DNA Testing Adds Another High-Tech Layer To Researching Family Roots

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Joshua Goldberg, engaged in geneaolgy research since he was a teen, compares DNA results at home in Detroit. (Photo by Brett Mountain)
Joshua Goldberg, engaged in genealogy research since he was a teen, compares DNA results at home in Detroit. (Photo by Brett Mountain)

Several years ago, I started hearing about DNA testing for genealogical purposes. You send for a kit, swab the inside of your cheek, send the swab to the company and a few weeks later you receive an analysis of your DNA.

My friends Ruth and David Marcus of Southfield had the test done. They found some relatives they knew about through the list of those who “matched” some of their DNA — but no “new” relatives. But for Ruth, the test confirmed something she’d always suspected: Her family had Sephardi roots, even though genes linked to Sephardi ancestry made up only 11 percent of her DNA.

So when I had an opportunity to have my DNA tested through Family Tree DNA, I jumped at the chance. The company was founded in 1999 by Bennett Greenspan, now living in Houston. He was a businessman, not a scientist, but he had a long-time interest in genealogy.

Through JewishGen, a Jewish genealogy website, he found someone who had the same last name and who came from the same ancestral village. Some of the first names in his profile were the same as first names in Greenspan’s family.

Bennett Greenspan
Bennett Greenspan

DNA testing, he thought, would be the best way to tell if he and this person were actually related.

Greenspan, 64, approached the University of Arizona with an offer: If they did the science, he would handle the business.

“I knew every genealogist in the world would be interested,” he said.

Growing The Database

Since then, Family Tree DNA has developed a database of more than 600,000 DNA samples.

More samples would make the database more useful.

“I first submitted a sample 10 years ago,” said David Sloan of Huntington Woods. “I use 67 markers. I have received many matches with genetic distances from two to seven. At this point, no relatives have been confirmed.

“The DNA testing is crucial, but the database must be expanded exponentially. It is like fingerprints; you need to have a large base for matching.”

Other companies do DNA testing as well, including Ancestry DNA and 23 and Me.

Larry Horwitz
Larry Horwitz

Male clients can analyze their Y-DNA, which is passed on from fathers to sons. Everyone can test their mitochondrial DNA, which is passed on by the mother, and autosomal DNA, which can come from either parent. Costs run from $80 to $280, depending on the type of analysis.

A free service called GEDMatch allows people who have had their DNA tested by any of the major companies to upload their raw data; ideally, this larger database will help clients identify genetic matches with relatives who used a different test provider.

Greenspan recommends that clients have a cousin from the maternal and paternal sides of their families do the test so they can see which side a match comes from. “Sometimes people find they’re related on both sides,” he said.

My DNA showed my origins were 88 percent “Jewish Diaspora,” 10 percent European (non-Jews who got added to the mix somewhere along the line) and 2 percent “Middle Eastern.” No huge surprise there.

An e-book I downloaded from the Family Tree DNA website seemed like a good way to start sorting through the material. But it reads like a college biology text and I found my eyes glazing over.

Leah Bisel, a retired teacher from West Bloomfield, experienced similar frustration. “I’ve been doing genealogical research for 37 years and have a huge database of people related to me, but I’d give anything to find someone through DNA,” she said. “I am very disappointed and frustrated because I find it so hard to understand.”

Leah Bisel
Leah Bisel

But Bisel did find something interesting. She submitted her brother’s DNA sample and one of his matches was Bennett Greenspan, the Family Tree DNA founder. Greenspan told her that her brother had Sephardi ancestry.

Bisel says she was floored; their grandfather had come from Ukraine.

Greenspan explained that when the Jews left Spain in the late 1400s, they traveled everywhere, not just to Northern Africa. Some undoubtedly headed north and east to Ukraine. She’s excited about the pre-Inquisition Spanish connection, but says research on this trail is very difficult without a Spanish surname.

Larry Horwitz, a retired public policy executive from Southfield, did a DNA test through 23 and Me. Several third and fourth cousins have contacted him, he said, and they’re trying to figure out just how they’re related.

My own test turned up thousands of names of people who could be anything from a “second to fourth cousin” to “remote cousin.”

Greenspan was convinced some people at the top of my match list had to be related, even though none listed any of my family names, because we shared so much DNA. I contacted a few of them through the website but received no responses.

Classical And Modern

Joshua Goldberg of Detroit, a business consultant at Quicken Loans, has been conducting genealogical research since he was a teenager. Active in the community, he serves on multiple boards and is a vice president of NEXTGen Detroit. He said DNA testing can be used to challenge assumptions that arise in traditional modes of research.

He ran his first DNA test nine years ago on his maternal grandfather, Leonard Baruch. “Baruch” is typically a Sephardi surname, and Goldberg wanted to see if Y-DNA would indicate his Baruch line was Sephardi. The results pointed to Ashkenazi lineage.

Goldberg’s father’s father’s father’s family came from Pilvishok, Lithuania. Years ago, he found another Goldberg family from Pilvishok, and he had reason to hypothesize the two family’s progenitors were brothers. Y-DNA tests, however, indicated no such match.

“The way surnames were obtained, even two people with the same name from the same shtetl might not be closely related,” he said.

family_finder_kitMeanwhile, autosomal DNA testing has yielded multiple promising leads for him to explore when time allows. He says what makes them promising is having prior traditional research to use in conjunction with the emerging science.

Goldberg lectures on genealogical topics, and his best advice is for people to both DNA-test their oldest relatives and also ask them critical questions, such as ancestral maiden names and cities of origin. He believes DNA results will become more fruitful as time goes on.

“The more people who get tested, the more connections will be found, plus the technology continues to improve and we’re getting much more granular,” he said.

Living in a Downtown high-rise, Goldberg compares his setting to his research.

“One of the many exciting things happening in Detroit right now is beautiful, historic architecture being supplemented with modern, cutting-edge technology and connectivity,” he said. “It’s a combination that creates even more opportunity, and the modern technology of DNA being used in classical genealogy has the same effect.”

Barbara Zabitz of Oak Park has a gentle warning for people thinking about DNA testing: You may uncover some unpleasant family history.

Maybe a grandfather left a family behind when he came to America and never told anyone about those children. Maybe a teenaged mom gave her child up for adoption. Maybe a child was conceived through rape or an adulterous affair.

It’s possible to find a branch of the family tree you never knew existed, she said, and your other relatives may not be thrilled to learn about it.

By Barbara Lewis, Contributing Writer

Read about the author’s own genealogy pursuit and what she discovered about her family.

Kevin Brook
Kevin Brook 11.05.2016

Great article! By coincidence, I've been corresponding with Leah Bisel about our DNA results over the past two weeks. GEDmatch revealed that Leah and my Eastern European Jewish mother share a Sephardic Jewish autosomal DNA segment on chromosome 21 that's shared by Mexican Catholics of Converso heritage as well as a Costa Rican and an Algerian who had an Algerian Jewish grandparent.

Some of our Mexican genetic relatives have been exploring their paper trail links to each other and evaluating which of their distant ancestors could have transmitted the Sephardic DNA to them. As Leah said, we don't know the original Spanish (or Arabic or Hebrew) surname our Sephardic ancestor on this segment would have had. DNA is probably the best we can do on our side because there aren't early paper records for most families from Eastern Europe who weren't in Ashkenazic rabbinical dynasties.