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DNA Tests: The Ultimate Search for Identity

DNA Tests: The Ultimate Search for Identity
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BY MARY JANE HORTON

There were hints when I was growing up. Not many, but a few. My mother made some dishes: Chicken Paprikash, Stuffed Cabbage, Cabbage and Noodles. We were Jewish – allegedly – but totally non-practicing. My father had changed his name from Horowitz to Horton to fit in. We were the epitome of assimilated Jews. We celebrated Christmas, and even Easter. I never really knew where I was from. It wasn’t talked about.

But still there were hints. My father wouldn’t buy a German car. My mother had a bible signed by the famous Cleveland Rabbi Hillel Singer, and she was very proud of it. That was all I got. As far as I knew my parents were slightly Jewish, but I was about as American as apple pie.

Fast forward to my college days, I went to NYU and took a course on the history of Judaism in my first search for my roots. I went out with a boy whose last name was Horowitz and threatened my father with marrying him. I met my father’s cousin – a writer like me – who knew quite a bit about the family. They were from Germany, maybe Poland; with Jews there are a lot of places that no longer exist where you can be from. My father’s mother is from a prominent New York family and I learned about them but still not really where they were from.

As I moved into my adult years, I desperately wanted to know my ancestry but it was fairly hopeless. My mother’s family – of the Paprikash fame– really knew nothing of where they came from. And if they did, they didn’t want to talk about it. Maybe Hungary they said. My mother and father passed away without revealing much. I brought my kids up Jewish to try to give them a little bit more to hang onto than I had.

A few years ago my daughter went to study in Copenhagen and I planned a trip to visit her there and then Eastern Europe to look for my roots. I joined Ancestry.com. I searched the records and after quite a while, I did start to find some proof that my mother was Hungarian and that my father was from Prussia – which no longer exists but was a combination of Germany and Poland. The “hints” as they are called on Ancestry.com give you little bits and pieces of knowledge about your family You can see signatures on ship passenger lists if they ever traveled overseas. The census rolls are also interesting – you can see who lived in a particular house (My father had two live-in employees). You can see draft information, wedding certificates, and death notices. As interesting as the little tidbits are, they are frustrating because they are just that – tidbits, and they don’t tell you much. For immigrants, Ellis Island, http://www.libertyellisfoundation.org/, also has some information – you can do a passenger search to see who arrived in New York and when. But I didn’t get anything from it. The Church of the Later Day Saints (Mormon Church) is very into genealogy and offers a free search service at https://familysearch.org, but, again, it wasn’t very successful for me.

Every time I went on Ancestry.com before my trip, there was a little kernel of information to keep me going. I was pretty sure that I found out my great grandmother was born in Budapest. So, when my daughter went there first and told me that they have big books of all the people who were born there and the public could look at them, I was excited.

The Payoff

I stayed in Budapest for week, and before I got to the Genealogy department next to the Budapest Great Synagogue, my hotel had a Hungarian heritage night. I sat and watched dancers whirling around in bright colors, then I got up and walked around the corner to the tables that held all the food. And there it was, the first thing I saw, Cabbage and Noodles (or peasant food as my family had taken to calling it). Just like my mother had made it – with lots of paprika (Hungary’s favorite spice) on top. It felt almost official that I am Hungarian. But not quite.

The very next day, I went to the Genealogy office, and after about an hour – there it was, the name Fani Grossman, who with the help of Ancestry.com I had determined was my great grandmother – born to Hedl Rott and Albert Grossman, people whose existence I never knew about. It felt good to know where at least half of my heritage was from. And I did – whether it was in my imagination or not – feel an affinity with the Hungarian people.

When I got home, I was able to do more research and find Hedl’s mother and father – so I got all the way back to my great-great grandmother. I was also able to find out that my grandmother had been born in Hungary but came to the U.S. when she was about a year old. There are some other website that help you find your heritage, although I think Ancestry.com is the gold standard. Others include: www.findmypast.com/; www.genealogy.com; www.ancestor.com/.

DNA Tests

My experience in Budapest really whetted my appetite for more knowledge about my family, so recently I decided to do a DNA test. There are several companies that offer the, but some of the most popular are:

Ancestry DNA, www.ancestry.com/dna/ This is the one I did, because I am already a member and I like their service. Their kit is $99 and gives you a detailed look at where you are from. This kit will also link to other people who the company has determined might be related to you. It takes about 4-6 weeks to get your results (more on that later), and tells you the progress of the test all along the way. This is just an ancestry test and doesn’t get into your DNA in terms of what diseases you might be at risk for. The only downside of this one – in my experience – is the spit. You have to fill a vial and it wasn’t easy. 

23 and Me, www.23andme.com/service/ This is a more comprehensive report – in addition to telling you where your ancestors are likely from, it gives you a look at what diseases you might be a carrier for including hereditary hearing loss, cystic fibrosis, and more; ancestry composition; reports that help you be healthier with your DNA in mind; and traits – such as sweet taste vs. salty and hair loss. This is also a saliva kit and costs $199.

National Geographic, Geno 2.0,

www.genographic.nationalgeographic.com/about/

This test, which uses the easier-to-get cheek swab, goes a little deeper and tells you about migration paths of your ancestors. It also tells you if you are a Neanderthal descendant. Your results (anonymously, of course), will be used as be part of The Genographic Project which will gather and analyze research data in collaboration with indigenous people all over the world and will lead to a better understanding of ancestry and migration.

My Results

As for me, as I excitedly awaited my DNA results, I hoped maybe there were some exotic surprises – maybe some Asian blood, or Nordic. But, no real surprises here. It turns out that, just as I thought, I am about a pure a European Jew as you can get. The results showed that I am 92 percent European Jewish – Poland, Belarus, and Hungary among other places. I do have some more exotic “trace regions” in my report , but they are so small, they could statistically irrelevant. There is: one percent North Africa – Tunisia, Morocco and environs; 2 percent Great Britain, 2 percent Europe East, which just widens the area to places such as Germany and Estonia, less than one percent Italy and Greece, and less than one percent Finland and Russia.

Now, at least, I can imagine my mother’s family way back when in Hungary and my father’s family somewhere in a part of Poland or Germany that has been renamed. And my picture of myself fits together a little better. And now when I dig into a hearty plate of cabbage and noodles – good Hungarian peasant food – I feel like I’m home.

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