IN recent times DNA tests have become popular with curious Jews, Converts and Bnei Anousim of Portugal and Spain in trying to search and prove their Jewishness. DNA testing has revolutionised the way humans are able to understand their ancestry. Two major DNA tests play a fundamental role for this understanding Y-DNA, which allows males to trace the origins of their male ancestors and the mtDNA, which allows women to analyse their maternal ancestry.
The mitochondrial mtDNA is now used in some instances by Beit Dins. An example of this is Rabbi Yehoram Ulman from the Sydney Beit Din and Rabbi Ze’ev Litke from the Simanim Institute in Israel who the later develop a special method to assist candidates to prove their Jewish ancestry, or not. This methodology has received in the past suspicion by some Rabbis who reject the veracity of DNA to assist traditional methods to verify Jewishness. This skepticism could be because of fear that DNA tests can lead to a situation where some Jewish people with centuries of documented Jewish ancestry DNA may show that they are not Jewish at all, nevertheless, according to halakha they are Jewish. This could happen in cases where some ancestor may had converted to Judaism, therefore, the DNA may not appear as Jewish. For this same reason Beit Dins do not accept DNA tests as 100% proof but it can be used to assist to demonstrate some Jewish roots an individual may have.
Dr. Jon Entine an American Science Journalist according to his book Abraham’s Children, attempts to answer new taboo topics, such as: Did Moses really live? What was the real fate of the Lost Tribes? The Jewish DNA studies he presents in his book claimed on one of his book presentations lectures that the Lemba tribe in Africa has more Kohanim blood that many Ashkenazi Jews. In a bold statement he claims that the Lemba tribe are more Jews than the Ashkenazi Jews who according to the DNA he presents “are not so Jewish”. He explains many Ashkenazi Jews have maternal origins from Roman women and Russian Kzars who later adopted Judaism and assimilated Jewish culture. Therefore, he maintains that only a small percentage of Ashkenazi women were originally from the Jewish Nation and the great percentage were converts. Parts of this lecture can be found on the youtube and in many ways contradicts previous DNA tests that refer that all Ashkenazi Jews are descendant from four foremothers.
While the Lemba are not considered halachically Jewish, if they are truly from one of the Lost Tribes, they would still have to undergo Full-Conversion. This is an example of the controversy and suspicion around DNA tests to prove Jewishness and is because of the way DNA testing is decontextualised and presented that some Rabbinical opinions resist the DNA as a possibility to assist many if not millions to attempt prove their Jewishness.
Considering that some Sephardi during the centuries of Inquisition tried to flee to the New World to escape. Many would have had no other option than work in the slave trade to which female black slaves or indigenous (Indian) women would be an important part. These Sephardi Crypto-Jews would normally set all their slaves free, part of the Jewish religion, in some instances many married some of these black and indigenous women and would convert them to the Jewish religion. In the slavery world the slaves would always take on the religion of their masters. I personally researched the Portuguese slavery archives years ago from Angola, a Portuguese colony, this colony was the massive machine of slaves ending up in South and North America. Many may not know but the famous Capoeira slave dance has its origins in Angolan tribes who were many sold in Brazil as Slaves, the instruments that are played in Capoeira are originally from Angola which the slaves reproduced once arrived in Brazil. In the slaves archives clearly states a list of the names of the owners who set the slaves free. On this list it appears mostly if not that all the slave owners are Portuguese Crypto-Jewish with Portuguese Crypto-Jewish surnames. I also found that in Cape Verde, another portuguese colony in Africa, there is an entire community of mulatos (mix colour) Bnei Anousim with clear Jewish names and to that they have in recent years restored the Jewish cemetery of their ancestors.
History tells us that when the Crypto-Jews were able to be open Jews in the new world they would open synagogues and register these free slave women and the children that would born from this marriages, these Sephardi Crypto-Jews would set free and marry but when this was not possible, they would teach them in secrecy the traditions of the Jewish religion and their Crypto-Jewish traditions. In my previous conference The Return of the Bnei Anousim Dr. Winston George Mendes from Jamaica, advised during his presentation that although he had slave female ancestry he did not have to undergo conversion as his ancestors names were all recorded in a synagogue.
Some Bnei Anousim around the world in Brazil, Angola, Mozambique, Cape Verde and St Tome and Prince island and all the Portuguese and Spanish colonies have this phenomenon of Mulatos descendants of the Anousim, this was not the general rule as well documented many Anousim married direct cousins, including in the new world, practising endogamy but those Sephardi explorers who were single and travelling to the New World with no family would tend to intermarry with local women. Many of the above mulatos descendants tell me they feel it is unfair that the Ashkenazi did the same as their Sephardi ancestors by marrying roman and Russian women in doing the same type of “conversions” which more likely there were no conversion documents to prove conversions, but they, the mulatos are subjected to scrutiny over a situation that was led by no choice considering the historic period of persecution their ancestors exceptionally lived for centuries.
There are clearly two main aspects of this dilemma, one that is the primordial of the Jewish Identity which is the Halakha that cannot be changed, and the Rabbis can only work according to Halakha, regardless of the culture or the skin of the person and the other aspect is the use of scientific DNA tests to assist as much as possible to help Bnei Anousim to prove their lineage according to halakha.
In my opinion, DNA can be useful to determine in many cases some sort of Jewishness if the person matches as cousin with another Jewish person and try to match their family trees, or as in the case of the Bnei Anousim DNA is used as a fourth type of evidence together with family traditions and values, documents dating back to the inquisition or Inquisition records of their ancestors. The DNA test can show haplogroups that are known to be Jewish.
It is known that recent DNA studies in South America, Portugal and Spain concluded that at least 23% have Jewish ancestry. This clearly backs up the history books and the Inquisition Archives that has evidence of “heretics” taken to the stakes for keeping Judaism in secrecy in the New World and Iberian Peninsula. This DNA studies complement the knowledge that Bnei Anousim already have in terms of documents and some are able to present to the Beit Din and this is the same logic that applies to every individual who may use mtDNA the mitrochondrial DNA to prove their Jewishness, is to see if the DNA result matches their documents to show the same maternal ancestral journeys and roots.
However, with Bnei Anousim of Portugal and Spain and Sephardi in general the DNA data is less than Ashkenazi whose data is larger and has been subjected to perhaps more studies and the information is more precise. The DNA case for Sephardi the best DNA data is the Family Tree DNA company and most Bnei Anousim the data is simply not big enough to have a considered amount of information to assist identify their heritage through DNA if a person is Jewish or not unless they clearly somehow match in one of the Ashkenazi haplogroups or have a cousin match that is Jewish from the mitochondrial mtDNA test.
Some groundbreaking research is currently occurring between a Portuguese Bnei Anousim returnee Dr. Ines Nogueiro a scientist from Ipatimup Cancer Research Center and University of Porto in Portugal who has developed a specific study for Mitochondrial DNA for female Sephardi Crypto-Jewish women and is going to continue these studies further with Dr. Karl Skorecki Dean of the Azrieli Faculty of Medicine, Bar-Ilan University in Israel. These are incredible times where the best of science and technologies are being tested and used to develop new studies about Sephardi Bnei Anousim mitochondrial genetics that can assist millions to identify possibly their maternal Jewish ancestry and to identify better Sephardi haplogroups.
To that end, I decided to organise a Conference for the 18th of April, Sunday 7pm Melbourne time on this topic with Dr. Ines Nogueiro pioneer in this study and Rabbi Yehoram Ulman to explain in-depth the halakha point of view on how to use DNA to certify Jewish status and with the details on how this groundbreaking research can assist Sephardi Bnei Anousim to determine their maternal lineage through genetics.
To book for this conference, visit www.trybooking.com/BPWUG.
Shiloh Miriam is a Jewish descendant of the Anousim of Portugal. To follow her work, join the Facebook group, The Return of the Bnei Anousim at www.facebook.com/groups/881550752670303.