2018-06-20 / Editorial

How a DNA test made me feel more Jewish

By ZIBBY OWENS Kveller via JTA

I had a life-changing experience recently that transformed how I feel about my body, my health, my sleep and my identity. And it all started with a gob of spit.

I don’t know why I bought a 23andMe DNA kit. Maybe I saw an ad. Perhaps a friend recommended it. I can’t remember, but I’ve always been curious about my ancestry, my background and my health. (I mean, who isn’t?) So I went online and bought a kit.

When it arrived, however, I let the small, square white box sit in a drawer beneath my sink for at least a month. Maybe two. I was eager to try it but could not mentally prepare for having to decipher what I assumed would be complicated instructions. Plus, I knew I had to do the test after 30 minutes of not eating and drinking—and, seriously, when does that ever happen?

At the urging of my 10-year-old daughter—an inveterate snooper—I finally decided to take the plunge. I opened the box, read the (surprisingly simple) instructions, then spit into the little test tube. Later that morning I tossed the completed kit in a nearby mailbox. That’s it. Then, between raising four kids, hosting a podcast and writing, I forgot all about it.

But six weeks later, as I was emailing various moms about play dates, I got the email: “Your reports are ready.” I stared at it in my inbox. At first I felt paralyzed: What if it was bad news? Could I handle knowing I was at a higher risk for Parkinson’s? What if I carried the BRCA1 or BRCA2 gene? It was like one of those movie scenes where my index finger hovers over the keyboard, and all sound and motion stops.

But then I clicked.

First I clicked on the Ancestry report. The result? My background is—wait for it—98.4 percent Ashkenazi Jewish. Though this wasn’t exactly a surprise, I discovered I found power and meaning in that statistic. Even though I’ve always known that I was Jewish, seeing it written like that—in my DNA, the very fibers of my being—made me pause. This wasn’t just about “tradition, tradition, tradition,” this was my blood. A heritage, a culture, a background—the very core of my being.

Seeing these results somehow strengthened my resolve to observe Shabbat every Friday night, which despite always buying the challah and planning on it, I occasionally forget. I mean, this is who I am! It’s more than a religion; it’s my entire body. I’m not even just Jew-ish; I’m like, really Jewish. A 98.4 percent felt like getting an A in Judaism. Observe—or else.

The result also reinforced all my decisions to enroll the kids in Hebrew school (b’nai mitzvah booked for 2020—stay tuned!), take them to Tot Shabbats and kiss the mezuzah every time we enter our home. It made me feel a renewed kinship with all other Jewish people—a feeling that’s not only cemented by a legacy of surviving persecution but by our blood ties alone.

Of course, the results of the DNA test weren’t all positive. I held my breath as I clicked on Health Reports. One by one, I scrolled down the tests. All was well—until I got to late-stage Alzheimer’s. I learned I have a copy of the E4 gene variant, which means I have a “slightly increased risk” of developing late-stage Alzheimer’s. This means that while the population at large has a 3 percent chance of Alzheimer’s by age 75, I have a 5 percent to 7 percent chance. By age 85, the odds increase. Thankfully, I don’t have two variants—that would have further increased the odds—but still. My great-grandmother had Alzheimer’s.

Seeing this, my anxiety got the better of me. (I mentioned I was 98.4 percent Jewish, right?) I quickly did the math and calculated, worst-case scenario, that I have just 33 more years left with my memory intact. (If you could even call it that now.) That’s 33 more Chanukahs, 33 more birthdays for each kid. My youngest child will only be 36 then! Will he have kids by then? Will any of my kids have kids? How can I live my life better now to prepare for this?

As my panic subsided, I resolved to live more for the moment—or try to, anyway— and to appreciate life events more as they rolled around. I told myself we’d celebrate Shabbat no matter what, even if it were a makeshift affair at a Benihana knockoff along Route 27 late on a Friday night. I vowed to thank God when my little guy—my fourth child, my miracle baby—said something sweet, like earlier this evening when he looked up and said, “I just want to snuggle with you, Mama,” and hugged me close. I’m clinging to moments now— recording them, writing them down, savoring them. Who knows how many I have left? (And, just to be safe, I’ll start to give to some Alzheimer’s charities, too.)

The 23andMe test opened my eyes to many things: I now know, for example, that my weight is genetically exactly average for others with my ancestry, so I can stop beating myself up for not looking like those skinny, blonde WASPs. But also I’m sporty, and I learned I carry the same gene that many elite athletes do. Also, incredibly, both poor sleep and drinking lots of coffee also were in my DNA results.

So now I know: I’m a forgetful, size 8, athletic Jew who sleeps badly and drinks lots of caffeine, and this isn’t just thanks to my behavior but due to my entire genetic makeup. I’m ready to embrace all that that means. Thanks, 23andMe. 

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