Searching for My Birth Mother's Jewish Heritage

How I Grew Up as a Non-Jewish Adoptee in an Orthodox Family

‘Reindeer-herding Appalachian Jew’: Albert Stern (left) was adopted into an Orthodox Jewish family and enjoys teaching his son about his British, Appalachian and Native American roots.
Dani E. Go
‘Reindeer-herding Appalachian Jew’: Albert Stern (left) was adopted into an Orthodox Jewish family and enjoys teaching his son about his British, Appalachian and Native American roots.

By Albert Stern

Published August 13, 2014, issue of August 15, 2014.

(page 2 of 3)

The results showed me to be 85% British Isles stock. I had some distant matches in the database, which weren’t useful in my search for my birth mother. The family genealogies these matches posted shared deep Appalachian roots stretching back to the earliest colonial settlement of the southern United States.

Approximately 8% of my genes were identified as being “Moazabite,” referring to Semitic/North African origin, and 7% of my genes are of Native American stock. The Moazabite marker is common to Jews, which meant that I might share some genes with the Chosen People, although nothing close to the amount I hoped would give me my “aha!” Jewish moment.

After the novelty about the results wore off, my frustration returned — until I received an email from Tim, a distant relation who had discovered that he had common ancestors with me and four other people: The convergence seems to occur around Richard Burton and Mary Pleasants, who were born in the first quarter of the 18th century in Virginia and moved to the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina after the Revolutionary War.

I tracked down a website that chronicled the clan’s history from its roots on the English-Welsh border to colonial Virginia to 20th-century California. The images were different from the yellowed family photos that made it over with my bubbe and zayde from Europe: There was a notable absence of peyes, for instance. As I scrolled through the site and its images of colonial plantation owners, politicians in tricorne caps, Confederate soldiers, Texas Rangers, migrants who looked as though they emerged out of “Grapes of Wrath”, and California oil workers, I flashed back to that scene in “Annie Hall” where Alvy Singer morphs into a Hasid in front of Grammy Hall. Instead of Diane Keaton, I imagined Sarah Silverman telling me, “You’re what my Bubbe Gittel would call a real shaygetz,” whereupon I appear wearing a straw hat and overalls, holding a dead opossum in one hand and a jug of corn whiskey in the other. The site offered two pieces of information that overlapped with what I knew about my birth mother — the family identifies as Welsh and English, and has a contingent that made it to the “large Pacific state” of California. While there the trail goes cold for now, I finally had a story.

A few months later, Family Tree DNA updated its tests. While the new methodology confirms that I am part Native American, the “Moazabite” root no longer appears, replaced with genetic markers identified as being from northern Mediterranean and circumpolar Finnish peoples. Rather than a connection to Har Sinai, I have one to reindeer herding.



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