In search of my Jewish great-grandfather

Thanks to the new DNA project from Columbia University and the New York Genome Center, DNA Land (, I’m one big step closer to finding one of my maternal great grandfathers.

I’ve had my autosomal DNA analysed by quite a few DNA testing and analysis services: DNA Land, Ancestry DNA, Gedmatch and Genebase. They all show that a fifth (20%) of my autosomal DNA comes from an Ashkenazi/Levantine ancestor. All of my Jewish cousin matches from these services match me at an estimated 3rd to 4th generation level. Which strongly suggests that the ancestor I’m looking for is a great-grandparent or a great-great grandparent.

I know all of my great-grandparents and great-great grandparents with 100% certainty except for one: my maternal grandfather’s male line. This narrows down the field enormously. How? It’s easier to know that I’m only looking for one individual. And, I know the gender of that person. I also know which side of my family tree he falls within.

I’m looking for a man who in lived in the Washington DC area at the turn of 20th Century. Which is also a boon. I know the area he lived in and when he lived there. This too narrows the search parameters.

I know the man I am seeking would have been born roughly in the 1880s. Either he, or his parents, would have emigrated to Washington DC between the 1820s and the early 1900s. Which is another clue.

DNA Land, Ancestry DNA, Gedmatch, Family Tree DNA and Genebase all show that my missing Jewish great grandfather has a distinctive Jewish admixture: Polish, Hungarian, Ukrainian and Russian. There is a zero Western or Northern European footprint in his DNA. There’s one place on the world map where a 19th Century European Jewish community had this admixture and emigrated to the US between 1820 and the 1880s – Galicia.

I immediately thought of Spain when I saw Galicia. Turns out, there is more than one European region with that name. The one that directly relates to me is the one in Eastern Europe. Once an independent kingdom, Galicia is a region that has been intensely fought over, and possessed, by Russia, Poland and the Austrian-Hungarian Empire. Today, it’s southern region is part of Ukraine.It’s northern region is now part of present day Poland.

Armed with this new knowledge, I went back to Genebase, the more advanced and thorough of the DNA testing services I’ve used, and trawled through a mountain of DNA analytic results, chromosome by chromosome. It turns out that the man I’m looking for comes from a very specific part of Galicia: Eastern Galicia. Another incredibly strong filter.

map of the Galician Region
map of the Galician region

My Jewish autosomal DNA has the strongest resonance with present day people located in the southeastern area that encompasses Halicz to the west, Rawa to the north, Zbaraz to the east and Husiatyn to the south. That’s how precise my Genebase DNA test results are.

Armed with this new knowledge, I sent an email to Jewish Historical Society of Greater Washington. I explained who I was, the ancestor I was looking for any information sources they could recommend where I could find out more about the Galician Jewish community in Washington DC. In less than 24 hours I received an incredibly helpful reply.

In a way, I lucked out that my unknown great-grandfather, or his parents, chose Washington DC as their new home. Compared to other immigrant Jewish communities in the US, the one in Washington DC was relatively tiny.  20,000 or so souls lived in the Greater DC area at the turn of the last century. It was a very, very tight knit community. Which means there is a real chance that I could actually discover his name.

DNA testing is the tool needed to crack this. Specifically, my genetic cousin matches. Family names like Dunau, Fidel, Kessel/Kissel, Rosenberg, Tannenbaum and Yisrael hold the vital clues. Armed with a gender, a rough year of birth, a specific area or origins and a US place of residence, I can now begin the process of emailing my Jewish DNA cousins and ask if they know of any family who lived in Washington DC in the early 1900’s. While I wait for their responses, I can begin looking at digitized records from the Jewish Synagogues that served this community in the 19th and early 20th Centuries. And look for the family names I’m becoming familiar with.

I have to laugh at this point. I am descended from four forcibly displaced people who were scattered to the four corners of the globe: African, Irish, Jewish and Scottish. All four present the same challenges for any genealogist: non-existent or poorly kept records. None were considered human by those who controlled their fate. All present hurdle after hurdle when it comes to stitching their family trees back together again.

However, researching my African American ancestors has taught me patience, diligence and how to use my innate ability to not see a box (so I don’t have to ‘think outside’ of one) in order to crack genealogical barriers and mysteries. This skillset will definitely come in handy when it comes to cracking the mystery of my unknown Jewish great-grandfather. In the meantime, I’m learning about his Galician world and the world of the 19th and  20th Century Jewish community of Washington DC.

2 thoughts on “In search of my Jewish great-grandfather

  1. Note that looking for family names and locations in Jewish genetic genealogy isn’t always so promising and is definitely more complex than typical genetic genealogy. I’m 100% Ashkenazic. I have 4 PAGES of predicted 2nd-3rd cousins who aren’t really that close. I have a well-researched tree back to the 1700s, and none of those people have names that match (with the exception of one huge success). Because Jews are endogamous (married within the community, from a very small shared gene pool), closeness is very much amplified. Those 3rd-4th cousin matches may actually be 6th cousin matches (in several ways).

    1. Thank you for your great comment, Lara. lol, aye, I don’t seem to be able to escape endogamy in any part of my family tree. You raise an excellent point – endogamy does indeed distort DNA cousin matches.

      One clue I neglected to mention was the names my great-grandmother chose for her children. There were names that were extremely common in her direct and extended family: James, William, Wesley and Robert for the men. Willie Mae, Fannie Mae, Amanda/Mandy, Annie, Mary and Augusta/Gussie for the ladies. Yet, she chose names like Joseph, Esther and Lorena for her own children. Her children are literally the only ones to bear names that were popular within American Jewish households at this time in history.

      You also raise another good point when it comes to DNA testing cousin match level within the Jewish community. I’ve been in touch with a handful of Jewish DNA cousins who match each other more closely than they match me. They have no idea how they are related to each other – let alone how they are all related to me. The family names that are familiar to each isn’t familiar to any of the others in our little Jewish genealogy detective group.

      So yes, it does indeed look like my Jewish ancestry endeavours have some distinctly different hurdles and challenges than my equally challenging African American, Irish and Scottish ancestry.

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