Growing up in a small family outside Philadelphia, Madison Dall didn’t get the chance to know many of her relatives. Her maternal grandmother died when her mother was young, and the other grandparents passed away before she was old enough to ask questions about their family’s history.
Several years ago, on a family trip to Southeast Asia, Dall met a woman who learned for the first time that she was of primarily African descent through a simple DNA test. This experience sparked Dall’s interest in learning more about her own heritage and explore what life was like for her parents’ parents, and the generations that came before.
Through an Internet search using the few details she knew about her family, Dall stumbled upon a database created by her grandfather’s cousin’s daughter that included her own name as well as the names of several other family members – 300 in total. Her curiosity piqued, she and her parents all took DNA tests to further research her family’s heritage. The tests showed different percentages of Ashkenazi heritage for each family member and revealed – for the first time – the existence of a non-Jewish great-grandmother on her mother’s side.
Now Dall is teaching others how to take the very same journey. A senior at Tufts University, she and fellow senior Shoshana Goldman are teaching the course “Jewish Genealogy: Looking Back and Moving Forward” to a group of 13 freshmen through the university’s Experimental College, a school within a school that allows students to plan and conduct courses overseen by a faculty adviser.
The semester-long course will include three sections: an exploration of tools and methods for researching family histories and creating family trees; a historic overview of Jewish migration to the United States; and a look at ethical dilemmas associated with modern DNA technology. The goal is for students to gain a better understanding of what it means to be Jewish in today’s world.
As a veteran of Jewish genealogy research – and with the hope of someday becoming a genealogist herself – Dall offered some practical tips for others seeking to discover more about their families’ heritage. Her suggestions include:
1. Ask questions: Do some initial digging with as many family connections as you can while they are still alive. Ask them questions about their families’ histories, reaching back as many generations as possible. Be sure to ask for dates, names, places, and relationship histories with as much specificity as possible to improve your chances of finding results online.
2. Take a DNA test: For $99, you can purchase a diagnostic kit from Ancestry.com or 23andme.com, and obtain a personalized DNA analysis. Your result will include characteristics such as ethnicity by percentage, general timeline and location information of predecessors, and suggestions for further research.
3. Conduct research online: You can use resources like JewishGen.org, a compilation of Jewish databases from worldwide sources, to begin your research. By entering terms such as phonetic last name spellings and ancestral countries or cities, you often can begin to piece together parts of your family’s history.
Dall and Goldman had a great story to tell their students on the first day of class. By uploading their raw DNA data into a third-party website, they were able to trace back the number of generations before finding a common ancestor that connected them genetically. Now, they are no longer just friends, co-instructors, and former roommates, but distant relatives – connected through a common ancestor just four generations ago.
“Doing this research about my Lithuanian ancestors and the Jewish communities they came from has made me feel much more connected to my Judaism,” said Dall. “It has made me realize how strongly I feel about carrying on their traditions so they won’t be lost to history. I know they’d love to know that their great-great-grandchildren are hearing their stories and upholding their traditions.”