Growing up in a Modern Orthodox family in Miami Beach in the 1960s was like being raised in a Technicolor Anatevka.
Shabbats and Jewish holidays dictated the rhythm of life for the community. I spent endless hours in synagogues davening or pretending to, and half of each school day focused on Jewish studies. Firsthand accounts of horrifying events were related to me by garishly clad old men and women with numbers tattooed on their forearms, who spent the sunny days brooding on folding chairs beneath the palm trees and who were always grateful to find a youngster they could unsettle and depress. South Beach in my formative years was an insular subtropical shtetl, and the idea of living outside a monolithically Jewish community would have been as alien to me then as the possibility looking out the window and seeing snow.
I was told that I was adopted at the age of 7. When I was 11, my family rabbi gently informed me that since no one knew who my birth mother was, I’d have to undergo a conversion in a mikveh in order to be considered Jewish. After the ritual, I became sensitive to the ways that Jewishness seemed to be an admixture of biology, faith and practice, and wondered if perhaps a meaningful gulf existed between me and the rabbi’s pedigreed son, my best friend. Absent the Jewish biology, could I be considered as Jewish as him if I did not believe as adamantly or practice the faith as assiduously?
When I would kvetch about the Jewish upbringing inflicted upon me, an adoptee, friends enjoyed pointing out the irony — I really didn’t look Jewish at all. They would note my red hair, blue eyes, and freckled skin and opine that I had to be Irish, a consensus roundly affirmed after I discovered saloons and took instinctively to a robust drinking life that didn’t involve Kiddush cups. As an adoptee I never felt as if I fully owned the Jewish backstory, so I longed to know whether or not I was biologically Jewish, at least in part.
Twenty years ago, at age 31, I finally worked up the nerve to request available non-identifying information about my birth mother from the state of Florida. She was a 22-year-old Catholic of Welsh, English and Irish stock from “a large Pacific state.” Given that Jewish descent is matrilineal, this confirmed that I could not be considered “biologically” Jewish. However, my birth mother knew my adoptive family’s religion, and did not object to my being placed with them. This tidbit allowed me to spin a story of a star-crossed affair between a Jewish man and my gentile birth mother, ending with me properly being passed on at birth to the Jews.
With this fantasy in mind I spent two decades searching for my birth mother. After I struck out with adoption registries, social media, and an unscrupulous private investigator, a fellow adoptee on Facebook suggested I try testing my genes with one of the services available online. I might match a close relation in the database or find out if I carried Jewish genes.
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.
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.
Searching for My Birth Mother's Jewish Heritage