In most movements in Judaism, it always seems that knowing your mother was Jewish was enough to pass the religion along. Some speculate that this was due to the fact that one always knew who the mother was, but not necessarily the father. This may be especially true given the fact that Jews often lived among communities that were less than welcoming and were the subjects of slavery, rape and forced conversion (out of Judaism). Prof. Shaye D. Cohen, the Littauer Professor of Hebrew Literature and Philosophy at Harvard University, wrote a book and several articles on this issue. Cohen found that matrilineal descent evolved from an original policy of patrilineal descent. In the Torah, a person’s status as a Jew seems to come from his father. Joseph was married to a non-Jewish woman, and his children were considered Jewish. The same was the case for Moses and King Solomon. However, Leviticus 24:10 speaks of the son of an Israelite woman and an Egyptian man as being “among the community of Israel” (i.e., a Jew).
The “official” change to a policy of matrilineal descent appears to have come in late antiquity. Cohen speculates that the Tannaim, the rabbis who codified the concept of matrilineal descent, were influenced by the Roman legal system of the time. According to two sources from the end of the second century Common Era (CE) and the beginning of the third century CE, in a marriage between two Romans, a child would receive the status of his father. In an intermarriage between a Roman and a non-Roman, a child received the citizenship status of its mother.
Reform Judaism tells us that a child born from a Jewish father and raised Jewish is Jewish. Most Conservative rabbis and all Orthodox rabbis subscribe to the practice that matrilineal descent — regardless of what religion the child is raised in — means the child is Jewish. But what if my genetic makeup says I am Jewish?
I am a student of psychology, not genetics, so I looked to genetic genealogy to gain some insight into the question surrounding “Jewish genetics.” In my research and asking about information on professionals who dealt with genetics and genealogy, I discovered 23andMe. Founded in 2006, the company created a program to create a visual map of one’s ancestor composition. And, as a lot of people with Jewish roots have sought information on their backgrounds, and many genetic studies are done with Ashkenazi Jews (the group eliminates variables and provides a homogenous population to study), 23andMe has a sizeable database of Jewish DNA to compare from.
Founded by Linda Avey, Paul Cusenza and Anne Wojcicki, 23andMe did not initially set out to solely help Jews (or anyone else for that matter) find out their ancestral makeup. 23andMe was originally founded to provide information on healthcare factors and map genetic genealogy. Managed by Medical Doctors, PhDs, and various scientists, the company’s Leadership Team is a who’s who of the best universities on the North American Continent, and the Research Team would put the Manhattan Project to shame. But success has not come without roadblocks; in November 2013, 23andMe put a hold on offering health-related genetic reports to new customers to comply with the U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s directive to discontinue new consumer access during a regulatory review process (the FDA saw 23andMe as a medical device and asked the company to cease providing medical reports). While anticipating FDA approval for healthcare factors, the company is now compelled to focus on helping individuals get genetic information for nonmedical purposes at an affordable cost.
According to 23andMe spokesperson From cancer research to genetics to biotechnology, Israeli researchers are making meaningful, actionable discoveries. Catherine Afarian, 23andMe provides “a fixed circle that tells what [DNA] comes from each parent.” The procedure allows people to find relatives around the world or right next door. It helps if parents have contributed DNA and thus are in the database, but it is not completely necessary — as most of us know a little about each parent’s origins. Less technically speaking, you are also able to expand your family tree (which is what this author was interested in as I was unable to glean clear-cut answers before losing my grandparents and parents). Scientists can “read” DNA back so far that one may even find out just how much of one’s DNA comes from the high-browed “Modern Human” or the knuckle-dragging “Neanderthals.”
The system works by cross-referencing DNA, comparing your DNA to others’ DNA in the database. And, according to Afarian, “It is very specific to parents, cousins, aunts, and uncles… It makes accurate predictions up to second and third cousins… Even if your parents or extended relatives have not contributed DNA for comparison, you will at least know from where you have come.”
23andMe has proven to be a teaching tool as well. It has allowed people to reconnect with ancestral roots, for instance bringing to light the “hidden Jews,” people who, two or three generations removed from Judaism, are pulling together the family secrets and strange rituals passed down from their Jewish origin. “People are curious about where they come from,” said Afarian. “Those ‘mystery’ diagnoses of Crohn’s Disease and breast cancer due to the BRCA Gene suddenly make sense…”
In addition, the ability to read DNA has provided adoptees, who may have no knowledge of their background or ancestry, the opportunity to find out incredibly valuable information on who they are. “This changes the way we expose our children — it opens up options to how we educate our children and live our own lives,” said Afarian. At the 124th Annual Conference of American Rabbis in March 2013, Wojcicki, co-founder and CEO of 23 and Me, delivered a presentation on understanding and accessing one’s own genetic information, raising the interesting question of what it means to be “genetically Jewish.” In addition to the Jewish Diaspora, it has also helped others from diasporic communities, such as the Armenians, French Canadians and people with African origins piece together where they have come from.
Even celebrities are interested in finding out who they “really” are. Programs like “Who Do You Think You Are” have helped celebrities explore their roots going back generations — sometimes making discoveries that were noticeably shocking, such as comedienne Chelsea Handler who, while raised Jewish, found out her grandfather served in the German Army under Hitler during World War II. A.J. Jacobs, editor of Esquire Magazine and author of several books, has also jumped on the genetic bandwagon. He ordered his DNA chart from 23andMe and has scheduled “The Mother of All Reunions” in June 2015 upon completion of his book about “DNA and this history of the human race.” It seems we all want to know where we come from.
Or do we? The question remains: do we really want to know? What will knowing our origins prove to us, and will it make a difference in how we live our lives and practice Judaism in Orange County?
Share your experience with JLife! If you have participated in 23andMe or another program that tests genetic genealogy and would like to share your story, please contact: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Did you know?
23andMe’s lab partner adheres to strict quality standards that are part of the Clinical Laboratory Improvement Amendments of 1988 — known as CLIA. These are the same standards used in the majority of other health and disease-related tests.
23andMe traces everyone’s maternal ancestry by using a small piece of DNA passed down from mother to child. While males can also uncover their direct paternal ancestry through the Y chromosome that is passed down from father to son, both men and women receive information about both sides of their family from the 22 other chromosomes.