Losing the DNA Wars

So many people use DNA to find their lost relatives.  I have read absolutely amazing stories of people finding parents, siblings, and cousins.  People write about breaking down brick walls and finding their great-great-great-grandparents on someone’s tree and suddenly learning about five more generations.  One man wrote an entire blog that mostly focuses on how he used DNA to find his grandfather.

But not me.  I don’t have any truly amazing stories to tell.  It is true that I was able to use DNA to corroborate the family stories that my great-grandfather Joseph Brotman and Moses Brotman of Brotmanville were brothers.  Not only did Elaine match my mother as a second cousin as expected, but another Brotmanville Brotman, Larry, also came up as a match at the expected level.  Plus I found Phyllis and Frieda through DNA.  As discussed earlier, we are hypothesizing that their ancestor Sabina Brot and my grandmother were first cousins through my great-grandmother Bessie’s family.

second revision family chart for blog

Now I am not at all suggesting that those connections are not important. I was very excited to make these connections and hope to learn more from them as time goes on.  But what I was ultimately hoping for was that I would find some new third or fourth cousin on the Brotman side who would have names and maybe even records of my Brotman ancestors—that I would learn where Joseph and Bessie were born, whether they had siblings, who their parents and grandparents were, and where and when they lived and died.  At a minimum I hoped I would learn where Joseph and Bessie lived with more certainty than I’ve been able to establish through US records alone.

But alas, it was not to be, and I am about to surrender in the DNA wars.  Let me tell you what I’ve done, what I’ve tried.  Maybe someone out there will have a better idea.  First, as I mentioned before, I found three amazing women to help me—-Leah, Julie, and Lana.  Leah and Julie are biologists, and Lana is an IT/math whiz.  They pored over my data and tried to find patterns in the matches.  We had DNA results from my mother, brother, second cousin Bruce, the Brotmanville cousins, and Frieda and Phyllis. I even tested myself to add to the mix.  We had all the tools on GEDmatch.  We used every tool available—triangulating, segment matching, one to ones, one to many, chromosome browsers.  (If these terms aren’t familiar to you, maybe you are lucky.)  I learned about DNA.  We contacted experts on Ashkenazi genetics and genealogy.  We banged our heads together, we argued, we laughed, and we became friends.

We made lists and spreadsheets.  I emailed more people than I can remember, setting out why I was writing to them, listing what my ancestral names and towns were, and asking for input.  Some people never even responded.  Most did, but once we got beyond the niceties, there was not one time when we could figure out why or how we might be related.  There was no pattern.  There were matches from Germany, Lithuania, Ukraine, Hungary, Russia, and so on.  There were none from Romania.  There were none from Galicia.  There were some from far-away places in Poland, but not anywhere near Tarnobrzeg.

And there were no common surnames.  No Brotmans, Brots, Rosenzweigs, Gelbermans, Goldschlagers.

So great—I have hundreds of possible second to fourth cousins (I didn’t even bother looking at those predicted to be further out), but I can’t prove how I am connected to any of them.  Even Frieda is a guess, a hope.  At least with Frieda I know the family name was Brot and the location was near Tarnobrzeg.  But the others?  Not. A. Clue.

English: The structure of DNA showing with det...

English: The structure of DNA showing with detail showing the structure of the four bases, adenine, cytosine, guanine and thymine, and the location of the major and minor groove. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Sure, maybe my ancestors moved from Lithuania or Ukraine or Germany.  Maybe they all adopted different surnames in 1810 or so.  So what good does that do me?  It’s like saying I must be related to Jon Stewart because after all, I am sure he had ancestors who also traipsed around Europe.  I am sure if he tested, we’d share some DNA.  So, yay!  I am Jon Stewart’s eighth cousin or something.  I can’t prove it.  And I can’t prove that any of those supposed cousins on FamilyTreeDNA or 23andme or GEDmatch are really my cousins.

The problem is endogamy.  Most Ashkenazi Jews share at least some DNA with almost all other Ashkenazi Jews.  We all come from the same roots, and our people have been marrying each other for generations upon generations.  My experts have concluded that as a result, a lot of the “matches” are really false matches in the sense that the amount of DNA shared is just not an accurate predictor of the relationship between the two people who match.  I had matches who shared close to or more than 100 cM, meaning we should be second to fourth cousins, but there is no way that we are.  Maybe 6th cousins or even further.  And we can’t trace back to our 6th or 7th great-grandparents in any way that will tell us since there were no surnames back then in most Jewish communities.

So…I am throwing in the towel at least for now.  The DNA stuff has eaten up endless hours of my time.  It’s been fun.  It’s been educational.  But it’s gotten me nowhere.  I will still chat with my new buddies, and I am still learning new things all the time.  The science is fascinating. I am still excited to find my brain challenged by new ways of thinking. (I haven’t taken a science class in 45 years.)  I’ve even gotten my friend and fellow blogger at Bernfeld Family from Galicia and More involved in our shenanigans. In fact, she has a great post today about her DNA adventures.

But I am raising the white flag on finding Brotman relatives.  I am not emailing any more long shot cousins.  I can’t find the Brotmans this way.  At least not for now.

Now…on the other hand…maybe I CAN find a connection to those Goldschlagers if one of them decided to do a DNA test.  Hmmmm….

Damn, the stuff is irresistible.

10 thoughts on “Losing the DNA Wars

  1. Great post Amy, although such a shame that DNA hasn’t helped with your research.I haven’t ventured down this avenue yet, as I don’t want to become too distracted from the work I am currently doing. Although everytime I see a post on the subject my curiosity gets bigger.


    • Don’t go there unless you have a specific goal! It’s a swamp, and it eats up so much time. But it is fascinating. From what I know of your research, you’ve already gone back so far in time that you don’t need DNA testing unless you want to find current cousins. It’s a big learning curve and truly interesting, but not very helpful to me. So far!

      Liked by 1 person

      • That’s what I thought. My time is already very stretched with the little one, making sure my tree is in good order, re-checked and fully sourced and off cause my blog (which I’m very behind on)
        DNA might help with my eastern European ancestry, which I know next to nothing about. But it’s still something I might leave for a little longer.


    • No smack for the suggestion! But I did try it, and it is the most difficult program I have ever tried to use. Even with help from another, I couldn’t get it to work. It would not allow more than one profile and erased the older one if I made a new one, and most of the time I’d get a blank page even after uploading data to it. So let’s just say that was NOT a satisfying experience! (And my expert user of GenomeMate did eventually get it to work on her computer and sent me triangulation results. I contacted the top of that list until I reached the breaking point.) But thanks for the suggestion!


  2. Pingback: Another Cousin Discovered: The Granddaughter of Etta Wolfe Wise, My Third Cousin Sally | Brotmanblog: A Family Journey

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