It had always been a little suspect of his origins, ethnically and religiously. As advisor of a publication I’d once edited as a student journalist, he spent a lot of time with us students, and I got to know him pretty well. After working together as student and teacher for two years, I knew this: he called himself a Catholic; he liked to use the word schlep a lot, in honor of his great-grandmother, who taught it to him; his surname sounded decidedly Anglo-Saxon and very British; and a yarmulke would have looked right at home on his bald head, judging by the very Jewish appearance to his face, especially his hazel-green eyes. All the clues were pointing to Judaism, yet he wasn’t, at least in name and religion. Something clearly didn’t add up.
A few years ago, my husband’s brother married his girlfriend of about three years, a nice Christian girl. Because her parents divorced, I’d met her mother (who looks indistinctly Angle-Saxon), but I’d never met her father, who lives out of state. Rumor has it she looks just like her dad, not at all like her mom. That might explain her naturally curly, voluminous black hair, those same green-hazel eyes and a maiden name that, I later discovered, was a variation of a very Jewish name. If you put her in an IDF uniform, she’d look right at home next to all the pretty, young Israeli female soldiers.
Is it just me, or is Jewish ancestry more common among non-Jews than we think? Do many non-Jews actually have a traceable Jewish history and not even know it? According to an article published Jan. 18 in the Forward, “Family Roots: Newer DNA Tests Uncover Hidden Jewish Bloodlines,” the answer is a resounding yes.
A genetic testing company, 23andMe (www.23andme.com), located in Mountain View, Calif., just outside San Jose, is at the focus of the Forward’s article. Not only does 23andMe test for health and disease risk, but it can also map for genetic ancestry and global origins of one’s ancestors, as well as those ancestor’s lineages, maternally and paternally. Joseph Pickrell, a Catholic doctoral student at the University of Chicago who was featured in the article, learned through the service of his own Ashkenazi descent, through his maternal great-grandfather.
Unlike older services that have been able to uncover direct-line maternal and paternal Jewish lineage for decades, 23andMe’s tests are capable of teasing out less direct ancestry. As the article explains, 23andMe’s test “measures close to a million single ‘letters’ of DNA smattered across the whole genome to reveal ancestral origins…”
The article goes on to paraphrase 23andMe geneticist Mike Macpherson, who says about two percent of the 40,000 people of non-Ashkenazi European descent (or so they thought) who have been tested by 23adnMe show some reliable signature of Ashkenazi heritage in their DNA.
With this new ability to test for Jewish ancestry to a much more accurate degree, I have to wonder: could this be a blessing for Judaism and the formal Jewish community?
It depends on one’s definition of Judaism. Whereas one denomination might accept with open arms a newfound Jew-by-distant-ancestry (if it’s traceable matrilinealy through each generation?) into the fold, another certainly would not. (I Googled ‘Who is a Jew?’ and got 5,900,000 hits. When I looked a bit further into the debate, I read almost as many differing opinions, depending on which group was doing the explaining. Two Jews, three opinions, as they say.)
Let’s assume these people decide they want to trace their Jewish ancestry, begin self-identifying and practicing, and maybe even formally convert. If they could trace their lineage maternally, would conversion even be necessary? Assuming some segments of the Jewish community recognize these people as Jewish, it could be a boon for the tribe.
As one reader commented about the Forward article, “To what extent are non-Jews in the world halachically Jewish? Well, assuming four generations per century, there have been 80 generations over the past 2,000 years. If any given human being had a Jewish woman anywhere in his 80-generation all-woman line, then his or her mother was halachically Jewish, and so is he or she! So the only question is, what are the odds? For much of Europe, the Americas, and the Middle East, probably pretty good.”
I don’t know if I agree that the odds are that good, but it could happen. If I swabbed the cheeks of my old journalism adviser or my sister-in-law, my bet is on the Yiddishkeit.