Posted by Jasmine Rockow on July 21, 2017 in ProGenealogists

Experts discuss common pitfalls and share their strategies for success

Autosomal DNA testing has become a standard tool used by many genealogists, and it has helped people discover unknown Jewish ancestry. But using autosomal DNA in Jewish research is filled with challenges, due in large part to the Jewish Diaspora and a long history of endogamy (marrying solely within one’s community). Jewish AncestryDNA users often discover thousands of cousin matches and an ethnicity category that stretches from Germany, across Eastern Europe, and well into the western half of Russia. It may feel overwhelming at first, but it is possible (though not easy) to break down brick walls in Jewish research using DNA.

Janette Silverman specializes in Jewish research at AncestryProGenealogists, and she and her team have used DNA to solve cases for clients. “You have to be able to first take a few deep breaths when you’re doing this kind of research, and you also have to be really patient,” she said. “I think you need to understand the issues that cause the challenges (in Jewish genealogical research), which will help inform how to use DNA.”

Diaspora and Expulsions

Unlike other dispersed groups, the Jewish community has been scattered across the globe for more than 2,000 years. They settled in Babylonia after being exiled from Israel about 2,600 years ago, followed by a second exile about 2,000 years ago that resulted in a diaspora scattering the Jewish population across Europe, Africa, and Asia, and ultimately around the world.

“You wound up with pockets of people who settled in different areas; and because of persecution, economic interests, or other reasons, they weren’t tied to wherever they were living,” Janette said. “So, they were moving around, and they were moving around in family groups, for the most part.”

Starting in the 12th century, Jews all over Europe endured waves of expulsion lasting into the 20th century. Distinct communities were forced out of the areas in which they had settled and intermixed with each other, according to Josh Perlman, a specialist in Jewish research who works on Janette’s team. A large number ended up in what was the Polish Lithuanian Commonwealth, because that was one of the only places they were allowed to settle. The Ottoman Empire was the other major destination that accepted Jewish refugees.

Although AncestryDNA’s new Genetic Communities can pinpoint some ethnicities to very specific locations, down to a county level in some places, it is a different story for a population, like the Jewish communities, that didn’t remain in one place. Due to the dispersion of the Jewish community, AncestryDNA’s “community” for European Jews generally covers a huge territory. Ashkenazi Jews are categorized as being from either “Central Europe” or the “Russian Empire.” To demonstrate how convoluted the relationships are, Jews from the Russian Empire are divided into three subgroups that inhabit the same geographic area: Lithuania, Latvia, Belarus, Ukraine, and Poland. This was the area ceded to the Russian Empire during the partitions of Poland in the late eighteenth century, referred to as “the Pale of Settlement.” To confuse things even further, the Central European Jewish communities overlap, to some degree, with those of the Russian Empire in Poland and Ukraine.

These classifications into Central Europe or the Russian Empire can give a person some vague idea of where their families were from, by dividing the European Jewish ethnicity into two somewhat distinctive groups. One interesting group is that which combines the Benelux countries. This is composed of a relatively small population, and by separating it from the larger population, someone whose DNA community is defined within it can more specifically identify their family’s place of origin. However, the lack of distinction in the other areas reinforces what has become evident through documentation, and that is the notion of the Jewish community as a migrant population.

Endogamy

Compounding this lack of specificity in place is a long history of endogamy. Jewish law allows cousins to marry, and in some families, this occurred over many generations. As a result, it’s common for Jewish AncestryDNA users to have thousands of matches whose relationships can be difficult to determine. “It looks like you’re more closely related than you actually are, because you’re sharing more DNA than you would normally share,” Janette said. For example, you and a match may share enough DNA (measured in centiMorgans) to look like first cousins, when in fact you are really second or third cousins with the same common ancestor appearing on multiple family lines.

For this reason, Janette and her team don’t use DNA matches beyond the third cousin level when trying to establish the most recent common ancestor in a client’s family tree. The issue with going back beyond third cousin matches in the Jewish community is the lack of specificity regarding relationships. For example, a relationship in a Jewish match that appears as a third or fourth cousin may really be a sixth or eighth cousin because Jews may be related through several branches of their family due to endogamy. And of course, documentation is vital in confirming these relationships.

Tips for Success

  • Build your tree, make it public, and attach the DNA test (whether it’s yours or a test you have administered for someone else) to the correct person in the tree. This allows your matches to compare their tree with yours, making it easier to determine how you might be related.
  • Identify the names used by your ancestor as an immigrant and their European hometown using birth, marriage, or death records in the United States. Always look at the original records, which will have more information than an index. Be aware that people often named a larger, nearby town rather than the smaller locality in which they actually lived. Search all the records to be as specific as you can.
  • Once you have defined the European hometown as much as possible, you may need to enlist the help of researchers who work in those areas. “You need somebody digging in the archives who has lots of experience with that particular archive,” Janette said.

Only once you have taken your tree back as far as you can get it should you look at cousin matches.

  • Start with those matches that have trees attached to their DNA results. You might get lucky and find a tree that goes back far enough to identify the common ancestor. However, it’s more likely that you will need to do more research on that person’s tree in hopes of finding a common ancestor. You can also use the “Shared Matches” feature to identify who your matches share in common.
  • Search your DNA matches by surname and look at their trees. Do you see a common ancestor in your tree and a match’s tree? Is the relationship and the amount of DNA shared a little closer than the actual relationship you expect to have with this person? Do the places and documents in their tree match those in your tree? Search for clues that it is in fact a common ancestor, rather than someone with a common name that isn’t your ancestor.

For a more in-depth discussion about interpreting autosomal DNA test results, read this article from the International Society of Genetic Genealogy. And, stay tuned for more articles about Jewish genealogy on the Ancestry blog.

Jasmine Rockow

Jasmine Rockow writes family history narratives for AncestryProGenealogists. Before joining the Ancestry team, she earned her journalism degree from the University of Oregon and worked as a reporter in Central Oregon. She lives with her husband in Salt Lake City, Utah.

38 Comments

  1. Randall Springborn

    I would like to find out more of my great grandma ,which my great grandpa name Fred Springborn which I know came from Germany to USA in 1848 and was in the civil war on the North side I do have that much paper work ,and that all the information I have.

  2. Julie

    What I don’t like is that I was with this company on the ground floor and donated so much family info. and now I have to pay to view my own stuff……:(

    • David Abad

      Julie, you don’t have to pay to view your own information. You can cancel your subscription, and while it is canceled you will still have access to your own tree and to any documents and photos you attached to your own tree from outside Ancestry — but you won’t have access to Ancestry’s records, nor to the public trees of other members, unless they’ve specifically made you a Guest on those trees. I sometimes suspend my membership, and during those times I have full access to my tree.

  3. Stu

    There are multiple problems facing Jewish Genealogy. The number one problem is that following WWII there was absolutely no effort made to try and reconstruct family trees from the holocaust survivors. While getting them into safe care, health care and employment were the most important things that the allies did, what they didn’t do, to my knowledge was to make trees with the survivors of all the family members they could. With the civil records of so many countries destroyed, those trees would have proven valuable beyond any wealth in helping families reunite at some point in the future. Instead, all that knowledge was, for millions of families lost as people tried to forget. My grandmother had brothers and sisters, yet none of us now know any of their names or their fates. DNA testing HAS helped me get in touch with a third cousin and validate that relationship, but even she is at a loss beyond that.

    • Barry Grossman

      Very well said and spot on, Stu.
      Much the same in our case on my mothers side.
      My paternal grandfather had 5 brothers that came over, of which 2 returned finding the U.S. ..”too traif” …both, we understand, perished back in Europe.
      Sure would like to know more…on both sides of my family.
      Thank you Stu.

  4. vivian e jowers

    I just received my DNA test results and hoping to find some of my relation from Sam and Ida Lillian Taylor Clark decendants back to the Stoners hopefully

  5. Master Jun

    Hello, everyone. I do not know any of my ancestors at least to my great great grandparents who has a Jewish background but in Ancestry.com & another site where I uploaded my raw dna consistently reaveals 2% European ancestry or 2% Ashkenazi Jew respectively. Does this mean anything? Or is 2% a negligible number (statistical noise) to consider a Jewish ancestor.

    • Mary Beth

      Master Jun, from my own research I understand that 2% Jewish DNA would mean a 5x Great Grandparent was 100% Jewish. Keep looking into your family tree and you may uncover that ancestor.

  6. Maria Harris

    I have been trying to figure out my grandpa my dad’s dad’s he life my dad when he was a little boy.

  7. Marta Lynn sharp Homstad

    I woubld like to find my family Joan Gamble was my aunt and would like for the family to reach me Marta sharp Homsad

  8. Michael Good

    If you’re looking for a success story with using Ancestry.DNA for Jewish genealogy, let me know. Years ago I made breakthroughs on my Dad’s side, and now with Ancestry.DNA’s international expansion they are happening on my Mom’s side too! I’ve tested just about everywhere but Ancestry is where the breakthroughs happen. Timber has been amazing for Jewish genetic genealogy.

  9. Marsha Watkins Paulk

    I just found out that instead ofbeing quarter blackfoot indian My grandfather (Lord) and my grandmother (Campbell) are on the Jewish registry lists as Jewish. I am totally confused. I do know if that’s true I am going to hell I am dumb or idiot taught by my family. Rabi Jay Solomon contact me please.

  10. Marsha Watkins Paulk

    I live in Dothan, AL. I am married to Robert Paulk. He is listed in the city directory and the phone book.

  11. Anne Kruszka

    My husband’s DNA came back and showed that he was 46% European Jewish. I’ve traced back what his parents told me about their ancestors except for one line (Zalot in Tryncza, Poland) as far as the late 18th century. Was one of them lying? Was my husband adopted and they never said, is he the product of an extra-marital association?

  12. Cindy Hailpern

    I had my DNA done and my 97 year old Dad’s. I only know his parents’ names – no grandparents – I am trying to find more but hit a brick wall – I know where in Hungary they came from and still can’t find more. DNA has linked us to some people that I have met but we don’t know how we are related. Very confusing

  13. Roxxi

    I truly believe that all DNA testing is a complete fraud! My niece did the DNA testing and her results were completely missing ancestry from my mothers side of the family!!! DNA does not completely disappear – impossible! I told her to write and have them redo to see if her results changed because an entire generation cannot disappear over time!!! Totally disappointed in her results – FRAUD!!!

    • Member Services Social Support Team

      @Roxxi We’re very sorry to hear of your dissatisfaction with your niece’s DNA results. What you get for your DNA results may be different than what you would expect them to be according to your family history, even histories proven through paperwork or other means. This is due to genetic inheritance. As you inherit 50% of your DNA from each parent, you may not inherit all DNA groups that a parent has. The following article explains this in greater detail: http://ancstry.me/2vqqQ9v

  14. Beverly Applebaum

    Grandfather Max RAgalsky in American army 1893-1896. Born in Duenburg,Russia 1871.Came to U.S thru “CastleGarden”New York City.

  15. Esther Osiel

    I find it interesting that you limit your Jewish research to European Jewry. What about Sephardic Jews? There is no mention of them. Certainly it was not defined in my DNA analysis. I see this as a huge oversight.

    • Louise Algranti

      Absolutely! It is documented Jews expelled from Spain during the inquisition settled in England, Holland even Poland, as well as countries that were under
      Ottoman Empire.

  16. Kim Firth

    Well…those commercials showing people surprised to discover their true ethnicity through DNA analysis are exactly what happened when my mother’s test showed 24 % European Jew! Holy Toledo! And we thought we where mostly English, Irish and Scottish! We are fairly confident that my mother’s father (who she did not know) was Jewish, but hid this information (and changed his surname to one more Anglo sounding one) when he immigrated to Toronto, Canada in the 1920-30’s. We do know that he was born in Budapest around 1905 and probably fled when things started to go really badly for Jews in the 30’s. We have as yet to find any immigration records for him. Btw…Before WWII, the population of Budapest was about 25% Jewish…and only about 5% after. We most likely had relatives who stayed and maybe even a few who remain there still. Hopefully this is the case! Thanks for listening.

  17. Leslie

    Another issue pre holocaust is what my mother experienced … discovering her Jewish descent a decade after her mother had passed away. Her mothers fsmily fled Odessa in 1907 in a pogrom and soon learned to hide their heritage in rural Ontario.

  18. Ronnie Treitler

    I took the DNA test and it came back as British Isles, and Eastern European Jewish and some minor ant of something, but nothing from Israel or the Middle East. How can I be a Jew with no connection to where all Jews originate from?

    • Robert Sammel

      Ronnie, the over-simplified story of Ashkenazi genetics goes like this… There was migration of Ashkenazi ancestors from the Middle East into the Roman Empire and then from there to Central Europe. Male DNA lineages seem to be traceable to the Middle East. Female lineages are more uncertain but do largely trace to Europe. There’s likely a mix of inputs into the Ashkenazi pool, but what made it a clearly identifiable pool was that they intermarried/interbred endogamously/amongst themselves for a thousand years or so, and therefore there are genetic sequences and variations that are widespread and specific among Ashkenazim. The markers of this mixed European-Middle Eastern population are different (although with slight overlap) than those associated with populations that have remained in the Middle East.

  19. Barb Graham Liska

    Both of my parents have passed away so I had my one brother run his DNA & I run mine for the maternal. As far as we knew we were English-Scottish-Irish descendants. Imagine our shock when my brothers DNA showed a massive Jewish percentage. Askansei (sp) major amount & small amount of Sephardic. Ancestors from both sides came to Canada from the UK after living there for many years. Having a terrible time trying to research them.

  20. Eve Laufer

    I got my DNA profile made to see what my ancestral origins were before the diaspora, but there is no hint that my lineage came from known Jewish ancestral lands. I was anticipating that there would be some lines that were European due to interbreeding, but instead I get a result that my ancestors were all European. This was explained as a phenomenon that occurred because the individual DNA results are only compared against similarities since ~1500 CE.

    What kind of testing would reveal my pre-diaspora genetic origins?

  21. Michael Ashmore

    So then you are saying, that Jews are distinct as a “race”/”breed”/”morph” of human beings, and that the religion is not a determining factor for “Who is a Jew?”

  22. Phillip Cohen

    When asked what is a Jew they are not kidding when the answer is, family.
    What is our genetic connection Ancestry DNA to the Middle East?

  23. Mary Beth

    If I inherit 50% of my DNA from each parent, how can I have more European Jewish DNA than both of my parents them combined?

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