On DNA Results and the Pursuit of Justice

Don’t I look happy to be meeting Nona (Lena Baruch) and Grandpa Max (Max Schwartz) for the first time?

Tzedek, tzedek, tirdof! (Justice, justice, you shall pursue!)

I’m thinking of these words, from Deuteronomy 16:18.

The Hebrew word “tzedekah” is usually translated as “charity.” But its roots are in this word “tzedek” or “justice.”

Both tzedek and tzedakah — that is, pursuing justice and charitable giving — are commandments. This means we don’t “do” these to feel or look good but because we are required to be as concerned with everyone else’s freedom and wellbeing as we are with our own.

Without justice, there is no freedom. Without justice, there is no wellness. Without justice, there is no genuine giving.

Without justice, none of us is free.

* * *

I received my Ancestry.com results today.

As I expected, I am 75% Ashkenazi — that is, descended from Jews in Eastern and Central Europe.

About 21% of my DNA reflects my Sephardic origins in Spain, Italy, and Greece, and the Caucasus, a region encompassing Armenia, Azerbaijan, Georgia, Iran, Iraq, Syria, and Turkey.

The final four percent are comprised of some genetic connection to the Middle East, North Africa, Great Britain, and East Asia.

Scrolling through the usernames of hundreds of likely 4th-6th cousins was dizzying.

* * *

As I walked home from doing some errands in town, shortly after an initial glance at these results on my phone before delving into the details, I found my thoughts wandering back in time. What were they like, these ancestors of mine? I knew my grandparents on both sides, have only snippets of an impression of their parents, and know basically nothing before this.

What I do know is that my people have been nomadic by both nature and necessity. Our migrations — both east and west — have been the result of antisemitism, and Jews have been favored scapegoats for economic and social problems for-ev-uh. What I don’t know is: Who fell in love? What was a little girl’s favorite story? What violence did those who didn’t make it endure?

* * *

I remember sitting at my parents’ dining room table one night — this must have been in the late ’90s or early ’00s — and listening to my Grandpa Max — my father’s father — telling stories about his aunts and uncles who hadn’t made it out of Europe before the Holocaust.

Just now, my wife read me an article stating that 11% of American adults have never heard of the Holocaust. That means if there were 100 of us in a room, 11 people would say, “What was that?” I know you can do the math, but I am writing it out that way for myself — to break it down and make this statistic into something more relateable.

The article included a short video of a man weeping. This Jewish man, now in his 80s or perhaps 90s, had just learned that he and his family would receive restitutionary funds from the German government. As a child, he was among the few survivors of a massacre in a Romanian town (Grandpa Max’s family came from Romania. This man and I? We could be related.)

* * *

Restitution. Reparations. Accountability. Imagine these. If only our country could learn a thing or two from Germany, but I have to tell you, my hopes aren’t high.

* * *

Antisemitism is alive and well here in the USA. From the standpoint of white supremacy, Jews and people of color are interchangeable. But from the perspective of privilege, this couldn’t be further from the truth. When my last name was “Strong,” no one necessarily knew I was Jewish. My kids, with their blue eyes, can choose whether to disclose this part of their identities, their ancestry. We can pass.

It doesn’t make antisemitism less real, and it doesn’t make centuries of persecution and genocide less epigenetic and real. But it absolutely puts me — and I would argue, the Jewish people — in a position of particular responsibility when it comes to pursuing justice on this soil.

* * *

I read the news out of Israel and my stomach turns, much in the same way it turns at the news inside of these borders. We say “Never Forget,” but so clearly, those in power in Israel, the Orthodox government, have done just that, both in its treatment of Palestinians and of African asylum-seeking refugees. I know it’s complicated — and I steer clear of conversations about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict not because I am apathetic but because I feel woefully ignorant. That’s fully on me.

What I do know without further research is that there is no justice, and there will be no peace without it. The same is true here, in this white, Christian country where 11 out of 100 people don’t know what the Holocaust is and our entire capitalist economy rides on treating people of color like threats, criminals, and terrorists.

When did we forget? My people have thrived in other moments in history — think Siglo de Oro, or Golden Age, of Spain, when Christians, Moors, and Jews lived, worked, and created magnificently together. But we have also fallen prey to becoming the oppressor, and this pains me deeply.

I feel personally responsible to remember. But not just to remember. To find a form for memory — something I can gather up in my arms and carry into the world, into a classroom or a board room, a conversation or a court, to speak from a place of knowing that God — however you might conceive of this presence — did not leave any wiggle room for saying, “Not my problem.”

As writer David Slack wrote on Twitter: “Remember sitting in history, thinking ‘If I was alive then, I would’ve…’ You’re alive now. Whatever you’re doing is what you would’ve done.”

* * *

When I first reviewed my DNA results, I felt a little letdown. Kind of like, well, cool, pretty much what I expected. And I will tell you that lately, I’ve been feeling a little bit adrift. Not quite clear on my purpose, my focus.

In writing this, I realize how much is here. It’s no coincidence that Russian, Spanish, Italian, Czech, and Hebrew are the languages I’ve studied. Or that when I saw a swastika graffiti’d on an ancient wall in Toledo, Spain, a chill went up my spine. Or that while I was traveling alone in Russia, I didn’t wear the Star of David pendant my parents gave me for my 16th birthday.

I want to enter into a time-space wrinkle in time where I can go back, to ask questions and to witness the pivotal moments in my own family history. I want to do it for the ones who died alone or in horror, whose names I’ll never know.

And I want to do it because it has everything to do with this time and this place, this moment in history when to be silent is to condone the destruction of a people, right before our eyes. A people brutally stolen from their own homes, then told they’d never belong here, either.

* * *

I want to delve into this. Again — because it won’t be a first — but for the first time, with who I know myself to be. I grew up barely knowing I was Jewish — something that seems to surprise people and is a story for another post (or book?). But I do now, and now is where I begin.