April 2019



By Melinda Halpert

For my last birthday, my husband surprised me with DNA kits from Ancestry.com. I had always assumed that my family’s roots were in Lithuania and Hungary, and my husband’s in Germany and Poland or Russia depending on shifting borders and times. I hoped there might be some genetic surprises in store for us like the people in the commercials who discover they are part Irish or Native American or descended from Cameroon royalty.

We dutifully spit into the test tubes, mailed them off, and a few weeks later, discovered — to no one’s surprise — that we are East European Jews.

What was surprising was just how much we are East European Jews — almost 99 percent, in fact. Our ancestors did not appear to wander far from the shtetl. Our results said a lot about the insularity of the communities that spawned our lineage. Our forebears and their fellow East European Jews kept to themselves to practice their religion and preserve their culture. But also they were forced to keep to themselves because of intolerance and persecution — societal scourges we haven’t yet managed to eradicate.

Every day we see bigotry play out in grotesque, new ways with almost unimaginable indifference and cruelty. I need to believe in an America that lives up to its best values — a nation that is expansive, generous, compassionate, just. But it’s hard to square those ideals with haunting images of border patrol agents dumping water bottles in the desert that had been left behind for thirsty migrants. Families getting ripped apart at the border. Violence fueled by white supremacy at Pittsburgh’s Tree of Life Synagogue, and now the mosques in Christchurch.

Against the backdrop of these recent abominations, the Passover season approaches with greater relevance and urgency. We tell our children the story that never grows old — how our ancestors escaped slavery and persecution for freedom.

Since receiving my ancestry results, I find myself imagining the personal exodus that brought my Lithuanian great-grandparents and their 11-month-old daughter — my grandma Hilda — to Ellis Island in 1888. I think about the courage it took for that young family — and millions of others like them then and since — to leave behind all that they knew, for the promise of a future that had to be better than the misery they were fleeing.

America’s gorgeous ideals of freedom, equality, and opportunity make for a powerful magnet. Fragments of family lore spoke to how hard my great grandparents had to work for their sliver of the American Dream, in the face of bitter antisemitism. Resurgent and corrosive tribal tensions — “us vs. them,” fear of “the other” — have no place in a nation that is great because of its diversity. Barak Obama once said that there is plenty of American Dream to go around. I hold onto his words, hoping for that same better future that drew my great-grandparents here.

The double helix of DNA molecules that we share as humans reveals much about where we each came from. If only those same strands of DNA could tell us more about where we are heading.


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