Modern at-home DNA tests are not only designed to help you discover your ethnic origins while examining and sequencing your unique genetic composition, but they can also provide you with much more actionable information.
Exploring your Jewish ancestral roots can help you discover your genetic predisposition for certain hereditary illnesses and determine your carrier status for a wide variety of “general” and Jewish-specific conditions.
This comprehensive guide will outline the importance of DNA testing for all individuals who suspect Jewish genetic origins, go over the existing ethnic divisions, and present some of the best testing options currently on the market.
Jewish Medical Genetics
Population bottlenecks and consanguineous marriages among certain Jewish populations have led to certain autosomal recessive genetic disorders due to a decrease in genetic diversity. This means there is a higher likelihood of both parents being carriers of the mutation on the same gene and passing it on to their children. These hereditary conditions are much more present in people with Eastern European Jewish heritage (Ashkenazi Jews) than in the general population.
All of the illnesses we are about to list are extremely severe, but some of them can be treated successfully to reduce symptoms and prolong the person’s life. Some of them can be detected during pregnancy through amniocentesis or chorionic villus sampling (CVS). These tests are an absolute must if both parents are identified as carriers of the same genetic mutation.
With that in mind, here are some of the genetic illnesses that occur more often in Ashkenazi Jews:
- Bloom syndrome – Babies with Bloom syndrome are born smaller and remain shorter than normal. Their skin may have a red tinge and they are more prone to ear and lung infections.
- Canavan disease – This is a serious genetic condition that slowly erodes brain tissue.
- Cystic fibrosis – This illness causes problems with digestion and fills the lungs with thick mucus.
- Familial dysautonomia (FD) – Individuals with the condition experience problems with speech, coordination, and excessive perspiration. They cannot feel pain as well.
- Fanconi anemia – Individuals with Fanconi anemia experience a lack of blood cells and are more susceptible to cancer.
- Gaucher disease – This illness causes glucocerebroside (a type of fat) to build up in certain cells of the spleen, liver, and bone marrow.
- Mucolipidosis IV – This condition breaks down the nervous system over time.
- Niemann-Pick Disease (Type A) – This condition occurs when a type of fat named sphingomyelin builds up in certain cells of the spleen, liver, bone marrow, and lymph nodes.
- Tay-Sachs disease – Tay-Sachs causes a type of fat named ganglioside to build up in the brain and the entire nervous system.
- Torsion dystonia – This condition causes spasms that twist muscles in the arms, legs, and sometimes the entire body.
Note that all of these conditions are found in non-Jewish individuals as well, but due to the aforementioned causal factors, the relevant mutations are simply more frequent among individuals with Jewish ancestral lines.
Jewish Ethnic Divisions
Geographic branching of the Israelite population and independent evolutions caused distinct ethnic divisions within the world’s Jewish population. The two biggest groups are called the Ashkenazim and the Sephardim.
Ashkenazim, which means “Germany” in Hebrew is the term used to denote their German geographic and cultural origins. The Sephardim, on the other hand, originate from Spain and Portugal (Sefarad means Spain in Hebrew). Sephardi Jews are also referred to as Mizrahim in Israel, which literally means “Easterners.”
Apart from these two major groups, there are also numerous smaller populations, including Bene Israel, Indian Jews, Bnei Menashe, Romaniotes, Bene Ephraim, Cochin Jews, the Italian Jews, African Jews, Teimanim from Yemen, and others.
When performing an ancestry or health-related DNA test, it is very important to understand its overall reach. Namely, most of the major testing providers only cover Ashkenazi and Sephardic genetic origins and hereditary conditions that occur more often within these two groups. Ancestry tests determine your geographic point of origin, even if you belong to one of the smaller Jewish groups, but they have a harder time establishing your ethnic roots.
Best DNA Tests For Jewish Ancestry
The ability to determine your potential Jewish ethnic origins and carrier status is reserved only for the best providers on the market. Some of the companies that can provide you with this information include:
MyHeritage – The ethnicity estimate provided by MyHeritage covers five Jewish ethnic groups, including Sephardi Jewish, Mizrahi Jewish, Yemenite Jewish, Ashkenazi Jewish, and Ethiopian Jewish. Apart from genetic testing, MyHeritage allows you to inspect billion of genealogical records as well.
Ancestry – AncestryDNA test enables European Jews to identify their genetic origins. Ancestry features the largest genealogical database on the planet, which lets you complement your genetic exploration with actual historical records.
Family Tree DNA – Family Tree DNA’s tests (Family Finder, mtDNA, and Y-DNA) cover Ashkenazim and Sephardim as well as Cohanim and Levites. On top of that, DNA signatures are compared with more than 1.1 million records in the company’s database.
23andMe – The most popular at-home DNA testing company in the world provides its users with reports on their ancestry composition as well as maternal and paternal haplogroups that determine potential Ashkenazi Jewish origins.
Best Health DNA Tests For People With Jewish Ancestry
If one or more DNA tests already confirmed your Jewish genetic origins, your results should definitely be complemented with a specialized health-related test to identify potential susceptibility to the aforementioned hereditary diseases as well as your carrier status for numerous conditions affecting the Jewish people. Some of the best options include:
JScreen – The company provides its users with genetic screening panels that guarantee 94-99% accuracy and cover more than 200 different conditions, including the ones exclusive to the Ashkenazi population. On top of that, a completely free test for fragile x syndrome is also a part of the package. The results are usually generated within 3-4 weeks and JScreen even offers limited financial assistance to individuals who cannot afford the test.
Dor Yeshorim – This globally acclaimed company provides both individual and mass screenings to more than 30,000 people every year. Its testing panels currently cover 9 Ashkenazi diseases (with an option to include 7 more) and 16 diseases specific to the Sephardic population. The results of single tests and mass screenings are usually available within 2-3 weeks and 3-4 months, respectively. If you and your future partner both have reports from Dor Yeshorim, the company will perform a compatibility check completely free of charge.