I was nervous when I answered the phone call from Bennett Greenspan, president and CEO of the genetic testing company Family Tree DNA. As part of this special issue dedicated to genes and religion, a few of us at Moment swabbed our cheeks and sent off our DNA samples to ascertain our family origins. I already felt secure in my historical roots, a lineage that places me as a ninth-generation descendant of the Baal Shem Tov with Rashi and King David as ancestors. But still, I didn’t know what to expect, or what this testing would tell me specifically about my family tree.
Going over the results with Greenspan, I learned that our opinion editor Amy Schwartz’s ancestral line is one of the oldest, thought to go back about 60,000 years and originating in Africa before moving into the Middle East and South Asia—rare for Jews. Co-workers Darcy Blustein and Sala Levin have female DNA linked to the Middle East with progenitors likely captured and expelled from Judea by the Romans after the destruction of the Second Temple. Our fiction editor Alan Cheuse discovered he is a carrier of the Kohen Modal Haplotype or “Kohen gene,” confirming the oral tradition in his family. Graphic designer Navid Marvi, who is half Iranian and half Puerto Rican, was unsurprised to learn the majority of his genetic makeup was from the Middle East. But his DNA was also 38 percent European, which suggested that his mother’s family came from Spain. The 10 percent South Asian DNA? He has no idea where that came from. Most surprisingly his ancestral line is one shared by many Jews. Our videographer Simonida Perica Uth was born in Serbia but according to family lore her ancestors were Spanish Jews. Her results came back as 80 percent European and 20 percent something else—it will take more research to determine if she has Jewish roots or not.
As for me: “You are like a fine wine. You have a mutation I have never seen before,” Greenspan told me, explaining why he couldn’t match me with anyone else in his database. All he could tell me was that the roots on my mother’s side are most likely from the Levant. Two days later he called to say that, from matching my autosomal DNA against data from multiple populations he could determine I was 100 percent Jewish. Phew.
It’s hard to know what to make of this information, what it all means or doesn’t mean. “This is a tool in your historical toolbox,” says Greenspan, who has tested over 380,000 people—women through mitrochondrial DNA and men through the Y chromosome, each providing a unique lens into the human past. And it indeed is somewhat amazing that modern technology grants us the ability to determine if members of a North African tribe or Ecuadorian villagers carry Jewish markers, and even more wondrous to see how so many ancestral streams have come together to create the Jewish people.
But at the same time, this knowledge is somehow disquieting. We live in a multi-ethnic, globalized society, a world where identity is fluid and you are encouraged to define yourself rather than be defined by your family origins. Even to discuss “Jewish blood” as some sort of “essentializing” marker contains disturbing echoes of the Nuremberg laws. After all, doesn’t our tradition insist that all converts and their families are full Jews, as was Ruth, progenitor of King David? Today, leaders of American Jewry rail against the power Israel’s Chief Rabbinate has in deciding who is or is not a legitimate Jew. But are we instead ceding this authority to science? Besides, how much can or should one’s identity be understood through a DNA test?
The burgeoning field of genetics has reshaped how we see the world. Our culture’s obsession with genes is (somewhat) understandable: We are told that DNA can explain everything from obesity to depression to an aversion toward spicy foods. I’m reminded of a Talmudic passage in Tractate Shabbat that discusses the concept of Mazal, the Jewish version of astrological fortune or destiny: Esau was born under the red planet of Mars and was therefore bloodthirsty. David, born under the same planet, used his thirst for blood to fight God’s wars. The message is that personality—whether shaped by heavenly constellations or genetics— still gives you the choice to be a murderer or a mohel. We are more than the sum of our genetic code. Who we are and how we behave are still up to us.
This is just one of the fundamental questions we reflect upon in this issue. We explore the concept of race and “truth squad” myths surrounding Jewish genetics. We examine Judaism’s take on genetically modified food, ask our rabbis if we are hard-wired to believe in God and consult scientists to see if there really is a “God Gene.” Editor Nadine Epstein profiles Google founder Sergey Brin’s mother Genia’s rare double LRRK2 gene mutation and what it reveals about Parkinson’s disease. National Book Critics Circle award winner Edith Pearlman riffs on our motif with a fiction piece on a shared family affliction. We ask a range of thinkers whether we can say that there is such a thing as the Jewish people, and profile the czar of Jewish peoplehood, Soviet dissident turned Jewish Agency chairman Natan Sharansky. New York Times science writer Nicholas Wade reviews two new books on Jewish genetics. Read it all and we know you’ll come away with a much deeper understanding of human genetics and what it means to be a people.
Also in this issue, Washington Post senior editor Marc Fisher reports from Tunisia about its Jewish community. And we’re proud to present the first article from the Daniel Pearl Investigative Journalism Initiative: Emily Keeler Alhadeff investigates how the Olympia, Washington’s food co-op’s boycott of Israeli goods has sharply divided the community.
There’s plenty here to keep you reading all summer. Enjoy and stay cool!