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My husband is Jewish — or he was. Now a DNA test says he’s not. What now?

From its start in 1906, A Bintel Brief was a pillar of the Forward, helping generations of Jewish immigrants learn how to be American. Now our columnists are helping people navigate the complexities of being Jewish in 2020. Send questions to [email protected].


Dear Bintel,

I have been married to a wonderful man for 10 years. We have two small children. We are practicing Reform Jews. I am Jewish and my husband’s mother is not Jewish but his father was. His mother was and is genuinely terrible and his father died when my husband was young; my husband heavily identifies with his wonderful father whose life was cut short.

We both took at-home DNA tests recently. My results exactly reflected what I already knew, but my husband’s results were devastating — no Ashkenazic DNA. It appears that his mother has been living a lie, and lying to her son, for more than 40 years.

I am writing because I want help in sorting out my feelings. I feel genuinely sad for my husband but also confused — what does this mean? My children are Jewish no matter what because I am, but I married a (Jewish enough) husband who apparently isn’t.

I don’t know what, if anything, I should tell my children. I don’t want them to one day take a DNA test and be surprised by the results (and think that their dad is not their dad). On the other hand, I want to honor the memory and legacy of my husband’s dear father who is not here to speak for himself. I also want to continue to think of my husband in exactly the same terms: his father is Jewish, his mother is awful. Am I doing this wrong?

Please help!

Signed,
Dad Not Ashkenazic

Note: We followed up with this letter writer, who clarified that for several reasons, reaching out to the husband’s mother was not an option.

Dear Not Ashkenazic,

I say your husband — raised Jewish, choosing to be Jewish, embedded in the cultural experience of being Jewish — is as Jewish now as he was the year you met him. Our DNA is such a small part of our story. Your feelings about the fact that his father is Jewish (and his mother is awful) have no reason to change. The values and memories that he inherited from his father means so much more than his DNA. In that respect, you are doing this absolutely right.

I might push back on the finality of your conclusion, however. The information you have is not conclusive! Having Ashkenazi DNA reflected in one of these tests, or not, does not determine whether or not your husband’s biological father was Jewish.

I know that can seem faint comfort when you feel your whole sense of self has been upended, but it’s true. These tests can be inaccurate or show an incomplete story. Your husband’s father could have been Ashkenazi but not reflected in their system (in fact, there is some reason to think that only 40% of Ashkenazi Jews might be reflected as such in these DNA tests!), or he could have been Sephardic, Roman Jewish, adopted, or had converts in his ancestry — all of which would mean his DNA wouldn’t necessarily read as Eastern European Jewish.

And even if the worst truth is true, and his mother did have an affair, we still have no way of knowing if his biological father was Jewish, or not (though again, that might be cold comfort, even if relevant). There is just not enough information here.

dove flies through broken heart

Image by Liana finck

You also have recourse to Jewish history. After all, tons of Jews join the family after they are born, with no DNA connection. As Rabbi Lisa Rubin at Central Synagogue emphasized when I reached out to her about your question, “Jewish identity can come from either parent by birth (according to the Reform movement), but it can also come from choosing to live a certain way and accepting a certain covenant.” She was also emphatic that these test results, faulty as they can be, should in no way change you or your husband’s sense of Jewish identity, which is something other Reform rabbis agreed with as well when I reached out. Your husband has lived as a Jew his whole life, and his Jewish status has not changed. I hope that brings you some comfort.

The shock of identity loss came to you wrapped inside the shock of betrayal, and it is a lot of unsettling information at once. Especially inside an already painful family situation.

But I want to address these feelings of confusion, because I realize discounting the test results might feel like an easy way out. For many Jews born Jewish, that DNA connection has been a pillar to their sense of Jewish identity for most of their lives. It’s the thing that reads them into the Jewish story, even if there are other ways to do that.

If you do more digging — perhaps speaking to relatives or others who can shed more light on the situation — and find strong evidence of what you suspect, then I do think you should eventually tell your children, at age-appropriate moments. Mostly because it’s part of their father’s story, and as they get older they will want to know they’ve been given the truth too. It doesn’t have to be a dramatic, sit down moment, but there might come a time when they ask a question that requires a more surprising answer than they expected.

To the extent that you want to discuss this with other people, I’d say follow your heart but be cautious in these early moments. You don’t want to open a hurting heart to every passing comment or immediate reaction.

My sense is that some of the confusion comes from having this unalterable truth about your husband — something you didn’t have to think about — suddenly presented as a choice. Does he now have a choice to opt out of being Jewish? And does that present him to you in a different light? I can see how that might happen, but this is where I fall back on his already formed identity. He can no longer read himself out of the Jewish people. His identity is already formed, and the experiences that made him who he is came, in part, from his sense of being Jewish. The sudden and somewhat disorienting appearance of choice is just an illusion.

Nonetheless, I’m thinking about ways to reclaim the stability of your husband’s choice. And your own! If you both truly feel this has shifted the ground on which he built his Jewish identity, you might want to find some sort of ritual or conversion-like ceremony where he can formally choose to align his fate with his father’s people.

And I want to name that this is all in the context of practicing Reform Judaism. In other Jewish communities, the legal questions around Jewish identity would likely come more to the forefront. But it sounds like for the two of you, the legal ramifications of this question are minimal, or at least not motivating your sense of loss. I’d investigate more, if you can, and then ask if your feelings might prompt you to reinvest in some way in your Jewish identity —, not because you need to, but because you want to.

Shira Telushkin lives in Brooklyn, where she writes on religion, fashion, and culture for a variety of publications. She is currently finishing a book on monastic intrigue in modern America. Got a question? Send it to [email protected].

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