DNA testing is part of exploring your Jewish family history. In celebration of Chanukah, here’s an 8-step guide to DNA testing for Jewish ancestry—and beginning Jewish genealogy—by expert Ellen Kowitt.
Thanks to Jewish genealogy expert and guest author Ellen Kowitt for writing this article.
So you’ve received DNA results indicating previously unknown Jewish origins, or you’re thinking about testing to find mishpucha (Yiddish for Jewish family). Now what?
DNA results can help! This is especially true when you have little experience with genealogy research and know little about the process, tools, and resources. In honor of Chanukah, here are 8 strategies to get you started exploring your Jewish roots using both DNA testing and genealogy research.
1. Get a basic family tree.
DNA matches may connect you to relatives, but you’ll need a basic family tree to compare your ancestry to theirs. Regardless of faith or origin, genealogy research begins with you and works backwards. Build a basic tree that is also a DNA-friendly family tree. Include information about direct ancestors and extended family such as siblings, aunts, uncles, and cousins. Interview relatives and assemble photos, documents, and prior genealogies compiled by your family.
2. Search historical records
Add to your story by searching for civil records about people on your tree. There may be census records to explore; vital records including birth, marriage, and death; and more. Learn more about genealogy research in our Family Tree Basics article series.
3. Find original names and places
Because many languages are used in records about Jewish immigrants, collecting passenger manifests and naturalizations to determine original name variations and town origins are particularly necessary. (See #6 below for resources that can help you learn how to do this.)
4. Explore your Jewish DNA signature
DNA ethnic origin categories vary among the major testing companies: 23andMe, AncestryDNA, Family Tree DNA, Living DNA and MyHeritage DNA. Among these are several specific to historical Jewish communities.
These categories will likely continue to be refined as additional population samples are added. This means your Jewish results may change and you should check back occasionally. It might also be worth transferring your raw data results to a different company that offers additional categories. Here’s how to upload your raw DNA to Family Tree DNA, to Living DNA and to MyHeritage (23andMe and AncestryDNA do not allow transfers; you have to test there.)
5. Understand endogamy’s impact
As you look at your DNA match list, be aware that Jewish families are often endogamous, which is when community members marry relatives. When this occurs, it can skew DNA results making relationships appear closer than they are because someone is essentially related twice or more.
6. Explore Jewish genealogy resources
Record loss and diaspora have created additional challenges for Jewish records. Take advantage of the many online entry points to begin or continue learning about documenting Jewish family history.
- JewishGen.org has more than 30 million records, research tools, and other resources to help those with Jewish ancestry research and find family members. There is a discussion group where you can post inquiries as well as online educational courses for beginners.
- An International Conference on Jewish Genealogy is sponsored annually by the International Association of Jewish Genealogical Societies (IAJGS). Held virtually in 2020, plans are for a hybrid, in-person and virtual, August 2-5, 2021 conference in Philadelphia.
- Nearly 100 IAJGS member Jewish Genealogy Societies are located in 17 countries and each offers a variety of local and/or online programming, mentoring, and beginner workshops. Find a Jewish genealogical society.
7. Recognize Jewish clues
Learn about unique clues found within the Jewish lifecycle, as well as specific naming patterns, traditions in language, food, or religious practice, and specialized online and offline repositories housing Jewish records.
8. Crowdsource your DNA questions
On the DNA side, if you’re trying to sort out your endogamy issues, unknown parentage or other challenges, post an inquiry on the Facebook Group “Jewish DNA for Genetic Genealogy and Family Research.” Or go straight to an expert for one-on-one advice: book a DNA Coaching Session with Your DNA Guide.
Shalom (Hebrew for peace/hello/goodbye) and Happy Chanukah!
Ellen Kowitt is a veteran Jewish records researcher who provides research services for individuals seeking to learn more about their heritage. Find her at www.ellenkowitt.com.
You can DIY DNA!
Your DNA can give you insight to the background of your family tree. Learn what your ethncity results can teach you about your ancestral roots with our free ethnicity downloadable guide.