Your email is not valid
Recipient's email is not valid
Submit Close

Your email has been sent.

Click here to send another

The Great Brain

Pseudo-science helps a family straddle the Sephardi-Ashkenazi divide

Print Email
phrenology diagram

“Good news,” I said to my wife, Ilana, as the family sat down for Shabbat lunch. “Charles Murray says that you aren’t genetically stupider than me after all.”

She gave me one of those looks that says, “Take your Y chromosome and go to hell.”

“Who is Charles Murray and how does he know about our brains?” she asked sternly.

I explained that Murray is a conservative political scientist who has written a great deal about intelligence. “He co-wrote a book called The Bell Curve that argued that white people’s genes make them smarter than black people,” I told her.

“Is he Jewish?” Ilana wondered.


“So how smart can he be?” Ilana asked, dishing out the meat-stuffed celery her mother made us. “Anyway, who said I’m biologically stupider than you in the first place?”

I told her about a scientific paper published by some scholars at the University of Utah which proposes to explain why there have been so many high-achieving Ashkenazim in the arts and sciences over the past millennium. They suggest it was a result of selective breeding; legal restrictions forced Ashkenazi Jews into financial and trade occupations, which require more intelligence than farming, crafts, and manual labor. They had to know math, languages, and be good at analytic reasoning. Sephardi Jews didn’t need those skills.

“Your parents were born in Iraq. So ethnically you are an Oriental or Sephardi Jew. My grandparents were born in Eastern Europe, so I’m Ashkenazi. So according to the guys in Utah, of the two of us, I’ve got the better brain.”

Ilana reminded me dryly that her maternal grandfather had been a successful businessmen and trader in Baghdad before losing everything he had when he fled Iraq and moved his family to Palestine in the 1930s. Her father’s father left Baghdad at about the same time but reestablished himself successfully in Bombay, before losing everything he had when he moved his family to Israel in 1949.

“That article appeared in a very respectable venue, The Journal of Biosocial Science, which gives it great credence,” I pointed out defensively.

“Remind me how your great-grandfathers made a living?” she asked.

“One was a dirt-poor schoolteacher,” I said hopefully. “And another was a dirt-poor storekeeper.”

“And the other two?”

“A baker and a blacksmith,” I admitted. “But no matter. Murray, in a display of scholarly panache, has torn the Utah paper to shreds. He argues that it’s not just Ashkenazi Jews who are smarter than everyone else. Sephardi Jews are smarter than everyone else, too.”

“Where does he say that?” asked my scholarly son Asor, who has honed his reasoning skills by studying for a year and a half at a yeshiva.

“It was in Commentary, which is a magazine read by a lot of very smart Ashkenazi Jews, for example ones that favored invading Iraq.”

My oldest daughter, Mizmor, who with her mixture of choice Ashkenazi and Sephardi genes must have quite a brain, seemed unconvinced. “How does he reach that conclusion?”

“He points out that some Sephardis were hot stuff. Maimonides, for example, and Benjamin Disraeli. And he suggests that selection for sharp brains began much earlier, back in the first century, before the Second Temple was destroyed. That was when Joshua ben Gamla ruled that all male Jews go to school beginning at age six. Ever since then, Jews have been nearly universally literate, compared to other nations.”

“You mean, if I lived before the first century I wouldn’t have had to go to school?” asked my youngest daughter Misgav, for whom the Second Temple Period had just become a golden age.

“They were learning business theory and math and science?” asked Ilana.

No, I told them. The sources around today show that the elementary school curriculum consisted mostly of memorizing the Bible.

“So according to Murray’s thesis, Ashkenazi and Sephardi Jews should be equally represented in Israel’s universities and top-earning professions.” Ilana said.

“But in reality Ashkenazi Jews make up a solid majority of Israel’s student body, university faculty, and professions, even though Sephardi Jews are a majority in the population,” I answered back.

“So the Utah guys are right?” she asked.

I had to be honest and tell her that over the past three decades, Israeli society has become less stratified between an Ashkenazi elite and a Sephardi underclass, and that as that has happened, the number of Sephardi Jews in universities and white collar professions has increased considerably—even if there isn’t yet full equality.

“So Murray might be proved right, once we cancel out those annoying effects of social and class discrimination?” Ilana asked.

“Israel’s Arabs have also made considerable gains as the country’s society has opened up,” I added, pointing out other explanations for Jewish academic success. “As a minority population, Arab citizens of Israel see education as a key to advancement, just like Jews did.”

“So do my genes make me smarter than everyone else or don’t they?” asked my younger son, Niot.

“That’s open to debate,” I said, “but they definitely make you smarter than Charles Murray.”

Print Email

Daily rate: $2
Monthly rate: $18
Yearly rate: $180

Tablet is committed to bringing you the best, smartest, most enlightening and entertaining reporting and writing on Jewish life, all free of charge. We take pride in our community of readers, and are thrilled that you choose to engage with us in a way that is both thoughtful and thought-provoking. But the Internet, for all of its wonders, poses challenges to civilized and constructive discussion, allowing vocal—and, often, anonymous—minorities to drag it down with invective (and worse). Starting today, then, we are asking people who'd like to post comments on the site to pay a nominal fee—less a paywall than a gesture of your own commitment to the cause of great conversation. All proceeds go to helping us bring you the ambitious journalism that brought you here in the first place.

Readers can still interact with us free of charge via Facebook, Twitter, and our other social media channels, or write to us at Each week, we’ll select the best letters and publish them in a new letters to the editor feature on the Scroll.

We hope this new largely symbolic measure will help us create a more pleasant and cultivated environment for all of our readers, and, as always, we thank you deeply for your support.

Effectively, the article is in actuality the highest-high quality on this exemplary theme. I accord together with your selections and will thirstily look forward to your following updates. Solely telling thanks will not just be enough, for the great limpidity in your writing. I will now grab your rss feed to proceed knowledgeable of any updates. Delicious work and far success in your small business relations.

I just could not depart your web site prior to suggesting that I really enjoyed the standard info a person provide for your visitors? Is going to be back often to check up on new posts

Thanks for sharing excellent informations. Your site is very cool. I am impressed by the details that you have on this blog. It reveals how nicely you perceive this subject. Bookmarked this web page, will come back for extra articles. You, my pal, ROCK! I found simply the information I already searched everywhere and simply could not come across. What an ideal web site.

This publish was very properly written, and it additionally accommodates a number of useful facts. I appreciated your distinguished manner of penning this post. Thanks, you’ve gotten made it simple for me to know

You accept a welfare of writing good, significance grabbing destruction. I myself am a blogger and crave to polish this slowly ever.

Great beat ! I would like to apprentice while you amend your web site, how can i subscribe for a blog website? The account aided me a acceptable deal. I had been a little bit acquainted of this your broadcast offered bright clear concept

What i do not realize is actually how you are not actually much more well-liked than you might be right now. You’re so intelligent. You realize therefore considerably relating to this subject, made me personally consider it from numerous varied angles. Its like women and men aren’t fascinated unless it’s one thing to do with Lady gaga! Your own stuffs nice. Always maintain it up!


Your comment may be no longer than 2,000 characters, approximately 400 words. HTML tags are not permitted, nor are more than two URLs per comment. We reserve the right to delete inappropriate comments.

Thank You!

Thank you for subscribing to the Tablet Magazine Daily Digest.
Please tell us about you.

The Great Brain

Pseudo-science helps a family straddle the Sephardi-Ashkenazi divide

More on Tablet:

Why the World Should Test Netanyahu’s Newfound Commitment to Peace

By Yair Rosenberg — Bibi announces support for Arab Peace Initiative. It doesn’t matter if it’s real.