Who Am I to Say? (Occasional Advice)

Dear SoJo,

Very recently, as a lark, my sons and I decided to have our DNA checked. We expected to see vague northern European references and perhaps a surprise or two. When I opened the pdf file with the result (from dnatribes.com), we discovered, with mouths agape, that we are Ashkenazi. That is, the graph showed we are mostly Ashkenazi, almost 100%. (There was some Afghanistan, Iraq, and Turkey thrown in for good measure). I had always been intrigued to see what a DNA test would show and because my friend went for dna testing in chicago and had a wonderful experience, I decided the time had come for me to give it a go too.

This is delightful, of course. And probably not unheard of (see Madeline Albright and Christopher Hitchens). Nonetheless, it’s a confusing state to be in. I was raised in a strict Catholic home and our “German, English, and Irish roots” were all anyone ever alluded to. These results have left my friends asking me “Why don’t you make your family tree?”

As a scholar of archeo-anthropological studies , I am fascinated by migration, wandering hordes, tribal customs and linguistics. But, never in a million years did my mother ever say, “Oh, yes, dear, by the way, we are Ashkenazi Jews, but they converted to Catholicism due to the pogroms.” My mother doesn’t even know what a pogrom is. However, when I gently confronted her the other day with this information, she said “Oh, we sort of knew this.”

Now, my question to you is, and I ask it sincerely, because I am getting a lot of weird answers: What is a Jew? Is it the lineage, the genetic sequencing? The traditions and culture? All of the above? Some of my Jewish friends say, “Welcome to the club.” Some say, “Oh, you have to have the religion.”

If someone asks me now, “What ancestral ties do you have?” can I say, “I am Ashkenazi Jewish”? Am I being dishonest if I say that, given that I grew up in a house where Jewish traditions and study did not exist?

My confusion is sincere. I adore knowing this information, and am fascinated by the ancestors I must have that must have stories I cannot even begin to imagine.

Nonetheless, I was called a shiksa (lovingly) by friends in the past. Am I still a shiksa?


Dear DNAzzled,

You ask good questions for which there is no one right answer. Some people might suggest that this is a better hint at Jewish roots than anything from DNA analysis.

Sorry, that was flip. Seriously: In Judaism’s classical view of itself, Jews are a tribe that accepted a covenant with God. In the covenant, the tribe committed itself to living in a certain way – believing in one God, keeping the Sabbath, acting justly. Those who didn’t practice the faith remained part of the family, albeit estranged members – something like cousins who never showed up for the clan’s weddings, funerals or Thanksgiving dinners.

So converting to Judaism really meant becoming an adopted member of the family. Through the ages, there’s been an intense, fascinating debate over the extent to which a convert had to believe, or act, in accordance with Judaism in order to qualify for adoption by the tribe. (Disagreements like this are part of Jewish life, in which argument is normally treated as entertainment, a kind of sport.)

In principle, Judaism doesn’t recognize a Jew’s conversion to another religion. Once a Jew, always a Jew. Someone who left Judaism and wants to return – or a Jewish child raised in another faith – doesn’t need to convert to return to Judaism. He or she just has to start living as a Jew again. It’s as if a child of the estranged cousin showed up one year for Thanksgiving dinner with the extended family. (If your curious about the traditional religious view of all this, read Avi Sagi and Zvi Zohar’s book, Transforming Identity: The Ritual Transition from Gentile to Jew – Structure and Meaning.)

However – this is critical – in the traditional view, membership in the tribe is passed on entirely by the matrilineal line. It takes a Jewish mother to make someone Jewish. Fathers are irrelevant. A person can have seven Jewish great-grandparents, but if her mother’s mother’s mother wasn’t Jewish, neither is she.

Let’s switch for a moment to science: As I read the info at dnatribes.com, the company provides analysis of autosomal DNA – that is, of chromosomes that include a mix of paternal and maternal genetic material. If so, the report can tell you that you have many Jewish ancestors, but it can’t tell you what your maternal line is.

There is actually a form of DNA analysis that does tell this story: testing of mitochondrial DNA. The genetic material found in the mitochondria is passed only by one’s mother – no paternal interference. One study found that 40% of all Ashkenazi Jews were descended from just four women who lived a 1,000 years ago. Naturally, another study gave a somewhat different picture. I told you we love to argue.

But don’t go rushing to find a company that test mitochondrial DNA. As of yet, few rabbis – and few other Jews – are using DNA evidence to decide who belongs to the tribe. I don’t expect this to change very soon. A DNA test would miss someone whose grandmother converted to Judaism, for instance.

In practice, this is really more about the social ancestry – culture, shared identity, or at least the distant memory of culture and shared identity. So Jews are more likely to be interested in social evidence such as that from a family history archive site (like https://www.genealogybank.com/explore/obituaries/all/usa/tennessee/chattanooga/chattanooga-times-free-press) or from word of mouth. Naturally, they’d probably disagree on how much evidence is needed.

I remember my grandmother speaking Yiddish. For me, that’s evidence enough. Other people disagree. (I wrote about the evidence issue last March in the New York Times.) If your mother actually knew of where her great-grandmother’s Hebrew-inscribed gravestone was located, that would convince a lot of doubters.

By the way, pogroms weren’t the only reason Jews left Judaism, estranging themselves from the tribe. In the 19th century, many Jews agreed with the Jewish-born writer Heinrich Heine that baptism was the “entrance ticket to European society,” the path to acceptance. And certainly, some Jews have sincerely accepted another faith, just as some gentiles have chosen Judaism.

One last twist: Judaism doesn’t traditionally seek converts. But emotionally, some rabbis are more open to a potential convert whose religious search began with the knowledge that he or she had Jewish ancestry.

For the moment, therefore, you’re probably someone with Jewish ancestors, but not a Jew. This might be fun to know, but it doesn’t obligate you. You didn’t choose your DNA. On the other hand, if this whole discussion led you to start exploring Judaism, and you found that you wanted to choose that religion and convert, many Jews – including many rabbis – would encourage you, treating you as someone coming home.

So really, the answer comes down to: What do you want to do about this?

I know that’s a question. Within the tribe, that’s what we give as answers.


5 thoughts on “Who Am I to Say? (Occasional Advice)”

  1. Of course the traditional view is that Judaism passes maternally from generation to generation, but it’s worth pointing out that this tradition is (probably) from the 2nd century CE, and has no support in the written Torah itself. The Talmud draws its conclusion from a tricky (if not tortured) reading of Deuteronomy 7.4. In contrast, when God appears to Moses in Exodus 3.6 he initially identifies himself as “‘the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.'”

  2. @berger:
    Deuteronomy 7:3-4 prohibits intermarriage between the Israelites and the other nations in the land:
    “3. Neither shalt thou make marriages with them; thy daughter thou shalt not give unto his son, nor his daughter shalt thou take unto thy son.
    4. For they will turn away thy son from following me, that they may serve other gods: so will the anger of the Lord be kindled against you, and destroy thee suddenly.”

    Verse 3 makes clear that the prohibition is gender-neutral, so how does matrilineal inheritance of Jewishness follow from this?

  3. Right, well, like a said – it’s a tricky if not torturous reading of the text which turns most on a bunch of inferences and translation issues. There’s obviously nothing in the text itself that excludes the offspring of Israelite men and the women from a nation of Canaan from being Jewish. You’re right that 7.3 seems to prohibit both forms of marriage amongst the nations of Canaan, but it’s the transition from 7.3 to 7.4 that is key, traditionally.
    While 7.3 seems to be (in some sense) gender neutral the “they” of 7.4 is often translated/understood to be a “he,” and if this is the case then it seems like the text is saying that only alien husbands can corrupt the sons of Jewish women (hence the warning).
    Here it is the text’s silence on the prospect of alien women corrupting the sons of Jewish men that proves to be decisive, as it doesn’t seem like the text thinks it’s possible for such corruption to happen – because those children are not Jewish. If the text thought that alien women could corrupt Jewish sons wouldn’t it warn the Israelites of this possibility, as it does in the inverse case? The inference here is that of course it would, and so that fact that it doesn’t offer such a warning is taken to be proof that these children are not Jewish.
    There’s lots of speculation about the historical/social reasons behind this reading, but for the Orthodox (or most Orthodox) this ambiguity has been resolved by the sages.

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