Was she Jewish?

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Grandmother Leona has proven to be a tough genealogical nut to crack.  She has been the type of genealogical nut that sometimes requires a metaphorical sledgehammer.

Leona told me the names of her grandparents and a couple of great grandparents, and their countries of origin but she didn’t pinpoint any European villages. She did teasingly tell me that her mother Erna had, “left from Stolp.  But I’m not saying she was from Stolp.”

Her secretiveness and selective memory only fanned the fire.

I conferred with cousin Mary, the grand daughter of Leona’s cousin Mary Jane and she dropped a bombshell. She relayed that it was common knowledge in her branch of the family that either the Kern and/or Miller family were originally Jewish.

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Mary Jane Johnson Barnes and Leona Kern Wise

Could it be true?  Mary Jane and Leona had been very close their entire lives and shared the same grandparents. If anyone besides Leona would know, it would be MJ.

It had never crossed my mind that my French 2X great grandfather from Alsace might have been Jewish.  Then my estimated  ethnicity results came back from FTDNA as, “6.08% Middle Eastern.  Middle Eastern–Palestinian, Adygei, Bedouin, Bedouin South, Druze, Iranian, Jewish, Mozabite,”  6% sounded about right for a great grandparent to be 100% Middle Eastern.

At odds with this new information, I had already stumbled upon this entry about Saloma Miller, the mother of my French 2X great grandfather Louis:

1878 History of Fayette County, Iowa:
 “Mrs Kern is a member of the Roman Catholic Church.”

Did she convert to Catholicism? Why wasn’t her husband Anton’s religion listed?  I had always thought that as a saloon and billiards proprietor, he had simply not been  religious.  As any genealogist will tell you, most new facts lead to new questions and this tidbit was no different.

According to the Jewish genealogy site Avotaynu, the third most common surname among Jews in the United States is Miller, which is also one of the most common names among gentiles. As I am still searching for our ancestral village, the knowledge that some Alsatian villages had Jewish populations with both the surnames Kern and Miller, including Pfaffenhoffen and Hattmatt tantalized me further.

Yet, when Leona’s MyOrigins results came back, there was no Middle Eastern or Jewish Diaspora listed.

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Even more telling was the size of Leona’s small match list. With under 300 matches, she was unlikely to be Ashkenazi.  A recent study has concluded that, “a recent bottleneck of merely ≈350 individuals” occurred. That has resulted in an elevated level of inter-marriage and  inter-relatedness in the modern Ashkenazi population.

An in depth article goes on to answer the question,  “Is it true that Ashkenazi Jews who take the Family Finder test have many more predicted genetic matches than non-Jews?”  The answer is a resounding YES:

  • Jewish participants averaged 2777 matches
  • Interfaith participants averaged 1701 matches
  • Non-Jewish participants averaged 672 matches

With fewer than half the number of matches found in non-Jewish participants it was looking very unlikely that Leona had even any remote Jewish ancestry.

Consulting the Eurogenes JTest at Gedmatch, which searches for Jewish ancestry, Leona returned these results:

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Leona returned a 2.94% Ashkenazi result. According to the creator, “If your Ashkenazi admixture is clearly elevated, and the top 20 single and/or mixed mode Oracle results show AJ (Ashkenazi Jews) as one of your potential matches, then it’s likely you have recent Ashkenazi ancestry.”

Her 1 population test returned these results and her 2-4 populations results didn’t quite seem to know what to do with her either, but they also lacked AJ:
1 West_&_Central_German @ 4.425498
2 NL @ 5.026060
3 South_&_Central_Swedish @ 5.403438
4 NO @ 5.766941
5 DK @ 6.162718
6 English @ 7.525165
7 North_Swedish @ 8.637565
8 Orcadian @ 9.116341
9 Cornish @ 9.412027
10 AT @ 9.704170
11 IE @ 10.429833
12 Scottish @ 11.689842
13 HU @ 14.677732
14 FR @ 14.887579
15 South_Finnish @ 16.604397
16 Serbian @ 18.319963
17 PL @ 19.132175
18 UA @ 21.098221
19 West_Russian @ 21.913366
20 East_Finnish @ 21.917521

As a matter of curiosity, I ran my Irish grandmother’s results through the J Test and she returned 3.41% Ashkenazi, but her population breakdown didn’t contain any Jewish populations, either.  Low percentages of Ashkenazi appear to be common in a variety of ethnicities.

Should you discount your own family rumors?  No!  When you are researching your family, it is always worthwhile to investigate the stories that have been passed down.  Sure, some may turn out to be a misinterpretation, mis-attributed or utter baloney, but knowing that will keep you from wasting time looking in the wrong places, and who knows what else you might uncover along the way.  With the advances in genetic genealogy, admixture programs and population sample collections, our ability to investigate the rich histories of our families, whatever they may be, will only grow.

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6 thoughts on “Was she Jewish?

  1. It’s so interesting and timely seeing this post today because I read the Avotaynu article, Why Autosomal DNA Test Results Are Significantly Different for Ashkenazi Jews just this morning. The article contains the statistics you mentioned in your post.
    Your blog has intrigued me to try the Autosomal DNA test. My first goal is to proved that someone is my 5th cousin. It would be a breakthrough to a theory that I’m trying to confirm.
    All BMD records for a specific town were destroyed but anyone from that town with the last name Bernfeld is almost certainly related according to some written evidence leading to that conclusion. But it’s just an assumption and lacks hard evidence.
    Is this test helpful for a 5th cousin match?

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Pingback: Unravelling A Pomeranian Mystery | IowaDNAProject

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