Why multiple DNA tests make the difference with Jewish genealogy

Gladys Kravitz – very funny.

One of the things that I discovered at this year’s RootsTech is that AncestryDNA was having one heck of a deal.  Their autosomal DNA tests were half (HALF!) price, limit five per person.

Normally these tests run $99, plus shipping and handling, but for $49 each, you could afford to stock up, and we did.  We ended bringing seven home (I bought five, my husband bought two) in a great big bag, causing our Delta airline attendant, who was in a very pissy mood to have this exchange:

He: What are all of those?

Me: DNA tests for genealogy.

He: Your family?

Me: No, my neighbors.

He: Well I guess that makes you Gladys Kravitz. (sneer)

Me: Whatever, Derwood. (sneer returned)

I have no idea what crawled up into his baggage compartment.  Afterall, he was one snooping in the bag.

ANYWAY, one of the reason why we bought the tests is because on my own, I have hundreds of fourth – sixth cousins on AncestryDNA. My mother converted to Judiasm when she married, and those lines are easily peasy to link up.  What I don’t have is much of a way to connect the people on my father’s lines.

My father’s people were from (meaning before they got on the boat) in Dvinsk (now Daugavpils, Latvia) which was under the control of the Russian Empire.  My grandfather was born there, my grandmother was born in or around what is now Rokiškis, Lithuania, but raised in Dvinsk.  At the time, this was all Imperial Russia, and the Russians were really on concernedwith Jews for one reason – Jewish males were almost always being drafted into the Russian army, and then sent to the front lines of any confrontation becuase they were expendible. Injury, maiming, anti Semitism and/or death was almost always the result.

What this means is that records for the Jewish people in that part of the world were not standardized, except for what was called a “Revision List”, which were survey Censuses. This helped the Czar’s bureaucrats keep an eye on which men were going to be of age for drafting into the army and for taxation purposes.   Births, deaths and marriages, especially in rural areas were really loosey goosey as far as the government was concerned, but the rabbi’s kept the records.

Well, when you factor in one World War, the establishment of Baltic States, the mess that arose in Germany, Hitler’s insane hatred of anything Jewish, the concentration camps, anti Jewish sentiments and a second World War and the rise of Communist states, and the depopulation of the region’s post war Jewish population, and combine that with Jews who left this region for better lives in Palestine, Israel, the United States, South Africa, et. al. it becomes very hard to trace lines from these areas because towns were wiped out, the records destroyed, graveyards bombed and fought over.  The “stuff” of life simply ceased to exist.

If you are lucky, you find a name on a revision list, you can talk to someone who asked their parents or grandparents. If you are unlucky, it can be daunting.

But because so many of our grandparents and great grandparents wanted to forget about their lives in the old country because the memories are so painful, a lot of people only have an idea of where their families are from, or what the original spellings were of last names, if they are known at all.

So DNA becomes a way to take “a” person’s test results and start looking for the people you share a match with.  By itself, my test tells me that there are roughly 600 people on Ancestry that are 4-6th cousins on my fathers side.  A guesstimate, based on last name matches and places means one third of the matches on my mother’s side, and the rest are on my father’s side.  And on the matches to my father’s lines, many of these people have no names of ancestors beyond their grandparents.

So the extra tests given to various paternal family members will help me:

  1. Half brother’s test – Will confirm which matches are from our shared father, and will help him and I determine which matches belong to his mother, and which matches belong to my mother.
  2. Second cousin – This cousin’s grandfather and my paternal grandfather were brothers.  So this will help us separate out which matches are on OUR grandfather’s lines, and the ones that don’t match are most likely my paternal grandmothers matches.
  3. The “rumored cousin” – For years we have had a rumored relationship with the “Greiff” family of Bellingham, Washington.  Evidently a Grieff married a “Bun”, and my grandmother was a “Bun” (pronounced Boon).  So I found a Grieff who is allegedly the cousin of my grandmother and she has agreed to be tested.  This should confirm that the Bun and Grieff families were related.  If does, then it should validate the the matches excluded from the comparison of my dna aganst my second cousin’s test.
  4. My other half brother’s daughter has tested and she is showing up as a match on Ancestry, so she is a good control for all of this.

All of this will hopefully help us prove or exclude relationships.

What of the other tests?  Well, two went to friends who are seeking. One is like me, the product of a mixed marriage and wants to know more.  And the other is the old neighbor and friend who’s wife had tested, and he’s curious about his own make up.

So my message is that if you have tested, and its just not gotten you anywhere, find a cousin, or a distant cousin and test again.  Use the joint matches to help separate out one line from another line.   And remember, if you can use exclusion theory to help you separate out your shared matches from your unshared ones.  Think of it as sorting.

Good luck.

Coming up on Wednesday, we take a look at a nifty high-speed scanner that just might be worth it’s weight in gold.