In My Own Words: What defines our identity by Rabbi Rachel Esserman

I’ve written before in this column that I have no desire to have my DNA tested. That non-desire has been confirmed by the fascinating book “The Lost Family: How DNA Testing Is Upending Who We Are” by Libby Copeland (Abrams Press). Copeland’s book contains a great deal of scientific material that will thrill genealogy nerds; it’s also so well-written that people unfamiliar with DNA will be able to understand the basics. What interested me, though, were the stories Copeland tells – particularly about people who receive unexpected results, and the implications of those discoveries. 

In the past year, I’ve reviewed two memoirs about what Copeland calls “non-parental events.” That’s rather bland language for something that elicits a far more emotional response: someone learns that one of their parents (most often their father) is not genetically related to them. Some learned that they were adopted and have no genetic connection to either parent. In the past, artificial insemination and adoptions were usually kept hidden because they had negative connotations. But DNA can uncover secrets even when birth parents aren’t the ones being tested. 
The story of Alice Collins Piebush is my favorite because it shows just how much DNA testing can challenge a person’s identity. When Alice, whose parents are Irish, has her DNA tested, she discovers that she has a large percentage of Ashkenazic Jewish genes. I’m going to spoil the surprise here by saying that she is not the child of a non-parental event. All her siblings have the same Ashkenazic Jewish DNA. Since her father is no longer alive, Alice can’t test him, but after extensive research, more testing and some luck, Alice discovers that her very Irish father was switched at birth. Yet, her genetically-Jewish father had felt very connected to the Irish Catholic heritage in which he was raised. 

This is one of the most interesting questions Copeland discusses: Is our identity based on our DNA or is the environment in which we are raised a factor? Some of those who had their DNA tested felt their newly discovered identity fit them far better. Others see the research results as interesting, but not one that has a major impact on their lives. Then there are those who learn horrible secrets: that their mother was raped by a relative or that their grandfather (who is also their father) committed incest with his daughter. For these people, the discoveries can turn their lives into a nightmare.

Copeland also talks about privacy issues. Even if you never take the DNA tests, your information can still become available if any of your relatives do. People discover their birth fathers by connecting with half-siblings or cousins. Some sperm donors fathered numerous children who are now connecting and sometimes holding gatherings to meet each other. There are also legal questions about whether researchers and/or police can use DNA gathered by private firms in order to solve crimes. In fact, there have been cold cases (including decades-old murders and rapes) that have been solved using DNA data banks. Once again, the DNA of the person who committed the crime doesn’t have to be in the system: the discovery comes due to the DNA of other relatives.

These tests raise problems the Jewish community may have to deal with in the near future. What should we do if someone declares that they are Jewish because their DNA shows Jewish ancestry? Does it matter if they have been raised in a different religion, or by parents who don’t practice Judaism? Alice and her siblings were not looking to be accepted as Jewish by paternal descent, but others may make the claim. What if someone claims to be Jewish by matrilineal descent, even if that Jewish ancestor lived more than 100 or 200 years ago, and no one in their family has practiced Judaism since? Does the person need to convert? What DNA evidence would be accepted? Or should DNA not be considered a factor? Religious, and secular law, will need to catch up with DNA science, which has rapidly changed in a very short period of time.

In addition, Copeland’s book made me consider my own status, even though I still have no desire to have my DNA tested. To me, the results would be irrelevant because it is the parents who raised me who made me the person I am today. The father who gave me the books that formed my worldview will always be my father. The mother who searched for answers for my health problems and supported me will always be my mother. And what if one of my relatives spits into a test tube or swabs their mouth and sends it to be tested, and a half sibling shows up at my door? Well, I don’t know what I would do, but I still say I’d rather not know. However, as Copeland notes, with all the testing going on, I may not have a choice.