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Jewish Journal

Mystery Mother of Long Ago

by Eileen Douglas

May 4, 2010 | 7:12 pm

The author's great-great grandmother.

The author's great-great grandmother.

I wonder who she was.

My “Common Female Ancestor,” as she was called in the write-up that came with the results of the DNA test I took. We all have one, this mother from another time, or we would not be here today.

I never thought about her before. A real woman. My mother’s mother’s mother’s mother, and so on and so forth, so far back into time that the string of mothers fades away into a vanished world. Like many others today, I was simply trying to discover my deepest roots with a genetic test that promised to unlock my “ancestral past.” 

Women can test their female line only. And when I scraped my cheek and sent the tubes back to the lab, all I was thinking was, “Who are the people I come from? Where on the face of the Earth did they once live?”

Eventually, back came the report, tracing the route from Eve — the first mother from whom all humans now walking the planet descended, a woman who lived 60,000 years ago — out of Africa, in a line passing through what is now Israel, looping around the Black Sea and into Europe, ending finally in what looks on the map to be Romania, where my grandmother Rose Nadler was born in 1892. A journey of 60,000 years ending in the land where the women of my family lived for generations.

I thought that was pretty remarkable.

To see where I came from and how I got there, so clearly laid out and depositing me exactly where family history said it should. I would have been happy with that alone.

But that was not the end of what the DNA lab offered:

Would you like to post your results and contact information on our Web site? In case others with similar results would like to know about you? And would you please tell us what country your longest-ago known female ancestor came from?

Sure. Why not?

And so I did.

Soon e-mails began popping up, telling me another contact had been added to a list of genetic cousins, others who had taken the test and shared with me — for the first time I had ever heard the term or thought to think of the concept — a Common Female Ancestor. One woman to whom we could all trace our lives.

At first the list threw me. I had expected to find on it one Jewish name after the other. People named Steinberg and Goldman. But that was not the case. Yes, we had an occasional Cantor or Cohen. But many more with last names like Roberts, Baker, Kirkpatrick and Walker. And when you looked at the column showing where each person’s earliest traceable grandmother or great-grandmother had lived, instead of Romania or anywhere else in Eastern Europe, the biggest number came from places I would have sworn I had no connection with: England, Scotland, Ireland, Germany, with a smattering of France. Naturally, this raised all kinds of questions I hadn’t expected to ponder. As with African Americans who discover they are half-Northern European, or people in Nebraska named Smith who discover they are descended from Genghis Khan, I began to think about this woman, this mystery mother, the Common Female Ancestor for all of us on this long, growing list, which now stretched to more than 500 people.

Was she Jewish? For me to be Jewish today in a line of mothers and daughters that I know to have been Jewish for centuries, did this woman marry in? Or, if I have genetic relatives who are not Jewish, did someone who was Jewish marry out? And when? Eventually, I would come to know the likely answer to my question. And it would seem to be a history many of us share.

As the FAQs for the list explained, the Common Female Ancestor in this case might have lived a couple of thousand years ago. (In fact, one out of three people now living in Europe have my kind of DNA. And so do many American Jews, but more about that later. That’s millions of genetic cousins throughout Europe, and clearly not all of them are Jewish.) This is a woman who lived, perhaps, in the time of the Roman Empire.

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