There are a number of DNA testing services out there, but this article will focus on just one — 23andMe. Despite the science that goes into genetic research and tracing one’s ancestry, I selected 23andMe in a very unscientific manner — someone showed it to me and it looked cool.
I’ve long been interested in my ancestry and even had a head start thanks to an aunt who researched the Baur lineage the old-fashioned way using libraries, books, and records. Through that research (and some skilled Googling) I was eventually able to find a cousin who lives in Lausanne, Switzerland. We met shortly thereafter and I learned more about the Baurs who started off in Switzerland and stayed.
Still, there remained quite a number of gaps in my ancestry. In general, I always knew that I’m a mutt mixed primarily with chunks of the British Isles and Eastern European Jews. The Jewish ancestry came from my grandmother, whose parents moved to the States in the early 20th Century as antisemitism grew in Europe. Whenever this topic of ancestry came up as a kid, I always made the stupid joke that I’m a quarter Jewish. Realistically, I always assumed that’s not true, knowing that you don’t get a perfect percentage of each grandparent’s DNA.
Now hold onto that thought and let’s fast-forward to 23andMe.
Last holiday season I was at a friend’s place in Düsseldorf when this topic came up. Ancestry is always a fun topic of conversation among American immigrants to Europe and Europeans whose families haven’t moved for centuries love hearing how boring their ancestry is compared to ours. A guy at this party showed me an app that spelled out his ancestry in easy-to-understand percentage points.
“This is updated since I last looked,” he said as let us have a look. Indeed, 23andMe updates your ancestral makeup as they receive more samples from various populations you’re connected to.
Since I’ve long been interested in my ancestry, I decided it made the perfect Christmas present and put it firmly at the top of my list. By the 26th of December, my spit was in a little tube and sent off to the 23andMe lab in North Carolina. Just short of a month later, my results came in and it was like Christmas morning as a child all over again.
Let’s dive right into the good stuff. The app function is great, but I especially enjoyed viewing my background on a desktop computer where I can toggle their confidence level from the lowest (50 percent) to the highest, most conservative (90 percent). My largest ancestral group is British & Irish (who are lumped together due to sharing essentially the same DNA composition) at 49.1 percent. But if I toggle that confidence level up to 90 percent, it drops to 11.3 percent with a huge chunk of that going to “Broadly Northeastern European.”
In general, I can rest assured I’m pretty damn European. Overall I score 98.2 to 100 percent European depending on the confidence level selected.
Now here’s the most interesting bit that blew my mind. I’m 26 percent Ashkenazi Jewish. Even if I change to a 90 percent confidence level, I’m still 24.5 percent Ashkenazi Jewish. This essentially means that 23andMe is confident in my Jewish ancestry. It also means that my dumb joke about being a quarter Jewish was surprisingly accurate.
But that’s not the mind-blowing part yet. Before 23andMe, I knew very little about the Ashkenazi Jewish ethnicity (and I still do). That said, I did some quick research and learned that Ashkenazi Jews are thought to have originated at the end of the first millennium. Where? Glad you hypothetically asked.
Ashkenazi Jews developed into a group in northern France and western Germany along the Rhine River. I’m originally from Cleveland, Ohio, but now I live in Germany. Western Germany, in fact, and I can see the Rhine River from my office.
Sentimentally, I like to think this is why I’ve long been drawn to central Europe, even before I ever visited. It was my Swiss ancestry that first pulled me in and my Ashkenazi Jewish roots that sent me back to the Rhine.
Yeah, it reeks like BS. Truth be told, I wouldn’t love living here so much if it wasn’t for the trains, walkable neighborhoods, cycling, and the hiking culture, regardless of my ancestry. Then again, what I love about living here is intrinsically embedded into the culture, and Ashkenazi Jews appear to have been a deeply influential group in western Germany and throughout central Europe. Indeed, it was the decidedly not Jewish Hitler and his equally not Jewish Nazis who wanted to motorize Germany, build the Autobahn, and create the Volkswagen — the main things I dislike about living here — before they went off to enact one of the greatest tragedies in human history that resulted in the death of approximately six million Jews, a majority of whom were Ashkenazi.
Point is, Nazis loved cars and my people loved nature (I assume).
While the highlight for me was clearly the ancestral report, there are a number of other fun functions to play around with, like researching your respective paternal and maternal haplogroup (look it up) and connecting with your DNA Family, essentially far-removed cousins. (I’ve already connected with one in St. Louis.) An especially fun feature is finding out your connection to our Neanderthal ancestors. I, for example, have more Neanderthal variants in my DNA than 65 percent of 23andMe customers. I’d make a joke here about how that must explain a lot, but this only accounts for less than four percent of my DNA composition. Still, fun to look into and I have the bonus connection of living within a short bike or train ride away from the Neander Valley where Neanderthal remains were first discovered.
When I first signed up for 23andMe, I thought I’d use the results as an excuse to travel. Maybe I’d have some hidden North African or a dash of Turkish blood that could justify a plane ticket. Ironically, if I want to explore the surest part of my ancestry, I have to stay right here next to the Rhine. Looking out the window, seeing a hint of determined sunlight bouncing off the thick clouds hovering over the Düsseldorf skyline, the Rhine splitting the city in half as it winds south, I think I’m happy to do just that for the time being.
If you’re interested in trying 23andMe for yourself, use this referral link so I get $20 bucks back. (Hey, at least I’m honest.)