- Jewish Genetic Potency:The Meaning of Jewish Ancestry in the 21st-Century United States
A person spits into a vial and sends it off to a privately held company. In a matter of weeks, that person receives maps, graphs, and figures representing the makeup of their genetic ancestry extending back generations and across continents.1 They look into the camera, read the results aloud to an online audience, and express either shock, confusion, or vindication. This is the general script of an emergent online genre, "DNA reveal videos," which now in 2019 have come to populate the leading video hosting site, YouTube, by the hundreds. In these videos, genetic knowledge generates meaning and new ways to define the self, all conveyed through the narrative element of the "reveal"—of exposing what is inside. What, then, should we make of the particular subset of these videos that "reveal" Jewish ancestry in the DNA results of individuals who would not otherwise identify as Jewish, leading them to exclaim, I'm Jewish? And what of videos made by those who already consider themselves Jewish, whose results now confirm Jewish ancestry scientifically? These moments of interpreting personal genetic information are imbedded within the wider social and cultural contexts of Jewish American acculturation and an American project that organizes the world according to biological ancestry, geography, and, unavoidably, race. This essay analyzes how individuals interpret genetic information in order to make meaning about themselves and about Jewish ancestry within these contexts.
I do this by looking at two kinds of videos: I call them "confirmation videos" and "discovery videos." Confirmation videos feature individuals who already consider themselves Jewish, for whom the results of a genetic ancestry test (GAT) confirm Jewishness. For instance, in [End Page 59] one such video, Jewish American neuroscientist-turned-sitcom-actress Mayim Bialik broadcasts to her hundreds of thousands of followers as she spits coyly into a test tube and then laughs as she announces that she has 99.7% Ashkenazi Jewish genetic ancestry.2 Alternately, in discovery videos, personal genetic information introduces individuals to previously unknown Jewish ancestry. In one of these videos, Karim Jovian, the Egyptian American YouTube blogger with over a million and a half followers, receives his results on camera, points to the line that announces his "<0.1%" Ashkenazi Jewish ancestry, and proceeds to tell his brother, "We're Jewish!"3
Confirmation videos tend to reference an extremely high percentage of Ashkenazi Jewish ancestry, whereas discovery videos usually reference an extremely low percentage of Jewish ancestry, whether Ashkenazi or Sephardic (although some GAT companies do not provide a Sephardic ancestry category). While Bialik's and Jovian's responses are especially lighthearted, Jewish ancestry inspires awe for others, such as a woman (not a professional video blogger) in another video, who marvels at the news of her 10.5% Sephardic Jewish ancestry, and repeats, "Wow, God is good," and commits to now begin her "Jewish journey."4 Jewish ancestry inspires significant emotional response in both confirmation and discovery videos, whether of gravity or levity, awe or validation, incredulity or remorse. In each of these instances, the GAT-produced, personal genetic knowledge allows individuals of various backgrounds to articulate ideas about the meaning of Jewish ancestry.
Jewish genetic confirmation videos and discovery videos might seem like two unrelated patterns. However, I contend that we should consider them a dual pattern of response to Jewish genetic information, attesting to a conception of Jewish genetic ancestry as particularly potent. The notion of Jewish genetic potency resembles other historical concepts of biological Jewishness or non-white racial potency generally, such as the Nuremberg Laws or America's "one drop rule." And yet, the social status of white Ashkenazi Jews as white (and racially un-marked) in the United States could be seen to facilitate expressions about Jewish genetic potency in these videos, as individuals' performances often transition easily between describing Jewish ancestry, European ancestry, and whiteness. At the same time, Jewish genetic potency illuminates the troubled place of Ashkenazi Jews within the fantasy of European whiteness. [End Page 60]
This study illustrates how in the historical context of the twentyfirst-century United States, the project of making...