When we talk about being Jewish, it’s sometimes easy to mix up the idea of Judaism as a religion—which anyone, regardless of ethnicity can adopt—and Jewish ancestry, which refers to a few different ethnic groups. Moreover, because the history of the Jewish people was largely nomadic for a long time, there are several regions where Jews have predominantly gathered, from Europe to the East and even in Africa.
Top Jewish DNA Testing Kits
Jewish ancestry largely contains five major ethnic groups:
- Ashkenazi Jews, who originate from France and Germany, but expanded to Eastern Europe as well. Ashkenazi Jews make up a large majority of the world’s Jewish population, and the term derives from Ashkenaz, Japheth’s grandson.
- Sephardi Jews, who originally settled in Spain before being exiled into North Africa, the Middle East, and some parts of Holland. The term Sephardi stems from the Hebrew word for Spain (Spharad), and almost any Sephardi Jew today can trace their origin back to Spain.
- Mizrahi Jews, who originally settled in the Middle East, including in Iran, Iraq, and Persia. Although Mizrahi Jews can trace their lineage back to the region, the majority today live in Israel or elsewhere. The term originates from the Hebrew word for East.
- Yemenite Jews, who originated in Yemen, though many emigrated elsewhere. Years of persecution led to most Yemenite Jews immigrating to Israel, with some smaller communities moving elsewhere.
- Ethiopian Jews, who claim an ancestry that spans at least 15 centuries. Also known as Beta Israel (or House of Israel), there is little known about the history of Ethiopian Jews due to a largely oral tradition and nomadic lifestyle.
Although these groups all practice Judaism, a long history of closed communities (driven by persecution and diaspora), intra-community marriages, and more have made them distinct.
Which Test Should I Take for Jewish Ancestry?
Before jumping online and picking the first DNA testing kit you see, you should ask yourself a few questions about your Jewish ancestry and what you want to learn. Depending on how deep you’re exploring, you may be best served with a specific type of test. There are three kinds of DNA tests, and each can tell you different things about your Jewish Ancestry:
Mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA)
Every human inherits a series of chromosomes from both their father and mother. Your mitochondrial DNA is the part of your genetic code that is inherited directly from your mother’s line and can show you your maternal ancestry several generations back. Both men and women can use these tests. When it comes to determining your Judaism (not your Jewish ancestry) your mother’s lineage is an important factor. Moreover, there are several haplogroups—genetic populations—that are exclusively shared among Jews. Therefore, your maternal lineage can help shed important light on your Jewish ancestry.
Y-chromosome DNA (Y-DNA)
The Y-chromosome (also known as the “male” chromosome) is inherited from father to son, much like mitochondrial DNA. The major difference is that only males can take a Y-DNA test, since women don’t have a Y-chromosome. Y-DNA tests can trace your paternal ancestry back dozens of generations, but they are limited only to males in your history. If you suspect your father’s family has Jewish ancestry, you can have your brothers or father tested and compare your results.
These are the most commonly used tests on the market, and they give you a much broader look at your ancestry, though it goes back fewer generations. Autosomal tests scan your non-sex chromosomes and compare the results to databases of genetic markers and ethnic regions to determine your family history and find matches for relatives in their databases. These tests are great if you’re trying to learn more about your family’s heritage and migration history, or simply if you’re trying to connect to long-lost family or expand your family tree. However, they are not considered proof if you’re attempting to convert or determine if your family is Jewish.
The Limits of DNA Testing
Even though DNA testing can show you an incredible view of your Jewish ancestry and family history, there are some caveats you should keep in mind when you order a test. Although you’ll be able to learn much more, there are some factors that can limit the accuracy of the results you receive, including:
- Surname Changes – One of the biggest results of Jewish migration is that many family names have radically changed over time. Families may replace their surnames to match local customs better, and in many cases for Jews, they also did it to avoid persecution and blend in. This means that finding relatives can be tricky if members of the same family have changed their names drastically. Fortunately, autosomal and Y-DNA tests can help match you with relatives and show common ancestors.
- Genealogical Records – Another issue with migration, and especially for nomadic peoples, is a major lack of historical and genealogical records. If Jewish families emigrate from a country, they can’t always bring their historical records with them, leading to large gaps in family histories. Additionally, many countries have not always had strict census keeping policies, so records may not even exist.
- Cultural Isolation – Even when they’ve migrated throughout the world, Jewish communities tend to be closed off and isolated. Historically, there were few cases of marriage to non-Jews, which reinforces genetic traits and results in more genetic markers in common than normal. This can throw some relationship calculations off by a few generations, leading to less precise results.
- The Jewish Diaspora – As we’ve mentioned, Jews were historically largely nomadic and thus spread out across the globe. The diaspora has resulted in small communities of Jews and distinct genetic markers that have some mingling with local ethnic groups. This means that while there are several haplotypes largely exclusive to Jewish ancestry, more than half of Jews worldwide don’t match them.
- Jewish Haplogroups – Even with the degree of variance, there are some haplogroups that appear almost exclusively among those with Jewish ancestry. Groups N1b, K1a9, and K2a2a, for instance, are highly common for Ashkenazi Jews, but not elsewhere. Showing one of these haplogroups is a good indicator that you have Jewish ancestry. Even so, the degree of separation between Jewish subgroups means that Ashkenazi, Sephardi, and Mizrahi Jews, for instance, have distinct genetic markers.
The Top Brands for Jewish Ancestry Test
While there are several companies that offer DNA testing, these are some of the top brands we found for those looking to explore their Jewish ancestry:
As one of the most popular testing services, 23andMe counts on one of the largest user databases on the market. This makes it easier to find distant relatives, and thanks to an affordable price and fast results, you can learn more about your history easily. You can also take all three types of tests to learn more about your Jewish ancestry.
- Compare your DNA sample against 45 distinct ethnic populations, including several Jewish-specific ones
- Scans over 570,000 genetic markers
- Database of over 2 million users
Ancestry holds the claim for the largest user database on the market. You can use it to help expand your family tree and connect with family you never knew you had or long-lost relatives. The company’s tests offer less in terms of specificity but give you a great idea of your family’s broad ancestry and can help pinpoint the right direction thanks to its massive collection of historic records.
- Compare results to over 700,000 genetic markers and 350 geographic regions worldwide
- Find relatives with a database of over 7 million users
- Ancestry uses over 500 reference populations, including many Jewish groups
Another top competitor in the market, MyHeritage DNA is a great way to learn more about your Jewish roots. The company’s tests are almost as expansive as Ancestry DNA’s, and you can also compare your results with the company’s large collection of records. These also include genealogical data for several Ashkenazi, Mizrahi, and Sephardi lines.
- Scan your results against 690,000 genetic markers in 42 unique geographic regions
- Compare your DNA with over 1.5 million users in MyHeritage’s database
- Users found in over 200 countries
Learning about your Jewish ancestry can be a fun and important component of getting closer to your family roots. With the technology available today, you can easily discover your family’s history, and learn about their Jewish origins dating back hundreds of years. Make sure to choose the right test to help answer the questions you have—whether you want to know if you have Jewish ancestry, or simply want to expand your genealogical records—and find a company that can help you uncover them. With brands like MyHeritage, Ancestry, and 23andMe, you can take advantage of a massive database and an extensive collection of historic records that can shed light on your family’s Jewish ancestry and history.