Sunday, February 26, 2012


After a series of posts about death, I decided it was time for one about life, before this blog gets a reputation for a grey backdrop that I had not intended.
And no, I am not a Luddite. At least not in this context.
We learned about Drs. Watson and Crick and their four-colored ribbon back in high school and even then it seemed to be something special. Something like chemical fingerprinting, perhaps. And in time, it found all kinds of practical uses, including in criminal investigations, but this is quite different from testing for genealogy.

I think the first big use in genealogy was the study of kohanim, the descendants of Aaron the Priest, brother of Moses. It isn't anything I really got into, but from articles here and there, I understand that it seems to demonstrate that there is in fact a "kohen gene" passed down the Y-chromosome from father to son.

In fact, one of the most obvious challenges to the idea of an identifying kohen gene, may in fact support religious belief. The challenge says if a gene is passed from father to son, why wouldn't Aaron's brother Moses and his male descendants have it too? And Aaron's male cousins and their descendants - all the tribe of Levi. Then why not the descendants of the others of Jacob's sons?

In order to limit kehunnah to Aaron's descendants, to the excusion of the others, there would have to have been some kind of mutation affecting Aaron and his sons, but no one else. In fact, such a physical mutation fits with the idea that Aaron was not just a political appointment, but that some genetic transformation accompanied his becoming a priest, something that would forever genetically distinguish his line. I like that idea.

I don't suppose that if the Torah had come out and said that G-d altered Aaron's genes as part of the process described in the eighth chapter of Vayikra (Leviticus), it would have been understood, but I would not be surprised to find that the notion is hidden in the text in one way or another.

So what about DNA in our own practical genealogy? Well, when people began talking about that, it seemed to me like cheating, like looking at the answers in the back of the book. Real genealogy researchers look at books and records, they conduct interviews and visit cemeteries, libraries, courthouses and archives. And nowadays they use Internet sources. They don't do blood tests and cheek swabs. I knew, of course, that it wasn't that simple, but that became my response when people would ask me - especially non-genealogists who had read a puff piece in a magazine.

There was also the matter of cost effectiveness. When DNA testing for genealogy became a commercial reality, the costs were undeniably high.

And effectiveness? Well, first of all it was clear that only a very large database of DNA samples would make it likely to produce useful results. This would almost certainly take quite a few years to develop. And as multiple companies began to compete for this market, the potential very large database would inevitably be fragmented among those competing companies.

Second, it seemed to be limited to particular types of matches - the Y-chromosome which exists only in males with which you can make matches only in an all male line and the mitochondrial (Mt) sequence which can have a male only at the bottom of the line. But both of these issues can be solved with time, by increasing the size of the database and by technological progress.

But the most important problem for me was - and still is - one of principle. DNA testing deals in probabilities, not facts. Say they can prove that Steve Pickholtz and I are relatives. (Steve or Irene or Jacob or Rita or any of the other Skalat Pikholz families.) It cannot tell us that our great-great-grandfathers were brothers or uncle-and-nephew or first, second or even third cousins, with or without a degree or two of removal. But we are genealogists and we deal in facts, in documents, in evidence. DNA testing did not seem to be able to tell us anything with certainty about relationships five or more generations ago, which is what I would have wanted. After all, we can already trace most of the Skalat-Pikholz lines back about two hundred years, even without chemicals.

You look at the discussion list of the Association of Professional Genealogists and you see all this talk about precise documentation and citing sources. Nothing there about probability.  I have given a lecture called "BEYOND A REASONABLE DOUBT: What You Know vs. What You Can Prove" and I worry that if the "real pros" heard it, they'd throw me out of APG, because it isn't based on fully documented fact.

So in the mind of this ignorant layman I could not see much point in this whole business beyond perhaps giving a general sense of direction. Which I have anyway.

And of course the cost. Always the cost.

In fact, I did put my toe into the water. At the IAJGS Conference on Jewish Genealogy in Salt Lake City in 2007, I attended a lecture by a senior representative of one of the companies, but the email inquiries I made afterwards were never answered.

After my mother died last year, I began thinking more about our losing resources from previous generations and I thought it might be worthwhile to have a proper look at DNA testing as a genealogy tool. As it happens, the two lines about which I know the least are the two best suited for this kind of investigation.  My father's father's father got his Pikholz name from his mother, and we have no idea what his father's surname was. My mother's mother's mother's maiden name is also unknown, as she died when her children were young and her husband remarried soon after. So I began considering a Y-chromosome test for my father's paternal side and a Mt test for my mother's maternal side.

I also began considering who among the relatives would be the best candidates to test other lines of interest - either lines of my own family (or my wife's) or other lines in the Pikholz Project. Of course I could not even dream of approaching anyone else until I had gathered some experience from having myself tested. The relevant expression in Hebrew translates as "putting your money on the horns of a deer [as an investment]."

About that time, I saw an announcement of a free webinar on exactly that subject. The person giving the webinar is someone I had met, as is the president of the DNA-testing company she represents. So I signed up for the webinar.

I listened, I took notes, I asked some questions and received answers and assurances (remember, they didn't have their hands on my money yet) and a few days later I signed up for the Mitochondrial DNA Full Genomic Sequence tests, and the full Y-chromosome which checks 67 markers. I sent them my $470.20, which took into account a discount from my participation in the webinar. They called it a SuperDNA test.

After they analyzed my test results, they advised me that my Y-chromosome was R1b1a2 and my Mt showed I was in haplogroup U1. I figured that I should write those on my badge at the DC Conference, together with the family names I am researching.

In the weeks leading up to the Conference, I received a series of notifications about matches of 12 or 25 or 37 out of the 67 markers, always with numbers of variations. Each notification told me that they could not do more, because I had signed up (=paid for) only 67 markers. I learned how to use that part of the company's website that would allow me to contact those matches and I dutifully wrote to each. The results from those who replied were literally all over the map.  The closest DNA matches on my father's father's east Galician side were in Lithuania and Rumania and on my mother's Belarus side was in Slovakia.

I used the calculator on the company's site and found that the very best of the matches had something like a 14.5% chance of being related to me eight generations ago. Well.

At the Conference, I actually met a few of these folks, but couldn't hold an intelligent conversation with any of them, at least not about our 14.5%  chance of connections.

After the Conference, the notifications about matches stopped coming and I had more pressing matters to deal with and the DNA folder went to the bottom of the pile.

About a month ago, I received another notice - this one that someone with whom I had been matched last year for 25 markers with a distance of one and for 37 markers at a distance of four, I am now matched for 67 markers at a distance of six. You, patient reader, may not know what that means.  Don't feel bad, neither do I. So I wrote him and he replied:

It is not supposed to be relevant from my understanding but I'm starting to
wonder if these folks have all this right or they are just making educated
guesses. Also not relevant is that my father's paternal line from what we
know has absolutely NO ROMANIAN line because we are Belorussian originally
from Latvia. My mothers side is 50% Romanian and many matches from my
Y-DNA show people of Romanian descent. How can this be?
I received another 25-marker Y-chromosome match a few days later and when I went into the company's website, I saw that it had been redone. The last thing I wanted to do was to relearn that. (For this, call me Ludd.)

I don't think I am exactly trying to swim against the tide here.  It's more like the electric nature of my research - it follows the path of least resistance. For now that does not include DNA. I have laid out my results where future testees can find them, so maybe something will come of it. But it won't be documented research.  I don't think it can be.


  1. Well, yeah, I didn't understand some of it. But I too like the idea that Aaron's genes were altered. And I think some some family genealogist down the line will thank you for taking the tests.

    1. That presupposes that there will be "some family genealogist down the line."

  2. This had me riveted. When all the DNA talk started on Jewishgen, I was hot to get the relevant relatives tested. But like you said, the cost, and also, the limited nature of the results, put me off. One respected genealogist, who is also a medical doctor, told me that the science is just not there yet.

    Since that time, I see people writing into the DNA SIG with the craziest-sounding results. If someone is going to tell me, for instance, that I have Eurasian blood, I am just not ready to believe that this is true. It just gets too ridiculous.

    So, sometimes the documentation is just not there. But can a DNA test really break down the brick wall? Maybe I'll just have to wait for the next world to find out for sure whether I am really related to Rav Salant or not.

    Thanks for a really interesting perspective on DNA testing for genealogical purposes!

  3. The problem I see here is a learning curve. It's a science and you need to learn things to understand them. It takes time. From this posting I see you're in the beginning (nothing personal).
    And about "the cost" - there are cases where DNA test may save a lot of $$. A key is to understand when to use it. This takes time - as I said above.

    1. Partly, but it's partly that it seems to be probability-based rather than document-based, therefore cannot reach the level of precision we would like to see, especially those of us who claim to be professionals.

      Thank you for looking in and taking the time to comment.

  4. I read your article with interest. The widespread confusion and resistance to DNA as a tool in genetic genealogy are understandable. However, I believe that further reading (such as Paul Kriwaczek's very readable book, "Yiddish Civilization", as well as Richard Gotheil in the Jewish Encyclopedia, and Salo Wittmayer Baron's "Social and Religious History of the Jews") and considered reflection will help explain puzzling results such as unexpected Eurasian heritage: conversion and proselytism were far more common than some of us may have been led to believe.

    It is my own experience and that of a growing number of other researchers whom I've encountered, that DNA does not provide all the answers but it serves as a useful method to be used alongside paper documentation and the recollections of family members. It can provide pathways that family stories may have blocked or concealed, wittingly or unwittingly. All sources must, however, be treated as tools rather than as inviolable truths. That said, I believe that DNA information has more accuracy in one very important sense: the paper trail of records may contain transcription errors, untruths, misunderstandings, and other human errors, but one's DNA is one's DNA. Likewise, stories told by one's ancestors may have been less than honest, may be mistaken, or may have become distorted over time. For example, a paternal line traced to an area far distant from the one that was central to a family's story may relate to the forced movement of conscripted Jewish boys in the Russian army many miles from their home. And we surely have to remember that we cannot be absolutely sure of fidelity among our forebears?

    For the record, my husband's paternal DNA (67 markers) shows him to be R1a1a (M198), which points to Ashkenazi Levite origins. As yet we have found matches at 63 out of 67 marker-level (over 78% probability of shared ancestor in 12 generations). I await further results with interest, and so I hope that far more people will be tested.

    Thank you again for an interesting article.

  5. I think you're right that DNA testing is no substitute for genealogical research. You're very unlikely to ever find concrete answers to you genealogy questions through DNA testing, if your questions are unsuited for such testing. The point is, you're certain to be disappointed if you have the wrong expectations.

    Let me share my own experience with the 67 marker Y DNA test. What I tried to find out, what I found, and what I didn't.

    Several years ago I discovered a man with the same surname as my grandfather's, whose ancestors came from a shtetl not far from my grandparents'. Obviously there was a good chance that we're related. The man knew very little about his ancestry beyond his grandfather, so it was difficult to make an exact connection. He was also too old to engage in heavy research. I was very curious about a possible connection. There was a choice for me to try to research his family for him, or for both of us to first take the Y DNA test to check whether we're related. We took the test. Our results were as far apart as one can expect for two eastern European Jews. In other words, we are not related within any historic time frame. We probably don't have a common paternal ancestor going back tens of thousands of years. This ruled out the possibility that our grandfathers were cousins, or anything of that nature. I'd say that DNA testing was a silver bullet in this case, even though it was not the answer we had hoped for.

    Having taken the DNA test, I have learned a lot about my family history from my association with Haplogroup G2c2. Anyone can look up G2c on Wikipedia and see the fascinating trail of ancestry this group shares (probably). There are no names to be found from this research. I can't add a single branch to my family tree based on it. But I think of myself as researching not only my genealogy, but my family history in a broader sense. DNA testing has been an incredible tool in that respect.

    1. You don't specify, Elan, where in Europe, but don't forget that in some areas, many Jews did not register their marriages with the authorities, so the children got the mother's name. In your case, one (or both) of the grandfathers may have gotten his surname from the mother, in which case the Y-chromosme test would be irrelevant.

    2. The area in Europe is north-eastern Poland, Lomza gubernia. Many surprising things are possible, even if unlikely. We can never be absolutely sure as you note. But I haven't seen any of my ancestors since the early 1800s adopt the mother's maiden name. So the chance of such an event is small IMO.

      In any case, I was just trying to illustrate a way in which DNA testing can be beneficial. In addition to what I wrote before, one of the G2c haplogroup individuals put together some impressive research using a survey of the documented family histories of close to 100 of the group members. He provided quite an interesting theory that all members are descendants of a Lithuanian Jew who lived 500-700 years ago. We all have different surnames and we can't trace our common ancestry, but in a sense we are one family. It's not genealogy. It's family history.

  6. I, too, have spent hundreds of dollars trying to learn more about my family's past through DNA. Because my parents and one set of grandparents were divorced, our "tree" has many broken branches. I was estranged by choice from my father for 39 years, and finally saw him shortly before his death, when he gave me a collection of family stories he'd written.

    Although his family name was Anglicized in the US, it had been "Dayan." Was this a clue? Included in the family stories was a recollection: Sometime shortly before WW1, when he was 3 or 4 years old, he rode in a funeral procession, in a black carriage pulled by black horses. His grandfather had died. Relatives entered the Brooklyn cemetery, but my father and his father remained in the carriage because they were "not permitted to go beyond the cemetery gates."

    I believe this means that the name "Dayan," is to be taken literally. My brother's cheek was scraped and sent for DNA analysis. His Y-DNA is in the Haplogroup J1. Wish I could tell you more, but we can't make sense of the complicated information. Someday, I expect all this will be clearer, but I don't think I'll be around to know.

    1. Those who are not permitted to enter a cemetery are usually named Cohen or have a family tradition of being Cohanim. I don't know of any connection between Dayan and Cohanim.
      However, the fact that most Cohanim are in haplogroup J1 tends to support your notion that you are from a family of Cohanim, or at least doesn't negate it.
      If you haven't done so already, you may want to search Wikipedia for "J1 Haplogroup" and "Cohen Modal Haplotype".