My father’s family were Ashkenazi Jews who traveled from Russia to the Land of Opportunity. They were among the 2 million Jewish immigrants who escaped persecution in Russia between 1901 and 1910. The PBS site for “Destination America” explains:
“The anti-Semitic violence of the Russian pogroms drove millions of Jews out of the Russian Empire. In the Austro-Hungarian Empire, people emigrated to escape army conscription and ethnic tensions, such as the forced assimilation of Hungary’s minority groups.
“The word pogrom literally means ‘riot’ in Russian. Commonly, the term describes the semi-official persecution of Jews in the Russian Empire that began in the early 1880s. With their situation in Russia basically hopeless, many Jewish families left, the vast majority intent on reaching America. Ultimately nearly two million people emigrated.”
How does this tie into my story?
My grandmother’s house burnt down, presumably in a pogrom. Though my grandfather was born in America, his older siblings arrived from Russia with his parents, during the same time period as my grandmother’s family. We don’t know why but can only assume, based on what was going on at that time.
This is a history shared by so many Jews in New York and Philadelphia in the early 1900’s. Many of the subsequent generations then scattered across the country, assimilating like most of the other immigrants of that time, keeping the old traditions alive at home but blending into the American fabric in the greater scheme of things.
So why am I telling this story?
Because I always felt a strong bond to my Jewish side, and now I’m finding out how interconnected the Jewish community really is. In addition to the religion and history we share, the trials of the past and present, the persecution, anti-Semitism, both political and personal slander and attacks of the current day (think Israel), etc., our bond goes even deeper.
After getting my DNA results from ancestry.com (see that blog post here), I went back to the site for more information. As it turns out, I have 320+ possible fourth cousin matches (or closer). These are people who have also taken the DNA test through the same company, and as more people take the test, the number of matches grows. Who knows how many there really are, how many have not and never will take the test?
So what is a fourth cousin anyway?
What I always knew was that after first cousins, each subsequent generation adds a number. In other words, the children of first cousins are second cousins to one another. Then their children are third cousins to one another, and the next generation becomes fourth cousins.
According to ancestry.com, fourth cousins may share the same great-great-great grandparent. Just think about that. On my father’s side of the family, my great grandparents were born in the late 1800’s. I’ve not been able to go back further than that, but let’s assume, if my great grandparents were born in the 1880’s, their parents were probably born in the 1850’s or ’60’s, and my great-great-great grandparents were probably born in the first half of the 1800’s. And this is the link to these fourth cousins?
The site also explains that the link may not be as direct as I thought. Yes, we might share the same great-great-great grandparent, but our relationship could be in any number of ways from second cousin twice removed to first cousin three times removed or third cousin once removed. We merely have to be separated by 10 degrees, or 10 people. This could also mean that we share the same 4X great grandparent or possibly even the same great grandparent if the relative is my second cousin 4X removed! There are 10 people separating us, one way or another.
In addition to those 320+ fourth cousins or closer, there are many more fifth-eighth cousin matches. Imagine! And as I click through some of them, most are “European Jewish,” a.k.a., Ashkenazi.
It all leads me back to the idea that we’re all related in one degree or another if we go back far enough. Naturally, I will be more closely related to other Ashkenazi Jews than I would be to the Japanese, for example, while they will be more closely related to one another. It partially explains the bond we feel to our own people. The ethnic bond goes beyond a shared country, culture or religion. The camaraderie between paisanos or brethren courses through our veins.
Still, while we may feel closer to our own people, on some level, we are all connected.
UPDATE: I now have well over 1000 DNA matches on ancestry.com!
D.M. Miller is the author of the interfaith “Heart” series as well as the romantic suspense, Mexican Summer, the poetry collection, Dandelion Fuzz and the memoir, Half-Jew: Searching for Identity. The product of an interfaith marriage herself, Miller’s work explores the difficult themes of religion, politics, ethnicity, culture, family, ancestry and love. See her books on Amazon.