06 February 2023

My DNA—Oh, the Places It's Been!

DNA evidence is one of the hallmarks of contemporary crime investigation, separating it from the cruder forensic methods, interviewing of witnesses and suspects and Sherlockian reliance on deductive reasoning, of the past. But access to DNA solves many mysteries besides those of murder. We now have easy access to the information coded in our own DNA, and I, for one, am finding what I'm learning, even at the most superficial level, fascinating.

Liz as Greek goddess: a fun feature of MyHeritage.com
This isn't about genetic markers for disease or health issues, though for a lot of people, it has been crucial information that would not have been available to them before. It's about my roots and familial relationships. We live in a nation composed largely of immigrants: the voluntary, the involuntary, and the desperate. My own parents were born, respectively, in what was then called the Ukraine and ruled by the Czar of Russia and in Hungary. With their own parents and nearest siblings, they came through Ellis Island as young children in 1905 and 1906. My father's extended family on both sides emigrated too; he grew up in Brooklyn alongside dozens of cousins. My mother knew the aunts and uncles and their twenty children on her father's side, but her mother's equally large family remained in Hungary and was eventually lost to the Holocaust.

Because of the Holocaust, there were significant gaps in the record. Synagogues, cemeteries, whole villages in Europe were lost. Registers of births, marriages, and deaths as well as countless family documents and photographs were destroyed. Memories and family stories were killed en masse along with the people who carried them. Without these, Jewish genealogists ran into blind alleys, with no way to tell whether people with the same name shared a common ancestor. DNA changed that, along with the potential for people to reach out to possible kin on the Internet.

Liz as Persian princess
I've had my DNA tested by both MyHeritage.com, which I got as a gift a couple of Xmases ago, and Ancestry.com, which I did later on. I pay a monthly fee to MyHeritage, and as a result, I get more ongoing information, notably a weekly list of DNA matches, ie people who share segments of DNA with me and some of the people I share DNA with who also share DNA with those people. Most of the folks whose names they offer me share only 1% or 0.9% of my DNA. The cousins I've made contact with, with whom I actually share known family members, are a 4.1% match on the Hungarian side and 2.8% (mother) and 2.3% (son) match on the Ukrainian side.

Janos, a Hungarian about my age who has lived in Denmark since 1957, is the grandson of my my mother's mother's sister Paula. Gran, whom I adored, always said that Paula was her favorite sister. I learned from Janos that she almost survived the War; she died of starvation in the Budapest ghetto in 1945. Gary told me his mom, Leni, was the granddaughter of my father's mother's sister Basya or Bessie, who was thus his own great-grandmother. Gary lives in New Jersey.

Liz as Edwardian lady
Now, here's the mystery. As I scroll through the lists of DNA matches and their matches to my matches every week, I find dozens of people who share not only bits of my DNA, but also bits of DNA I got from my mother, born in Pápa, Hungary, and bits of DNA I got from my father, born in Ekaterinaslav (now Dnipro), Ukraine. My mother always said she didn't even know Russian Jews were human until she grew up and met my father in law school in 1921. There's always a pecking order. I guess the German Jews who emigrated to the United States in the nineteenth century considered themselves above the Hungarian Jews, and the Sephardim (the Iberian Jews who got kicked out of Spain and Portugal in 1492 and 1493) a cut above the Ashkenazim (the Eastern European Jews) in general. One study says that the Ashkenazim, who seem to have arisen as a genetic and linguistic entity in Europe in the eleventh or twelfth century, originally consisted of only 350 people. So maybe I shouldn't be surprised that my Hungarian side and my Ukrainian side are connected. But I still marvel.

Liz as Art Nouveau poster girl
Bigots and would-be world dominators have been trying to wipe the Jews out for five thousand years, and they haven't succeeded yet. We may not all define our Jewishness the same. We may not all practice traditional Judaism. We may reshape it to accommodate contemporary concepts of spirituality and family. But we are everywhere. Segments of DNA that matches mine are walking around in Argentina, Australia, Austria, Belgium, Botswana, Brazil, Bulgaria, Canada, Cyprus, Czechia, Denmark, France, Germany, Hungary, Ireland, Italy, Israel, Latvia, the Netherlands, Poland, Russia, Singapore, South Africa, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, Thailand, Ukraine, United Arab Emirates, the United States, United Kingdom, and Uruguay, keeping my genetic heritage alive all over the world.


  1. In a world where a few madmen have both the power and the will to try to detroy a country, a people, a race, a religion, or an idea, it is mimportant to maintain connections throught the planet so that we don't lose sight of our own humanity.

  2. Fabulous picture of you!
    The whole emphasis on tribalism today is terrifyingly dangerous. Because the truth is, you go back 1,000 years and ALL Europeans are related. If you go back 5,300 years ago, we're ALL related.

  3. Jerry and Eve, you're both so right. The concept of connection and cultural identity without toxic tribalism is tremendously complex. I strongly oppose endogamy, the idea of institutionalized "marrying in." If it were forced on me, I'd have to throw away my happy 40-year marriage to my Irish-American husband and my beloved granddaughters, whose DNA is half-Jewish and half-Filipino (well, 19% Chinese). Fat chance! Yet the survival of the Jews as a people has been threatened so many times that Jewishness, the ethnicity and peoplehood with its cultural values (as distinct from Judaism, the religion), has become precious indeed to people like me, a secular Jew who's created a multiicultural family of which I'm proud. Nor can the culture be separated from the religion even for non-observant Jews. Every year at Passover, the only holiday many Jews observe, we tell the story of our repeated escapes from oppression and celebrate our continued survival, affirming that we cannot be completely happy as long as even our worst enemy is still suffering—a cultural value that makes us less likely to spawn a Putin.

  4. Intriguing, Liz. Like Eve said, the muse, she is hot! Erm, uh, by hot I mean, uh, cool. Which goddess is she? I'm thinking Artemis, but she could be a muse. They are charming.

    Are these the DNA services you most recommend? I've been considering trying one. Enjoyed the article, Liz.

  5. Leigh, it's unfair to compare a service I'm paying for monthly to one I'm not. I got MyHeritage as a gift and have been enjoying it even before they tacked on the cool photo stuff. Another plus compared to Ancestry.com is that the former required a simple cheek swab, while the latter asked for prolonged spitting of saliva for the actual DNA sample.

  6. Elizabeth Dearborn07 February, 2023 15:33

    Absolutely fascinating Liz. I might go ahead & sign up for MyHeritage. That last picture you posted makes you look like Helen Mirren in "Woman in Gold" ... a great movie. Gustav Klimt painted the portrait, which the Nazis stole in 1941.


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