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.

Holiness Is in How We Teach Our Children

Photo: Josh Appel, Memorial and Museum Auschwitz-Birkenau, Oświęcim, Poland. “This is Siggy Weiser. He is a Holocaust survivor. 75 years later he is in looking as Jewish kids praying at the death camp Auschwitz, Mr. Wesier’s previous living area where he was threatened with death daily.”

My daughter’s shaving her head.

Well, actually, her cousin’s friend is doing the honors, in a college dorm room.

My daughter told me she has written something about the why of this. She forgot to send it to me, but says she will tomorrow.

I am looking forward to reading it.

My daughter is 15 going on a shaved head.

It’s just hair. This is what I tell myself. This is where I land. I listen to her voice, her dreams and ideas and fears and hardest places. I look at her eyes. Not her hair.

She studied the Holocaust last fall with her grandfather, my dad.

She has seen the shaved heads.

I have a tattoo. Two tattoos, actually. I might get more.

When Jews, Catholics, the Roma, gay and communist and disabled humans, reached Auschwitz, they were divided into two groups: Those who went straight to the gas chambers, and those who were stripped, shaved, tattooed, and sent to the barracks to work. Really, to die, just more slowly.

Some survived. They swore, never again. They whispered it. Secrets burned on skin, never to be talked about. Never a shaved head. Never a tattoo. The unspeakable.

What is it to take things things back, to reclaim, to honor the dead, to choose life, to take back ownership of the body?

What is it to express the spirit on skin?

How is our hair a symbol of autonomy and agency and choice — just as what we wear, how we speak, and how we love are all ways of declaring existence, selfhood, peoplehood, sovereignty, and worth?

My daughter is shaving off all of her hair.

Not because she is sick.

Not because she is unstable.

Not because she is rebellious.

Not because she is dishonoring memory.

I do not know her reasons yet, but I believe her when she tells me she has her reasons.

And what will I say, when I see her?

I will say: You are beautiful.

I will say: I love you.

I will say: Your being is a song to those who died.

I will say: Your songs soothe the ones who survived.

I will say: I can see your soul, your neshama, even more brightly.

I will say: This world needs you in it.

These are harrowing times for growing up. I call on my ancestors to light the way, to remind me that hair is just hair and that hair, too, can be holy.

That holiness is in how we teach our children and how we learn from our children.

That this dance across time is how we keep being here, despite the odds.

“The giving season is over”

Flipping around the car radio,
these five words caught my ear.
I’d like to think there was more to it,
we’re not always privy to context.
Benefit of the doubt says
sometimes we’re moving too fast
to hear the rest, missing the crucial
thing that was said just after,
not seeing how it turned out,
that sad phrase, that tense moment,
that terse exchange you glimpsed
in passing.

But benefit of the doubt is tired.
It’s so tired. It’s tired and it’s pissed
that we’re living in a time and place
where context is too smart
for the powers that be, where
to listen deeply is laughable,
something only elitists do,
where our so-called president
calls Haiti and the entire African continent
“shithole countries,” suggesting we open
our doors to more Norwegians instead.
American, Aryan — splitting blonde hairs
of wholesome, pure specimens of superiority.

The giving season is over.
There is only taking now.
Taking land, taking language, taking health
care, taking names, taking neighborhoods,
taking schools, taking deep breaths
to keep ourselves sane while they take
and take take take, taking turns
with shallow apologies, taking families,
taking compassion, taking humanity,
taking intelligence, taking diplomacy,
taking kindness, taking depth, taking
whatever they want, like they always have,
and spitting in the faces
of anyone who doesn’t look like them
or come when they call.

Angry? Yes. I’m angry.
Am I frightened? Beneath everything, yes.
The giving season is over —
I heard it myself today on the radio.
My own dark curls and speckled eyes
don’t fit the profile, though I can hide
behind my rosy cheeks and pale skin.
Mind goes to trains, ships, all the methods
of death transport by the millions.
Bodies that don’t conform, minds that don’t
conform, families that don’t conform,
art that doesn’t conform, leaders
who come in so many forms confronting
daily a thousand small atrocities adding
up to something like genocide,
something like ethnic cleansing,
something like eugenics, something like
the most sinister tactics of decimation
history has seen.

Here we are again, in this place where
the giving season buckles under the weight
of so much taking.
I want to say: Rest, let me carry something
of yours here, let me take your weight
for a moment, don’t let them break you.
Instead, I wonder how long I can hold on
before the ugliness starts to ruin me.
I say I won’t let that happen.
And I wonder if it’s true.

The Intersection of Jewishness + Whiteness


The discussion of the intersection of Jewishness and whiteness is one I’ve been having for decades in many different contexts, and I imagine it will continue to occupy my mind and heart for the rest of my life.

One thing that has never wavered is the acknowledgement and full recognition and naming of the fact that as a Jew, I can choose whether to conceal or reveal my Jewish identity, just as I can with my sexual orientation. I can gauge a situation, setting, vibe, etc. and determine how safe I feel. People of color of no such option. There is nothing to debate here.

So there is zero question, for me, about white privilege and that being first and foremost the fundamental issue our country is seeing the inevitable outcome of today — the fact that our (and I say OUR, as Americans) collective identity is rooted in genocide, slavery, and white supremacy in ways that continue to go unacknowledged and unchecked, with unquestionably devastating impact on people of color. Antisemitism is also alive and well and that, too, is woven into our country’s history.

Antisemitism is important to raise as a point of awareness and attention if you look at the language and beliefs of white supremacists and the history of a people that has endured and survived thousands of years of expulsions and genocides. As a people, these live not only in memory and history but in the lifetime of our grandparents, genocide at the hands of those whose vile beliefs have been kept alive and revived by the people we’re now seeing empowered to come out of hiding by the current political climate and “leaders.”

I cannot see and hear men — and women, mind you — with burning torches chanting “Jews will not replace us” without feeling alarmed and chilled.

Also imperative to note: NOT ALL JEWS ARE WHITE.

As a white, Jewish woman, do I benefit from the systems of oppression? Yes. Do I feel the need to protect myself as a Jew, as well? Yes. Do I feel the need to use the privilege I have as a white person to further the work of anti-racism? Also, yes — and not only as an individual need or choice but as an obligation and embodiment of living Jewish values. So many things are true at the same time, and personally, my Jewishness serves to strengthen my commitment to racial justice, not in any way diminish, dilute, or whitewash it.

My Jewish identity is inseparable for me from my voice as a writer, an activist, a mother, and an ally to the Black Lives Matter movement. This probably goes without saying, but feels important to articulate tonight.

As Rabbi Hillel said in the 1st century: “”If I am not for myself, who will be for me? But if I am only for myself, who am I? If not now, when?”


One thing that keeps going through my head is that we have no leader. No single person to whom we can turn for reassurance or guidance or instructions or context. There’s no sitting around the radio, listening with heads bowed. No single steady voice. (Maybe this has never been the way and is simply a warped form of false nostalgia? Or actual nostalgia for #44.)

What we do have may be what we’ve always had: Communities large and small around the country, organizing. The voices of those who’ve been talking, writing, studying, facilitating, and educating about racism for decades, standing on the shoulders of the ones before them.

And there is us. Us includes you. We all have to step into leadership here, in whatever ways we can. What this looks in our real lives is something those of us who have any semblance of privilege need to be addressing. Don’t think big. Think concrete. Think today. Think one thing at a time.

I know many of you have been doing this your whole lives. Many of you have devoted your careers to this work and risked your livelihoods, relationships, and bodies every singe day by speaking out. For many Americans, every single day is an act of resistance, just leaving the house. Thank you. I see you and my respect runs deep.

I’m addressing those of us who have looked to someone else to do it. Now would be a good time to be that someone else — yourself.

14/30 Poems in November: Refuge

woods
The woods haven’t always
welcomed me but today
they did.

Strangers haven’t always
greeted me kindly but today
they smiled hello.

Once, I would have been afraid
of this hiding place.
Today, I sought it out.

Once, I’d have been terrified
of dogs running
in my direction.

Today, I opened my hands
to their tongues,
stroked their heads.

In another lifetime,
I fled to the woods
for survival.

I failed
to save my child,
my sister. Never again.

Today, once again,
the woods were refuge,
now of a different sort.

A place to touch
into peace. A refusal.
A pause. A quiet roar.

14/30

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Donate to my efforts to support the Center For New Americans in Northampton, MA: I’m halfway to my $500 fundraising goal and every bit helps.