article

06.16.09

The Hidden Jews

This week, an al Qaeda spokesman revealed he has Jewish ancestry. How DNA testing is unearthing Judaism in the roots of unlikely family trees—and even prompting some people to convert.

When Adam Gadahn, al Qaeda's American spokesman, issued a statement this weekend revealing that his grandfather was Jewish, it caused jaws to drop. But it’s hardly the first time Jewish ancestry has turned up in unexpected places: Madeleine Albright, Fidel Castro, and John Kerry all claim Jewish heritage.

Now, the ranks of “hidden Jews” are suddenly growing. As the personal use of DNA testing gains popularity, more people are unearthing Jewish roots they never knew they had, and such discoveries are raising the question of whether there is in fact a genetic and biological connection to Jewish affiliation—and whether DNA discoveries will make more hidden genetic Jews convert to the religion and become practicing Jews, or at least begin to feel more strongly affiliated with the culture.

A former Catholic priest who discovered his Sicilian Jewish roots is now an ordained rabbi. A radio journalist and former practicing Buddhist, raised in an Italian Catholic home, told me he’d always felt the “spark of Judaism.”

Take Cezary Fudali, a 41-year-old business and securities lawyer living in Ottawa, Ontario. He has always been drawn to books about Israel and Middle Eastern architecture. But it wasn’t until he turned to his own family history that he began to see a connection between his intellectual curiosity and his own life.

Through an Internet ancestry site, he met a cousin from New Jersey who asked him if he knew his mother was adopted. Fudali was shocked. She told him that in the summer of 1943, during World War II, his maternal grandparents passed through a train station in Rozwadow, Poland, where they met a poor woman who begged them to take her child. Miraculously, his grandparents took the baby home and raised her as their own. His mother, who still lives in Poland, never knew she was adopted until her son heard this story, and his great aunt confirmed it. His mother still doesn’t believe the story is true.

Fudali, however, got some convincing evidence in 2003, when his ancestry research led him to a company called Family Tree DNA, one of a number of new companies selling cheek-swab tests that reveal genetic origins through mitochondrial DNA, a type of DNA inherited from one’s mother. Fudali, who was born into a rather typical Polish family in Warsaw in 1967—his father was Catholic by birth, but called himself an atheist—took the DNA test and was shocked to find he fell into a group called H-6A1, which is DNA that has only been found among Eastern European, Moroccan, Algerian, and Turkish Jews. Fudali concluded that his mother was of Judaic origins, and this information led him to believe that the woman who had given up her baby was most probably a Jew trying to save her daughter from the Nazis.

In 2006, a group of scientists discovered that 40 percent of the world’s Ashkenazi Jews could now be traced back to four women—two years later, a team of geneticists at universities in England and Spain discovered through Y chromosome testing that 20 percent of the population of the Iberian Penisula has Sephardic Jewish ancestry. A large majority of these hidden genetic Jews had converted to Catholicism during the Spanish Inquisition, and many had migrated to Italy.

“We’re finding that Jews and Arabs have a common ancestor in our database and Jews are writing to Arabs and Arabs are writing to Jews, saying 'So I guess we’re related,'” Bennett Greenspan, the founder of Family Tree DNA, told me at the conference. “Most people are detached from their ancestry. It’s my feeling that the better idea of self that we have will make us feel more grounded, and give us an idea of where we need to go as a species.”

At that same conference, I met Frank Tamburello, a former Catholic priest, who discovered his Sicilian Jewish roots, slowly converted, and is now an ordained rabbi. I also met Alan Tutillo, a radio journalist and former practicing Buddhist. Tutillo was raised in an Italian Catholic home, but told me that he always felt the “spark of Judaism,” or what in the Hebrew is called "Nitzotz haYehudi."

“It was discovering the genetics of my father’s family that pushed me to explore my Jewish roots," he told me. “That was a culmination of a lifetime of trying to figure out why I felt the spark of Judaism.”

In 2008, after confirming his genetic Judaism, he and his wife completed their conversion.

“The Orthodox are willing to accept DNA evidence that the person was of Jewish ancestry and that they need a conversion,” explains Greenspan of this new world. “If the mother was Jewish and DNA points the way, then they recognize what happened in the family. The Reform don't discriminate against whether it was a father or mother who was Jewish and feel the person, regardless, needs to convert.”

"The Jewish religion has a history of not proselytizing, which means that we do not actively seek converts,” says Barbara Aiello, the rabbi of Synagogue Ner Tamid del Sud, which is the first operational synagogue in Calabria, Italy, in the 500 years since Inquisition times.

Since learning about his DNA, Fudali has been working with the U.S. Holocaust Museum trying to locate other relatives. A few months ago, a son of an Orthodox rabbi responded to his request saying she was from Rozwadow area of Poland, and that his aunt had been given up as a baby in 1943. While the story matched, the DNA tests didn’t. He is still hoping to find maternal relatives, and while he isn’t converting to Judaism, he says this information has changed his identity. Now every time he goes to the library to read about the Middle East, he wonders whether his attraction to the subject is in fact a lingering remnant of a spiritual commitment long-passed.

Rachel Lehmann-Haupt is the author of In Her Own Sweet Time: Unexpected Adventures in Finding Love, Commitment and Motherhood (Basic Books, 2009). Visit her at lehmannhaupt.com.