My brother Steve took one of those DNA ancestry tests last month.
I would never take one. I want to maintain plausible deniability that my parents may or may not be my actual parents. Plus, I’m enough of a hypochondriac as it is. I don’t need a test to remind me that I’m likely to die prematurely from this or that disease. I’m happy to be ignorant about my past and my future. In truth, I’m not all that aware about my present.
But Steve took the test and learned that he had 87% Ashkenazi Jewish genes. This was implausible. Our dad was a German Jew and our mother an Austrian Catholic. He should have been closer to 50% Jewish.
“Hah, maybe you’re not related to them either,” I proposed.
“I don’t think that’s the case,” my exceedingly level-headed brother said. “I am having mom take the test to find out more.”
And that was the last I thought about it, until last week when my mom phoned.
“Well, aren’t you going to ask me?”
“Ask you what, Mom?”
“The results! I got the genetic testing results.”
“Oh, right. So, what did you learn?”
“You’ll never guess.”
“You’re North Korean.”
“Very funny. No. I’m Jewish! Well, half-Jewish. On my mother’s side.”
“No way, mom. Grossmutti was Catholic,” I said, referring to my grandmother. “You made me stand in front of the white cross on the wall to cover it when we took the family photo.”
“Well, it says here that I’m 50% Jewish. And listen to this, I’m Polish!” she laughed. “I’m a Polish Jew now!”
My mom was born in 1935 and lived with her Catholic parents in the Leopoldstadt district of Vienna, which was 30% Jewish at the time. Prior to the war, her parents had many Jewish friends and neighbors, but everything changed in 1938 when she was 3 years old and the Nazis invaded Austria. The Jewish population was decimated.
I had so many questions now.
Did my grandmother know she was Jewish? When she shushed my mom when she was a child and said “die Wände haben Ohren” (the walls have ears), was she hiding something in particular? Was the white cross over my grandmother’s bed a constant reminder of God’s presence and protection, or was it camouflage? And how did the Nazis, with their zeal for rooting out anyone with Jewish backgrounds, not discover the truth?
These are questions we’ll never get answered, but her news does explain some things.
My grandfather was an entrepreneur, and after the war he started a business making children’s toys out of used gasmasks with two Jewish partners. One of the Jewish partners had a son named Bertl, who escorted my mom to parties.
In the spring of 1952, when my mom was 16, she and Bertl went to a dance at Hakoah, a Jewish sports club. It was there that she met my father, a Jewish American army corporal stationed in Vienna. My father wanted to meet Jewish girls, and a Jewish social club was not a bad place to start. Leave it to him to meet the only non-Jew in the whole place. Or so they both thought.
They hit it off immediately, and within two years they were married and living in Chicago. My mom did not convert for the marriage. It was enough that she left her home and family behind. My mom eventually converted to Judaism in her mid-20s after she had been elected president of the temple sisterhood, which seemed as good a time as any. I guess that makes her 150% Jewish today.
My mom’s new understanding of her past reminds me of the great scene in “Fiddler on the Roof” when Tevye sings to Golde, “Do you love me?” She replies, “Do I love him? For 25 years I’ve lived with him, fought with him, starved with him…if that’s not love what is?” After Golde and Tevye agreed that they loved each other, they sing, “It doesn’t change a thing, but even so…after 25 years, it’s nice to know.”
I think this is how my mom feels. For her entire adult life, she’s prayed as a Jew, celebrated as a Jew and mourned as a Jew. And at every Passover seder, she reads Edmond Fleg’s poem “I am a Jew: with pride:
I am a Jew because my faith demands of me no abdication of the mind.
I am a Jew because my faith requires of me all the devotion of my heart.
I am a Jew because in every place where suffering weeps, I weep.
I am a Jew because at every time when despair cries out, I hope.
My mom is a Jew because of her beliefs, her conversion and her birthright.
A few days ago, my mom said that she wished Dad was alive to hear the news. He would have been happy, she said.
I questioned this. My dad was an extremely rational man. I could hear him say, “What does it matter? The past is the past.” But my mom thinks he would have been relieved. He never mentioned it explicitly, but he did attend a Jewish dance to meet a Jewish girl, and she thinks he felt guilty about bringing a Catholic girl home to his Holocaust survivor parents. She might be right; we can’t ever know for sure.
Mom asked me if I wanted to take the test now, and I told her I didn’t. I like not knowing where I come from, or where I’m likely to go. But I’m happy for her. Thanks to the test, my mom has new insight. She was born a Jew, lived her life as a Jew and, someday, she will die a Jew.
I’m glad you learned the truth, Mom.
It doesn’t change a thing, but even so, it’s nice to know.