I’m going to say something I never thought would pass my lips (or my keyboard). So, channeling my inner Maury Povich:
“The DNA results are in! Van, you ARE a member of the Ashkenazi Diaspora from Budapest, Hungary!”
That was the strong and unequivocal message delivered to me by a recent DNA analysis I had performed through the company DNA Tribes. Me, with Hungarian roots? Eastern European, sure, but nothing prepared me for the specificity of the test results.
The genetic adventure began when a first cousin of mine, Jared in Louisiana, had the same test several years ago and encouraged me to do the same. I had seen my cousin’s results (our mothers were sisters) and assumed I would have a similar genetic outline. Jared’s test showed a very strong Middle Eastern influence; his global population match results were led by Arab (Israel), followed by Veneto, Italy, Ashkenazi (Budapest), Greece, and Piemonte, Italy, with Bulgaria, Maghrebi, Croatia and Bosnia also represented. Jewish (Israel) was further down the list. On a map, the match points arced along the northern coast of the Mediterranean, with a European diaspora dot in North America.
And then I got my test results. They came with a detailed explanation of the different cuts of the DNA information, The native population match showed my top 20 in 964 native populations “that have experienced minimal movement and admixture” over the past 500 years. Global population match shows the top 20 matches in a database of 1,273 populations as they migrated and mixed over the last 500 years.
In both native and global match, I was off-the-charts Ashkenazi Jewish from Budapest—several hundred percent greater than the groups that came next. While the results confirmed I’m Jewish (so I’ve been on both sides of my family tree as far back as I know into the mists of Europe) the Hungarian angle startled me since I’ve never heard a whisper of any family origins in Budapest or that part of Central Europe. My mother’s family hailed from Germany (moving to Texas in the 1860s and 1870s as what I call “the Plucky Prussians on the Prairie”). My father’s family came from the Breslau, Poland and Vishnivitz, Ukraine corners of the Russian Empire around 1899. I think of them collectively as the “Russians.”
But Hungary? Shouldn’t I then have some astounding knack for chess and advanced mathematics? Shouldn’t I be something like the fourth Polgar Sister? How could I have failed calculus 103, on a pass/fail basis, as a Princeton sophomore? I thought Hungarian Jews were math geniuses. I guess not everybody can be Paul Erdős or John von Neumann (both of whom taught at Princeton, for all the good that did me). On the other hand, I like photography and am a huge fan of the life and work of Budapest-born photographic legend Endre Friedmann, better known as the globe-trotting Robert Capa.
I’m not the only family member struck by the results. Jared was baffled by the total absence of an English-French component reflecting his father Bill’s heritage. A competent geneticist could probably straighten us out, but for now we’re letting the anomalies linger as questions for another time.
Far behind Budapest on the global population match, but notably more pronounced than any other strain, was a DNA match with the town of Vitória in the state of Espírito Santo, Brazil, up the Atlantic coast from Rio de Janeiro. Again, this astounded me because I know of no family members on either side who moved to Brazil. Jared’s test had no connection at all to Brazil, so I can only speculate that some offshoot of my father’s family, the Russians, immigrated to Brazil centuries ago as part of some Sephardic wave of Marranos, or hidden Jews. Or could it be from the Prussians, since the global match also shows DNA scattered around Italy, Croatia, Turkey, Bosnia and Portugal?
The Brazil angle especially pleases me because over the last 12 years or so, a mysterious force pulled me toward that country. After I got divorced, I soon found myself in regular contact with women in São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro. I even visited one in 2004, and that only intensified my interest in the country. I became a huge fan of the music, movies and language of Brazil. I had grown up on the Texas-Mexico border, yet I never felt the same kind of attachment to Mexico or other parts of Latin America. But with Brazil, something clicked there. I humor myself that the ancient DNA simply snapped to attention in the presence of long-lost connections. Hey, look, now I know why I like bossa nova and feel saudade, as the untranslatable Portuguese word for intense melancholy and longing or wistfulness goes. I think back on travels and interactions with other Jews worldwide and the saudade is strong.
My mind wanders through the what-might-have-beens. I have visions of swashbuckling maritime Hungarian Jews, with a cutlass in one hand and a siddur in the other, their pockets full of gold doubloons. On the run from the Inquisition, my ancestors slashed and sailed their way across the stormy Atlantic to seek fame, fortune and freedom in the New World of the 1500s and 1600s. Accompanied by lusty, olive-skinned wenches with names like Rivke and Ruchele, they forged legends across the Spanish Main, leaving the mark of Renaissance-era Lissners and Michelsons from Rio de Janeiro to Havana. To this day the whispered exclamations echo down the centuries, “Arrggh, there be aquatic Hungarian Jews in Espirito Santo!”
Now that I have this DNA evidence of Jewish genetic wanderlust, where will I go with it? I told my long-time friend Ruth, who is just two generations away from Hungary, about this and exclaimed, “Guess what? I’m Hungarian! I knew we were related.” While I’m passionately interested in languages, I’ll stick with my endless meanderings in Hebrew and Portuguese rather than tackling the fearsome linguistic edifice that is Hungarian. I may spend more time on family history to see if I can find records pushing the Lissner, Michelson, Schwarz, Seigel and Fadem lines farther back, especially their geography. Where did the Prussians and the Russians leave their mark and pick up the genetic markers from Budapest to Brazil? The investigation begins . . .