Why should you care about my ancestry? You might have a similar story…
By: D.M. Miller
Many people in the United States have a hodgepodge of ethnicities in their heritage. As a nation of immigrants who intermarry, it’s only natural. In my case, however, I prided myself on being far less mixed up than most. Just half and half, with three out of my four grandparents being immigrants, and the fourth being the son of immigrants. All my life I was told I was half Russian-Jewish and half German. This is what I thought I knew…
My father’s parents spoke Yiddish, Jewish all the way, and were stung by anti-Semitism here and there but never so much as in the Russian Federation. That is where my grandmother’s house was burnt down, presumably in a pogrom, which is why her family left for America.
The other side of my family came from Germany, and my mother has always been proud of her German heritage (though ashamed of the Holocaust of course). Luckily my grandparents were already in America before World War II, but the thought that I could have more distant relatives who were Nazis is haunting. It has always given me an uneasy feeling about my very oddly mixed heritage.
Discrimination can work both ways however, and my mother, who didn’t learn to speak English until kindergarten, was harassed. The children at school would spit on her and call her a dirty German, as it wasn’t long after the war.
So that was my story, half Jewish (the technical ethnicity for a European Jew is “Ashkenazi”), and half German. Period… until I got my DNA test results from ancestry.com…
Who Am I Anyway?
I’ve always held a deep connection to my Jewish roots. It’s been such a part of me ethnically, and though I’ve done a lot of soul-searching through the years and wavered on religion, going back and forth (as a result of such a confusing upbringing), I do feel connected religiously as well. Yet when I submitted the DNA test, I had no idea how the Jewish side would come out, based on the different ideas I’ve read on the topic.
Well, as it turns out, I am approximately 49% European Jewish! No ifs, ands or buts about it! And all those who spit out the rule that, “Oh, you’re only Jewish if your mother is Jewish,” can be sure that I am absolutely Jewish. Call me Ashkenazi if you want to, but yes, I am Jewish. Some say the rule is due to the question of who one’s father is, while there is never any doubt as to the mother. That was before DNA!
Another 2% of me is Middle Eastern, which includes Israel, and of course the European Jews originated from the Middle East before the Diaspora. Since the website states that these are approximations, it is likely that these are both from my father’s side, and it should really add up to 50%, rather than 51. Going back far enough in history, before the Diaspora, you could say that I am 50% Middle Eastern.
Now here is the biggest surprise: my mother. Yes, my mother who has always been a proud German, was expecting the result to come back as either 50% German for me, or possibly with a little bit of Austrian or Czech mixed in (since my grandmother lived on the border and had a grandparent from Austria, where many Czechs also lived). Wrong.
I am only 19% German! That’s it! They’re calling it “Europe West,” but keeping in mind what I know about my family, it would have to be German.
This makes my mother, the proud 100% German, only around 38% German after all. What a surprise!
And the rest?
- 10% Scandinavia (This was the biggest shock to me! Scandinavian?? What?? My guess is the Vikings, who were everywhere.)
- 9% Italy/Greece (Maybe this explains my mother’s dark hair? It doesn’t actually surprise me that I’m part Italian [or Greek.] I’ve always felt a pull toward Italians for some reason. However, if my mother is around 18% Italian or Greek, that is quite a large percentage for someone who’s supposedly 100% German!)
- 5% Europe East (This is where the Austrian and/or Czech would be.)
- 4% Great Britain (Another surprise! Where did that come from?)
- <1% Iberian Peninsula (That’s Spain or Portugal. How in the world did that get in there? It must go back many generations.)
- <1% Central Asia (Um… on my mother’s side? Ok!)
Now if my family had been in America for several generations, these mixed ethnicities would be expected. However, both of my mother’s parents came directly from Germany and were proud Germans through and through.
What is the moral of the story? I don’t know. Perhaps that Europeans are all mixed up, and perhaps we all are. Maybe we shouldn’t be so quick to judge others based on empty assumptions, and the hatred from one group to the next might dissipate if people realized their own heritage, (like this Hungarian anti-Semite who discovered he was Jewish, and his family was annihilated in Auschwitz.) You may not be who you think you are.
As for my father’s side, all of those anti-Semites who like to claim that Jews are all mixed up ethnically, are disproven by DNA. Since Jews have been persecuted throughout history, there was little intermixing with other groups up until recent times. Therefore, while my supposedly purebred German mother is not even 40% German, my father was 100% Jewish.
The Ancestry website provides a brief summary to explain:
The European Jewish region is not geographically defined in the same way as most other ethnic regions. The historic dispersal of the Jewish population from its origin in the Levant on the east coast of the Mediterranean resulted in insular communities scattered throughout Europe, North Africa, Central Asia and the Middle East. Although some Jewish communities enjoyed positions of relative peace and prosperity, many more were segregated from mainstream society by law, custom and prejudice, experiencing sustained persecution and discrimination. Jewish populations from northern and eastern Europe are often known as “Ashkenazi.” “Sephardic” refers to Jews who were expelled from Spain during the Inquisition and mostly settled in North Africa and southeastern Europe.
The people living in the European Jewish region are much less admixed than most other regions, which means that when creating ethnicity estimates for people native to this area, we rarely see similarities to DNA profiles from other nearby regions. We’ve found that approximately 96% of the typical native’s DNA comes from this region.
… During the late 19th century, government-condoned persecution of the Jews in Russia, called pogroms, forced many to move to the United States and to Palestine.
(That is my family’s history!)
I have absolutely no special affiliation with ancestry.com, however I would encourage getting the DNA test done. If I, little Miss 50/50, have found shocking results, who knows what others might find in their own heritage? Go for it! See if what you know about your family line matches up to reality.
UPDATE: My predictions were wrong about my mother’s DNA results. You cannot simply double your own percentages to figure out your parents’ figures. However, as it turns out, my mother is far from being 100% German! That point still holds true.
New Video with more explanation: Ancestry DNA for Half-Jews
The first part of this story: #Interfaith: Ancestry DNA Test for a Half-Jew
Read more in my book, Half-Jew: Searching for Identity.
My own interfaith history influenced my first novel: The Religion of the Heart