For many of us, the holiday season is a perfect time to reflect on our lives, families, histories, and traditions. If you didn’t grow up Jewish, but you know that you have Jewish ancestry, or you think you might, you might be interested in exploring your family history and learning more about your Jewish roots.
Hanukkah is a holiday celebrating the re-dedication of the Second Jewish Temple in Jerusalem more than two thousand years ago, and is also described as a celebration of religious freedom. Whether or not we grew up in the Jewish religion, those of us with Jewish ancestors can certainly understand the importance of honoring religious freedom.
When I was growing up, we always thought that my grandmother had perhaps descended from European Jews. This was based, as so many things are, on the way that she “looked”. Her father was the son of Polish immigrants, and her mother the daughter of Germans. We didn’t know much about her family history, but it did seem plausible that she could have been Jewish.
I should also add that when my younger sister was in college, she often frequented a grocery store that specialized in Kosher items. On more than one occasion, someone asked her if she was Jewish… because of her nose. Ah, yes. (It turns out that the “type of nose” that some people ascribe to Jewish people is just as common in the general population as it is among Jews.)
A DNA test to find out if you have Jewish ancestry
As it turns out, there is actually a much more scientific way to determine possible Jewish ancestry for people of Eastern European descent. Ancestry DNA offers a simple saliva test that can tell you if you have inherited Eastern European (Ashkenazi) Jewish DNA. If your Ashkenazi Jewish is in your DNA still, it will show up, even if it’s just a small percentage.
When I did my DNA test a few years back, it showed that I had 1% European Jewish ancestry. My mother took the test and showed 1%. My dad took it, and showed none – but his mother showed 1% and so did her brother. These numbers are small, but their meaning is clear: I have distant European Jewish ancestors on both sides of my family. Exactly how distant these ancestors are is unclear. A DNA ethnicity gets “cut in half” approximately every generation, but some people can inherit more or less than half of a particular ethnicity from each parent. Basically, this means that my 100% Jewish ancestor could be as close as about 7 generations, or much further back – on each side of my family.
I know that having such a small amount of Jewish ancestry doesn’t “make me Jewish”. There is so much more to being Jewish than having “Jewish DNA”. That said, it is important to me to honor as many of my ancestors as I can, and I feel like at least attempting to discover who these individuals were is a good start to begin to honor their memory.
Do you want to try this out for yourself? You can get the same DNA test that I took from Ancestry DNA using this link (I will get a small commission at no extra cost to you… thanks for your support, since it helps me maintain this website): Discover the family story your DNA can tell.
Research your family history to find your Jewish roots
If you don’t want to do a DNA test, or you already did one and it didn’t show any Jewish DNA – don’t fret. The technology used for detecting ethnicities in DNA is still developing. Additionally, any one ethnicity can completely disappear after only about 5-6 generations. It’s entirely possible to have a Jewish great-great-great grandmother and have absolutely no Jewish DNA.
If this is the case for you, then you will have to use more traditional methods to track down your Jewish ancestors and get a good understanding of your family’s Jewish ancestry. In order to do this, you’ll have to be pretty methodical. The best way to get started is to build a family tree, and learn as much as you can about your most recent ancestors. (This post will explain the steps needed to build a family tree on Ancestry, which is my favorite place to build trees)
Once you’ve built your tree, and you’ve added everything you know about your parents, grandparents, and great-grandparents, you might have a good idea which branch (or branches!) of your tree will lead you to your Jewish ancestors. Your next job is to keep building out your tree, adding generations slowly, and collecting as many documents and records as you can on each ancestor.
If you think you’ve stumbled across a Jewish ancestor, you might be able to find information about them, or their close family members in Jewish genealogy databases. You might have luck located specific individuals on JewishGen, a free website dedicated to helping people preserve their Jewish ancestry through documents and records.
So what should you do if you find Jewish ancestors? Should you celebrate Hanukkah?
The choice to celebrate Hanukkah is a very personal one, but many people who have discovered their Jewish ancestry through family tree research or DNA testing have chosen to do so. A great example is this family from Alabama who recently discovered their Jewish ancestry and decided to celebrate their first Hanukkah this year.
At my house, we will be learning about Hanukkah and the menorah, as well as eating latkes to remember the miracle of the oil. While some people might think this strange, since we were raised as Christians, I believe that teaching my children about their Jewish ancestry will help them understand their roots, and teach them tolerance towards people with other religious traditions. I don’t think there is any better way to honor the memory of my Jewish ancestors.
I hope that you found this post interesting, and that you learned a little bit about how to explore your Jewish roots. Did you find Jewish DNA in your ethnicity results? Have you decided not to do a DNA test? I would love to hear from you in the comments.
Thanks for stopping by!