When West Seattle resident Beth Boomgard received a 23andMe DNA kit for Christmas in 2017, she got a surprise: She discovered that she is 1.8 percent Ashkenazi Jewish. // “It was a powerful thing to me,” she says. “Even though it’s a small percentage, it feels significant.” While she had much higher percentages in other categories — such as French, German, and Eastern European — she felt most drawn to learn more about her Jewish heritage. That started a conversation within her family, and she was able to pinpoint the ancestry to her great-grandmother on her mother’s side, who had died when her grandfather was very young.
For centuries, genealogy has been a passion for people around the world — consider royal families who meticulously document their lineage in order to claim their right to rule. But it isn’t just those born with silver spoons in their mouths who are interested in their family histories. Stories passed down through generations, photographs, and vital records have long been used to research familial roots, but it wasn’t until this century that direct-to-consumer DNA kits became available. Over the past few years, the trend truly took off. “Especially in the United States, there’s a natural curiosity about genealogy, because there are so many blended families and people trying to trace where their ancestors were from when they immigrated,” says Robin Bennett, a licensed genetic counselor and co-director of the Genetic Medicine Clinic at UW Medical Center.
Now, just a swab of the cheek or a little spit in a vial can tell you about all the people whose DNA coalesced over thousands of years to create your unique self.
Uncovering Jewish ancestry can be the beginning of a tangled mystery to solve. “Jewish research is amazingly complex, and it has twists and turns, depending on how far back you’re going, that other research very frequently doesn’t have,” says Janette Silverman, a research team manager for AncestryProGenealogists, the division of ancestry.com that does private client research. “Eastern European Jews intermarried with first and second cousins, so you wind up related to everyone under the sun. You might have thousands of potential third and fourth cousin matches.”
Silverman says it’s not uncommon for someone to be a quarter or even half Jewish without realizing it. Learning about heretofore unknown ancestry can be disorienting for some — particularly those with higher unexpected percentages — while others find it exciting.
Shortly after Boomgard received her DNA results, she co-hosted a Passover seder with a friend who was happy to walk her through it. “My friend talked to me about the traditions that her family had used, and we called it a ‘seder of many colors,’” Boomgard says. “We made dishes inspired by the seder plates, and everyone attending — this was the first seder for most — learned something. I found it cool that it was well timed with my DNA discovery, but it was also just an interesting opportunity to share culture.”
That attitude of open-minded exploration worked well for Boomgard, who plans to continue the tradition. Taking a heritage trip, reaching out to possible relatives, and researching a region’s customs are other ways people might expand their ancestral knowledge in the wake of DNA results.
“There’s a mystique to being part of a group of people about whom you know very little,” Silverman says. “As a Jewish educator, it’s always wonderful when somebody comes to us and wants to understand more.”
You could send your DNA to different companies and get back different results. Why? “They all use different technologies and different databases,” says Robin Bennett of UW’s Genetic Medicine Clinic. “This is recreational genetics.”
Companies don’t look at your entire genome, but at the segments that are most likely to be of significance. They could be looking at different regions.
- Since testing technology does not cover all the segments in a genome, parts can be missed in the interpretation.
- An individual’s results are compared to a database of previous tests to provide an ethnicity estimate based on statistical probability. Results can change over time as more data points are collected.
- Assigning people into categories (like Eastern European) can be an arbitrary thing, and companies may draw those lines in different places.
And, of course, DNA is only one piece of the puzzle. Let’s say you’re 20 percent Ashkenazi, while your sister is 30 percent. That just means she inherited a different set of genetic markers.