I recently received a genetic test kit as a gift. I dutifully spit into the test tube, and sent the saliva off to be analyzed. I’m third generation American on my mother’s side, with roots going back to Hungary, and first generation American on my father’s side, who was born in Russia (now Ukraine) and emigrated to America when he was 13. The results that came back were fascinating. According to “23 and Me”, I was 97% Ashkenazi Jewish, and 3% Northern European. I had no idea what it meant to be genetically Jewish, or whether that was even possible, so I began to research what this meant, as it seemed to me that my genetic roots would, according to this, be Middle Eastern.
I should note here that, whenever I am asked my nationality, in person or on a form, my answer is always “American” or “U.S.”. If asked about my family’s national origin, it would be “Russian” and “Hungarian”. When asked about my religion, it would be “none”, as I’ve been a lifelong atheist. My family identified loosely with being Jewish, as do I, though they were also irreligious, so that being Jewish had more to do with some vague cultural concept than it did with religion or nationality. It encompassed being liberal, bookish, artsy, a New Yorker (or much like one), and college educated.
I was startled when I filled out my COVID vaccination form, which asked for my nationality. Among the choices was “Jewish”; not Jewish/American, although African/American, and Asian/American were listed as such. It was simply “Jewish”, as though I were not an American at all. There were no other nationalities listed other than Hispanic, Caucasian, and the above listed. There was no category for “Irish”, “Russian”, German, Swedish, British, or any other nation.
When an acquaintance of my husband mentioned last week that she was born in Israel, my husband replied, “My wife is Jewish”. It struck me then that I was, in no way, a Zionist, and that I don’t really know what Jewish means. If it doesn’t have to signify a religion, is it a nationality, and, if so, why is it different from other nationalities? Is it a race? Am I, in fact, Middle Eastern? My husband defines himself as a lapsed Catholic. Can one be a lapsed Jew if being Jewish is, indeed, a race?
So, on to my research. I looked up Ashkenazi Jewish, and found studies informing me that gene tests show that two fifths of Askenazi Jews are descended from four women; four “founding mothers” who lived in Europe 1,000 years ago. The remaining 60% were found to have much more heterogeneous genetic origins (American Journal of Human Genetics, as well as other sources). In sum, the findings seemed to confirm that the four founding types of mtDNA were likely to be of Middle Eastern origin, and underwent a major expansion in Europe over the last 1,000 years. A Duke University study maintained that the linkage with Middle Eastern populations was not statistically significant. Because of genetic drift Ashkenazi DNAs have developed their own pattern, which makes it very hard to tell their source.
OK. So, who am I? I think I may be a mutt, who’s liberal, bookish, artsy, a New Yorker, and a college plus graduate. And, I think that may define Jew-Ish. “Ish” derives from the Anglo-Saxon suffix “Isc”, which means “similar to”. I think that my lapsed Catholic husband may be “Jew-Ish”, also, being liberal, bookish, artsy, New-Yorker-like, and a college plus graduate.
So I sally forth this Passover as a Jew-ish/American. Happy Passover to all who celebrate!