Jewish Genes: Are They in Our DNA or in Our Stories?

Mychal with map

Where are you from? It seems an innocent enough question. But as our families become more and more diverse, the answer can get wonderfully complicated. Recently at a “Saturdays Unplugged” event at the Jewish Community Center in San Francisco, I asked attendees about their ancestry and invited them to place pins in a world map marking their families’ journeys.

The map shows that a sampling of Jewish San Francisco families come from Argentina, Cyprus, Lithuania and China to name a few countries of origin. As kids turned to their parents and grandparents asking, “Where am I from?” I started to think about how complicated this question is.

So I asked one of my own kids: “Do you know where you’re from?” He started breaking it down into “sides” immediately. “Mama, your side is from Poland and Russia, right? Mommy’s side is from Germany, Scotland, Finland…” I was glad he added her ancestry without hesitation even though I gave birth to him and he isn’t biologically related to her. Clearly, where someone is from is not as easy as a DNA test. As he continued rattling off the countries where he felt he had a connection, I realized that I also hoped he would list his sperm donor’s ancestry. After all, he wouldn’t be here without him. So we added those to the mix. This child who was birthed by me, an American Jew with only Eastern European ancestry, can now identify himself with a good portion of Europe.

What about my other child? He was birthed by my partner, a mix of Northern European ancestry who converted to Judaism long before his birth. Along with those regions of the world, does this little boy also claim an Ashkenazi heritage? He certainly claims a Jewish one and our Jewish practice is largely Ashkenazi…but is he “from” Eastern Europe as my ancestors were?

Jews have long disagreed about what exactly Judaism is: a matter of biology, peoplehood, civilization, religion or ethnicity. Even early on in Jewish history, there were at least two strands of thought: Being Jewish was in some instances about claiming a certain lineage, and at other times about observance of a spiritual tradition. The first line of reasoning made it very difficult to join, for example, while the latter made it much easier to choose to identify as a Jew even if one wasn’t born one.

One scholar notes that tension ensued due to these “two distinct definitional standards…the religious and the ethnic.” [Porton, Gary. The Stranger Within Your Gates] We still struggle with those definitions, but today, with more and more conversion, intermarriage, adoption, donor insemination and surrogacy, we are moving away from a genetic definition (in my eyes a welcome shift) to a Judaism defined more as an affinity with a unique worldview. A lineup of kids at a typical Bay Area synagogue classroom is quite different than it would have looked 40 years ago when I was a kid.

A few years back, I worked with college students to create a photo exhibit of their peers who claim multiple ancestries. It was called, “Jews Untitled” and they challenged visitors to the exhibit to rethink the way they defined “Jewish” and allowed Jews to create their own self definitions. With the diversification of Jewish families, we asked one another how we can best teach children about their mix of rich backgrounds. How can we help Jews claim and take pride in their multitude of heritages? And how can we make sure that the entire Jewish community is engaging in this conversation as well?

I imagine us having an infinite capacity to claim a variety of stories as our own. I was recently at an author event for the book Just Parenting about creative family making. One participant with an adopted child told the group that she tossed out a baby book she had been given because on the first page there was a picture of a family tree to fill in. She was so overwhelmed by the challenge of fitting her child’s family story into a neatly defined map with two “sides” that she decided it needed to go.

For many of us, two “sides” doesn’t tell the full story of our origins and our affiliations. An Ashkenazi Jewish friend of mine adopted a child from China with her Filipino husband. The child says of herself at age 7, “I’m half Chinese, half Filipino, half American, and half Jewish.”  She has four sides! But, really, who doesn’t? We all have more complicated stories than “two sides” allows. She’s a model of how we can comfortably hold many identities within us.

My Name is Shannon, and I’m a Jew

By Shannon Naomi Zaid

My internship with the Jewish United Federation and InterfaithFamily has put me in religious Jewish settings that I wouldn’t have normally found myself in. During one of these times, working an InterfaithFamily booth at an event, an issue was brought to my attention that I’d never thought existed: prejudice based on names. In this day and age it seems so odd to assume something about a person based solely on their name, especially so in the U.S. where the culture is a founded on many different ethnicities and geographical backgrounds. Yet there I was, trying to defend my Judaism to a couple of older Jewish men who thought I was Catholic based off my name.

The River Shannon

River Shannon

The origin of the name Shannon is Irish. Depending on whom you ask it means: small and wise, or river. My name was given to me by my birth mother, and my parents chose to keep it when they adopted me. In some ways I can understand why these men assumed I was Catholic. The southern nation of Ireland has been and remained Catholic for centuries, and the name “Shannon” derives from Ireland’s longest river, River Shannon. That being said, I was upset that they couldn’t picture a Jew having my name, and it was only after I explained to them my family background, that they acknowledged me as Jewish.

I understand that in Judaism a name carries weight. Historically, there were three groupings of Jews: the Levites, Kohens and Israelites. Descendants of the Levites and Kohens were tasked with special religious duties (e.g. Kohens were priests and Levites served directly under the Kohens), while the Israelites (i.e. everyone else) held the lowest standing. At some synagogues, Kohens and Levites are still treated differently from everyone else. For example, Kohens can be called up to read from the Torah first, followed by Levites. Even outside the biblical context, a family’s name identifies a person. The Jewish community has always been tight knit, and last names now serve as a tool to help place a person in the community.

In the case of first names, I notice the repetition of certain names within the Jewish community. Daniel, Jeremy, Rachel, Joseph, Sarah, Ari, Noah, Adam, Elizabeth, Rebecca, David, Jonathan, Dana, Shana, Michael, Sam. Chances are you’ll come across these names in a Jewish community, but that doesn’t strictly mean all Jews take their names from the same set. There are Jews all over the world in many different countries. You can’t expect that they all share the same few names.

While I am proud to call myself Jewish, I recognize its drawbacks. Judaism is very good at being exclusive, even toward those who identify with it. Call it a design flaw, or a result of social conditioning from centuries of persecution, either way an individual shouldn’t have to be questioned on what faith they are because their name is different.

Growing up in an interfaith family, I always felt as if I was secretly having an identity crisis, never knowing where I really fit it. But I’ve grown into myself, and I know who I am. My name is Shannon. I identify as a secular Jew. I come from an interfaith family. I’m adopted. Part of my family is from Israel, and the other half is from Europe. I know and understand all of this. The problem is everyone who doesn’t understand.

Wade in the Water at Mayyim Hayyim

Well, I went to the water one day to pray.
And my soul got happy and I stayed all day.
[Don't you know that God's gonna trouble the water!]
- “Wade in the Water” Mary Mary

As a Jewish woman who feels deeply rooted in her African- and Native-American family’s heritage, the famous Negro spiritual “Wade in the Water” holds multiple and profound layers of visceral meaning for me. It was a central component of an alternative Rosh Hashanah ritual I created and observed in Washington, DC’s Rock Creek Park a couple years ago. And a couple years before that, “Wade in the Water” was bittersweetly at the heart of a soft-spoken, yet powerful conversation between Alana, a dear friend of mine from college, her Hungarian-Jewish grandmother and me in her grandmother’s home in Mayen, Germany.


This is one of my favorite contemporary renditions.

The classic spiritual was originally among a number of songs used as vocal instructions sung in the cotton fields to help fugitive slaves navigate the treacherous, but ultimately liberating path of the Underground Railroad.

One night during a five-day layover in Germany in 2009, Alana shared with me that the “Wade in the Water” segment of Alvin Ailey’s famed “Revelations” dance sequence was once playing on her grandmother’s television. She explained to her grandmother, a Holocaust survivor, how enslaved African-Americans used the song to escape from slavery. After a few moments of silence, her grandmother began crying as she asked Alana, in German, “Why didn’t we think to do that?” With Alana’s permission, I gently broached the subject with her bubbe a couple days later. What ensued was one of the most meaningful conversations of my life.

Black people, my people, literally found their way to freedom through song. Similar to making aliyah or immersing oneself in the mikveh, song is a spiritual vehicle that guides and elevates both individuals and communities to higher ground. The Jewish people, also my people, are well-versed in spiritual elevation, as well as immersion. It is embedded in the mundane to mystical elements of our religion.

One of the nicest ways that spiritual immersion is still alive and thriving in the Boston area is found at Mayyim Hayyim. Now in its 10th year of existence, the Mayyim Hayyim Living Waters Mikveh and Paula Brody & Family Education Center is a community mikveh that has stayed true to its mission of reclaiming and reinventing one of Judaism’s most ancient rituals—immersion in the mikveh. Mayyim Hayyim has brought this sacred tradition to life by encouraging its traditional, as well as creative contemporary spiritual use. Each year the center teaches thousands of interested visitors. And on a daily basis, it models how to make the mikveh a sacred space that is open and accessible to all Jews and those who are becoming Jews. This was the vision of Mayyim Hayyim founder and acclaimed author Anita Diamant.

As Mayyim Hayyim’s founding executive director Aliza Kline once stated, “The explicit mission of Mayyim Hayyim is to provide a space that is warm and welcoming of the broadest sense of the Jewish community.” In a world where not enough Jewish communal spaces fully embrace interfaith families, let alone the rest of the Jewish community’s expansive diversity, the Newton-based non-profit stands in a distinctive category of its own. It has become a destination for interfaith families and Jews across the spectrum of observance and affiliation. Mayyim Hayyim actively welcomes interfaith, multiracial and LGBTQ members and families.

“Wade in the Water,” along with many other songs and poetry from Jewish and other spiritual traditions are resources Mayyim Hayyim has available for visitors of their mikvehs to use as they feel inspired.

Whether you are undergoing conversion, a life cycle event or a personal journey of healing or transformation, I recommend you schedule a visit to Mayyim Hayyim Living Waters Mikveh.