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The Personal Essay: Finding out I’m a little bit Jewish

Journal Correspondent

APRIL 26, 2018 – Doing an Ancestry DNA kit wasn’t supposed to be so surprising. I thought I’d spit in a tube, and find out basically what I already knew: that I was the typical American mutt of white cultures. As someone who was raised as vaguely Protestant, my DNA results coming back as 3 percent European Jew was a bit of a shock.

With any family, there’s a good amount of ancestral mythology. My great-grandmother swears we are related to Lyndon Johnson. My grandfather will tell you we are part Cherokee. But being Jewish was never something that crossed my mind.

Judaism has always fascinated me because it is a religion so deeply ingrained in its people, it is considered its own ethnicity. No one’s DNA results are “Buddhist” or “Catholic.” It makes me wonder about my own forbearers, who have become lost in my family’s memory. We’ve always been passionate storytellers, and it seems we have lost the stories of where we came from, and to an extent, who we are.

I have a superficial knowledge of Judaism. I know what foods are kosher.  I’ve been to bat and bar mitzvahs. But knowing about traditions is one thing. When my friend, Hannah, invited me to her family’s Seder, I realized the history of Judaism lies in family tradition, passed on for thousands of years. Before the kiddush blessing, Hannah’s family passed around a series of her childhood Passover drawings. We teased her, of course, about the lumpy matzah drawings and distorted renderings of her family.

I realized as we were looking over them that those drawings are as much a part of a rich cultural history as anything found in holy texts. Hannah’s family raised her with an understanding of her identity.

Her family seemed to have a heightened sense of awareness with an outsider present. Everything was performed with a mix of ceremony and humor. They followed a kind of script, which wove in civil rights poetry with the story of Exodus. I loved the connections Hannah’s family made between Passover and the enslavement of all groups of people.

I thought that a Seder was a celebration of Judaism, based on religious community. But attending this Seder made me realize how much Passover is a part of the global community, regardless of religion. It is not only a memorial of the days spent enslaved, or a celebration of liberation.  It’s a tribute to those ideals, which still influence every member of contemporary society: the ideals of freedom and communion.

Knowing I am 3 percent Jewish doesn’t change my identity. It only makes me wonder why my family lost this strain of our heritage. We don’t remember who may have been, but this doesn’t negate the fact that someone in our past had a story that led them to us. I don’t know what their story is, or who they are, but I’m happy to now be able to acknowledge them.

After attending my first Seder, I can tentatively say that I understand them, as well. While the Seder connects to global ideas, it is very much rooted in the strength of those following the Jewish faith. The reverence of the night was completely new to me, an absolute conviction like nothing I had ever experienced.

And yet I knew I was still an outsider. The intimate part of Passover was not for me to understand, the raising of children in Jewish faith, and in the community. I could see the importance of that bond when my friend lamented, “This is the first year they didn’t ask me to find the afikoman!”

Olivia Barton writes from Nahant. 

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