Tapping Into Growing Lure of Hidden Jewish Heritage Online

23andMe.com Explores Genetic Secrets — For a Price

23andme.com

By Rita Rubin

Published June 18, 2013, issue of June 21, 2013.
  • Print
  • Share Share
  • Single Page

(page 2 of 2)

Afarian, who says neither she nor her husband, a product of Catholic schools, is particularly religious, isn’t rushing to convert, but she wants their 2-year-old son to learn about what it means to be Jewish from someone who knows, “and that’s not me.”

Some argue that there’s no such thing as Ashkenazi DNA, but companies like 23andMe and Family Tree DNA look for genetic “signatures” common in people known to have four Ashkenazi Jewish grandparents. The reference data come from research projects and from surveys of their own customers. Out of 23andMe’s 250,000 customers, about 11,000 have four Ashkenazi grandparents, Afarian says. Many more have one or two Ashkenazi grandparents.

Afarian says her biological father’s name, which her mother had told her early on, sounds neither Italian nor Jewish. Her mother, who took her children to Methodist and Baptist churches when they were younger, thought of Judaism as a religion but not as an ethnic group that could be detected in DNA.

James Francis was twice Afarian’s age when his DNA revealed that he must have had a Jewish ancestor. Francis’s reaction to the news that 23andMe classified 10.6% of his DNA as Ashkenazi? HUH? “I said, ‘What?!’” In fact, none of the countries on his ancestry composition list comes close to that 10.6%. Ukraine, Russia and Poland top the list, with, respectively, 2.6%, 1.9% and 1.3% .

“I’m really happy about this, because I always suspected it,” said Francis, 75, who lives in Corpus Christi, Texas, and describes himself as “a good ol’ South Texas boy.” As a result of his genealogy research, he “just thought at some point, somewhere, somebody was Jewish in the family. “

He thinks it’s a grandfather or great-grandfather on his mother’s side, and he thinks he knows the man’s name. “Growing up, I was always curious about where my grandparents and great-grandparents came from,” Francis said. “My mother’s ancestry was German, and she spoke the language.”

He added that his father always used to say his family was Scotch-Irish, but “research and DNA have debunked that.”

Family Tree DNA, based in Houston, claims to have the largest comparative Jewish database in the world. It includes comedians Larry David and Jason Alexander (but not Jerry Seinfeld), according to President and CEO Bennett Greenspan.

Greenspan tells of a young woman who, raised Catholic, learned through testing with his company that she had a Jewish great-great grandfather. “This girl was shocked,” Greenspan said. She told him that throughout her life, half her friends have been Jewish.

That’s a common refrain from non-Jews who discover Jewish ancestry, Greenspan says. “They’re telling me, ’We knew that all along.’ It happens all the time,” he said.

Besides leading the company, Greenspan runs Family Tree DNA’s “Semitic desk,” where, he says, Evangelical Christians, Jews for Jesus and other gentiles who observe some Jewish practices are eager to uncover even a bit of Ashkenazi DNA lurking in their chromosomes.

“It’s a big deal for some of these guys if they can show they have some Jewish ancestry,” he said, because they think a pinch of Jewish DNA would give them credibility in their proselytizing efforts.

Besides, Greenspan noted, “today it’s not a stigma to have had Jewish ancestry, and it’s not a stigma to have had Native American ancestry, even though both of those things were bad 100 years ago.”

Contact Rita Rubin at feedback@forward.com


The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.





Find us on Facebook!
  • The eggplant is beloved in Israel. So why do Americans keep giving it a bad rap? With this new recipe, Vered Guttman sets out to defend the honor of her favorite vegetable.
  • “KlezKamp has always been a crazy quilt of gay and straight, religious and nonreligious, Jewish and gentile.” Why is the klezmer festival shutting down now?
  • “You can plagiarize the Bible, can’t you?” Jill Sobule says when asked how she went about writing the lyrics for a new 'Yentl' adaptation. “A couple of the songs I completely stole." Share this with the theater-lovers in your life!
  • Will Americans who served in the Israeli army during the Gaza operation face war crimes charges when they get back home?
  • Talk about a fashion faux pas. What was Zara thinking with the concentration camp look?
  • “The Black community was resistant to the Jewish community coming into the neighborhood — at first.” Watch this video about how a group of gardeners is rebuilding trust between African-Americans and Jews in Detroit.
  • "I am a Jewish woman married to a non-Jewish man who was raised Catholic, but now considers himself a “common-law Jew.” We are raising our two young children as Jews. My husband's parents are still semi-practicing Catholics. When we go over to either of their homes, they bow their heads, often hold hands, and say grace before meals. This is an especially awkward time for me, as I'm uncomfortable participating in a non-Jewish religious ritual, but don't want his family to think I'm ungrateful. It's becoming especially vexing to me now that my oldest son is 7. What's the best way to handle this situation?" http://jd.fo/b4ucX What would you do?
  • Maybe he was trying to give her a "schtickle of fluoride"...
  • It's all fun, fun, fun, until her dad takes the T-Bird away for Shabbos.
  • "Like many Jewish people around the world, I observed Shabbat this weekend. I didn’t light candles or recite Hebrew prayers; I didn’t eat challah or matzoh ball soup or brisket. I spent my Shabbat marching for justice for Eric Garner of Staten Island, Michael Brown of Ferguson, and all victims of police brutality."
  • Happy #NationalDogDay! To celebrate, here's a little something from our archives:
  • A Jewish couple was attacked on Monday night in New York City's Upper East Side. According to police, the attackers flew Palestinian flags.
  • "If the only thing viewers knew about the Jews was what they saw on The Simpsons they — and we — would be well served." What's your favorite Simpsons' moment?
  • "One uncle of mine said, 'I came to America after World War II and I hitchhiked.' And Robin said, 'I waited until there was a 747 and a kosher meal.'" Watch Billy Crystal's moving tribute to Robin Williams at last night's #Emmys:
  • "Americans are much more focused on the long term and on the end goal which is ending the violence, and peace. It’s a matter of zooming out rather than debating the day to day.”
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.