I asked three people of Jewish heritage to show me their Ancestry DNA results so that I could explain what others can expect if they test with Ancestry.com.
- Ben’s Ancestry results show 100% European Jewish heritage
- Kay’s results used to show 12% Jewish but recently dropped to 9%
- Jason didn’t think he had any Jewish heritage but Ancestry shows 1%
How did an Ancestry DNA test show the Jewish part of our trio’s heritage? Why did Kay’s results change? And is a low figure of one percent real? Read on…
How Does Ancestry Identify Jewish DNA?
When you get your DNA results from Ancestry.com, they include a breakdown of your ethnicity estimates.
Your display shows percentages of different regions in your genetic makeup. They also give you a heatmap of your ancestral locations across the world, like the one I show above.
The company compares your DNA to a reference database of thousands of DNA samples collected from around the world.
These DNA samples are divided by Ancestry into groups that represent seventy regions. For example, “Ireland” is one of regions that show up in my own display.
The challenge with Jewish heritage is that the diaspora was dispersed since ancient times throughout Europe, the Middle East, Central Asia, and North Africa.
However, generations of Jewish people tended to marry and have children within their community. The increased amount of shared DNA amongst Jewish people in Northern and Eastern Europe has become a recognizable pattern.
Ancestry’s DNA testing compares your DNA to reference samples who have this pattern. They label this pattern as “European Jewish”.
What Is European Jewish DNA On Ancestry?
Jewish communities from Northern and Eastern Europe are often known as Ashkenazi. However, they may identify themselves in other ways.
The people in Ancestry’s reference database who form the European Jewish cluster of DNA samples may identify as any of:
When Ancestry.com refers to European Jewish as a region, this obviously covers a very large territory. Indeed, it has a different meaning to most of the other regions in their ethnicity estimates.
What Are Jewish “Genetic Communities” On Ancestry?
My ethnicity display on Ancestry shows my “region” to be the island of Ireland.
People with Jewish heritage get maps that look like below that cover a very wide territory.
But Ancestry.com goes down a level with its DNA analysis.
Aside from the thousands of reference DNA samples in its reference database, the company also has access to the DNA of millions of customers.
When a specific group is identified as sharing ancestors from the same location, these are known as “genetic communities”.
Ancestry compares your DNA to groups or clusters of customers who share the same patterns.
My Irish genetic communities are as narrow as a single county in the country. Jewish genetic communities are still rather wide. They include:
- Jews in Belarus and Ukraine
- Jews in Central Europe
- Jews in Northwestern Europe
- Jews in Southwest Latvia, Lithuania, and Northwest Belarus
How Does Ancestry Show Jewish Heritage?
When Ancestry has processed your DNA sample, you can see your results when you log into their website.
What does 100% Jewish look like?
I mentioned that all Ben’s ancestors are Jewish going back many generations. His Ancestry display shows this:
When Ben clicks on a genetic community, he is shown three of his DNA matches who also belong to this community. That can help with family research.
What does a smaller Jewish percentage look like?
Kay has one great-grandparent in her family tree who was Jewish. Her ethnicity display looks like this:
Interestingly, Kay told me that her display used to show 11% European Jewish. But the number dropped in a recent update by the company.
It’s important to remember that these are estimates based on current technology and a specific set of DNA samples. As technology improves and the number of DNA samples grows, the estimates may change.
What about the tiny percentages?
I mentioned that Jason’s display shows 1% European Jewish. He also showed me his brother’s test results which don’t show any Jewish percentage at all.
How can that happen? Check out our article that explains how Ancestry results can be slightly different between siblings.
Personally, I don’t pay much attention to the tiny percentages in the ethnicity estimates. They can be quite misleading. If you want to know more, check out our article on how to interpret your Ancestry DNA ethnicity results.
And they’re not the only thing that can lead you astray.
DNA Matches Can Be Misleading For People Of Jewish Heritage
Aside from ethnicity estimates, Ancestry shows you a list of other testers who share DNA with you above a specific threshold.
I have over eighteen thousand. My friend Ben, whose ethnicity shows as 100% European Jewish, has over 170 thousand DNA matches.
This is just an example of how people of Jewish heritage may have far more DNA matches than other communities.
The reason is that many generations of one community have tended to marry within the community. This leads to endogamy, or a higher degree of shared DNA between genealogical cousins.
For example, Ancestry may show you a DNA match labelled as a first cousin. This person may actually be your second or third cousin.
A DNA match labelled as a third cousin may be far more distant. This is because you two are related through different branches of your family.
That makes family research a lot more challenging. However, there are plenty of other people in the same boat and researching their family trees!
You can find good advice online about how to go about your research.
One good resource as you review family trees is an explanation of Ashkenazi Jewish surnames.
Can DNA Testing Confirm Jewish Ancestry?
We’ve already seen that an Ancestry DNA test will show how much DNA you share with Jewish DNA samples in their reference database.
You can also examine the public family trees of DNA matches to research Jewish ancestors.
Aside from DNA and genealogy, there are other measures of Jewish identity. Any questions in a religious context should be discussed with a qualified rabbi.
You may be wondering if you can use DNA results to qualify for scholarships or trips based on Jewish heritage. The eligibility is based on having a “Jewish birthright”. So, how much Jewish DNA for birthright?
As of now, the groups I’ve reviewed do not accept DNA results as proof of eligibility.