When I was nine, I was given a school assignment to make a family tree. Using scissors and glue, the standard tools for any elementary school art project, I arranged photos of my family onto a large white poster board. Next to each picture I drew the lines that connected us. As part of the assignment, students were asked to list our countries of origin – where our families had lived before moving to the United States. My list included: Germany, Romania, Bulgaria, Poland, Syria, and Palestine.
It was the first time I’d ever thought about my roots and how my family ended up in New York. I discovered that my maternal great-grandfather, Mussa, emigrated from Syria, arriving in New York in the early 1900’s. There he met Nasira, my maternal great-grandmother, who had emigrated from Palestine (pre-Israel). The journey was difficult for her. A single parent by 1924 and unable to overcome the language barrier, Nasira struggled to support herself and her children. My grandfather, Sam, and his brother were eventually placed in foster care.
My grandmother, Blanche, has a similar story. Her mother, Yetta, had emigrated from Bulgaria and her father from Poland. Yetta was unable to support her two daughters after her husband died and they grew up in foster care.
Raised in Queens, my grandfather lived only a borough away from my grandmother in Brooklyn. They wrote letters to each other while he served as a Marine in WWII and when he returned from the war they married. My grandmother still has the beautiful hand-painted cards he sent to her.
It was a “mixed” marriage. My grandfather was from the Middle East, a “Mizrahi” Jew and my grandmother from Eastern Europe, an “Ashkenazi” Jew. This intermarriage was frowned upon by both the Ashkenazi and Mizrahi communities. It was also looked at as an interracial marriage. In the 1980’s this stigma was fading but it was still seen by many as “exotic” when my father (of German and Eastern European descent) married my mother.
These stories fed my imagination and sparked a fascination with my heritage. It was as if discovering this history would unlock hidden parts of myself and I savored every new piece of information.
There are parts of my ancestral history where the breadcrumbs run out. A name change at Ellis Island means some questions will remain unanswered, lost at sea on the journey to America. But what I have found makes me feel part of a story much bigger than myself.
Several months ago I stumbled upon a University of Michigan research study called Genes for Good (http://genesforgood.sph.umich.edu). Here’s a blurb from their website describing the study:
Genes For Good is a research study aimed at generating and analyzing an enormous database of health and genetic information. This research will provide valuable biological insight into the causes of common diseases.
It’s a lot like other for-profit genetic ancestry companies but it’s free and the information provided by a growing number of participants supports scientific research. As of today, the study has had over 75,000 participants and over 19,000 genotypes have been analyzed. I submitted my sample in July.
I’m not sure what I was expecting to find out about myself by spitting into a tube. Perhaps I’d uncover some ancestral link that had been lost over time. I was also realizing how much my Middle Eastern heritage has become a core part of my identity and was curious to see how strongly it would be reflected in my genes.
My results came back this week. I am a 60% European and 39% West Asian & Northern African (aka Middle Eastern).
It’s easy to think about history in sepia tones, romanticized and far removed from the present day. These stories humanize my ancestors and help me understand the struggles they endured as their started their lives in America. Without physical mementos to remember them, I am comforted seeing their presence in my own DNA.
As I get older and the idea of having a family becomes more tangible, I think about my how my decision to move to New Zealand will impact future lines on the family tree. For starters, they’ll be adding New Zealand, Scotland, and England to their already long list of ancestral homes. I wonder which parts of their history will bring meaning to their lives.
Sometimes I feel a little guilty about leaving America, thinking about how hard it was for my family to immigrate and acculturate less than a century ago. Had they ever even heard of New Zealand? What would they have thought about their great-granddaughter making the choice to leave the States behind?
I’ll never know and can only hope they’d understand both the challenges of immigrating and the beauty of growing new roots. For now, I’ll continue to cherish my past and embrace my future with an open heart.