How Jewish am I?

By Editor, 6 February 2019 - 12:39pm

DNA tests are revealing surprising ethnicity results for some people, as Who Do You Think You Are? Magazine editor Sarah Williams discovered

Sarah Williams is editor at Who Do You Think You Are? MagazineWednesday 6 February 2019
Sarah Williams, Editor
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Is my family Jewish?
Sarah's ancestors had no Jewish roots as far as she was aware of

The sales of DNA testing kits last Christmas boomed, if reports are to believed. And judging by the number of people I had asking me which test was the right one to buy, I have no reason to doubt it. 

Read more about the truth behind ethnicity tests in our February issue, on sale now

Most of the people I spoke to weren’t interested in ‘cousin matching’. They had enough family members, thank you, what they really wanted to know was whether they had anything ‘interesting’ in their DNA.

And by ‘interesting’ what they tend to mean is varied and non-homogenous. I’ve yet to come across anyone who has received a DNA test result that has told them they are 100% anything, but I guess they must be out there somewhere.

So, I wanted to find out about my ethnic origins and tested with four companies: AncestryDNA, LivingDNA, MyHeritageDNA and 23andMe. Each of them analysed my results differently, offering me different perspectives on my ethnicity.

My AncestryDNA results started with little that was surprising: 87% England, Wales and Northwestern Europe, 4% Norway, 3% Ireland and Scotland, 2% Germanic Europe.

But two elements did surprise me. It suggested that I had 3% European Jewish ancestry and 1% Cameroon, Congo and Southern Bantu Peoples. I decided that definitely sounded interesting.

23andMe offered results that largely mirrored those supplied by AncestryDNA. I was slightly less Scandinavian (2.7%) but they flagged up that I was 2.5% Ashkenazi Jewish and 1.1% sub-Saharan African. Generations of my family lived in Jamaica so the African markers didn’t surprise me, but Jewish?

LivingDNA didn’t quite fit the pattern as it said that I was 98.5% European with 1.5% Near East (North Turkey), although at the regional level it flagged up my East Anglian roots nicely.

Finally I had a test done by MyHeritageDNA. This Israeli company has made great inroads into the DNA market, offering the ‘most diverse ethnicity breakdown’ of 42 regions including a number of subcategories for Jewish ethnicity. If anyone was going to get to the bottom of my Jewish ancestry, I thought it would be them.

But when my results came back, it said that I was 69.8% English, 21% North and West European, 6.8% Scandinavian and 2.4% Iberian.

What had happened to my Jewish ancestors? Where was my African blood? I got in touch to enquire (complain) and was very helpfully told that the tiny percentages being flagged up by the other companies could well be just noise.

I may never know which of my results is closest to the truth. The algorithms that these companies base their results on are becoming more and more sophisticated as the reference populations they use grow, and so my results may change or be updated at a later stage.

However, when it comes to Jewish ethnicity markers, MyHeritageDNA have strong claims to being the experts so I guess I will have to accept that the answer to 'How Jewish am I?' is probably not at all. Or at least, not enough to make my family any more ‘interesting’ than I already thought they were. And to be honest, after 15 years of paper research, I’ve already found out that they were a pretty interesting bunch of people.
 

Read more about the truth behind ethnicity tests in our February issue, on sale now

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