The Jewish Gene Pool

— by Steve Hofstetter

Compatibility is typically measured in likes and dislikes, general station in life, and temperament. But maybe its time people started measuring it in health, too.

Whether you believe in common interests or opposites attracting, we’ve always measured a relationship by preferred hobbies. I once had a girl break up with me because she liked to go hiking and I’m not outdoorsy, and she liked a glass of wine with dinner and I don’t drink. When she ended things, I suggested that I’d build her a bar in the woods. What was she going to do, break up with me twice?

Station in life is also important. We first notice the awkwardness in high school – seniors dating freshmen are both sketchy and annoyed. When you’re worried about college, you don’t want to be dating someone still wearing braces. Later in life there’s more of an impact. If you have kids from a previous marriage, the last thing you want to do is find a wonderful companion who is still in their party phase. Unless you’re Casey Anthony.

And of course there’s temperament – the potential success of a couple can often be measured by how they argue. Every couple argues eventually. So if you’re both people who fight hard and make up, or both people who casually debate, that could work. But if one of you loves conflict and the other avoids it, your relationship will end quicker then a typical boxing match – and with one of you knocked out, too.

Through all this, something I’d never considered before is genetic compatibility. Sure, someone who wants biological kids needs to be able to get pregnant and someone who loves fitness should avoid dating a partner with a glandular problem. But if the J in JDating is important to you, you should also consider genetics.

More after the jump.
I’ve watched enough House and Gray’s Anatomy to know about Tay-Sachs, which is carried by 1 in 30 Ashkenazi Jews. 1 in 25 of us carry Cystic Fibrosis, and 1 in 12 carry Gaucher Disease. There’s Niemann-Pick, Bloom’s Syndrome, even something called Maple Syrup Urine Disease. Yes, that’s real – though it sounds like something off a Wikipedia page.

We survived the holocaust, pogroms, exiles, and general Anti-Semitism, and our own genes are trying to kill us off. No wonder resilience is in our nature. The good news is that, despite the carrier frequency of these diseases, the actual occurrences are much smaller. For example, the probability of one Tay-Sachs carrier mating with another and then passing both mutations to a child is less than 1%.

But one thing I learned about recently that effects more Ashkenazi women than any of these is the BRCA mutation. Basically put, it’s a recently discovered genetic mutation that causes breast cancer in up to 85% of women who carry it, as well giving them up to a 50% chance of ovarian cancer. And while the rest of the population has a 1 in 300 chance of carrying this mutation, Ashkenazi Jews are 1 in 40.

What do we do with that knowledge? Well, science has given us a few options. What is known about BRCA mutations is fairly new, and due to a controversial patent on the testing, new knowledge isn’t coming out as quickly as it could. But we do know that the mutation can avoid being passed on to children. We do know that extensive surveillance can catch cancer early enough to prevent it from being fatal. And we do know that a prophylactic surgery can take a patient’s chance of developing cancer down to 2%.

While everyone’s route is their own individual decision, and as a man I can’t possibly understand what the psychological effects are, I do think it would be ignorant for those with a history of cancer in the family to risk passing that gene on to their children simply out of fear. That controversial patent also makes BRCA testing prohibitively expensive, unless you have a history of cancer in the family and decent insurance. Then it costs a few hundred bucks in co-pay to make sure you’re not sentencing your kids to cancer.

So what does all this mean for dating? I don’t recommend you lead with any of it. “I like long walks on the beach, Woody Allen movies, and avoiding debilitating diseases.” But it would be helpful for you to know this information about yourself before a relationship gets to the serious phase.

You know – the serious phase where you start finding out how you two fight. I don’t recommend that for first dates, either.

Steve Hofstetter is an internationally touring comedian who has been on VH1, ESPN, Comedy Central, and many more. To book him at your next event, visit This column was originally published on


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