Monday, March 24, 2014

You Can't Outrun your DNA

My sister had the brilliant idea to follow up our mother's decades of exhaustive genealogical research by presenting each of our parents with a National Geographic Geno 2.0 kit for Christmas. We were pretty sure about her side, but not so much about Dad's. As an historian, I had long suspected that my father's family might be Jews...up to and including the fact that his father's line becomes somewhat fuzzy in the era just prior to the American Civil War. It's not that uncommon in the South for a Jewish family to have assimilated and hidden their ethnicity and religion in that era.

When we received Dad's DNA results, I started reading the maps for both his mother's haplogroup and his father's. My grandmother's genes led us a merry chase, including her Native American ancestry, and there were some surprises: what we believed were Welsh Celtic genes are actually Irish. She had quite a bit of Eastern European ancestry, specifically Romanian, which Dad loved because he's a big Dracula fan- we were making a lot of jokes about Trahnthyvahnee-ya. Then we read his father's genetic history and its migratory pattern.

My sister and I were viewing it simultaneously and texting when it leaped out at me: my grandfather's DNA traced the Diaspora- exactly. As I read the accompanying report, my suspicions were borne out: we're not just Jews, based on the migration pattern, we're Sephardi...the Jews whose culture was almost totally devastated by the Inquisition (much less that little event in Europe during the mid-Twentieth Century known as The Shoah).

What's sort of interesting to me about that, anyway, is that one of my graduate history professors, a Sephardic Jew, told me that I would never be able to understand anyone's history other than the WASP upper-middle class from which she assumed I hailed- at the time, I angrily cited my father's maternal Cherokee ancestry in refuting her. This new information adds oh-so-much extra irony to it- not white, not a WASP, and we share a non-WASP ethnohistorical background. (insert mic drop here)

Your DNA doesn't lie, folks. I come from two different ethnic groups who survived multiple attempts at genocide- as enacted by most of the rest of my gene pool. Weird, not that uncommon, and kind of interesting. As my friend Shane says about race and ethnicity, "You don't know who's looking back across the table at me on Thanksgiving!"

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