We have analyzed the maternally inherited mitochondrial DNA from each of nine geographically separated Jewish groups, eight non-Jewish host populations, and an Israeli Arab/Palestinian population, and we have compared the differences found in Jews and non-Jews with those found using Y-chromosome data that were obtained, in most cases, from the same population samples. The results suggest that most Jewish communities were founded by relatively few women, that the founding process was independent in different geographic areas, and that subsequent genetic input from surrounding populations was limited on the female side. In sharp contrast to this, the paternally inherited Y chromosome shows diversity similar to that of neighboring populations and shows no evidence of founder effects. These sex-specific differences demonstrate an important role for culture in shaping patterns of genetic variation and are likely to have significant epidemiological implications for studies involving these populations. We illustrate this by presenting data from a panel of X-chromosome microsatellites, which indicates that, in the case of the Georgian Jews, the female-specific founder event appears to have resulted in elevated levels of linkage disequilibrium.