“Star/Crossed: Jewish Stories from an Interfaith Life” is Andi Rosenthal's monthly column about "the continuing journey of a Jew-by-choice, navigating the joys and challenges of choosing a Jewish life, sharing my choices with my Christian family of origin, and living the legacy of a rediscovered Jewish heritage.”
“A map, it is said, is the greatest of all epic poems.”
Thus reads the text on the inside cover of the box from The Genographic Project--a landmark study currently being conducted by IBM and National Geographic. Its purpose is to map the journeys of our ancestors more than 10,000 years ago, using more than 100,000 DNA samples containing specific genetic markers, obtained from a broad sampling from donors around the world.
The test is fairly simple: using a sterile test kit (obtainable from the National Geographic website at around $100 a pop) scrape some cells from the inside of the cheek, place them into the vials, mark off your gender on the consent form, and mail it in. In about six to eight weeks, you'll receive the results: a map containing the genetic path followed by your ancient ancestors, determined by the specific chromosomal markers revealed in your DNA.
I first became intrigued by this project after hearing about it over lunch with a friend of mine the day before Thanksgiving. He had received the DNA test kit as a Hanukkah gift the year before and had only just gotten around to sending in his cheek cells a few weeks earlier. The night before, he had finally gotten his results in the mail.
“So what did they say?” I asked.
“Oh, well, I'm definitely Jewish,” he replied. “At least, that's what the map says.”
I was totally puzzled. “What is that supposed to mean? Are you saying there were actually Jews between 10,000 and 20,000 years ago?”
“No,” he answered. “But my ancestors definitely traveled through the Fertile Crescent, to Jericho, and ended up in southern Europe.”
“I see,” I said. But I didn't, not really. And it got me wondering about a question that has been on my mind, even since before my conversion to Judaism: Can a person actually be “genetically Jewish?”
It's a question that seems to naturally give rise to other, deeper philosophical questions. For instance: is being Jewish simply about the faith we practice? Or is it simply a way of identifying ourselves culturally? Or is it, as the genetic marker on an ancient map may imply, part of the very cells of our beings?
For me, that raises the most difficult question of all: as the child of a non-Jewish mother and a Jewish father (who was himself the child of a non-Jewish mother and a Jewish father), in a religion that (in its most halakhic--Jewish legal--definition) can only be passed down through the maternal line, am I even considered “genetically Jewish?”
For years, I've wondered about what it is that makes me Jewish--and thus, different--from other members of my family. I went to Catholic school, and worshiped as a Christian for much of my life. And yet, I didn't feel at home in a faith until I started my conversion journey. I still don't know what started me out on that road--whether it was my “Jewish” last name, or an unexpected emotional connection to the Holocaust, or even a strange and unbidden sense of familiarity when I heard Hebrew for the first time.
But I am not sure that it is something that was passed down through my DNA. When I teach about conversion and outreach, I am frequently--and often surprisingly--asked if I felt the need to convert to Judaism because it was, through my father, “in my blood.” It's a question that I find extremely difficult to answer. On one hand, I would like to think that something deep in my psyche--perhaps even hidden in some mysterious twisting code of my DNA--is something that makes me authentically Jewish, especially because the question of authenticity is something with which I continue to struggle.
In my heart, I know that wishing for such a concept to be true is a dangerous and frightening way to think. For certain, looking for a genetic identification of a religious faith calls to mind the madness, injustice and ugliness of the Nuremberg Laws. And it also disrespects the religious journeys of those who come to Judaism without any inherent family connection.
Regardless of what a genetic code might reveal, I think that being Jewish is a choice. It was of course, for me, a literal choice, but even for those who are born Jewish, we live in a world where changing one's belief system, exploring a faith, or encountering a new religious doctrine is as easy as the click of a mouse, a friendship with someone of a different religious background, or a long-held family secret revealed. I've met people who have come to Judaism for all of those different reasons, and I've talked to others who have abandoned their Jewish practice because of them as well. And for me, it reveals one essential fact: in a world and at a time when one can choose whether or not to be Jewish, we are all Jews-by-choice.
Nonetheless, the conversation with my friend left me wondering if there was a way to prove that my ancestors had been among the people who became Jews a few thousand years later. So, as soon as I got back to the office after lunch, I visited the National Geographic website to see about getting hold of a test kit. And it was there that I found the information that made my question all but moot: since I'm female, my ancestors' journey can only be mapped for my mother's side, through mitochondrial DNA; males are mapped through the Y-chromosome.
Since there are no male relatives left living on my father's side of the family, it appears that the map--or epic poem--of my own family's Jewish journey, will remain forever a mystery. I looked at the screen, disappointed, knowing that there is no way to prove that my ancestors followed that same route through Mesopotamia to Jerusalem, to Babylon and beyond.
But I sent away for the test anyway, and just yesterday, I finally scraped my own cheek cells, put them into vials, and sent them off to National Geographic. I'm not sure what to expect, but perhaps this test will tell us something about my mother's side of the family which will undoubtedly reveal a different history and journey from my father's--but one still rich with ideas and insights, choices and possibilities.
I can't wait to see the results.