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I’ve come to realize that in pursuing my genetic roots, even more than a Jewish “story,” I wanted to find a way to know my birth mother as a human being, rather than as a construct of my imagination. If she is dead, I want to know something about her life. I want for her to be real to me and, if possible, for me to be real to her. That, apparently, is not likely to happen, and somehow the ambiguous test results have only left me sadder. It is kind of nifty knowing about my genetic tie to the entirety of the American saga, from original aboriginal settlers to English colonists and then to all the milestones that I learned about in history class from the Revolutionary War on. I wonder what kind of person might I be without the formative psychic bond to the Jewish people that shapes my worldview and spiritual sense. Might I be happier? More comfortable moving through the world? A better golfer?
If the past remains murky, the future is clearer. We live in the Berkshire Hills of Western Massachusetts, a sprawling rural area with a very small number of fulltime Jewish residents. I am bringing up a 7-year-old son who, like his mother, is indisputably a Jew. I enjoy telling him about all of his genes’ history. I use maps to show him how the first Americans walked over the land bridge to Alaska and settled an empty hemisphere. I use my British colonist roots to teach him about the Atlantic migration, slavery, the Founding Fathers, and westward expansion. I tell him stories about shtetls and Eretz Yisrael. But while I will never quite own either the American story or the Jewish story, he embodies both. After all, he is some kind of newfangled New World Native American Mediterranean Reindeer-herding Appalachian Jew.
Albert Stern is a writer based in the Berkshires, Massachusetts, who has lived in Miami Beach, Tel Aviv and New York. His stories have appeared in the New York Times and Salon.com.