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.
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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


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