Gideon Levy took a DNA test and found out the truth about his ancestors' link to Israel
Illustration. Amos Biderman
It started with me spitting. After all the saliva I’d absorbed from others in the past (and which I surely deserved) – once in the Carmel Market in Tel Aviv, once on the city’s beach and at least once on the road – the time had come to give as good as I got. To spit back. I’d never spat before, other than when I finished brushing my teeth, so I didn’t know how hard it would be. You need to fill half a test tube. You also have to be able to aim: The test tube has a very narrow opening.
So there I was, sitting in the Haaretz office, test tube in hand, spitting and spritzing, in front of everyone, gurgling and gurgling with hardly anything coming out. It took about half an hour, which felt like an eternity, to fill up the test tube as required. It was a nightmare.
But the end would justify the means: At long last, I thought, I would know who I am and what I am, where I came from and where I was going. Maybe I’m not really a Jew, as some people suspect, maybe not an entitled Ashkenazi, as others label me. The test tube would travel to laboratories in America and from there the answer would come. Businesses that help people figure out their family roots are thriving these days in America, and in Israel, too.
A Silicon Valley-based biotechnology company called 23andMe – its name referring to the 23 pairs of chromosomes in a normal human cell – would undoubtedly answer all my questions. In 2008, its personal DNA genotype test was named Invention of the Year by Time magazine. Afterward a few class-action suits were filed against the company (over the way it marketed its medical-report services, in one case), but who’s counting? According to Wikipedia, by 2014 it had already analyzed 650,000 samples. Cost: $199 per genetic report, now on special for $169. Just fill in the questionnaire, expectorate, and send the test tube back, postage pre-paid, to them.
Henceforth my life would be divided into two: pre-report and post-report. The saliva had winged its way to America.
Freckled Siberian kid
A few weeks later, an email informed me: “Gideon, welcome to you. The 23andMe results for Gideon Levy are in. A world of DNA discovery is waiting. View your reports.” I was struck dumb. Long days, weeks in fact, would go by before I mustered the courage to open the email and read the report. In my heart of hearts I had hoped that something would go wrong, that the test tube would crack, the liquid would leak out, the package would get lost in the mail or my sample switched with somebody else’s – and that I would never get the results of the analysis. I mean who really wants to know what hereditary diseases he’s carrying, which he will contract today or tomorrow, and which might be passed on to his children? Even the naked truth about one’s ancestral origins could be daunting. What does one do with belated revelations, in the waning stages of one’s life, about Mongolian DNA residues, the possibility of having a Congolese ancestor or chances that one’s great-grandpa was an Uzbek?
The first revelation, and the most important of all, struck me like a bolt of lightning. Unequivocally, definitively, no words spared. A huge headline across the full width of the screen: Gideon, your DNA suggests that 100 percent of your origin is Jewish-Ashkenazi. In other words, a 100 percent racially pure Ashkenazi Jew. An end to all doubts. Thank you, Mom, thank you, Dad, for bringing me to this day. You preserved the purity of our Ashkenazi blood, no gentile blood has mingled with it. All 248 organs and 365 tendons of my body – according to our people’s sages – are Jewish and Ashkenazi. Who will be able to accuse me of anti-Semitism now? I’m just a self-hating Jew.
Ashkenazi Jews settled in Eastern Europe in the Middle Ages, the 23andMe explanation says. There are about five million Ashkenazi Jews like you in the United States today. How good and how pleasant when brothers sit together. High concentrations of us are found in New York, California, Florida and the northeastern U.S., and low concentrations in Idaho, Wyoming, Nebraska and Missouri. Among the “customers” of 23andMe, a clear pattern of Ashkenazi Jewish characteristics emerges. Curious about Jewish-Ashkenazi history, art and tradition? There’s a picture of a hamantash; an etrog is the symbol of the Sukkot festival; how to listen to klezmer music. Want to know what Yiddish is?
Then came the next thrilling revelation: 1,092 customers of 23andMe are relatives of mine. In the month that passed since the report arrived their number has increased. Together with their partners and their children, we could easily fill the amphitheater at Caesarea. Cousins, cousins. I can imagine the scene – an amphitheater of cousins falling on one another’s neck. Row after row, second, third, fourth and fifth generations, according to the proper order. I don’t know any of them, of course.
My world was instantly tuned upside down. From a family of four beloved cousins, one of whom died in the prime of her life and another with whom I lost contact years ago, regrettably – I became part of a worldwide family with multitudes of cousins.
I will devote the rest of my life to uniting my magnificent family, which has risen from the dust. Of the new relatives, 140 might be first or second cousins, 228 third and fourth, 724 fifth cousins. In terms geographic distribution, 775 of them live in the United States, 20 in Canada, 10 in Britain, five in Israel and five in Australia. And of course, they are only the cousins from the 23andMe pool of customers. It’s hard to imagine how many more there are on the planet, and where. For a moment it seemed to me that most people, the majority of humanity, are my relatives. We’ll celebrate the next seder in Yankee Stadium.
Peter Whitman, for example, is a second cousin of mine, and I never knew it. He shares 1.77 percent of my DNA. He’s 76 and lives in Glen Mills, Pennsylvania. Another cousin is Jerome Reinstein, 1.44 percent. He’s the grandson of Adolf Reinstein, he wrote. Gail Pleasantine, Mendel Neifeld, Michelle and Edward Berlin, Nancy Rosenthal and Mel Katz. Even Sheri Lynne Feigel-Lerer is a cousin. And I never knew. More distant is cousin Radu Tudor, who lives in Bucharest. He was born in 1997. But what we share adds up to only 0.15 percent DNA. Maybe we had a common great-great-great-great grandfather, maybe we’re fifth-generation cousins, the report says, but then it immediately dampens the enthusiasm, adding that maybe we’re only half-cousins.
Nevertheless, Radu wrote to me quickly in the wake of the report, very excited: “Hello! I’ve noticed we’re related, but I don’t know how. I know it’s almost impossible to find a common ancestor, but I’m just curious to see where my ancestors lived. Do you have any knowledge of your ancestors coming from or going to Romania? Any info would be greatly appreciated! Thanks in advance! Tudor Radu.”
All this reminded me of the old radio show in Israel that helped people find lost relatives after the Holocaust, one of the most moving programs ever broadcast.
My new family possesses clear traits. Above all, they are 78 percent less likely to have lived close to a farm in their childhood than the average user of the genetic testing service. That’s what’s written, under the heading, “Learn about your DNA Relatives, the diverse group of 23andMe customers who have DNA in common with you.”
“Compared to the average 23andMe customer,” says the report, “your DNA Relatives are 73 percent more likely to have worn braces on their teeth.” I did, as a matter of fact. Apparently, they are 62 percent less likely to partake of energy drinks. Like me. The same goes for their tendency to have sweaty palms. I too lack that feature. A warm feeling courses through me now. With the soles of the feet, the situation is different: “Your DNA relatives are 52 percent less likely to have sweaty feet,” than other 23andMe customers. It’s written there! They are 46-percent less likely to drink caffeine-free beverages, 38 percent less likely to be able to “do the forward splits.” Important! Members of my genetic have a 36 percent greater chance to have a gap between their teeth, 35 percent more likely to own a cat, like I do – and, most outstanding: 34 percent “more likely to think that fresh cilantro tastes like soap.” I’m only quoting.
Moreover, their chance of sneezing when exposed to bright light is 33 percent lower than the average 23andMe customer, while their likelihood of being espresso drinkers is 32 percent higher – which is about the same increased likelihood that they are vegetarians. On the other hand, the probability of me and my cohort having two feet of different sizes is 28 percent lower than the average. I’m only telling you what it says. And there’s more: There is little likelihood that 26 percent of them will be capable of performing a small cartwheel; 24 percent “are more likely to smell asparagus in their pee.” Oh, we are 13 percent less likely to be capable of curling our tongues, and 11 percent less likely of sweating while sleeping. They are also 10 percent more likely than the average customer to have worked as lifeguards – or not to be able to wiggle their ears. Who’d have thought?
Mick Jagger in 1964. Thirteen percent of Gideon Levy's relatives can't roll their tongue. Terry O'Neill / Iconic Images
If the revelation of more than 1,000 new relatives is thrilling, the knowledge that you have 225 Neanderthal gene variants (out of the 2,872 Neanderthal variants the company tests for) is positively mind-boggling. Happily, or regrettably, these are fewer Neanderthal variants than in 92 percent of all 23andMe customers. My Neanderthal ancestry accounts for only 4 percent of my total DNA, which could be a cause for pride – in other words, I am almost pure homo sapiens.
The report waxes enthusiastic: “You are in first place out of your family and friends [in terms of the high number of variants]. Some of your traits may be influenced by having Neanderthal variants.” Maybe that’s why I have zero Neanderthal traits related to straight or back hair, also zero variants that might have caused a disposition to sneeze after eating dark chocolate. “Do more with your Neanderthal results. Join the discussion with other 23andMe customers interested in ancient DNA.” Sure, I’ll be right there.
And we still haven’t mentioned the haplogroup, paternal and maternal. As the report explains, “You descend from a long line of men [or women] that can be traced back to eastern Africa over 275,000 [for women, 150,000] years ago. These are the men [women] of your paternal [maternal] line, and your paternal [maternal] haplogroup sheds light on their story.”
This is said to be one of the most riveting areas in genetics. It allows us to trace our lineage directly back to our primeval forebears. If until now the report referred to Radu Tudor from Bucharest, I’m about to find out about my relations among prehistoric man. “Gideon,” the report says, “your maternal haplogroup is H1 ... and can reveal the path followed by the women of your maternal line.” Happy days. My female ancestors traveled north 18,000 years ago and reached Europe. Along the way, these ancestors passed through the deserts of Saudi Arabia – but, alas, never even approached the Land of Israel. Not for a moment. Can that be?
Hope remained from my father’s line; in his haplogroup, the picture is different. It’s the R-CTS6 group, says the report, “that traces back to a man who lived less than 6,000 years ago. That’s nearly 240.0 generations ago!” Duh. But again, astonishingly, there’s not a trace of the Land of Israel in my ancestors’ journeys in the past 275,000 years. They never saw it, not even through binoculars. It’s the definite end of my Zionism. My deep connection with the Land of Israel faded in an instant and became nonexistent. Justice was with the Palestinians, and BDS will triumph. In this new situation, the only option is to become post-Zionist.
My parents and my grandparents had no previous connection with Palestine/Land of Israel. My paternal forebears moved from East Africa to Europe via the Caucasus. “The[se] people of the steppes were the first to domesticate horses, nearly 6,000 years ago,” the report states. An honor. We were also the first to develop and use weapons made of bronze. I’d always suspected as much. The members of this lineage live today in Ukraine, in Russia and in Eastern Europe. One-third of Norwegian men and a quarter of British men are also in the R-M512 group, an offshoot of my primary paternal haplogroup. “Additionally,” I read, the R-N512 haplogroup “is still relatively common in the Middle East, as well as in Central and South Asia where it reaches levels of up to 60 percent among the Kyrgyz and the Tajiks.”
One of every 270 customers of 23andMe belongs to my dad’s haplogroup. And we “share a paternal lineage with ‘Mal’Ta Boy,’ who lived 24,000 years ago in Siberia,” on the banks of Lake Baikal, the largest in the world. He was a freckled kid of 3, through whom DNA was extracted and who became an important scientific discovery. The genesis of the “GL lineage,” as the report refers to me, was in a Siberian lake.
“Do more with your Neanderthal results,” I was urged by the company. SPP / Science Photo Library
Dandruff and ear wax
Now to find out what the 23andMe people say about my health. There are 12 reports under the heading “Health Predisposition,” citing what is described as “genetic factors that may influence your chances of developing certain health conditions.” High anxiety. “Gideon, you have one copy of the [epsilon]4 variant we tested. People with this variant have a slightly increased risk of developing late-onset Alzheimer’s disease.” Who will tell you, now that you are gone, my dear mother, that you fell ill with the dreaded disease. But this test doesn’t diagnose Alzheimer’s or other diseases, the report states: Lifestyle, environment, and other factors can also affect your risk.” Most people in my situation don’t develop Alzheimer’s. Still, it advises, “Please talk to a healthcare professional if this condition runs in your family, you think you might have this condition, or you have any concerns about your results.”
I see something listed in this part of the report called Hereditary Amyloidosis (TTR-Related) – “a genetic condition caused by the buildup of a protein called transthyretin (TTR) in the body’s tissues and organs ... [that] can damage the nerves, the heart, and other parts of the body.” Fortunately I was not found to be carrying the three amyloidosis variants. Or, for that matter, the variants associated with macular degeneration, or the variants 23andMe tests for in the BRCA1 and BRCA2 genes, which can cause breast cancer in women and men and also ovarian cancer. Those are, incidentally, among the few types of cancer I haven’t developed in my life. The report doesn’t even hint at the host of cancers I’ve had since I was 18. Genetic indicators of celiac disease, Parkinson’s and other afflictions were also not found, according to the report, which added that I have “an estimated 6 percent chance of developing type 2 diabetes at some point between the ages of 65 (your current age) and 80.”
There are also genetic variants that will not harm you but are liable to harm your children. Turns out that I have one of the variants they test for that are associated with being a carrier of Canavan disease, a degenerative brain disorder. But I am not a carrier of 42 other diseases, including Bloom syndrome and Sjogren-Larrson syndrome – which is some consolation.
As for the “wellness” section of my health report, I am unlikely to flush red in the face after consuming alcohol. As regards caffeine consumption, I have a inclination to heightened consumption. I am also not so likely to be a deep sleeper. “Gideon,” I am told. “Your genes predispose you to weigh about 4 percent less than average.”
In the “traits” part of the health report, there is asparagus again. What is it with asparagus, anyway? “Asparagus odor detection: Gideon, your genetics make you likely to be able to smell the asparagus odor in your urine.” Back hair: low chance, and only on the upper back. Bald patches: probably not. Bitter taste: I can probably detect it. Dimples: probably not. Dandruff: low probability. Ear wax: low odds of wet wax. Fear of heights: less than average. Inclination to graying hair: less than average. Misophonia: I have “average odds of hating the sound of others chewing.” Frequency of mosquito bites: average predisposition to be bitten. Sweet or salty? Slight preference for sweet. Meeting eyebrows: slightly. Wake-up time: around 6:39 A.M.
Within a few weeks some of my hundreds of new relatives started to make email contact with me. Elena Carmel asked me to write her, Melissa Schleier sent a photo. She’s 36 and lives in Newtown, Connecticut. “Hello family, I want to find out what we have in common,” my new cousin wrote. She doesn’t know a thing about what happened to our family in the Holocaust and would like to find out. We share 1.05 percent DNA, which isn’t a little. Lev Grozenko turned out to be a fifth cousin. Someone asked whether my father was born in Zatec (he was) and afterward asked, “Are you a writer?” (doubtful). In the past month, 22 more people joined my new family.