My Ancestry: 97% Boring

My husband and I are both fascinated by genealogy—he’s tracing his family history, and I use genealogical records for research—and I gave him a DNA test as a birthday present. (If you do this, wrap it really nicely. There’s nothing that says “Happy Birthday” like a tube to spit in.)

He didn’t expect to learn anything earth-shattering. And when the test results came back, they mostly confirmed what he already knew, that he’s a typical American mix of English and Scottish on one side of the family, and Swiss on the other. But there were a few surprises. He had a surprising percentage of Scandinavian DNA. Remember that Danish invasion of England, back in the Middle Ages? For several centuries, northern England was called the “Danelaw.” And that sprinkling of Italian ancestry? Switzerland has long been a melting pot in its own right, part German, part French, and part Italian.

Guess what? 2% of his DNA was of Native American origin, as family lore had it. Sometimes the family lore is true.

So I got excited to find out my own genetic makeup, and I mailed away for my own kit and sent it back to be tested. My family is East European and Jewish on both sides, but my ancestors lived in Eastern Europe for centuries, and I figured that however Jewish I am genetically, I’d have some Slavic ancestry as well. We have family lore about Mongol ancestry (another invasion, the Mongols came that far west into Russia and Poland), and I was curious about that too.

When I got the results I was much more surprised than my husband had been.

I’m 97% Ashkenazic Jewish, 2% Asiatic (aha! that’s the Mongol part), and 1% Middle Eastern in ancestry. I guess someone, way back, married a Hittite.

But the 97% stumped me. It’s hard to imagine that Jews could live in the midst of Russians and Poles for so long and have so little genetic admixture. I can believe that Jews were highly endogamous, because of intense pressures from within and without.

But the 97% isn’t about the people who stayed in, through in-marriage and anti-Semitism. It’s about the people who left.

Until recently, a Jew who married out stopped being a Jew. Religious families didn’t just pretend that the person was dead—they sat shiva in mourning as though a real death, and not a social one, had taken place. And that person very likely converted, assuming a new religious and social identity that replaced the old one. As with light-skinned black people who passed for white, Jews who stopped being Jewish added their genetic heritage to a Polish on Russian one in secret.

Thanks to the DNA test, I met a few Jews I hadn’t known I was related to. Somewhere out there are folks of Polish or Russian ancestry I might be related to. They might be uneasy to be related to me, but to my mind, that’s the interesting story.