Event Recaps | 9 April 2024

Dr. Shamam Waldman – The Helen Diller Distinguished Lecture in Jewish Studies


On April 9, 2024, Dr. Shamam Waldman gave the annual Helen Diller Distinguished Lecture in Jewish Studies, entitled “What Can Genomics Teach Us About Jewish History?”

The study of population genetics, and specifically ancient DNA, can now offer new insights into Jewish history. One profound example is in our understanding of the origins and early history of Ashkenazi Jews. Scholars in a variety of disciplines have, for years, debated the topic, proposing different theories. Recent genetic analysis and research is helping to shed light on this long-standing puzzle. Another example of how population genetics can offer new insights concerns the genetic connections between the Bronze – Age Levant and present-day Jewish and Middle Eastern populations.

Dr. Shamam Waldman shared with us her perspective on these questions and the implications of new research based on ancient DNA. She presented findings from two recent articles in Cell that she co- led: one analyzing DNA from 14th century Jews in Erfurt Germany which showed that the medieval Ashkenazi Jewish population was much more heterogeneous than the one today, and the other on the genomic history of the people of the Bronze-Age Southern Levant which showed migrations from the Caucasus and Iran into this region between about 2500-1000 CE.

Shamam Waldman completed her PhD at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem in the field of population genetics, and she is currently a postdoctoral researcher in the Reich Lab at Harvard University. Dr. Waldman developed computational and statistical methods to analyze ancient DNA. She used these methods to study the genetic connections between Canaanites and present-day Middle Eastern populations, as well as the genetic origins of Ashkenazi Jews. As a postdoctoral researcher she continues to study ancient DNA of Jews in Europe during the Middle Ages as well as hunter-gatherers from the Mesolithic period.

Shamam Waldman

Presented by the Center for Jewish Studies. Co-sponsored by The Humanities Institute and the Genomics Institute at UC Santa Cruz. This event is made possible by generous support from the Helen Diller Family Endowment and the Center for Jewish Studies at UC Santa Cruz.

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Every year, the Jewish Studies Department honors Helen Diller, whose generous endowment continues to provide crucial support to Jewish Studies at UC Santa Cruz, by hosting a public lecture on campus by an internationally recognized scholar. See a full list of previous Diller lectures here.