May 4, 2010
Mystery Mother of Long Ago
(Page 3 - Previous Page)
As it turns out, Bennett Greenspan, founder and president of Family Tree DNA, where my testing was done, can tell me more. Looking at my DNA results combined with his knowledge of Jewish history — he explains, with a few caveats on how he can only speculate — the math says there is a 50 percent chance this woman, the Common Female Ancestor from my Short List, in his opinion a Jewish woman, lived sometime in the last 28 generations, less than 700 years ago. Something like 500 or 600 years ago. Going further, he imagines she lived after the time of the Black Death, which peaked between 1348 and 1350, since by the end of the plague historians calculate there were only roughly 25,000 Jews left in all of Europe.
He imagines my mystery woman, from sometime in or after the late 1300s, probably lived in the embryonic Jewish community of Prague or Southern Germany’s Saxony. Triangulating where my Short List genetic cousins come from in a corridor through Eastern Europe that stretches from Lithuania to the Black Sea — that makes sense to me, to put her in the middle. Her descendants spreading out from the center, some going west, some going east.
“I see her in a shtetl,” I tell him.
“This is before shtetls,” he tells me.
Sure enough, shortly after, I read in a book on Jewish life in the Middle Ages that most Jews lived in towns, or were exiled outside of towns. I have never been to the towns of Saxony, but I have walked the streets of Prague, had my picture taken in front of the Altneushul, which would have been standing when this woman I seek lived. Walking through the crowded Jewish cemetery in Prague even then, I felt I might be walking past the bones of an ancestor. Now I have more reason to wonder, was I?
At least, with this knowledge, I begin to see her more clearly.
Turning to the Big List matches, the one with the more distant genetic cousins, Greenspan cautions that it would be wild speculation to say where the woman who was Common Female Ancestor for the Big List lived, though clearly somewhere in Europe. He says the DNA matches “do tell a story”: The odds of history are that she lived in the third century or before, as the practice was for Jewish men to take local women, non-Jewish wives, and convert them, a practice the Roman authorities eventually put to an end. Since conversions were outlawed in the third century, she may have lived as long ago as the first or second century C.E. And she would have been one woman, alone, who split off to begin a Jewish line, while the rest of her family’s descendants became Brits and Germans with names like Kirkpatrick, Potter and Mueller on my list of distant genetic relations.
As I can only test my female predecessors’ line, for all I know the Jewish husband in question back in those Roman days may have descended in a line straight from Moses or Abraham. But my female DNA is European DNA. As Greenspan puts it, “This is not Middle Eastern DNA.” Adding, and here’s the crucial point: “And 40 to 50 percent of American Jews have this DNA.”
So someone in Roman times, somewhere in Europe, married a Jewish guy and for a thousand years, down through centuries of turmoil and trouble, their daughter’s daughter’s daughters — and sons — remained Jewish, reaching the common female ancestor we know about who lived in Prague or Saxony, and on still, down through centuries more, each having a Jewish daughter who survived to become a mother, until today, where, through the scrape of a cheek, a Jewish doctor in Houston, a journalist in New York, an author in Arizona, a lawyer in Denver, a librarian in California learn somehow back in late 1300s Prague or Saxony we all had the same mother.
A woman who does not know we come from her.
A woman who, if I sat with her on a bench, might, I hope, hug me and want to hear stories of my life.
As I would certainly want to hear stories of hers.