As home DNA testing becomes more accessible, more and more people are coming to understand the genealogy that led them to where they are today.
They can also do so for affordable prices thanks to how prevalent they are becoming.
Among all of the ethnicities, there are few that are as ancient and storied as the Jewish ancestries. This expansive history and the fact that Jewish origin must be proven through the lineage of your mother gives DNA testing a special place in some Jewish communities.
A DNA test that claims Jewish ancestry can give you an advantage in getting recognized by officials in the community.
If you get the right DNA tests, the results will be approximately 90% accurate, if not higher. We’ve included some of the more accurate DNA tests capable of testing for Jewish ancestry later on in this guide, but for now, we’ll focus on how DNA testing works and how it applies to Jews.
We also finish the guide off with some frequently asked questions so you can see common questions that get asked by users of DNA testing products.
How DNA Testing Works
How They Work
So, how do DNA tests work?
You probably have a vague idea of how they work, but let us explain in more detail. DNA test kits don’t contain the means of discovering your ancestry, but instead collect your DNA so you can send them off to a service provider, where experts will run the science and produce results.
If you’ve ever seen procedural cop dramas, you’ll know how this works. The DNA tests will want spit swabs and some others may also ask for hair samples, allowing them to access your genetic history.
The information you send is used to determine minor but significant genetic differences in the nitrogen base that exists in all of our DNA. The particular match of A, C, G, or T SNPs (pronounced “snips”) that are present, which only tends to differentiate itself across a 0.5% spread, is enough variation to track your genetic history with striking accuracy.
It's a comparative process, called comparative genomics, that involves comparing your results with others who have taken the tests to get more accurate outcomes. This means that widely used DNA test kits have more information to draw from for more accurate results, hence why there are clear industry leaders in DNA testing services.
This triangulation of your genetic origins is only possible because of reference populations, a base group of genetically distinct people from different populations that establish the initial results from that DNA test supplier.
The results you get will usually be displayed as percentages on each continent, with a breakdown of exactly where on that continent those percentage values come from.
If the results are suitably mixed, then it can be said that your ancestors traveled and mixed between populations quite a bit. If it’s almost entirely contained to one country, however, and if it’s the same country that you’re in right now, then it’s fair to say that your line has been there the entire time.
As you can imagine, DNA tests are popular in younger countries like the United States of America, where much of the population has ties back to Europe and Africa that they want to explore.
There is a problem with reference populations, however, and that’s dishonest reporting from the DNA test supplier’s sources. If any incorrect information is given, it can skew the results, hence why a good supplier will have a reference population in the high thousands.
Because of factors like economic development and marketability, DNA tests tend to have many more Europeans in their databases than Africans, Africa is the least represented continent if we’re not counting Antarctica. This can skew the results where cross-continental genetic origins are concerned.
Types of Jewish Ancestry
There isn’t one unique Jewish ancestry, which is to be expected because of how rich their ancestry is.
Unfortunately, Jewish history is punctuated with periods of persecution where their populations have migrated across entire continents, making it difficult to find a specific Jewish ancestry.
There are upsides, mainly that DNA testing has become rigorous enough to identify many Jewish-descended people. What’s more, if your lineage has a long-term Jewish genealogy, then it is possible to trace your ancestry back to one of the five Jewish ancestry types.
This is the main cultural group of Jews in modern Europe and has been verified as far back as two thousand years ago.
Like most Jewish groups, they were thought to have originated from traditional ancient Judaic areas in the Middle East, though there are studies that indicate the Ashkenazi ancestry has always been closer to Europe.
The foremost of these was published by Nature Communications, where mitochondrial DNA suggested the female ancestors of Ashkenazi Jews originated on the northern coast of the Mediterranean.
We’ll be going into mitochondrial DNA later and how that’s the most useful DNA test for maternal ancestry, something that’s especially important in Jewish communities.
There are still alternative theories as to how Ashkenazi Jews became prevalent in Europe. As mentioned, some think the group came from the Near East region that most Jewish ancestries originated from, whereas an alternate theory posits that Khazar mass conversions in the Caucasus mountains region were the cause of Jewish spread into Europe.
The Sephardic Jewish is by far the largest heritage of Jewish people in the world.
Historically, the Sephardic Jewish benefited from, and even propagated, cultural advancements in western Europe. The most notable of these would be the Golden Age of Jewish culture in Spain, where Iberian Sephardic Jews contributed to the development of Middle Ages Spain until their expulsion in 1492.
After this expulsion, the Sephardic heritage spread across Europe, particularly to the Netherlands, and many fled south into North Africa. Others, of course, went back to the Middle East.
Despite their prominence, the Sephardic Jews were quite unique in that they had Ladino, their own language spoken on the Iberian Peninsula where they incorporated words from their Hebrew roots, the local Portuguese language, and Arabic words from the Islamic presence of the Moors in Spain.
Unfortunately, following their expulsion, the Ladino language has mostly disappeared from regular use but is still present in songs sung at the Shabbat table.
Mizrahi Jews share many of the Sephardic Jews’ religious customs, so we’ll go through the next.
If you’re found to have a Mizrahi heritage, it means your Jewish ancestors likely came from the Middle East. They can be dated back to ancient and esteemed kingdoms like Babylonia, Persia, and Yemen, and carried several dialects depending on the regions they populated.
This colorful Middle Eastern history and their lack of a unifying language are just some of the reasons that the Mizrahi, while called Sephardic Jews by some after adopting many of their traditions post-1492, are distinguished from other Sephardic groups.
Enough of a history lesson, nowadays most Mizrahi Jews can be found in Israel or the United States of America, so American readers wondering about a possible Jewish ancestry have a higher likelihood of being descended from this group.
Sephardic and Mizrahi Jews make up almost half of Israel’s Jews, a surprising figure when you take into account the marginalization they initially faced from Ashkenazic institutions following Israel’s founding.
The Mizrahi dedication to their tradition spans continents, too, so Mizrahi Jewish families will have stronger ties to Iran, Iraq, and Yemen, the modern equivalents of their ancient cultural sites.
Sometimes they’re grouped under Mizrahi since, as mentioned above, Mizrahi also originated from Yemen. However, the Yemenites are distinct enough in their traditions that they’re often separated in DNA tests.
There’s also some lore technicalities surrounding the circumstances of their separation from Sephardic liturgy, which seemed to have been forced, while Mizrahi Jews assimilated into Sephardic practices.
This troubled and sometimes confusing past has worked to their benefit, however, since their preservation of pre-Sephardic traditions has seen them called the most Jewish of all the Jewish people by some. Much of the Yemenite population now live in Israel following anti-Semitic persecution in Yemen.
One of the largest cases of this migration was Operation Magic Carpet in 1949-50 where American and British transports took the majority of the persecuted Yemenite Jews from Yemen and Saudi Arabia to the new Israel state.
The Ethiopian Jewish ancestry is one that goes back approximately fifteen centuries and is mainly tracked through oral traditions and evidence of their nomadic way of life before the 20th century.
This combination doesn’t yield much evidence, especially when compared to the highly literate and traceable roots of the Sephardic and Mizrahi Jews. The Ethiopian Jews live in smaller communities with little unifying leadership.
Since these were the most disparate and nomadic Jewish group, an Ethiopian Jewish ancestry is considered rarer than the other Jewish lineages. Ethiopian Jews, known as Beta Israel, meaning House of Israel, nominated their own spiritual leaders and so their practice of Judaism was fragmented and inconsistent.
They were accepted by some monarchs throughout history but, as was common for Jewish populations, this ended in 1624 with their forced conversion.
Types of DNA Test
When you take a DNA test, the most common genealogical tests you can get fall under three categories, those being autosomal, Y-DNA, and mtDNA. Not every company offers all of these tests, so read on to discover which kind of test you want and grab a kit that has you covered.
Before you pull the trigger on a specific kit or type of DNA test, you should know exactly what you hope to discover through your DNA test so you can choose the best test for you.
Autosomal DNA testing is the most common type of test that you’ll find on the market. The process is named after autosomes, chromosomes that are inherited from your parents, so they’re a useful indicator in discovering information from your ancestors up to ten generations removed.
Fortunately, autosomal DNA testing is about as accurate as it is common, so you’re in good hands with an autosomal test. This test is the one you should go for when you want a more generalized history of your family.
Y-DNA, as you might have guessed, analyzes the Y chromosome information in your DNA. That means it reveals your father’s side of the family, but only if you’re a male, so there’s no use in a female taking the Y-DNA test.
The genealogy of your father isn’t important in discovering Jewish ancestry, however, so you’ll want to check out the next entry.
We’ve mentioned mitochondrial DNA already and now here we are, explaining exactly what it is and why this is the test for you if you want to establish Jewish heritage. Mitochondrial information is passed down from your mother and, unlike the Y-DNA test, doesn’t rely on you being a male.
Not every company offers this test but, given the reality that the overwhelming majority of Jewish ancestry is legitimized through a maternal link, a Jewish DNA test needs to include an mtDNA test.
Best DNA Tests for Jewish Ancestry
With all of that information covered, let us suggest some ideal DNA test suppliers who are capable of detecting Jewish ancestry.
We’ll go through them here and look at the strengths and weaknesses of each set, so you can read them and decide which one you like the most.
MyHeritage is a leading DNA test provider currently on the market, so it shouldn’t be surprising that they’re one of the better options to go with.
Their popularity is so much that they have 107 million users and, if you remember what we’ve said above, each and every one of those users’ DNA profiles will be used to make your results even more accurate via comparative genomics.
What’s more, they have approximately ten billion historical records that can be used to track your heritage, and such documentation will definitely help in the search for your Jewish ancestry.
They may have documents that give you more information on your Jewish heritage, such as which type of Judaism they practiced and where their families originated from.
It's as easy as swabbing your cheek and waiting three to four weeks, at which point your results should have made it back to you. You should be able to access the test worldwide, too, since their 690,000 genetic markers span 42 geographic regions.
We suggest MyHeritage DNA because their records include useful information about the lineages of Ashkenazi, Sephardic, and Mizrahi Jews, including the more specific Jewish ancestries that are often grouped in with those last two denominations.
You’ll get an ancestral makeup report afterward, where you can see your DNA makeup in percentages and identify where that DNA came from.
You do have to pay more depending on how much information you get, so if you need to go on a great hunt to find your ancestry, you’ll need to pay extra to take full advantage of the MyHeritage resources.
This is managed in a tiered plan system where you choose the depth of your heritage investigation.
- An unparalleled database of users/data points.
- Extensive family tree builder.
- Available in 42 geographic zones and has language compatibility to accommodate them.
- The results don’t include health reports.
- There are no free shipping deals.
Living DNA provides some of the most detailed ancestry reports that are commercially available, making it one of the best choices.
All it takes is a simple cheek swab test to get compared with genetic profiles from approximately one hundred and fifty regions across the globe.
It’ll show which regions you have the most genealogical compatibility with, and then it goes even further by breaking down each sub-region and the likelihood that you have ancestors from that area.
Living DNA will show your ancestry as far back as 500 years, usually from the standard autosomal DNA test that they offer. This is considered an initial stage that establishes a base of where your family has come from on the planet.
Once that has been established, your extended ancestry is also determined by a Y-DNA or an mtDNA test depending on your own sex. As we have mentioned before, it’s the mtDNA test that’s much more suitable for Jewish ancestry detection over any other test types.
Living DNA does its job well as a DNA test, but it should be stressed that the geographic location of your family isn’t the same as an ethnic population group with ties to Jews.
Your results will be displayed in map form to visually show the journey your ancestors had to have made to bring you to this moment, but your journey isn’t over yet.
You’ll still have to do secondary research to determine which Jewish group your ancestry belongs to.
- Carries out autosomal, mtDNA, and Y-DNA testing to cover all bases.
- Covers 80 worldwide regions.
- Takes longer compared to other DNA test suppliers.
- No digital means of downloading your results.
This DNA provider may have an unassuming name, but it actually has some interesting credentials to back it up.
Family Tree DNA was founded by Bennett Greenspan, a prominent entrepreneur who rode the real estate and dot com booms only to land in the field of genetic genealogy. He’s even considered a pioneer in the field, so who better to defer to when trying to determine your heritage?
Greenspan is himself Jewish, and he and his company are the chosen DNA test for the Jewish Voice newspaper, so Family Tree DNA are no strangers to tracing Jewish ancestries across the globe.
Greenspan himself has stated that he wishes for Family Tree DNA to help more people discover their Jewish ancestry. Two of their twenty-four databases are dedicated to the largest Jewish heritages, Ashkenazi and Sephardic, so there’s a wealth of information available to track most types of Jewish ancestry.
They offer three tests, and you can probably tell what they are. First, there’s the family tree builder, an autosomal DNA test that analyzes your family as a whole, mapping out their genetic and geographic origins whilst compiling them into a tree.
The other two we’ve come across before in this article, the Y-DNA and mtDNA tests. The latter is much more important for Jewish ancestry than the former since maternal genetics determine Jewish authenticity.
The one downside here is a major one, and that’s that your information could get shared with the FBI. Now, generally, that shouldn’t be too much of a problem but, as consumers get savvier as to where their data is getting sent off to, it may give some of your wary buyers out there pause.
What it also means, however, is that the genetic information Family Tree DNA acquires is so comprehensive and accurate that the FBI has used them to solve unsolved cases, so it should definitely be up to the task of finding your Jewish lineage.
- Founded by a known genetic genealogist who has a dedication to discovering Jewish ancestries.
- Offers a family tree builder, Y-DNA, and mtDNA test all in one.
- Your information may be shared with the FBI.
To close out this deep dive into Jewish DNA tests, we have another provider that has a unique connection to the Jewish people.
Like Family Tree DNA, the slicker-named iGenea was founded by Joelle Apter, a woman with a Polish-Jewish lineage, making it one of the more tailored DNA tests towards Jewish ancestries.
It's very expansive, too, boasting 710,000 genetic markers alongside a database of 500,000 people. Their test kits can discover both paternal and maternal lineages, but we know which one is more important for Jews at this point.
What it doesn’t offer, however, is family tree integration unlike some of the above DNA test providers. However, what tests they do offer are very comprehensive, tracking as far back as 100,000 years depending on the lineage.
- Very comprehensive test provider founded by a Jewish geneticist.
- Premium plans can get pricey and incentivizes long-term subscriptions.