30 March 2008

DNA: Oral history meets genetics

"When oral history meets genetics" is my latest Jerusalem Post story.

It recounts the story of New Yorker Judy Simon's family - an Eastern European Ashkenazi family with an oral history of Sephardic roots - and her geographical project (Iberia in Ashkenaz) at FamilyTreeDNA.com, as well as DNA and genetics, deep ancestry.

Judy's family and many others - including my Talalay - share a similar oral history: Our families left Spain and migrated to Eastern Europe. Since the project began, two-thirds of participants have found Sephardic and Converso genetic matches.

"My grandfather always said we were Marranos. It was a story carried through the generations for 500 years that our family left Spain during the Inquisition," New Yorker Judy Simon tells Metro, adding that this derogatory term meaning "swine" in Spanish has been replaced by "conversos," "crypto-Jews" or "anousim."

Her grandfather's family lived in Rezekne, Latvia as far back as the mid-1750s, according to records. Some cousins believed so completely in the family story that, around 1909, they moved "back" to Spain, while her grandfather went to the United States. "For years, we had contact with these Spanish cousins, but this wasn't proof of our Sephardi ancestry."

Simon's family are not the only Eastern European Jews with Sephardi roots.

"We encountered Ashkenazi families with recent ancestry in Eastern, Western and Central Europe bearing Spanish or Portuguese surnames, an oral history of Sephardi ancestors, or some other indicator of Sephardi heritage, such as a tradition of naming children after a living grandfather or being a Mediterranean genetic disorder carrier," said Simon.

These people could not verify their ancestry through archival records, and she wanted to know whether DNA could support the Sephardi ancestry of Ashkenazi Jews with certain indicators. Some Sephardi surnames date back to 13th-century or earlier in Iberia, and carried through the centuries; sometimes they changed along the way. However, evidence indicates that at least some Ashkenazi Jews with Sephardi roots retained their original surnames.

My own Talalay research - focused on Mogilev, Belarus - turned up other Sephardi surnames such as Abravanel, Aboaf and Don Yakhia.

A cousin on her grandfather's direct male line agreed to be tested. Most of his Y-DNA matches were Ashkenazi Jews originating in the area near her grandfather's shetl. However, two men with Spanish surnames in Mexico and Texas were perplexed when their DNA matched as well. They had clues they were descendants of Converso family, and expected to find Sephardi matches ... but Ashkenazim?

Their matches were Ashkenazi Jews with Sephardi roots. "My family's oral history solved [the men's] puzzle," says Simon. None of the other Ashkenazim who matched her cousin had any idea they had Sephardi paternal roots.

If your family has a similar story and you'd like more information, click here for more details and to order a test kit .

And, in an important new development, the sidebar of the story provides information on Family Tree DNA's new company, DNAtraits.com. Founder Bennett Greenspan hopes that testing within the Jewish community can lead to the near eradication of a host of Jewish genetic conditions, much as widespread community testing has almost eliminated Tay-Sachs.

Among other tests, DNAtraits offers testing for a panel of 26 Jewish genetic diseases at a fraction of what other testing companies charge for a mere handful of tests.

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