Am I Jewish?


By Stephen Epstein

We get a lot of people asking if they might be Jewish. You may be researching your family history or you might suspect that one of your ancestors is Jewish. Some people come from a place where researchers are studying the possible Jewish roots of the population. Some people learn that their family had unusual customs of lighting hidden candles Friday nights or not eating certain foods

Judaism today is passed from mother to child or through a conversion to Judaism. If you are able to determine that your mother or mother's mother is Jewish you would be considered Jewish even if they had taken on another religion. It is easier to check parents or grandparents' religion but what happens if the Jewish ancestor is many generations earlier? If the lineage can be proven, a case can be made to a Jewish Beit Din (Jewish court made up of three rabbis) and they can determine the validity of the claim.

There is no test that says one person is Jewish and another is not. There are however DNA tests that check for certain markers that point to possible links to Judaism.

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If the evidence points to a Jewish background but it is impossible to determine that the ancestry was passed to your mother through her matrilineal line it becomes problematic in proving the case.

In the case of large populations such as the Bnei Menashe that preserved an oral history of their ties to Judaism and the facts point to a Jewish connection, the rabbis determine the status. In most cases the members of the tribe are considered "safek" (undetermined) Jews and they are expected to convert . The conversion is not only done to make sure the status as Jews is beyond the shadow of doubt but to make sure the legal status of the Jews is devoid of Mamzerim. In Judaism, there are specific laws concerning marriage and divorce and if a Jewish population assimilates and leaves those traditions the children born from marriages that were performed for women who were married previously and did not receive a Jewish Get (divorce) the resulting children are considered Mamzerim and their status in the Jewish community is compromised.

Taking a lost tribe (read The Lost Tribes of Israel by Tudor Parfitt) that might be Jewish and "starting over" by converting them changes the status to a Jewish convert instead of the possibility of being a Jew with a questionable status.

Israel faced this question when the Beta Israel were brought from Ethiopia to Israel. One of the experts on the Beta Israel (Falasha) has written extensively on Lost Tribes and has used DNA tests to discover the Lemba connection to Judaism in Soutthern Africa. Read more about The Beta Israel in Ethiopia and Israel and Judaising Movements.

Some people have asked if they can take a DNA test to determine if they are Jewish. There is no test that says one person is Jewish and another is not. There are tests that check for certain markers that point to possible links to Judaism. The most common test is to see if a male carries the marker carried by a large amount of Kohanim (priests, also written as Cohanim). This test checks the Y chromosomes which are passed from father to son and can point to the possibility that a male ancestor was descended from Aaron, the first High Priest and brother of Moses. This test does not determine religion because religion is passed from mother to child, not from father to child. But, if the mother is Jewish and you carry the marker then it points to the fact that you are likely a Kohen (priest) although somewhere along the way the transmission may have been interrupted despite that one carries the marker.
DNA testing of all kinds can be done by a few companies such as Family Tree DNA. I had my DNA checked and have since been in touch with relatives that I did not know about. Together we have been exploring our family roots.
You can also do Native American Genetic testing. The tests are very simple, a swab kit is sent by mail and the user swabs the inside of their mouth with what looks like a large cotton swabs and returns the kit in an envelope. The test takes just a few minutes and the doors it opens are amazing. You can actually learn about your family ancestry through your DNA. The results are sent in about 3-4 weeks.

If you are interested in learning more, I suggest you check out http://www.amijewish.info as a starting point in your quest.

Some additional resources for research:

  • Crypto Jews in Portugal
  • Judith Cohen
  • Jews of Spain
  • Schulamith Halevy
  • Society for Crypto Judaic Studies

 

Bnei Menashe

One of the first lost tribes to reconnect with their ancient roots is the Bnei Menashe of India.

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Jewish Geography

The Bnei Menashe come from Aizawl, in Mizoram Province and Churachandpur and Imphal in Manipur Province.