Elizabeth Day: ‘I’m (probably) related to Einstein’

My husband recently bought me a DNA-testing package as a present. ‘Wow,’ you might be thinking, ‘what a romantic.’ But, actually, it really was a heartfelt gesture: I’d been umm-ing and ahh-ing about getting one for years. On the one hand, I was interested to find out more about my ancestry. On the other, I was scared that if the robot overlords took over the world, then my DNA would be stored on a database and make it easier for them to defeat me. Or, you know, clone me. Although I’m not sure what good that would do anyone.

Dan Kennedy

Still, more and more people kept getting tested, including my husband and his children, and eventually my innate curiosity got the better of me. What if I turned out to have fascinatingly glamorous ancestors? What if I was secret royalty, with a direct line to Catherine the Great of Russia? What if I was adopted? I think it says something about me that this last prospect did not worry me in the slightest. If my parents had lied to me all my life, I reasoned, then it was probably for my own good.

The package, when it arrived, was more prosaic than all of these fevered imaginings. Basically, I had to spit into a tube. And I had to spit quite a lot. Still, it was better than the time I’d ordered an allergy test online and was required to draw blood from my own finger, during which I felt like I was going to faint and had to lie down for 20 minutes. I never did discover if I was allergic to oysters.

I sent off the DNA test and waited for several weeks. I had almost forgotten about it when – ping! – the results appeared on my phone while I was out for a drink with a friend. I read through the precis of my ancestral DNA. It was more or less what I expected: mostly Northern European, with bits of Britain, Ireland (my father) and Switzerland (my mother) thrown in. There was a trace of Scandinavian. But then, as I scrolled down, came the surprise: 18.2 per cent Ashkenazi Jewish.

I’d known, of course, that I had Jewish ancestors on my paternal side, but I had no idea they were specifically Ashkenazi or that there was that much of their lineage in my blood. I went down a rabbit hole of historical investigation, which mainly involved googling ‘famous Ashkenazi Jews’. Albert Einstein came up. As did Steven Spielberg, Gertrude Stein and Rachel Weisz. Terrific genes.

I remembered, a few years ago, being sent to interview Rachel for the newspaper I was then working for. I liked her immensely. More than that, I’d felt strangely connected to her.

‘Sorry,’ she said to me, breaking off halfway through the interview. ‘I just feel I know you or that I’ve met you before.’

‘I know!’ I replied. ‘Me too! Almost like we could be related or…’

‘Yes, like cousins or something.’

(I’m recalling this conversation from memory, but you’ll have to trust me that it was more or less along those lines.)

And now here I was with actual scientific proof! We were as good as related given that all Ashkenazi Jews are believed to have descended from the same 330 people. There were other things that I discovered too: that I have a trace of Anatolian, Levantine and North African DNA, which at least partly explains my predilection for aubergines and hummus.

And apparently I share a gene variant with elite athletes, which explains why I recently triumphed in the 100m at the Tokyo Olympics. OK, so I made that last bit up. But

I’m probably related to Rachel Weisz and Albert Einstein, and that’s good enough for me.

This week I’m…

Reading

Sorrow and Bliss by Meg Mason. The most wonderful, heartbreakingly gorgeous novel of the year.

Packing

For a long-awaited holiday with an Away case and carry-on bag that slips neatly over the handles.

Wearing

This ‘icy pink’ jumpsuit from Me+Em. Comfortable, stylish and (even better) with pockets.