Ashkenazi and Me – Discovering Unknown Jewish Ancestry with 23andMe

Jennie Cole, c.1895

As the series Finding Your Roots with Henry Louis Gates, Jr. begins its 10-week run on PBS, The Spittoon will feature posts from 23andMe’s Ancestry Ambassadors featuring their own stories about using DNA to dig into ancestry.

By CeCe Moore

I have always felt a special affinity for Jewish people and their heritage. Throughout my life I have had many Jewish friends.

I have even been mistaken for a Jewish person despite having no known Jewish ancestors.

As a result, I was especially intrigued when, after 23andMe’s Ancestry Finder launched in 2010, I found that a number of people with segments of DNA that matched mine were self-identified as Ashkenazi Jews. The Ancestry Finder lab seeks to graphically illustrate the country of origin for certain segments of your DNA by locating stretches that match those of people from specific geographic regions. Ancestry Finder also identifies matching segments for Ashkenazi Jewish ancestry.

My Ancestry Finder chart showing matches with people who have three Ashkenazi grandparents

In particular, in my Ancestry Finder results I noticed a cluster on my seventh chromosome that appeared to contain a significant number of matches with self-declared Ashkenazi ancestry. When I examined the downloaded spreadsheet of Ancestry Finder matches, I discovered that on Chromosome 7 between the positions 51,500,000 and 146,700,000, I had no less than 47 matches with people who self-identify as, at least, partially Jewish. These matches all appeared to be rather small and concentrated on that one spot, but it did cause me to ponder the possibility that I could have distant Jewish ancestors.

Investigating further, I found that my mother had no matches associated with Ashkenazi Jewish ancestry on her Ancestry Finder lab. Since my father is deceased, I asked my paternal uncle to test in his place. When I received his results, there it was clear as day, that same Ashkenazi cluster on his seventh chromosome!

In fact, his Jewish connection appeared to be even more substantial than mine, with 69 self-described “Ashkenazi” matches on Chromosome 7 between positions 39,400,000 and 103,400,000 found in the Ancestry Finder match download.

Paternal Uncle’s matches with people who have three Ashkenazi grandparents.

Notably, my paternal uncle’s results also included a number of Public Matches in 23andMe’s Relative Finder who list their ancestry as Jewish. Most of these are predicted as “Distant Cousins”, which probably explains why they don’t show up in my Relative Finder. In this case, testing just one generation further back in time revealed very useful information.

While this Ashkenazi ancestry is fairly distant, it certainly appears to be authentic. With approximately 70% of my uncle’s chromosomes covered in Ancestry Finder, 3.6% – 7.8% is declared Ashkenazi. With this in mind, I would guess that he and my father have a 2nd great-grandparent of primarily Jewish descent or several ancestors with lesser amounts of Jewish ancestry.

Paternal Uncle’s matches with people who have one Ashkenazi grandparent.

Since the majority of the matches cluster in the same area, the most likely conclusion is that this DNA is inherited from a single ancestor. My paternal family tree is fairly complete and so far without an obvious suspect, but since my father’s great-grandmother Jennie Cole’s father is unknown, this scenario is certainly a viable possibility. In order to focus in on this prospect, I would need to test more of Jennie’s descendants to isolate her DNA and determine if there is evidence of Jewish ancestry in the portions of the DNA that each of them inherited from Jennie. Since the paternity of Jennie has long been an enigma to me, this is a very intriguing new avenue of exploration for my genealogy research.

Before testing at 23andMe, I never would have imagined that I had Jewish ancestry. Now that I have discovered this tantalizing fact, I am on the hunt to learn more about this elusive ancestor!

23andMe provides genetic testing services for informational purposes; your results may or may not help you to search for or identify relatives or family members.

 

CeCe Moore is a genetic genealogist specializing in the use of autosomal DNA for genealogy. She writes the popular blog Your Genetic Genealogist and works as a television producer with StudioINTV.  CeCe is the Southern California Regional Coordinator of the International Society of Genetic Genealogy (ISOGG), serves on the Advisory Board of the Mixed Roots Foundation and is a member of Mensa.  Her favorite genetic experiment is her seven-year old son, Nicolas.

 

 

 






  • Harley Koepf

    Nice blog

    • AlexUhthoff999

      Hello

      I have a VERY strong interest in Jewish Haplogroups. I am part of Geographic and Family Tree DNA groups. I just joined 23andme. I am awaiting my kit to do a full run on my genetic traits and family.

      On my Ydna I was found to be E1b1b1c M123 and on my Mtdna was found haplogroup K. I wish to ask if you seen this combination and is it strong in Jewish/Hebrew linage’s?

      I know of my family history and found to be Jewish as far back as 8th century. But there is a mystery I wish to unveil which I will not state here I want it to pop out though others studies. With 23andME I see that there is a percentage you can find out how much of this or that you have in you, So I am more interested in phenotypes which is down my line of my questions I need to adress.

      Thank you for your time if you can help me with the question I asked you.

      Alexander Uhthoff

      • Derek Halpern

        I am ashkenazi jewISH m123…e1b1b1c1a…E1b1b1c1a is most likely not Semitic,,,we were an ancient cannanite tribe that was conquered during the judean/hebrew conquests..

  • Andrea Kraay

    Dear CeCe -

    Thank you for sharing your story. I found it particularly interesting because I had a very similar experience after testing with 23andMe. Coincidentally most of my self-described “Ashkenazi” matches are on Chromosome 7, too. I’m still gathering information about the Eastern European branches of my paternal grandmother’s family tree and, while I haven’t clearly identified a Jewish ancestor, I’ve narrowed it to a select few 2nd or 3rd great grandparents.

    Unfortunately many records relating to Eastern European Jewish families have been destroyed or lost and none of my genetic cousins and I can’t trace our families back far enough to connect our trees. Do you have any tips for researching these illusive mid-19th century ancestors?

    And, maybe it’s in my genes…I married a Jewish person!

    Andrea Kraay-Goldsztein
    Mountain View, CA

  • Kevin Carter

    Hello CeCe.

    Thank you for writing this blog and this post. Like Andrea and yourself, I tested on 23andme and found that I had definite Ashkenazic Jewish ancestry. I have 670 Relative Finder cousins, and at least 1/3 of them have Ashkenazic Eastern European roots. Most of them are among the more distant cousins in RF.

    The twist is that I am of very substantial African ancestry and had no clue of exactly where any European or, for that matter, non-African ancestors may have came from. So while it is surprising to me that there are definite Ashkenazic origins, it is also disturbing that I have no way of figuring out where in my family tree these ancestors may reside. I don’t know if the Jewish ancestor(s) are on my mother’s or father’s side (though my mom’s side is more mixed, so it seems it might be her side). My self-described Ashkenazic matches are on Chromosomes 6, 12 and 13. Another poster on RF Community said that I look like 1/16th AJ (one great-great grandparent).

    People often talk about roadblocks and brick walls. I’ve got a bunker here.

  • Barbara Ellison

    I also have felt a connection to Jewish people since I was a very young child, and found myself drawn to people I didn’t even know were Jewish til later in the friendships.. I always wondered why I was so intensely interested in Jewish history..Never had a clue that I had Jewish ancestry until the DNA test..I am fortunate in that it is my maternal line that shows it because I can track my maternal line back several generations..and it all makes sense..Including the fact that the Jewishness was hidden on purpose..Yet at least a couple of Jewish traditions did pass down the generations to me, though we never knew it was Jewish..til I researched it.. Sure makes the world seem more coherent..And speaks volumes on the notion of genetic and/or “soul” memory…

  • http://goldfoot_genealogy.blogspot.com Nadene Goldfoot

    This article was very interesting. I also have found many people questioning me when their dna shows up with Ashkenazi written by their results, and they had not known of any Jewish roots. I have 1020 matches, , but only my father’s side of the family were Jewish. My mother had converted when she married my father. I believe all of these matches are on my paternal side. I haven’t been able to put them on the tree as they go back too far for me and my tree hasn’t been able to go back that far. My father’s family came from Lithuanian and Polish Jewish families. # 7 chromosome has been pretty sparse, but #1, 2, 3, 8, and 10 have been very popular.

  • Leila Paul

    Judaism is an appealing religion because it claims that those who adopt the Jewish faith become unique among a solitary God. Reports of mass conversion to Judaism are plentiful. Before it became unpopular, many would have converted to Judaism and usually when one finds a religion appealing, their relatives and/or friends will be persuaded by the same ideas.

    We also know that if the “out of Africa” theory is correct, then most of the peoples of the world passed through the Near East at some time or other. That they would have adopted Judaism is not surprising. But to suggest that Jewishness is found in genes is so irrational that it’s self-defeating. The whole purpose of finding one’s roots is already negated if one is going to use religious ideology as the basis for feeling contented with one’s chosen-ness.

    The fact that we’re all related to some degree is affirmed by 23andMe. Yet, here we have an identity of people who revel in being able to claim some connection to Ashkenazi Jews. Repeat the word Ashkenazi. it is European groups who were Jewish either through migration or conversion. That there is some degree of connection to someone who was Jewish by faith at some point is not surprising.

    What this also confirms is that there is only a tenuous connection with the place of origin of the ideas that gave rise to the Jewish ideology. It arose from the cultures of ancient Mesopotamia from the time of the Sumerians and later Judaism’s ideology was borrowed from Ugarit – both these civilizations left behind tablets in cuneiform and alphabet cuneiform that reveal the myths of Sumer and Ugarit were borrowed.

    Further, rabbinic literature contends that Jebusites and the Anatolian Hittites were the same people. Jerusalem was the stronghold of the Jebusites who named Jerusalem Jebus. Assyrians, who were transferred into that land under the Assyrian empire to displace the expelled inhabitants, likely renamed it Ur Shalem, the city of peace. Samaritans were the descendants of the Sumerians transferred to the region which explains the animosity of Judeans and Samaritans.

    Mount Zion was the Jebusite fortress near Jerusalem that could not be defeated until the man known as David was able to finally seize Mount Zion – and thus even the name of the modern Zionist movement was founded on a Jebusite name – Mount Zion. If David ancestor was a Moabite and his son Solomon’s mother was Bathsheba, the widow of Uria the Hittite, then Solomon was descended of both Hittites and a Moabite. How “Jewish” is that?

    So let’s dispense with what appears to be equating an ideology – Judaism – that was synthesized (if not plagiarized) from ancient non-Jewish cultures and trying to make that ethnic roots or genetic identities.

    Europeans who identified as Ashkenazim may have had much genetic origin from the Near or Middle East. But that only proves that the region was the source of a few religious ideologies. Their ethnicities remain highly heterogeneous except for the small pockets of groups who practiced endogamy into recent times.

  • Jerry Sexton

    I’ve always suspected that I had to have some Jewish bloodlines .. then 23andMe found them for me. I found plenty of matches with declared Ashkenazi Jews.

    There is, however, one seriously big problem associated with this …. my sisters are already difficult enough to deal with without adding ‘Jewish Princess’ to their resumes.

  • http://www.yourgeneticgenealogist.com CeCe Moore

    Wow, I am pleased to see so many great comments! I’m sorry that I didn’t check in before. I will try to address them now.

    @Harley – Thanks Cousin! (Harley and I just discovered that we are 3rd cousins through a match at 23andMe. We share an ancestral line that would be the alternate possibility for the origin of the AJ ancestry described above.)

    @Andrea – I am certainly no expert on Eastern European genealogy, but I can provide a few good links to point you in the right direction:
    http://www.jewishgen.org/infofiles/eefaq.html (JewishGen’s Eastern European FAQs)
    http://stephendanko.com/blog/7857 (Series on Eastern European research by Stephen Danko)
    http://www.archives.com/experts/alzo-lisa/eastern-european-genealogy-resources.html (Archives.com’s list of Eastern European resources by Lisa Alzo – many favorites here)

    @Kevin – You didn’t say if you have any older relatives to test. Can you test your parents or aunts/uncles? If not, how about cousins? If you were able to systematically test your known relatives, you could identify which branch the AJ ancestry is on. I’m working on that now for myself. Eventually, I am confident that we will be able to solve puzzles like this one.

    @Barbara – That is fascinating! In my research, I have come across many instances that seem to support the idea of genetic memory.

    @Nadene – It seems that many of us are discovering unknown ancestry! Thanks for helping. You most likely have more matches than 1020 and have hit the “cap”. I don’t know if you are aware that 23andMe currently limits the number of matches for each person to around 1000. As a person with half AJ ancestry, you likely have thousands of matches in the system, but due to the homogenous nature of the Ashkenazi gene pool, most would be too far back to be able to trace anyway.

    Thank you all for the wonderful comments! I’m so glad that you enjoyed my post.

  • Leila Paul

    So are most Askenazi Jews the Khazars who converted to Judaism as identified in this research?

    http://goldfoot_genealogy.blogspot.ca/2012/05/new-test-for-khazaria-royalty.html

    If so, then is Khazari an ethnicity or is Jewishness an ethnicity and are today’s Askenazi Jews mostly Khazars and/or other Europeans?

    If so, does that make Israel the new Khazaria? This is becoming confusing.

    Is being Jewish two ethnicities as is indicated in the discussion of Sephardi and Ashkenazi Jews? Or is Jewishness a religion to which east Europeans converted?

    One has to assume that since there are some middle east genetic links among European Jews would these be from some migrants whom came from the middle east who were already of the Jewish faith?

    Would someone at 23andMe and please clarify what is religion and what is ethnicity?

  • Leila Paul

    http://www.jewishtimes.com/index.php/jewishtimes/news/jt/local_news/jhu_geneticist_finds_linkage/31538

    So, if I’m descended of many generations of Christian Palestinians on both sides of my family, and I was born in Bethlehem Palestine and we left because of the invasion by Zionist Ashkenazi Jews – here are some of the ironies.

    We likely converted WILLINGLY to Christianity and were NOT forced to convert to Islam.

    But we were forced out by Jewish Ashkenazim in 1947, descended of Khazari converts, who caused us to leave – we who are likely the original Judeans. And the Judeans were a collection of many tribes – not just the self-appointed chosen people.

    And yes my genetic similarity is close to Jews and also to Turks.

    So where’s the moral justification for pushing out, or encouraging to leave, the original residents of Palestine in order to rename it Judea and make it a European state in the middle of an Arab region?

    I must also add I find it most un-attractive that people are so eager – gloating, in fact – to find some link to what they call Khazari “royalty”. What – is their DNA proven to be superior? Is there blue DNA like blue blood?

    So who are the racial supremacists now? And all this occurs amid efforts to belittle or dehumanize Palestinians. Any proof yet that Jewish Khazari DNA is superior to Palestinian DNA that might have been the original Jews?

    Even those 12 tribes of ancient biblical times who claimed to be superior were plagiarizing the ideologies of all the other cultures in the region including, as I noted above, the Ugarit, Sumerian, Jebusite and other cultural legends and myths.

    • gary

      Leila – the Khazar connection has already been dismissed by process of elimination by DNA testing. The latest DNA results show that the closest relatives to Palestinians are……………Ashkenazi Jews. Go figure, a family affair :)

  • Mike

    I have searched this website for the keywords Palestine and Palestinian but came short on any useful genetic information. A paper published in 2000 by geneticists Harry Ostrer, a professor of genetics at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine, and University of Arizona geneticist Michael Hammer showed Jews share common Y-DNA haplotypes that are also found among many Arabs from Palestine, Lebanon and Syria. So when my Palestinian friend submitted her sample for testing, when the results came back there was no mention of any possible Palestinian, Lebanese, or Syrian roots but somehow she had an Ashkanazi link. This is science in the service of ideology.

  • samadamsthedog

    Hey, CeCe,

    I’m only a dog, but I think your Ashkenazic ancestor might be elusive, but is unlikely to be “illusive”.

    • ScottH

      Thanks for sniffing that out.

  • folsom1

    The closest cousins of Jews are Kurds and Armenians, DNA doesn’t lie!

  • Jeffrey Hall

    I just received my 23andme results back this weekend and found out that I am 45% Ashkenazi. I was floored. I was adopted at birth and I never knew this fact until now. I am now learning to understand this new aspect about my life.

    • Christian Lepley

      Hi Jeffrey. The same thing just happened to me. How certain can we be of this information in terms of describing our ancestry to others going forward?

  • Tolga Yetis

    Hi Cece, I’ve no known Jewish ancestry but my grandparents are from places which have strong ties with Jewish populations (like Salonika, Antioch, Jerusalem, Cairo etc.). Different calculators and McDonald’s analysis(shows 89-90% all Jewish) point out that my autosomal DNA is most similar to that of Sephardic Jews. I have recently sent my 23andme kit back for the testing. I’m very curious whether 23andme will be able to detect any jewish ancestry. Is 23andme planning to add Sephardic Jews as reference population?

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