New technology used to trace one’s genetic makeup is confirming and, in some cases, revealing a Jewish ancestral background for many Catholics, leading some of them to a new interest in Judaism, reports Moment magazine (July/August).
Genetic testing, now an inexpensive technique, “has buttressed claims of Jewish ancestry, once solely based on anecdotal evidence such as family traditions of lighting candles on Friday night, refraining from eating pork or covering mirrors after someone dies,” writes Daphna Berman. The main populations showing previously unconfirmed Jewish descent are in Spain, Portugal, Italy, and North and South America—places where those of Sephardic Jewish background were either expelled from or migrated to in hopes of practicing their faith.
Even in Spain and Portugal, from where most Jews were expelled during the Inquisition, it has been showed that 20 percent of Catholic men had Y chromosomes that indicated they were of Sephardic Jewish ancestry, according to a 2008 study.One genetic testing organization official says that the number of people with Jewish ancestry is much larger than the number of Jews today, with some estimates putting this number as high as 10 million in Brazil alone.
New efforts are under way to return these “Jewish Catholics” to the Jewish fold. Members of a community in Mallorca, an island off the coast of Spain, have returned to the Jewish fold after genetic testing confirmed that their ancestors were likely forced to convert to Catholicism. New research to achieve similar ends will be conducted in Calabria, Italy, where many Spanish and Portuguese Jews fled to escape the Inquisition.
Bennett Greenspan of Family Tree DNA, a genetic testing service, says that he finds a lot of interest in Judaism among those finding Jewish ancestry—“all the way from a general curiosity [about Judaism] to ‘I want to fight in the Israeli army’ to everything in between.” Berman concludes that “At a time of growing secularism and the declining hegemony of the Roman Catholic Church, having Jewish ‘blood’ is seen as positive rather than a social risk.”
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