January 13, 2011

Interview with Schelly Talalay Dardashti, Presenter at RootsTech

We have an exciting interview today with Schelly Talalay Dardashti, one of the presenters at the upcoming RootsTech Conference in February.

Schelly focuses on Jewish genealogy as a journalist, blogger, online instructor and speaker. Her blog Tracing the Tribe: The Jewish Genealogy Blog  is the top-ranked, award winning blog in this niche.

Schelly's Session at RootsTech is on Friday Feb. 11 at 9:45 am. The title is It's in Our Genes: Revealing History via Technology (A DNA Project Case Study)

Schelly kindly agreed to me interviewing her about this upcoming session. Her responses not only provide a clear understanding of what her session will cover, I am sure you will find, as I did, that you have a better understanding of the use of DNA in Genealogy.

Following are my questions and Schelly's answers.

*Q: What is your background or interest in the topic you are presenting?

I grew up in an Eastern European Ashkenazi family that had been in Mogilev, Belarus since the 1700s. However, the family story was that “Talalay was our name in Spain” and that we were Sephardic Jews. No one in the family believed it, everyone laughed at the idea, but it was faithfully passed down to each generation.


Over the years, I’ve heard the same story from many researchers. But because of the time gap and the tragedies of Jewish history, paper trails were impossible to follow back to the 15th century of earlier.


Several years ago, after FamilyTreeDNA.com was formed, Judy Simon and I met at one of the annual international Jewish genealogy conferences. Judy’s family story was similar, “We were marranos in Spain.” Marrano is a derogatory, pejorative term for Jews forcibly converted to Christianity during the Spanish Inquisition.


We knew there were more of us and we thought that setting up a DNA project at FTDNA would help confirm these stories. The rest is history. With more than 200 participants, we have now connected more than 75% of our Eastern European Ashkenazi families with confirmed Sephardic, Hispanic, Latino and Converso families (whether they knew of Jewish roots or not). There are other advantages to making these connections, covering medical conditions and other reasons.


The matches for Judy’s family and my own show genetic matches to Sephardic and Hispanic families, and we’ve followed up with traditional research in Spain. I will demonstrate these documents during the session.

*Q:  Can you elaborate a bit on your Session Title to help us understand what will be covered?
Using the IberianAshkenaz DNA Project at FTDNA, we show that we can confirm ancestral family stories, showing that our history is in our genes. While paper trails have disappeared and historical tragedies have intervened, we can still establish the connections of families and reveal their history.

Although the session focuses on Jewish history and families, similar studies can be formulated for other ethnic groups.

I will cover organizing a project, criteria for joining, how to encourage people to participate, the surprises revealed and fascinating connections.

*Q:  Does an attendee need any prior knowledge of the subject? What level of attendee is your topic geared to?

I’m not going to get into the complex biology of why genetic genealogy works – that’s a topic for its own session. I will explain the very basics of male Y-DNA and female mtDNA, the tests available for each and why they work the way they do, but will try to focus on the possibilities and results that can be achieved. I believe it is a good session for all levels as it demonstrates what genetic genealogy can reveal about our individual ancestries. Those who haven’t yet used DNA may understand how useful it can be, while those just beginning to consider it will learn more about what can be revealed.

*Q:  What do you hope those of us attending will take with them after leaving your session?

I hope that participants will carry with them an understanding of why genetic genealogy is exciting, how it can provide answers and solve problems, while also furthering family history research. I’m hoping attendees will understand that genetic genealogy is not paternity or forensic-focused, as some fear.

*Q: What exciting developments do you foresee in the future for DNA testing?

New tests and features are constantly being developed.


FTDNA, as the pioneer in the field, is on the cutting edge of the industry. Newer tests already can find individuals to whom you are related going back five or six generations, which may offer additional insight into family relationships.


As databases grow, more connections will be made possible. Surname and country projects grow in number at FamilyTreeDNA; and some researchers use community-based projects to link descendants of families from certain areas or town, adding to our understanding of ancestral connections.

*Q:  Is DNA testing useful for everyone (all genealogists) or only for individuals with research challenges they have not been able to conquer?

While some genealogists believe genetic genealogy is too complicated for beginners, many of us who work with these tools believe everyone should test right from the beginning. It will show historical connections from the beginning and beginners may be able to connect with those who have already done extensive research. Testing is also altruistic and adds more samples to the database, meaning that more connections can be made with larger databases.

As most researchers know, paper records may demonstrate mistakes in old and even contemporary documents. Whiled documents may have errors, blood doesn’t lie. A paper trail may not be clear, but a match at 12, 37 or 67 (or more in the future) markers shows that two individuals are indeed related. The more markers tested that match, the closer the time of the Most Recent Common Ancestor shared by two individuals and the closer the connection.

Once a genetic connection is made, a researcher can then continue to explore traditional genealogical methods and resources and find out how, when and where the relationship may be traditionally be documented.

*Q: Different companies have different DNA tests. How is an individual to decide which company and which test is best for their needs?

My first criterion is to test with the largest database available, which is found at FamilyTreeDNA, which has the largest number of YDNA and mtDNA samples. That means that a testee is more likely to find a genetic connection. Testing against a smaller database means results may be limited or non-existent. The majority of genealogists who use genetic genealogy utilize FTDNA for that reason. While it has the largest Jewish database, it also includes very large genetic databases for other ethnicities. It all adds up to the largest database to test against.

An inexpensive test with a smaller company may be wasted money as the database is too small to produce results.

The basic test is the relatively (pun intended) low-price 12 markers, basically a screening test. If two people do not match at 12 markers, they won’t match at a larger number of markers. Once one finds a match, it is recommended that the test be upgraded to more markers and see if the matching continues. That’s why some people just go for the larger-marker tests from the beginning.


The basic point to be made is that many people today do not know who they are. Families have been caught up in historic events throughout history. Often that history is unknown due to circumstances and then not communicated through the generations. Genetic genealogy helps us understand who we are.


The caveat is that people who utilize this amazing tool must keep an open mind as the results may be quite surprising (and I will cover this in my talk) or challenging to a person’s self-identity. Some people may disbelieve the results, while others immediately relate to what the results mean.

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