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Barbara Bensoussan

You may be separated by hundreds of years and thousands of miles, but DNA testing is making it possible for far-flung family members to reconnect

Wednesday, May 10, 2017

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UNEXPECTED CONNECTIONS About a month after I submitted my DNA, I received a strange e-mail. “My name is Javier C., from Majorca,” it said. “We are an exact match on the mtDNA test and my family is descendants of Chuetas, Majorcan Jews. I must say, we do not get more than 2–3 matches a year! Majorca is a small island in the Mediterranean, and Jews were there since before the Romans”

“A re you my mother?” asks the little bird in the eponymous P.D. Eastman children’s classic. The baby bird wanders from one animal and contraption to the next, trying to find his way back to his family.

The book became popular because children fear separation from their parents, and because everyone wants to know where they belong. The craving for family runs deep, especially in people who don’t have many relatives.

Moment editor Nadine Epstein is one of them. She writes eloquently of “familial loneliness syndrome” in an article entitled, “Jewish Genes as Time Machines.”

“All family members in Europe on both sides were assumed dead at the hands of the Nazis and their collaborators,” she says. “My grandparents were young when they fled poverty, conscription and anti-Semitism… they carried with them few heirlooms or photographs, and what family history they knew they kept to themselves.”

Jewish people have pulled up their stakes every few hundred years or so, each exile cutting us off from the previous one. Yet despite these discontinuities, we’ve always attached tremendous importance to yichus and mesorah. We’re the most ancient of peoples, with a tribal past and a long memory, and an inborn sense of history and family. Is it any wonder many of us feel a tug to unearth our family histories and trace those geographical meanderings?

Ms. Epstein turned to 23andMe, a DNA-testing service, to look for lost family. She sent a saliva sample for analysis and before long was on the path to fulfilling her dream of family: The results unearthed unknown cousins from Texas to Jerusalem. Some were able to fill in long-lost gaps in her family tree. “They, along with the thousands of as-yet undiscovered genetic cousins, have turned out to be my Jewish journey — my connection to my larger family, to my people,” she says.

DNA-testing services like 23andMe have become immensely popular in recent years, and many Jews are availing themselves of the opportunity to expand their family trees and learn about their origins. For those who, like Epstein, aren’t observant, perhaps the drive to connect to Jewish family can be understood, at least in part, as an expression of the pintele Yid’s drive to connect to Judaism. It’s surely no coincidence that, as she notes, Ashkenazic Jews make up a disproportionate percentage of the databases not only for 23andMe, but rival services Family Tree DNA (FTDNA) and Ancestry.

NOT SO LONG AGO, searching for one’s family roots was an arduous process. People would travel to the villages their ancestors came from, looking in cemeteries, synagogue and civic records, ship’s logs, and army rolls. As the internet developed, many of these records were digitized, making the process vastly easier. On top of this, new genealogical companies took to the internet to assist people, often for a fee, in creating family trees and searching for lost relatives. Many of them incorporated social media-style applications to allow people searching for their roots to contact each other and widen the networks of family and information. Today, ancestry sleuths can find many rich sources of information through organizations like the International Jewish Genealogical Society and JewishGen, a subsidiary of the Museum of Jewish Heritage in New York (see sidebar).

“We ran two different tests on you,” said Bennet Greenspan. “Your mtDNA is semitic, meaning it was likely deported by the Romans 2,000 years ago, or from some other depopulation of our part of the Fertile Crescent”

As the internet opened up new possibilities for ancestry research, so did DNA science. The Human Genome Project, seeking to map the entire sequence of human DNA, was completed in 2003. Genetic testing had already been underway for several decades for forensic purposes and to identify genetic diseases; it was now possible to create a genetic “fingerprint” for individuals.

The process of individual DNA testing was easy enough that it was only a matter of time before sites like Family Tree DNA began inviting consumers to submit DNA samples. They would then digitize the results, using them to match people to geographic regions and people with similar genetic profiles. The services are quite affordable; many cost under a hundred dollars, but of course feature add-ons and higher levels of analysis for purchase as well. “You can choose different numbers of genetic markers to analyze,” says Brooklyn-based genealogist Sarina Roffe. “The more markers you choose, the more precise the matches will be.”

These new DNA-analysis services — Ancestry, FTDNA, Geni, 23andMe, and others — are absurdly user-friendly. Make a payment online, and they’ll send you a kit with a vial for a saliva sample. You send it back, and within a month or two the service will email you links to charts showing your genetic profile and matches to people in their database who share your DNA profile with varying degrees of specificity (parent, sibling, third cousin, etc.). Ancestry.com, for example, claims to test 700,000 locations on your entire genome, and matches them to the two million people in their database. You can elect to be in touch with your genetic doppelgangers to figure out if and how you’re actually related.

Most services offer the user one or more of three testing options. Autosomal DNA testing samples DNA from both maternal and paternal lines, although it can’t distinguish which genes come from which parent. Y-DNA testing traces DNA on the Y chromosome, meaning genetic traits that are passed down from father to son will show up on this test. For example, the famous Cohen Modal Haplotype (CMH), a Y-chromosome cluster of six markers common to men who are Kohanim, has been traced to common ancestry dating 3,000 years ago. Similar clusters exist for Leviim. The third test, for mtDna (mitochondrial DNA), traces descent through the female line of the family.

Sarina Roffe recommends FTDNA to her clients; she’s been using it for at least ten years. She believes they have the largest group of Jewish users; hence a Jewish user is more likely to get a hit in terms of finding family. “It’s not about the testing per se; it’s about the people the company has in the database,” she counsels. “FTDNA has been around for a long time. They go to all the Jewish genealogical conferences and have a presence in the community.”

Unfortunately, the various services don’t share data. “It’s a Tower of Babel,” laments Miriam Kairey, another genealogist who divides her time between New Jersey and Brooklyn. “The cropping up of different companies is a disservice to everyone, because they don’t share the information.” On the other hand, some companies, like FTDNA, do permit users to take the data they receive and share it with other companies.

Miriam recommends that male users searching for roots employ FTDNA. “They have a Y-chromosome analysis to allow men to see the family ‘pedigree,’ the male attributes passed down from father to son,” she says. “Men should also use their Family Finder feature to connect to people with similar autosomal [overall] genetic profiles.”

As for women, she says she prefers the 23andMe service, which used to provide users with genetic information about a wide range of health conditions, such as caffeine sensitivity, propensity to celiac disease, and breast cancer. “Doctors would charge $3,000 for those tests — the services are much cheaper,” she says. “Having that information can be a matter of life and death.”

But software engineer and genealogist Jaim Harlow told Mishpacha that the FDA forced 23andMe to stop testing for genetically based health conditions in 2013. “They had the American Medical Association up in arms, because they had no doctors on staff,” he says. “People like me who got in early were lucky. We got a full sequencing.”

As of 2015, the FDA decided to allow 23andMe to run 36 tests that indicate carrier status for various diseases in clients’ offspring, and four “wellness” indicators like lactose intolerance — a far cry from the original 240-plus health conditions originally tested for.

The Athletigen company provides individualized health profiles based on genetic testing, geared to helping athletes improve their performance, and is based in Canada. But the possibilities for using genetic profiling to boost health and longevity have so much commercial potential the US government may not be able to suppress broader usage for very long. While working on this article, I heard a radio ad for the “NJ Diet” in Clifton, New Jersey, which claims to use genetic testing to create tailor-made diets for people. I called for more information, and while they do have a doctor overseeing the operation, no one called back.

GENETIC TESTING provides only one piece of the ancestry puzzle; the whole picture can only be reconstructed by documents or oral histories.

“DNA proves there’s a relationship,” says Sarina, who specializes in the Sephardic community. “But it’s up to the genealogist to figure out the hows and whys of the connection.”

An example: Miriam Kairey found that her own DNA matched with members of a family by the name of Helouani in Buenos Aires.

“My maiden name is Sasson, but my grandfather once happened to tell me we originally had a double name, Sasson-Helouani,” she relates. “If he hadn’t passed on that piece of information, I wouldn’t have had a starting point to trace the connection.”

DNA helps genealogists narrow down the field when many people share a common surname (think Cohen or Dweck). Sarina once worked with two different families named Sutton, a name that can be non-Jewish as well as Jewish. She suspected the families were related. When DNA tests proved they were indeed a very close DNA match, she showed the results to each side. Through the families’ input, she was able to reconstruct the missing family link. (Excerpted from Mishpacha, Issue 659)

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