American Jewish Historical Society
Using Technology and DNA Genealogy
to Solve Historical Mysteries B y L au r a A r n o l d L e i b m a n
ogroms, migrations, and aliyah may have spread our families around the world, but the Internet draws us back together. Cousins I never knew existed find me through social media. Can technology also help us solve the mysteries of the past? Some of my relatives seem to think so. “Dear Family,” begins one recent email from a long-lost cousin, “I am from the Chicago Branch of Berkelhamer Family. We just received the results, from having Dad’s DNA sample registered… The more family that we have registered, the better the data will be.” Yet was my cousin correct? If I had my DNA tested, would it allow us track the Berkelhamer family farther back into the past than ever before? Moreover, as a scholar of American Jewish history, I wonder if DNA could help us understand Jewish American history better. Using my own family as a guide, I explain what genetics testing can—and can’t—tell us about our lineage, and then turn to a perplexing case of mistaken identity buried, in part, in the vaults of the American Jewish Historical Society. When used in conjunction with archival sources, DNA can help us unlock some of the past’s mysteries. First the bad news. As a geneticist’s child, I know getting my DNA tested wouldn’t help my Berkelhamer kin. Patrilineal studies like that of the Chicago Berkelhamers trace information on the Y chromosome of a family, and as the daughter of a daughter of a male Berkelhamer, I only inherited a X chromosome from that illustrious clan. My DNA would not reveal much about Berkelhamers, other than whom they married. Indeed only one of my first cousins (my grandfather’s son’s son) carries the Berkelhamer Y chromosome. If I wanted to better understand my part in the Berkelhamer saga, my best bet would be to harass him or his father.
On the positive side, as a woman, I do preserve a matrilineal line that could illuminate my maternal history. While women inherit an X chromosome from both their parents, the mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA) passed along to women from their fathers is destroyed at fertilization. Thus, if I had my mtDNA tested, it would reveal my maternal line and could help me understand about the unknown lineage of my orphaned maternal great-grandmother, long before she married into the better-documented Footlik family of Odessa. I could also test my DNA using a BioGeographical Ancestry test to “discover my ethnicity.” At first glance, such a test seems a bit useless, as I know a lot about my ancestors’ geographic origins. However, such a search might be less foolhardy than it seems. While my mother’s family appears to have lived in Europe for an extremely long time, my father’s family came to Barbados in the early 18th century and lived there through the 1870s. Many “whites” in Barbados comingled their DNA with people of African descent, and race was often more flexible in the Caribbean than in the United States. Thus, a BioGeographical Ancestry test might tell me if an ancestor had lied about their family ties or if later descendants had a different understanding of their race than may have existed in earlier eras. And frankly, sometimes people lie.Even professional genealogists get it wrong. I know this because research by academics like Karl Watson and myself suggests that even the work of preeminent Jewish genealogist Malcolm Stern at times misses the mark, mainly because he lacked access
HERITAGE | Winter 2015
to key records. Occasionally , families want to hide what historians might think are the most interesting aspects of their family lines. Could DNA confirm the very things people in the past had tried so hard to suppress? The genealogical error and subsequent mystery I have recently been pondering belongs to another early Barbados family --that of the island’s wealthiest Jew, Abraham Rodriguez Brandon (1766-1831). Records in Barbados, London, Suriname, and The Hague reveal the Rodriguez Brandon clan is not what genealogists had previously led us to believe. Stern and other early historians believed Abraham Rodriguez Brandon and his wife Sarah Esther Lopez were the parents of Isaac Lopez Brandon (17921855) and Sarah Brandon Moses (1799-1828). Stern was only half right, though. Isaac’s father was Abraham Rodriguez Brandon. According to synagogue minutes however, Isaac’s mother, was an unnamed slave woman, who Karl Watson hypothesizes may have been named Esther Gill. The same slave woman was the mother of Isaac’s sister, Sarah. This genealogical error might have been inconsequential if Isaac and Sarah had never converted, married, or left the island. But they did. Moreover, they married into one of the most illustrious families in New York’s premier congregation. Their descendants were presidents of Shearith Israel, architects, authors, and prominent American businessmen (Figure 1). The error in their official lineage not only changes the history of their descendants, but also our understanding of race and Jews in the Americas more broadly. Today multiracial Jews make up 12% of U.S. Jewry, and many believe their story deserves more space in Jewish American history. The Rodriguez Brandon clan suggests the history of multiracial
Published on Oct 21, 2014