(This letter is from my Mixed and Matched column in the J-weekly and appeared Jan. 19, 2021.)
Dear Dawn: My uncle recently had his DNA tested, and it turns out that we are from Jewish lineage. I had always wondered because my mother’s great-grandfather’s last name was Jewish. I’m trying to find out more about that branch of my family. None of my relatives know anything about Judaism; all of them are practicing Christians. When I talked to a Jewish coworker about this, he didn’t accept me as a Jew. I felt rejected and hurt. Am I Jewish? How would I find out? — Curious
Dear Curious: You are not alone, and you raise an important and pertinent topic. The popularity of the current DNA tests has stirred a lot of interest in Jewish identity. A number of people have uncovered some Jewish heritage and have contacted me to “learn about their Jewish lineage.”
Some have been distressed that Jews in their community have not instantly embraced them. They are indignant that the local synagogue members don’t see them as Jewish. I’m asked, “What is this arrogance?”
Given the hurt feelings and confusion, I believe it is important to unravel this conundrum.
“Who is a Jew” has been determined for thousands of years by halachah, Jewish law. This ancient system does not function like modern science. I can’t tell you how many people believe that DNA is incontrovertible because it is “science.”
But halachah is a system and a way of life that is unique and old. According to halachah, Jewish identity is passed from mother to child. Therefore, only a female relative can pass it on. Your great-grandfather could not pass Jewish identity to his children except by having those children with a Jewish woman. The daughters would pass on Jewish identity but the sons would not.
When pondering DNA, let’s keep in mind that the tests also tell you that you are other things. You told me that yours revealed that you are 7 percent Jewish, 4 percent Neanderthal, 5 percent African (a continent not a country) and the rest Eastern European. Does that mean you should seek out a Black community and suggest that you are a part of it? What about Neanderthal; where do you explore that? One young man learned he was 3 percent Black and felt that empowered him to use a derogatory term for people of African descent. Those he encountered did not agree.
My point here is that you cannot thrust yourself into a community or people.
Jews are not intentionally excluding you. It’s just that you can’t walk into someone else’s house and announce that you are home.
In answer to your question about whether you are Jewish, I doubt it. It would require that your great-grandfather had children with a Jewish woman whose daughter had a daughter, who had you.
Additionally, you would need proof of each of your maternal ancestors’ Jewish identity. Proof would consist of Jewish documents like a ketubah (wedding contract) or a gravesite in a Jewish cemetery. I have known people with more proof than you have that chose to have a conversion instead of spending years doing research. But they had learned a great deal about Judaism, understood the need of a conversion and wanted very much to live their lives as Jews.
You could certainly learn about Judaism, the faith that your ancestor may have practiced. I would recommend starting with a basic Judaism class; there are a number of them available online. In fact, my current list of Building Jewish Bridges classes can be found at buildingjewishbridges.org. Additionally, you could read books and check out Jewish websites (here’s a list to get you started).
The question to ask yourself is: What do I want from all this? Do you want to just learn about Judaism? Do you want to consider becoming Jewish? Or is it just fun to know that you have a few percentage points of shared heritage with the Jewish people — a fun fact to share at a party?
You have lived as a member of the dominant culture/people. Please understand that minority groups — Jews and Blacks have our own concept of ourselves that you have not yet learned. We don’t mean to be rude. We would just like for curious people to moderate their sense of ownership of our culture.