the descendants of the false messiah Jacob Frank in Ukraine, and of Shabbatai Tzvi in Turkey; they’ve found people likely to have descended from conversos across Latin America, including Cuba.
The point of his inquiry, Mr. Brown said, is not to try to prove anything. “We are simply saying that if we examine the DNA of present-day Jews worldwide, we can learn about the origins and migration of the Jewish people over the last 3,000 years.”
And that is not at all to say that the only way to be Jewish is to be born into it, and to be able to trace your Jewish genes back to prehistory. “The Bible shows us that Moses left Egypt with both the descendants of Jacob and the mixed multitude,” Mr. Brown said. “Moses married a convert.” And there are a few specific periods in Jewish history that, according to our genes, new people joined us. “We are not trying to suggest at all that anybody is a Jew by ancestry,” he said. “We are trying to learn about the distant past from Jews who are alive today.”
If you were born Jewish, the odds are good that on some level you are related to just about all other Jews born into this genetic pool; you certainly have both cohanim and levi’im as ancestors. And certainly when you go back far enough, “all human beings are closely related to each other.”
But that’s general, and right now Mr. Brown and his team are interested in the specific. How did the Jewish people move around the world? How are we all related? How does our history work? Who are we?
“This is not about any one of us,” Mr. Brown said. “This is about all of us.”
The Avotaynu DNA Project is looking for Sephardic and Mizrachi men to test; it also happily will test Sephardic and Mizrachi women; the cost is covered by a grant. Ashkenazim pay under $100 for the test, and all results will be added to the database. It’s crowd-sourced and welcomes small donations. Its website is avotaynuonline.com; to learn about testing, and to provide any leads you have about Sephardic communities, email Adam Brown at Adam.Brown@AvotaynuDNA.orgX.