16 August 2009

DNA: Zayde wasn't crazy!

"That was our name when we left Spain" was a Talalay family refrain. No one believed it, as I've often written. We were Yiddish-speaking Ashkenazim from Mogilev, Belarus - how could we be Sephardim?

When I began researching Mogilev, I found quite a few families with Sephardic surnames and heard from others who had a Sephardic oral history, after writing about it on the JewishGen discussion groups years ago. Eventually, documents and index mentions for our Talalay (spelled Talalaya in documents) were discovered in archives in Spain, most in Catalunya. And I continued to write about the discoveries, possibilities and related issues in articles for the Jerusalem Post, The Forward and, of course, here at Tracing the Tribe.

My good friend Judy Simon, who has a similar story in her Lithuanian family, and I joined forces in 2007 to find others and this year we co-presented a program at the Philadelphia conference on our IberianAshkenazi project at FamilyTreeDNA.com.

Suzanne Kurtz, a freelance writer, attended the session at the Philly 2009 conference, interviewed me, Judy, Harold Rhode and Bennett Greenspan. Read her JTA story here.
Despite leaving behind a Yiddish-speaking home in Latvia when he came to America in 1909, Sam Gold always told his children and grandchildren that they were Sephardic Jews.

Many decades later his granddaughter Judy Simon, 60, would finally confirm her grandfather was not meshuganah.

In 2004, after genetic testing became widely available for genealogists, Simon took a cheek swab from a male cousin and had his Y chromosome DNA tested.
DNA geneticists explain that Y-DNA (male DNA) is passed on unchanged from father to son back through time. Matt Kaplan of the University of Arizona Human Origins Genotyping Laboratory can look at a Y chromosome and trace paternal lines back to Africa, some 100,000 years ago, although that isn't exactly useful for genealogy. However, Y-DNA markers can prove a common male ancestor and approximate a time frame for that ancestor.

The results for Simon’s cousin came back matching many Ashkenazi males from villages near their grandfather’s region in Rezekne, Latvia -- but also matching two males from Texas and Mexico.

With Spanish surnames and a known converso ancestry, the two men were equally surprised to find they matched with Ashkenazim. Conversos were Iberian Jews, from Spain or Portugal, forced to convert to Catholicism during the Inquisition of the 14th to 16th centuries. Many fled Iberia for the New World, eventually settling in what is now Mexico and the southwestern region of the United States.

“The DNA results confirmed what my grandfather had been saying all those years: We were Ashkenazi Jews with Sephardic roots,” says Simon, a social worker from Stony Brook, N.Y. Most likely, she says, her ancestors fled Spain in the 15th century for the Ottoman Empire before making their way to Latvia in the late 18th century.
In March 2007, Judy and I launched our project. The criteria for joining our IberianAshkenaz project are an oral Sephardic history, Iberian surname, Sephardic family traditions or carrying a Mediterranean genetic disease. The goal was to demonstrate the Y-DNA haplogroups and haplotype signatures of Ashkenazic males with Iberian surnames or an oral Sephardic history, and compare them with known Sephardic Jews and converso descendants.

Today, there are 140 members (although I've been traveling for a few days and we may have more participants now!). Judy, who is the science part of our team, reports that many have confirmed matches with Sephardim or conversos. Amazingly, some 39% have Most Recent Common Ancestor (MCRA) matches who likely lived in Iberia from the 1300s-1500s, with another 47% whose MRCA was more distant, before the 14th century.

In 1391, following massive pogroms across Spain, many Jewish communities were decimated, many were murdered, many others converted and a percentage decided it was simply time to leave Iberia. Of course, the next major incident was the Expulsion in 1492, which sent hundreds of thousands of Jews to many countries.

Judy and I knew what we were going to find, but it was exciting to see it proven and not just something we believed in our minds. It's not for nothing that our people are called the "wandering Jews" - we went everywhere in the known world and to the barely-known frontiers of the New World.

We also know that people who believe they are and have always been Yiddish-speaking Ashkenazim may be shocked to see Sephardic evidence, such as another friend, Harold Rhode of Maryland.

Harold was surprised that he was not a "pure Litvak" or from a Lithuanian shtetl.
Rhode’s DNA results indicated that he shared ancestry with Jews with a known ancestor from Sicily. Now he says, “I’m a pure Litvak of Sicilian origin.”

When and how Rhode’s ancestor migrated to Sicily or from Sicily to Lithuania is unknown, though he says it most likely sometime in the 14th or 15th century.
As far as Jewish migration goes, In 1492, many Jews left Iberia for Sicily, so many in fact that in 1493, Sicily was considered the largest Jewish community. They thought they would be safe there, but were again expelled in 1493. Many simply went across the Straits of Messina into Calabria, southern Italy, but others went farther afield. Once time travel becomes the next best tool for genealogical research, Harold (and all of us) will be able to research our Sephardic roots more thoroughly. We keep hoping!

According to Bennet Greenspan of FamilyTreeDNA.com, the results of our little project indicate, “an important discovery within a subset of the Jewish world of an extended Jewish lineage. And it happens to be a substantial Jewish lineage numerically.”

The project requires more samples and data are needed, and all of us encourage Ashkenazi males with indicators of Sephardi ancestry to have Y-DNA tests with the project to see if they match with known Sephardim or conversos.
But, Greenspan says, “even though we may label ourselves Mizrahi, Sephardi or Ashkenazi, we all come from the original gene pool that was in the Land of Israel. We came from Judea; we’re all Judeans.”
I always tell people that they have to be prepared for what they will find. Be prepared for the unusual as your ancestry may not be exactly what you think.

The results of this small project have far-ranging implications, including genetic testing. The majority of participants in US genetic studies for Jewish conditions are self-identified Ashkenazi Jews (or so they think) as Ashkenazim are the majority Jewish group and identified Sephardim are a tiny minority. If the results of this project can be demonstrated with even larger numbers, it may indicate that many Ashkenazim are really Sephardim.

Thus, studies that indicate a possible Ashkenazi gene for this or that condition are misnomers, such as the "Ashkenazi" breast cancer gene (which is also found in Hispanic communities descended from Conversos), and the "Ashkenazi" Parkinson's gene (announced in 2006 after a Yeshiva University study, and which was later discovered to be merely Jewish after Sephardic communities were tested).

To join the IberianAshkenaz project, contact Judy Simon.


  1. As Schelly said, we welcome anyone with a Sephardic oral history to join the Iberian Ashkenaz Y-DNA project. We are starting an Iberian Ashkenaz mtDNA project for Ashkenazi Jews with a Sephardic oral history on their direct maternal line. If you have an oral history, Sephardic customs or Mediterranean genetic disorders on your maternal line, you are welcome to join the new project.

    Judy Simon

  2. This is really such a great, interesting project. I just read about it in the JTA today, and was interesting in trying to join up. After submitting my information, I received the confirmation email from Family Tree DNA. Unfortunately when I clicked on the confirmation link, it went to a page with a Microsoft Run Time error, so I fear that you did not receive my form request. Is there any way for me to submit my information otherwise? Did you possibly receive my request even without the email confirmation?

    Thanks much, Adam

  3. Hi, Adam,

    Since I don't have your email, I have asked Judy to reply to your comment here. I'm sure she will help.

    The more people we get involved in the project, the better it will be for everyone in this fascinating area of genealogy.

    With best wishes