It's that time of year again and I just ended another whirwind of genealogy activity at the International Association of Jewish Genealogy Societies annual conference. This year it was in Orlando FL. As usual, the schedule was packed with great sessions on all sorts of topics, but a highlight was a full track on the latest innovation in genealogy, using DNA to help build your tree.
You've probably seen the commercials for the DNA testing companies on TV. "Find out where your ancestors come from", "Find your lost cousins." Maybe you were intrigued. (To my cousins: If you have tested or are interested in doing so, please PM me!). This can be really interesting but unfortunately, traditional techniques of using DNA to find relatives do not work well for Ashkenazic Jews. It's much harder. We are an endogamous population; everyone is related to everyone else. Everyone who tests comes up as a match to everyone else who tests. This problem was not addressed at the outset by the companies performing the analyses for general consumers, but with advances in analysis and the advent of two companies and many researchers that put a focus on Ashkenazi Jews, DNA analysis has been added to our toolbox.
I have been trying to incorporate DNA results into my research. It can be especially useful where traditional document based research can't confirm a suspected relationship. I have several places in my tree where everyone agrees that two branches are related but we don't know exactly how. I have written about some, "the Other Roth Family" here, and the "Tepper Zimmerman" connection here. My research indicates a common ancestor for these branches, or a family story says that a couple were close cousins, but there is no documentation. That is where DNA may be able to help.
It takes a fair amount of work, and for many family members to test. Because everyone has a 50/50 chance of inheriting any piece of DNA from either parent, after a few generations, the amount of shared DNA goes down significantly even among direct descendants. In my family, I have almost reached the limits of reliable testing material since my missing connections are four or five generations back from me so it is important that as many of the oldest generations still alive test now so that their DNA is available for the future. The test that I have found to be the most useful in my research is the autosomal DNA (or "Family Finder") test. This isn't limited to only direct male line descendants (Y-DNA) and it can be more specific than MtDNA which can say that the person is in a direct maternal line, but not how far back the common ancestor is.
Over the past two years, I have been getting DNA tests from some relatives. After the test (a quick cheek swab, no pain, no blood) either they administer the results themselves (look at matches, answer e-mails from potential matches, analyze the results etc) or I act as administrator for them. At the conference, I heard about how several companies now allow you to upload the results from one company to another and use their tools for analysis. A representative from Family Tree DNA, the company I use, also told me how to group all of the kits that I administer into one private family project to streamline my analysis. I've started that process and am looking forward to making my life easier. When it is complete, I will also be able to invite others into the project, if I am not the administrator of their results.
I hope that with more family members testing, and more work on my part I may be able to confirm or deny some suspected relationships in my tree. Several companies have sales on the tests going on right now so if you are interested in giving it a try, let me know.