In April of 2010, Joseph Pickrell sent a tube of his saliva to the California genetic testing company 23andMe. After spending years studying other people’s DNA, the then 27-year-old doctoral student at the University of Chicago wanted to learn more about his own genetic ancestry.
Together with 11 friends and colleagues who had completed the same test, Pickrell then ran his genetic profile through a computer algorithm designed to tease apart genetic lineages more precisely.
Strangely, the analysis suggested that two people in the group were of Ashkenazi Jewish descent. One was a Jew; but the other was Pickrell, who was raised Catholic.
Pickrell turned to his mother. She made a few phone calls, and pieced together some important information: Her father’s father — Pickrell’s maternal great-grandfather — had been raised Jewish in Poland before moving to the United States, where he married a Catholic woman and left his Jewish upbringing behind.
DNA tests to uncover Jewish origins have been offered for decades by companies such as Houston-based Family Tree DNA and DNA Tribes of Arlington, Va. They have shown, for example, that many Hispanic Americans likely descended from Jews who were forced to convert or hide their religion more than 500 years ago in Spain and Portugal.
Yet although standard ancestry-testing platforms can point to centuries-old Jewish origins, none would have flagged Pickrell’s relatively recent Semitic pedigree.
That’s because most DNA tests have traditionally relied on only two small parts of the genome: the Y-chromosome, which is passed down almost unchanged from father to son, and mitochondria, which mothers pass faithfully to their offspring.
Because these stretches of DNA remain relatively consistent from one generation to the next, they are particularly useful for testing direct-line paternal and maternal ancestry, respectively.
However, they essentially ignore the bulk of someone’s DNA ancestry and cannot detect genetic signatures that cross gender lines.
According to 23andMe geneticist Mike Macpherson, about (2%) of the tens of thousands of people of non-AshkenaziJewish European descent who have used the company’s platform show some reliable signature of Ashkenazi Jewish heritage in their DNA.
According to Bennett Greenspan, president and CEO of Family Tree DNA, many people who learn of Semitic ancestry through DNA often end up converting to Judaism.
Elliot Dorff, a Conservative rabbi at American Jewish University in Los Angeles, welcomes these conversions. “We really want to encourage such people to rediscover their Jewish roots,” he said.
Although people who find Jewish origins through DNA are not strictly Jewish halachically, Rabbi Dorff noted that many people in this situation already feel a deep-seated connection to the religion.
Regrettably not everyone has living relatives to corroborate the findings of DNA testing. Rick Voss, a 66-year-old Atlanta-based lawyer, always suspected that his paternal grandparents might be Jewish, and last year the results of 23andMe’s kit indicated that Voss himself was half-Jewish.
But since both Voss’s father and grandparents died decades ago, he can’t ask them for more details. Nonetheless, Voss noted, discovering through his DNA that he probably has Jewish roots “has some psychic meaning.”
One psychic meaning when non-Jews discover that they have Jewish ancestry; is that some of them eventually realize they have a Jewish soul. According to a Kabbalah teaching a non-Jew who is drawn to Jewish culture and Jewish people usually has a reincarnated soul from an ancestor who was cut off from the Jewish people several generations in the past.
This reincarnated soul (gilgul) recycles into a later generation and is sooner or later drawn to return to Judaism and the Jewish People.
Other people who descend from the same Jewish individual, and who find no “psychic meaning” in this knowledge, do not have a ‘Jewish soul’.
However, there is a behavioral test that is helpful for non-Jews who suspect they may have Jewish ancestry. If you know people who you think might have an ancestor who was Jewish, but no one in their family seems to know, you can give them the following introspective personality and character test to aid them in discovering some hints.
1- Do you like to ask questions especially about religion? But when you asked them as a child, you were told faith is a gift from God and you shouldn’t question it. This never satisfied you, although others in your family didn’t question it.
2- The trinity never made any sense to you even as a young child. You prayed to God the father more easily than Jesus, the son of God, even though you were told to pray to Jesus. You never could believe that people who didn’t believe in Jesus couldn’t go to Heaven.
3- On first learning of the Holocaust you reacted more emotionally than your friends or other members of your family. You feel some sense of connection with the Jewish struggle to defend Israel.
4- You have an attraction to Jewish people, or to Judaism and Jewish culture. You have always been more open to people who were culturally, nationally or religiously different from your own family, than your friends or class mates.
If you answer yes to three of these four items you probably have Jewish ancestors. Many, but not all, people who answer yes to all four items will be interested in learning more about their Jewish roots. If you become very interested in studying Judaism you might have a Jewish soul.
According to Jewish mystical teachings (Kabbalah), many (not all) people reincarnate after they die. This is especially true for Jews who died and had no Jewish children who survived them according to a Mideval cabalistic book Sefer HaPliyah. Their souls reincarnate in one of their non-Jewish descendants who is drawn to: Jewish things, Jewish people and Judaism.
If the following item also applies to you, you certainly have a Jewish soul.
5- When you start to learn about Judaism: the ideas and values seem reasonable to you; the traditions and heritage are very attractive to you; and the non-Jews around you as well as you yourself, are surprised that you slowly come to feel that you are coming home to Jewishness.