Home August 2010 On the Lighter Side

On the Lighter Side

Last month, throngs of Jewish family tree huggers from around the world descended upon Los Angeles for the International Conference on Jewish Genealogy. The hottest new thing in ancient ancestry? DNA.

Jews have been lining up for cheek swabs to find out how they’re related to one another. (I guess small-talk at Bar Mitzvahs doesn’t cut it anymore.) Using DNA, people have found distant cousins living down the street. They’ve discovered a history they didn’t know they had.

And all the while, they’ve added a tremendous amount of information to science. In part because our ancestors loathed intermarriage, and in part because so many of our neighbors loathed us, Jews have done an amazing job of keeping our gene pool small – turning our spit into scientific gold for geneticists.

Indeed, in June a pair of unrelated (get it?) studies found that Jews around the world have a stronger genetic link to each other than to the general populations of the communities in which they have lived. The studies prove that we are a “people” and not a random collection of egomaniacs who like to tell ourselves that we’re God’s Chosen Ones.

At first blush, I was thrilled by the findings. Not only does it stuff a scientific sock in the spittle-strewn mouths of those who would delegitimize Israel, but these findings prove that we really are all brothers and sisters – meaning any genealogy work my fellow Jews have already done will be immensely useful to me.

You see, I have long been interested in researching my roots, but I suffer from a genetic disease known as Chronic Laziness, a profound disorder that has long affected my ability to write a book, develop a hobby, or research my family tree. Aside from pinpointing the cause of my Chronic Laziness to my mother’s side of the family, I have been unable to glean anything else about my heritage.

So, the way I saw it, using DNA was going to be a much, much easier alternative to hunting down birth certificates and property records in Poland.  Just find a distant cousin who has already unearthed a stack of records and – voila – instant genealogy!

But after researching the topic, I grew less enthused. Over and over again, I heard DNA promoters discredit converts. Being a “people” connotes exclusivity, a birthright that can’t be obtained by faith or love alone. By relying on cheek swabs to determine Jewishness, these folks are literally spitting on those who choose to join the faith.

“She’s not really Jewish,” one genealogist told me about her in-law who converted.

Is that so? Because if she’s not really Jewish, then neither is my husband, also a convert. And if he’s not really Jewish, then neither is my son, whose DNA links him as much to an Irish potato farm as it does to a kibbutz in the Northern Galilee.

Oh, and by the way, Ms. Genome, by your logic, Ruth wasn’t really Jewish, either. Making her descendants, including one King David, suspect as well. Historically, genetics have been used against us (See: Nazis; evil). But I never expected fellow Jews to turn our bloodline against us.

So, in the end, I decided not to swab my cheek – not that I ever got around to ordering the test kit, anyway (thanks, Chronic Laziness!). I realized that being “really Jewish” is not the same as being really Jewish. True, I’ll miss out on discovering whether my neighbor is really my third cousin twice removed, but between my blended family and my interfaith in-laws, do I really need to hunt down more crazy relatives?

No. Sorry, science, but genetic testing isn’t for me. DNA can divulge what’s in your past. But it can’t reveal what’s in your soul.


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