My Almost Jewish Me

Before Kurt Vonnegut signed my copy of Bluebeard, he asked me two questions: What’s your name? and Whadda ya do? Which is pretty unremarkable, even coming from Kurt Vonnegut. Especially coming from Kurt Vonnegut. It’s just another way of asking, Who are you? Today, however, when someone wants to know who you are, he, she, or AI may very well be asking what you are or, more likely, how you identify. Mislabeling someone in these fraught identitarian times can result in anything from mild rebuke to loss of livelihood. But getting even your own identity right can prove as scabrous as discerning Person X’s. What’s merely evident, even to one’s self, may obscure as much as reveal, whether in the realm of gender, race, religion, sexual orientation, or age.   

So when I set out to discover my true identity, I knew what I wanted to find, I had an idea what I would probably find, but I couldn’t yet conceive how both curious and obvious would be what I did find.

The Good Books

Growing up in my working-class family entailed more than a few financial impediments, but one indulgence we always enjoyed was books. Our Encyclopedia Americana, purchased at a parochial-school book fair, enjoyed pride of place on DIY shelves that boasted Keats and Shelley, the Collected Shakespeare, a casebound Dante, and moderns like John Barth and Ayn Rand.

These were mostly my mother’s (though my Italian immigrant father had his tastes, too, from the fables of Italo Calvino to the novels of John Le Carre). But sandwiched between the classics and the bestsellers (not to mention my own “complete and unabridged” Educator Classics Library) were such literally remarkable titles as The History of the Jews, What Is a Jew?, and Jewish-American Short Stories. A curious collection for the Lutheran daughter of Cuban-Spanish immigrants.

What was the source of my mother’s philo-Semitism, for which she would sometimes be teased? “Oh, Vivian and her Jews!” would be the embarrassed response whenever she’d push back against some anti-Semitic crack uttered within her hearing. My mother grew up in Bellmore, Long Island, which in the ’40s and ’50s had a significant Jewish population (and may still, for all I know). She went to school with and made friends among many children and grandchildren of Jewish immigrants. She took to their warm, family-centric traditions and at one point in her life even considered converting. But were these affinities more than merely social and cultural? Could she have been drawn to things Jewish by nature and not, as one would suspect, mere nurture? Can one feel something to be familiar that has no chapter in your recollected family history? Is genetic, or “blood,” memory a real thing?

In short, could my mother’s affection for and desire to dig deeper into the history of the Jews and Judaism be because she was a biological descendant of Spanish Jews, conversos, those who had been forced to embrace Catholicism during the centuries when the Inquisition reined in Spain?

Is this why Jewish humor, Jewish history, Jewish tradition are so congenial even to me? Could it be a matter not just of growing up a New Yorker with an outsider’s sense of humor but also of blood? Outsider? you may ask. Trust me, the number of Italian-Spanish Lutherans in my predominantly Catholic and Greek Orthodox Queens neighborhood numbered exactly one. In addition, decades before “fat shaming” was a hate crime, I was an overweight teen who in his high school years was in and out of a back brace owing to a spine worthy of a Quisling. Oh, and did I mention I attended heavily Nordic/Teutonic Lutheran parochial schools? For years I thought “Hey wop” was my confirmation name. On my first day of high school our history teacher took attendance, and when he came to “Sacramone” clarified for the uninitiated: “I see we have a member of the local Mafia with us.” Ver. Batim. So yeah, a little outside.

But more to the point, if you had asked me back in the day who my heroes were, I wouldn’t have named athletes or entrepreneurs but Mel Brooks and Woody Allen, my comedy-writing idols. And weren’t my favorite novelists Malamud, Potok, Elkin, and Roth? Didn’t I carry with me at all times Dramatist Play Service copies of George S. Kaufman, Herb Gardner, and Neil Simon like so much emergency cash for a cab ride home? Granted, you didn’t have to be Jewish to love these artists—but to the exclusion of almost everyone else? (Even John Podhoretz, whom I worked for as online editor at Commentary magazine—see, there it is again—used to tease, “Oh you’re definitely a converso!”)

I certainly looked Jewish-ish, at least enough to get stopped by Lubavitchers on a regular basis as they strove to pull the lost sheep of Israel into makeshift tabernacles on Sukkot. My mother, however, didn’t even look Spanish. She looked more Irish. But then again, if you’re playing the old SNL sketch game “Jew, Not Jew” by appearance alone, good luck. Do Scarlet Johansson, Gal Gadot, and Barbra Streisand look anything alike?

OK, what if I did have maternal Jewish ancestors way back when. How could I find them now? Who had either the time or the resources to do the wearying legwork of genealogical research?

Fantastic Voyage

Welcome DNA profiling. A swab from the inside of your cheek, a check for a hundred or so bucks, and the next thing you know you’re no longer Croatian and Polish but Lebanese and confused.

So I signed up for one of the more highly regarded of the consumer services, Gen 2.0, from National Geographic (hey, who better to know who’s who in global terms). About six weeks later the results were in, and I was quite surprised, primarily because only the patrilineal appeared to have been scrounged for its genetic content. I thought I was paying to determine descent from both sides of the family; as it turned out, the results rendered only the dad stuff. Was the matrilineal a trickier mitochondrial to tease out of the DNA tangle, at least for a guy?

Navigating all this information proved no breezy sail on the bay. I misinterpreted it more than once. First of all, where to start? How about 80,000 years ago, in East Africa, where “the BT branch of the Y-chromosome tree was born, defined by many genetic markers, including M42. The common ancestor of most men living today, some of this man’s descendants would begin the journey out of Africa to the Middle East and India. Some small groups from this line would eventually reach the Americas, while other groups would settle in Europe.”

I wanted some bullet points and I’m getting epic narrative. Can we possibly cut to the late Middle Ages or so? Maybe if I clicked here. Ah, yes—50% “Mediterranean.” Google a map. The Mediterranean is literally a sea of peoples. There’s got to be a way to narrow that down just a tad. Click. “Tuscan/Italy.” Now we’re getting somewhere. I guess “Tuscan” is the “Original Ray’s Pizza” of Italian lineage. Oh, and 26% “Northern European,” pointing in the direction of “Lombardic German.”

German? Not the direction I’m looking to drive this thing, guys, though not entirely unexpected. The history of Italy comprises invasions of Germanic tribes looking to get out of the cold, not to mention visits from the Normans, those Norwegians by way of northern France. I remember my father remarking on all the redheads in his small Abruzzese town. (In the one surviving photograph of my father in the Old Country, a shot of him and his buddies striding down some boulevard in suits and ties, the ginger locks of one of the subjects is glaringly evident despite the grainy B&W exposure.)

As for my own family, tall, fair-complexioned, with brown hair and royal blue eyes, my paternal grandfather could have passed for a Hollenhozern. I had cousins whose coloring bespoke a heritage far north of even the northern-most outpost of the former Kingdom of the Two Sicilies.

And what’s this 19% “Southwest Asian.” Seriously? “This component of your ancestry is found at highest frequencies in India and neighboring populations … all Europeans have mixed with people from Southwest Asia overs tens of thousands of years.” Of course, who can forget that German expedition to Lhasa in 1938 in search of their “pure” Aryan ancestors. It all makes sense now. Except not really.

But this was just my father’s people. Even if there had been some Jewish something amid the Sacramania, it wouldn’t have counted toward establishing a genuine Jewish identity. Moreover, there wasn’t a hint of Iberian heritage. Was it possible I inherited nothing from the Spanish side of the family? As far as facial features go, I certainly looked like my mom’s people. So I needed to do this again, but with a lab that would render matrilineal results.

And then my sister emailed to say she was interested in exploring her DNA genetic heritage. Really? What a coincidence. “Make sure you get results for mom’s side,” I advised.

A couple of months passed before she forwarded the log-in credentials for her results. My eye scanned the page until it landed on “35.1% Iberian”—finally. A mere 2.4% “Western Asian” though. Huh. The contribution from the East that showed up in my paternal results was significantly more robust. Even if you split the percentage in half to make room for Mom genes, shouldn’t it have been more that 2.4%? Then .4% “British & Irish.” Fun. There was even a dollop of “North African/Levantine”—well, there had to be a Berber or two somewhere given Iberia’s history, no?

Then suddenly, staring me in my glassy-eyed multiethnic face, there it was: “Ashkenazi Jewish.” I knew it! (Or rather, I felt it!) And this amounted to a grand total of—.2%. Point two? Point two? What the hell am I supposed to do with a miserable point two? What’s point two percent of a Jew? Is my gall bladder Jewish? A lymph node? Only a Sholom Aleichem in league with an Al Hirschfeld could do justice to the image of a point-2 Jew. And shouldn’t they have been Sephardi Jews I’m descended from, not Ashkenazi? Where did they come from?

To complicate matters even further: my sister’s and my genetic results could not be expected to be identical. We each inherited different percentages of different strands of genetic legacy. She apparently has a slightly higher Iberian gene count than Italian. Is that why she inherited my maternal grandfather’s tea-green eyes and I didn’t? That can’t be right. I mean, I had no Iberian anything. But that had to be a testing error (or lapse). My sister’s results also counted 3.3% “French & German.” French and German, as if they were the same? Sure, the Franks. But what about the Gauls? Years ago we came across French names in our Spanish ancestry, and an uncle said there were Gascon roots buried deep in the family archives. But wasn’t Gascony composed of Basques? And aren’t the Basques another band of brothers altogether? And why did my results have so much more Northern European than my sister’s? Shouldn’t she have been at least 13% “Lombard” (or whatever)? Did I just inherit more of my father’s substratum than she did? And exactly how does that work? It appears that I’m 26% Northern European in addition to Mediterranean/Italian, but reviewing the data again, I’m wondering if that 26% should be folded into the Tuscan heritage—as if sharing northern blood is part of what it means to be Italian. If so, why aren’t I 76% Italian? And while we’re at it, when they report “Iberian,” do they mean Celt, Visigoth, Phoenician, Roman—Moor?

For more precision, I’d have to take the test again, from the same service my sister used, and then compare. Or maybe even use a third service to look for discrepancies. But was it even worth it?

I’d come this far. So I spit and mailed to the same service as my sister’s. The results? Similar but not identical. Turns out I’m more Italian than I am Spanish (whereas my sister is the reverse—is that why she always identified more with the Spanish side of the family, and I the Italian?). The Italian heritage spans a wide swath of the peninsula, from the Emilia-Romagna region in the north, to Lazio (Rome), all the way to Sicily, but with the preponderance of the results dead center in Abruzzo, where I’d expect them to be. As for the Spanish side, a different set of percentages than my sister, but no Basque! So she got Basque DNA and green eyes! My Ashkenazi results saw an uptick, however. I’m 4%! I’m twice as Jewish as my sister! (Hell, I’m probably twice as Jewish as a lot of Jews…) But no hint of French/German in my results. All Southerners. What’s more, as time went on, my sister’s results were updated: the minuscule French/German mix disappeared entirely, but ancestors in Brazil, Argentina, and Cuba showed up. They made an appearance in my results, too. Cuba made sense: both my maternal grandparents were born in Havana but emigrated shortly after the Spanish-American War. When the family left Spain for Latin America is something I never bothered to ask anyone, I’m sorry to say. But family in or from Brazil we had never heard of. There was a legend that my mother’s people on her dad’s side were descended from a conquistador, Pedro de Valdivia, conqueror of what would become Chile, and so I anticipated something down there, but nah.

In the end, the genetic ingredients in the recipe that made me me was quite a mix: mostly Southern Europeans (a polyglot admixture all by themselves), with fluctuating portions of Northern European, West Asian, North African, and yes, Jewish—even as much as 1.1% Native American (no doubt reflecting the Latin American sojourn of my Spanish-emigrating ancestors). Oh, and let’s not forget 1.9% Neanderthal. We mustn’t forget Neanderthal.

Good gravy, what wasn’t I? I am the world. I went looking for my essential me-ness and was confronted with, to quote Melville, that “pie-bald parliament, an Anarcharsis Cloots congress of all kinds of that multiform pilgrim species man.”

That Which Can’t Be Measured

So now what? Or rather, what does this mean? In a culture gone identity mad, we are what we need to be to leverage cultural favor. On the one hand, you have the intersectional identity set, looking to make common political cause with anyone and anything that can’t be identified as “white” and “privileged.” Then again, as I compose this, the president of the United States is Donald Trump, a man whose sensitivity to ethnic diversity is exceeded only by that of Charles Lindbergh. And by Lindbergh I mean the man who defeats FDR for the presidency in Philip Roth’s The Plot to Destroy America, the isolationist crypto-Nazi whose policies usher in the assassination of Walter Winchell for anti-fascist agitation and pogroms in Ohio by groups that bear a striking resemblance to those who marched in Charlottesville to celebrate Trump’s victory and a vigorous tariff-supported nationalism.

But again, Trump is no Lindbergh, because that would mean Trump has crafted some kind of mad anti-Semitic strategy, a truly sinister scheme. Honestly, I discern nothing more from him than the famous “irritable gestures” that once defined conservatism for a Lionel Trilling, a series of tropes, memes, and catchphrases used opportunistically to engage a large swath of the disaffected—those forgotten Middle Americans whose Anglo-Saxon ancestry denies them what in this late stage of the American experiment constitutes an authentic “identity,” one stamped with “oppression” and “marginalization” like the back of your prom date’s hand, if your prom date happened to be a gay Muslim from Ecuador.

But I began to think it through: What if Trump’s erratic “us vs. them” rhetoric were to inspire attacks on Jews in this country? (Think Pittsburgh.) What if the descendants of pogroms in Russia, of Kristallnacht, of the genocidal decimation of six million in Europe were to see arm-banded, tiki-torched thugs marching through neighborhoods that were once the picture of glorious tedium?

Would I feel threatened, even if my DNA results had revealed considerably more than a scant .4% Jewish pedigree? Having not grown up with stories of prejudice, intolerance, or outright hate, having not experienced the various religious/cultural markers of Jewishness, from Sabbath observance to the annual fast, to pride in the Einsteins and the Spielbergs, to the feeling that, yes, as unlikely as it may seem in the generally tolerant U.S., a spasm of Jew-hatred could break out at any moment by way of some Facebook-fueled incitement or even a neighbor kid’s idiotic “Christ killer” spite, would I feel threatened?

Isn’t that low-level anxiety, too, what it means, in some small part, to be Jewish, at least in the mainly gentile West, especially one that gives so many passes to anti-Semitism disguised as anti-Zionism? If so, could I ever really have been Jewish, regardless of what some lab had proved? For that matter, was this genetic testing even a science, or was it more of an art? Rafi Letzter, a staff writer for Live Science, checked into his genetic DNA, employing multiple tests, and found strange variability. “It’s not really science so much as it’s description,” he was told by an expert in population genetics. “There isn’t really a right or wrong answer here, because there is no official designation of what it means to be Ashkenazi Jewish genetically.” Or Native American, for that matter. (See Warren, Elizabeth.)

Some are even suggesting that the tests themselves are racially insensitive. Huh? According to a recent essay in PC World (what do I know what it has to do with PCs, I don’t work for them): “Because DNA tests like AncestryDNA and 23andMe were at first available only in the United States and have expanded mostly to European countries or former colonies, the customer base continues to be fairly uniform. [The International Society of Genetic Genealogy] estimates that four-fifths of the people who have taken DNA tests are U.S. citizens, meaning their data reflects a population with majority European ancestry.” OK.

There’s a Reason for Everything

Now I’m sure some of the more petulant in my reading audience are saying to themselves right about now, “What of just being American?” Born and raised, immersed in its culture and history, in love with the opportunities it afforded family who came with nothing and now have more than everything they’ll ever need American? Is it even possible to be just an American anymore? Are you allowed? Or must you pick a tribe so you can be more easily identified in the culture wars?

Perhaps you can be just American if you’re of old WASP stock—you know, DAR types and whatnot whose ancestry goes so far back that “ethnicity” is what other people have. And then there are the Scotch-Irish Whiskey Rebels not to mention the old Dutch Calvinists and midwestern and Pennsylvania Germans (but I daresay they still retain something of the ole ethnicity about them). Perhaps they’re the only unhyphenated, unmodified Americans left, because they no longer have to think about who or what they are relative to everyone else. They just know everyone else isn’t who they are, which is American.

It should also be noted, at least before I start getting mail, that for Christians, identity is already fixed and forever, and transcends the accidents of earthly roots. “There is neither Jew nor Gentile, Russian nor German, Asian nor African” one could say. (But even with that said, Jesus was a Jew, and will remain one forever. Think about that for an aeon or two.)

The topic under discussion, however, is cell stuff, not metaphysical stuff or even national loyalty or generational fixedness stuff (in the latter case, Native Americans and even African Americans are among the most American of all). Sometimes we’re not even talking about that, but about how one “identifies,” regardless of chromosomes or haplogroups. As far as that goes, I remain what I always was—some kind of hyphenated Italian. This is how I “identify,” not merely because of some numbers on a digital page but because of the name I bear, and the associations that has had over the years for both other Italians and non-Italians, and because my father was an immigrant who had to negotiate the cultural translations of Old and New Worlds most of his adult life. And to be an Italian is itself to be a member of a tribe of tribes—Latin and Oscan, Samnite and Veniti, Umbrian and Celt, Siceliote and Aequi, Norman and Berber, Lombard and, yes, even Hebrew—one with a unique genius for weaving a polyglot into a people bound by a common culture. Italy is like the West’s attic: it never throws anything away. It just adds to the agglomerate, including new people groups, invaders and immigrants, crafting a mosaic as gorgeous as its hills. It was a melting pot before there was the melting pot, America, our at-times trying test of human adaptability and augmentation—which needs desperately to remember that what it means to be American can’t be measured by a cheek swab and a check.

In the end I’ve come to accept that my .4% Jewishness is for the best, perhaps because I know myself too well (or at least well enough to be annoyed). As obnoxious as I could be with my Italian pride—“Hey, enjoy playing the piano? How about listening to your radio? Lounging in a jacuzzi? How are those electric batteries workin’ out for ya? And don’t get me started on the telephone! You’re welcome!”—can you imagine to what monstrous proportions my ego would have grown had I learned I was Jewish too? Someone who shared ancestry with everyone from the Maccabees and Spinoza to Oppenheimer, Kubrick, Jesus, and Salk (not necessarily in that order)? Throw in my sensitivity to every stereotypical depiction of my people, every snub and slight as a sign of regnant bigotry, and I would have been as insufferable as Herman in the aforementioned Plot Against America.

And don’t think I don’t know why Philip Roth never won the Nobel Prize in literature! Bergson, Pasternak, Agnon, Sachs, Bellow, Singer, Canetti, Brodsky, Gordimer, Pinter, Bob Freaking Dylan—the quota had been met! Don’t think I don’t see!

Oy, what my people have had to put up with. ♦

Anthony Sacramone is executive editor for the Acton Institute, including its quarterly journal Religion & Liberty. You can read his other stuff at Follow him on Twitter @amsacramone.