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Tuesday, June 14, 2011

The "Jewish Thing"

Since sharing the discovery of half of my ancestry via DNA testing, I'm surprised at the overwhelming interest in the "Jewish thing."  A number of friends, some Jewish, want to know how I feel about the "Jewish thing." Other's ask, "does your Mom know about the "Jewish thing?" Which yes, she does and oh boy that's a fun story for a later post. Still others shake their heads in understanding as if something has been explained or finally makes sense ....saying, "you know the 'Jewish thing' explains a lot."

It's all made me wonder A- what is the "Jewish thing" and B- how does it explain anything at all? It's as if the religious heritage of my distant cousins is a tangible carnival item sitting in the room when we speak. Typically I'm excited and share the vast information about ancestors from Russia, Lithuania and the Ukraine. When I offhandedly mention that these ancestors were Jewish there is a pause for a moment like I've taken out the "Jewish thing" and put it on the table.  I imagine it to be some kind of intricately decorated blue vase or something like that.....they are suddenly interested.....their eyes the "Jewish thing."

I'm not disappointed about this new religious heritage, I just don't get the fascination with this very small piece of my very complex identity. Maybe it's just that I'm less surprised than my friends. Let's be honest here. My mother was inseminated in NYC by an intern at Lenox Hill Hospital on the Upper East Side. She requested a Polish donor with brown hair and eyes. yeah......there was a very high likelihood the gentleman was Jewish. Let's get real, I would be surprised if he was not Jewish.

Having grown up in NYC, I have many, many Jewish friends from childhood up through college to present and I've never heard of the the "Jewish thing." The closest thing I came across to the "Jewish thing" was when a good girlfriend of mine started dating a Protestant guy and other mutual friends would say, "well it won't last long, there is the Jewish thing." Suddenly, Judaism was a focus, an elephant in the room.

As a kid I can remember countless times I wished to be Jewish.  Most of the Jewish kids I knew were incredibly gifted with highly educated, very successful families. I assumed that was part of being Jewish. I fully acknowledge I was stereotyping but children are simplistic and this was a positive stereotype (so cut me a little slack before sending me hate mail.) I found Judaism far more mystical and exciting than the Catholicism in which I was raised (again here.... a child's viewpoint.... not an incentive to send me an email asking "why I hate Catholicism") I'll never forget the time when at about six, I nearly gave my VERY Catholic Grandmother a heart attack, reciting a Jewish prayer in Hebrew a friend had taught me at the park.

But back to the greater issue here. It's not that I'm not excited about this new world to explore. I just don't get the intense fascination with it or the assumption that I'm now magically Jewish.
Being Jewish, at least to me, is not about DNA. Being Jewish is about beautiful religious traditions, culture and a vast, trying history you learn and discover as you are raised.  You can't get the "Jewish thing" just by being born, it has to be given to you. When my biological father released sperm from his body into a cup and detached from it (and me) he took away the Jewish thing. That is unfortunate.

This leads me to believe that the fascination with the "Jewish thing" has more to do with the "sperm donor thing." What I'm trying, successfully or unsuccessfully, to get at here is that the parcels of  inheritance are very blurry when it comes to anonymous sperm donation. What the sperm donor does and does not bestow upon you is highly debatable. The letters and patterns of my DNA genome spread across the table cannot describe the shape of my ancestors faces, they cannot tell me the stories of the women before me that made their way across an ocean and they definitely cannot communicate the essence of what it means to be Jewish.

So that leads me to ask you, Jewish and non-Jewish alike, what do you think about the Jewish thing?

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