DNA shows I’m the sum of my parts and the sum of my past

DNA reveals the sum of our parts and the sum of our past. It reveals not just who we are, but who we were.
DNA reveals the sum of our parts and the sum of our past. It reveals not just who we are, but who we were.

Remember when EastEnder Danny Dyer couldn’t believe his mince pies when he found he was related to King Edward III on BBC1’s Who Do You Think You Are?

Well, I’ve just had a bit of a Who Jew You Think You Are? moment, as corr-blimey as a Bow Bells cockney shaking a 14th century monarch out of his family tree.

For 48 years, I thought I was just another humdrum Hebrew, a pedestrian Red Sea pedestrian. That assumption shattered last week during Yom Kippur, of all days, after my ancestry.com DNA test results popped into my inbox.

The saliva sample I’d sent off six weeks earlier revealed, like a bolt from the Jew, that I’m (drum roll please…) a whopping 99 percent JEWISH!

It’s rare for DNA to contain more than 90% of one strand, which suggests I’m the end product of a extremely long line of kissing cousins. I’m more inbred than Grozinski on a Sunday morning.

The only thing I ever get a 99 in is a Mr Whippy, so I smugly tweeted my results to the presumably less Jewish than me Chief Rabbi. Tellingly, he’s yet to respond (if you need spiritual guidance, Ephraim, you know where to find me).

Richard’s DNA test shows he’s 99% Jewish.

Before dedicating the rest of the day to parting my bathwater and turning Diet Coke into wine, I dug a little deeper into my results to find out about the stories behind the science – the shtetls my ancestors fled and the pogrom-free cities they called home.

The 19th century Fruma Ferrers schlepped from east Europe to the East End, from Poland and Ukraine to Stepney and Spitalfields. They chose England over America for its booming textile industry and, ironically, the emerging Labour Party.

I’m a bit of an oxymoron (friends can confirm the last two syllables) — loudly and proudly secular and sceptical yet proudly and loudly Jewish. I have my challah and eat it.

Before seeing my DNA results,I’d put this contradiction down to 12 years of faith school conditioning, a love of Israel and the psychological scars of being born a generation after Auschwitz.

Now the contradictions seem less contradictory.

Take my atavistic urge to have my son Eli circumcised (something a secular sceptic would surely never do). My head (not that one) screamed “Don’t do it!’, but my heart told my head: “Shut the hell up already and call a mohel!”

Of course there were tears (mine, not Eli’s), but I’m happy the heart won. It would win again.

Being told who you are for 48 years is one thing. Seeing who you are is something else. My DNA reveals the sum of my parts and the sum of my past. It reveals not just who I am, but who I was.

My mum, who was adopted, discovered her birth mother went on to have two more children. After decades of hesitation she traced her relatives. One, who took the same DNA test as me, appears at the top of my results page. An uncle I’ve never known.

That powerful connection proves the test’s enlightening accuracy and, rather helpfully, also explains why I’m such a dab hand at dancing with a bottle on my head.

Discover your DNA story at ancestry.co.uk

About the Author
Richard has been editor of Jewish News since 2009. He is one of Britain's leading Jewish voices, writing for The Times, Independent, New Statesman and many other titles. Richard previously worked at the Daily Mail, Daily Mirror, edited the Boston Jewish Advocate and created the Channel 4 TV series Jewish Mum Of The Year. In July 2022 he was named one of “39 People Making Waves in the Jewish Media Sphere” by the website Future of Jewish.
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