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
  • Multi Page

Catherine Afarian calls herself a “love child of the ‘70s.”

Her mother discovered that she was pregnant after she had broken off a relationship of less than a year. Afarian has never met her biological father, but her mother always said he came from a big Italian family, and Afarian got a kick out of Italian colleagues telling her she looked just like a “Roman girl.”

In late 2010, though, Afarian learned that a big part of her identity had been based on very shaky ground.

As a new employee at 23andMe, a personal genome company based in Mountain View, Calif., Afarian had submitted a spit sample for a DNA analysis. Based on the variations in her genes, 23andMe estimated her health risks and traced her ancestry.

Afarian had already been diagnosed with Crohn’s disease, so she wasn’t surprised to learn that her genes put her at a much higher-than-average risk for the chronic digestive tract condition. But she was taken aback to find that 23andMe classified 48.9% of her DNA as Ashkenazi. Italy didn’t even show up on her ancestry composition. Her mother isn’t Jewish, so 48.9% had to have come from her biological father.

While her revelation was more dramatic than most, Afarian is one of a growing number of non-Jews fascinated with the discovery of a Jewish ancestor’s footprints in their DNA, thanks to testing that has become much more affordable — $99 or $199, depending on the company — than it had been only a few years ago.

“I think people are attracted by this idea of being part of a lost tribe,” said Misha Angrist, an assistant professor at the Duke Institute for Genome Sciences and Policy and the author of the 2010 book “Here Is a Human Being: At the Dawn of Personal Genomics.” “More generally, I think people perceive Jewish ancestry as somehow exotic.” Not necessarily Angrist, because all four of his grandparents were Ashkenazi, and 23andMe revealed no surprises there.

Anthropologist Sandra Lee, a senior research scholar at the Stanford Center for Biomedical Ethics, has studied the reasons that 23andMe customers sign up for the service. In her research, she has found that about 40% say their primary motive was to learn more about their ancestry. “People are looking for the unexpected, using the genome to excavate an unknown past, some detail about their life that hasn’t been revealed to them,” Lee said.

Lee says she suspects that the Ashkenazi Jewish identity is particularly interesting for such seekers because of its “very strong cultural component as to what makes somebody Jewish.” People who discover they must have had an Ashkenazi ancestor are likely to examine whether anything in their lives might reflect that, Lee says.

He noted that unexpected ancestry findings in DNA “catalyze a whole bunch of discussions, particularly with family members. It can be exciting. It also can be, at times, a painful type of exploration. It’s really about ideas about who one wants to be and what the possibilities are for the future.”

That has certainly been Afarian’s experience. “I have this entire culture now that I need to explore,” she said, noting that she’s always had plenty of Jewish friends. “I don’t know what you serve at a Seder dinner, but I know that it’s really important. I have a lot of Yiddish to learn. I definitely like the idea that I’m part of this larger community. This is a significant part of who I am, and on some level I want to understand this better.”

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!
  • “'I made a new friend,' my son told his grandfather later that day. 'I don’t know her name, but she was very nice. We met on the bus.' Welcome to Israel."
  • A Jewish female sword swallower. It's as cool as it sounds (and looks)!
  • Why did David Menachem Gordon join the IDF? In his own words: "The Israel Defense Forces is an army that fights for her nation’s survival and the absence of its warriors equals destruction from numerous regional foes. America is not quite under the threat of total annihilation… Simply put, I felt I was needed more in Israel than in the United States."
  • Leonard Fein's most enduring legacy may be his rejection of dualism: the idea that Jews must choose between assertiveness and compassion, between tribalism and universalism. Steven M. Cohen remembers a great Jewish progressive:
  • BREAKING: Missing lone soldier David Menachem Gordon has been found dead in central Israel. The Ohio native was 21 years old.
  • “They think they can slap on an Amish hat and a long black robe, and they’ve created a Hasid." What do you think of Hollywood's portrayal of Hasidic Jews?
  • “I’ve been doing this since I was a teenager. I didn’t think I would have to do it when I was 90.” Hedy Epstein fled Nazi Germany in 1933 on a Kinderstransport.
  • "A few decades ago, it would have been easy to add Jews to that list of disempowered victims. I could throw in Leo Frank, the victim of mob justice; or otherwise privileged Jewish men denied entrance to elite universities. These days, however, we have to search a lot harder." Are you worried about what's going in on #Ferguson?
  • Will you accept the challenge?
  • In the six years since Dothan launched its relocation program, 8 families have made the jump — but will they stay? We went there to find out:
  • "Jewish Israelis and West Bank Palestinians are witnessing — and living — two very different wars." Naomi Zeveloff's first on-the-ground dispatch from Israel:
  • This deserves a whistle: Lauren Bacall's stylish wardrobe is getting its own museum exhibit at Fashion Institute of Technology.
  • How do you make people laugh when they're fighting on the front lines or ducking bombs?
  • "Hamas and others have dredged up passages form the Quran that demonize Jews horribly. Some imams rail about international Jewish conspiracies. But they’d have a much smaller audience for their ravings if Israel could find a way to lower the flames in the conflict." Do you agree with J.J. Goldberg?
  • How did Tariq Abu Khdeir go from fun-loving Palestinian-American teen to international icon in just a few short weeks? http://jd.fo/d4kkV
  • 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.