Thanks to the boom of DNA kits promising to reveal your ancestry, people are starting to identify some surprises within their heritage. A common one is finding Ashkenazi Jewish ancestry.
When I got my results in early 2018, it made sense. And it didn’t. I knew I had a Jewish grandmother, but I never really thought of her as Jewish. She didn’t raise her kids (my father and aunt) to be Jewish and never celebrated any Jewish holidays within my lifetime––at least that I’m aware of. Plus, I never thought of being Jewish as an ethnicity or heritage. It was just a religion in my young, naive eyes.
Fast forward a year-and-a-half and I’ve learned enough to know there’s so much I still need to learn. But I do think I’m on the right track and it occurred to me recently that others might not know where or how to start exploring their heritage. I didn’t either. But it became a passion of mine and I thought to recall some of the things I found out, I did, am doing, and plan to do could help others trying to reconnect with their Jewish heritage.
A few points of order before we started. For simplicity’s sake, I’m using “Jewish” loosely in this article to refer to anyone who has Jewish ancestry as opposed to the Halakah (Jewish law)-approved usage referring to just religious Jews or children born to a Jewish mother.
Second, before you leave your “I can’t believe you forgot this!!1” comment, allow me to state plainly that I am by no means claiming this to be an exhaustive or even remotely complete article. That’s kinda the point. You’ll have to figure out how you want to pursue this stuff yourself. This is mainly to get you started and to share why I decided to start caring about my Jewish heritage in case that might resonate with you.
Throughout this piece, I’ll cover not just what led me to care about my Jewish heritage, but I’ll talk about the podcasts, books, films, religious texts, music, and research tools that have made this journey both enriching and enjoyable. That’s my way of saying––feel free to scroll ahead if you get bored.
Now let’s get started by laying out why you should care about being Jewish. Lech-L’cha!
Why should you care about having Jewish heritage? It’s a question I asked myself, especially after I found myself more drawn to it than other aspects of my heritage. But I couldn’t necessarily put words to it. I’d ask myself why I cared more about it than the piece of the ancestry pie that said I’m Irish or British––and I didn’t have an answer… At first.
Only after tracing my Jewish heritage back to Eastern Europe and reading about the history of the era did I truly appreciate why I should care, fueling my interest in diving in further. In short, no other aspect of my heritage faced extinction. My Jewish ancestors came from regions of the Austro-Hungarian Empire that hated Jews. They were disenfranchised citizens facing the threat of pogroms––organized riots against Jews. It seems they all came over to the United States in the late 19th Century, possibly early 20th for some. Whether it was the threat of violence that motivated them or just the opportunity to have a better life (the fuel for so many other immigrants of the era), I don’t know. All I know is that had they stayed, they would’ve most likely been killed in the Holocaust. Had they immigrated to the United States a few decades later, they may have been rejected by strict immigration laws of the 1920s.
Basically, my Jewish ancestors came at the best possible time to make my existence possible.
Think about your family tree, whether you’re Jewish or not, and you can appreciate how bizarre it is that you exist. Most of us Americans come from a diverse background. Compare that to our grandparents and great-grandparents who probably couldn’t fathom marrying someone outside of their culture. For me to exist, it took an Irish immigrant marrying a Swiss immigrant to start an American family who would eventually produce a child to marry into an immigrant Jewish family. And that’s just my paternal side.
Now that you can see how bizarre it is that we exist, you can appreciate how especially unlikely it was for your Jewish ancestors to be part of that story. I’m not saying other immigrant groups didn’t struggle. We’re all human and we all struggle with something. But history shows that the Jewish people have faced an inordinate amount of obstacles.
And that’s why you should care. You should care about your Jewish heritage, whether you’re split down the middle or you can only point to a great-grandmother (like my niece) because that link could have very easily been plucked out of your family tree by history and you wouldn’t exist. Coming to terms with that fact has made me appreciate what I have more and better empathize with refugees and immigrants trying to make a better life for themselves in my two countries (the US and Germany).
The next time you hear or see someone rally against immigrants, you might make the logical conclusion that they’re rallying against the history that made you and your family possible. It’s not like I’m making a unique observation here. Jewish groups have long been leaders in the fight for Civil Rights and in combating entities like ICE because, in part, of our shared heritage and history.
Besides, most of your relatives are (probably) Jewish! At least, it seems that way. I came back with 26.7 percent Ashkenazi Jewish ancestry on 23andMe and I share that heritage with 79 percent of my relatives. Granted this is limited to 23andMe customers and Jews have shown more interest in this kind of thing (both to connect to the Old Country and relatives lost in the diaspora), but you get the picture.
Now that you understand why you should care about your Jewish heritage, let’s get into the nitty-gritty details.
I’ll save you the embarrassment by admitting it first. I didn’t know what “Ashkenazi” was when I saw it pop up in my results. My first thought was “why is ‘nazi’ very visibly at the end of this ethnicity? Is this a sick joke?”
Turns out, Ashkenaz was a biblical figure, a descendant of Noah. The name also refers to a biblical kingdom. By the Middle Ages, regions of Jewish settlements were given biblical names. Spain was Sefarad, France Tsarefat, and so on. Germany, with substantial Jewish communities in the Rhineland (Speyer, Worms, Mainz), was designated Ashkenaz by rabbinic commentators. So a person from Ashkenaz is Ashkenazi. (Likewise, genealogists trace the beginnings of the Ashkenazi ethnic group back to about that time period, settling along the Rhine River in France and Germany.)
Note: I’m still learning and am offering up very simple explanations. I encourage anyone reading this to refer to the sources I offer up below for more information.
How could you be Jewish and not know it?
There are plenty of reasons, but a couple of main ones come to mind. First, many Ashkenazi Jews just wanted to assimilate into the United States (like other immigrants) and get on with their lives. If your ancestors came from Eastern Europe in the late 19th Century (as mine did), they probably grew up knowing about or having experienced pogroms (a massacre usually targeting Jews). If they stuck out life in Europe, then they came up to the Holocaust and they saw how the majority culture treats the minority culture. It wasn’t uncommon (relative to Jewish history) for Jews in the early 20th Century to start marrying outside of the tribe and assimilate. That’s precisely what my grandmother did, marrying my Catholic grandfather (but in a synagogue because Jews weren’t allowed in the church just yet).
Then again, your buried Jewish roots might be the result of the Inquisition. The Inquisition was, of course, no friend to the Sephardic Jews. (If only it really were just a Mel Brooks musical.) Jews were expelled from Spain if they didn’t convert, forcing many to either convert and maintain their Jewish practices in secret (conversos) or completely shed their identity. It’s not uncommon for someone to be on their deathbed and whisper, “By the way, you’re Jewish.” That is, if they shared the secret at all.
Okay. So I’m Jew-ish. What Now?
Well, where do you want to take it? Do you want to visit where your ancestors are from? Are you interested in the religion? The food? The Cohen Brothers filmography?
For me, the answer was all of the above––even the religion despite my skeptic tendencies. So much of Jewish culture, I’ve learned, stems from the Hebrew Bible (Torah) that it would be wrong to dismiss it and just eat some kugel if your mission is to truly reconnect with your heritage. Besides, even coming at it from a secular perspective, there are interesting stories in the Torah and there are discussions you can follow up on that show how those stories relate to contemporary times. But more on that later.
Moving on, I’m going to break up exploring your Jewish heritage into four categories and expand further below: Travel, Food, History and Politics, Religion.
Jews didn’t keep diligent records in the Old Country, so tracing your family back can be difficult. Even if there were records, many were lost to 20th-century anti-Semitism. Plus maps have changed. Find researchers at JewishGen, on the JewishGen Facebook group, and Tracing
The Tribe on Facebook. You can also research shared surnames with your DNA matches on websites like 23andMe and GEDMatch to see if a long lost relative has more information on where your family comes from.
On the ground, a little more research can connect you with synagogues or local, amateur researchers who will be happy to show you around. (The folks behind the Suburbia Complex in Bardejov were very helpful, taking me to Jewish cemeteries where my ancestors are likely buried.)
Click here to read about my experience in Slovakia.
I’ve found cooking to be, well, certainly the tastiest way to reconnect with my Jewish heritage. So it should come as no surprise that I’ve found my favorite recipes from The Nosher. You can follow them on Instagram and Twitter, too, to get visual inspiration. Shakshuka (not Ashkenazi, but I’ll happily take it) has quickly become part of my regular cooking repertoire.
You’ll also want to do yourself a favor and head over to Tablet Magazine’s interactive 100 Most Jewish foods display. It’s part of their recently launched book covering, well, the 100 most Jewish foods.
There’s the anti-Semitic trope that Jews run Hollywood and the media. If that were true, you’d think there’d be more films and television shows centered around Jewish themes and culture.
Having said that, there are a handful of productions that embrace their Jewish ethos. I admit I’m a bit behind the ball on watching all of these (I haven’t even seen Fiddler on the Roof but please don’t chase me out of town before I have the chance). To make up for my sin, I’m catching up by following the BFI’s list of 10 great Jewish films. Most recently I watched A Serious Man from the Cohen Brothers. The film is supposed to be a modern retelling of the Book of Job but it includes all kinds of Jewish goodness, including an introductory scene that’s exclusively in Yiddish.
Not a film, but I have to give a special nod to Jill Soloway’s Transparent. I didn’t know it going in, but the show’s Jewishness is made clear early on and frequently. Esquire even called it “the most Jewish show on television.” The show doesn’t explicitly teach you Judaism or Jewish culture (it’s television not a seminar) but you feel immersed in it as the stories progress. You see Maura touch the mezuzah and kiss her fingers before walking into her mother’s room, you see Shabbat, and every season surrounds a Jewish High Holiday. It’s glorious and incredibly well done.
Just as there are different Jewish cultural groups, there are different types of Jewish music. We’re talking namely Mizrahi, Sephardic, and Ashkenazi. Ashkenazi Jews are most closely associated with klezmer music. If you’re humming “Hava Nagila,” then you’re on the right track.
I’ve been into Klezmer since long before I really knew what klezmer music was. It’s got this nice combination of Old World European classical and folk music with brass arrangements that sound, to me, distinctly klezmer. When I hear that specific brass styling, it’s when I know I’m listening to klezmer.
With everything old becoming new again, there are contemporary klezmer performers. One of my favorites, Klezmerson, is a Mexican band that blends aspects of Jewish and Mexican music together. But for something strictly klezmer, there are Klezmatics and I got word of Farnakht on an episode of Unorthodox. In fact, to Unorthodox’s credit, they’re great about shouting out excellent Jewish music. They’re how I first heard of the NYC-based klezmer rock band, Golem.
Of all this great music, I have to give a special nod to Daniel Kahn & The Painted Bird. He’s a Detroit-born, Berlin-based musician who performs in a mix of English, German, and Yiddish. His music is a combination of original storytelling, protest songs, and simply catchy tunes where he impressively jumps around his languages of choice. But for all that goodness, he’s perhaps best known for his Yiddish cover of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah,” recorded by the Forward.
History and Politics
Jason Harris’s podcast Jew Oughta Know has been indispensable in my education. As of this writing, I’m toward the end of season two covering the history of Zionism after having finished the first season, which took listeners through Genesis from a mostly historical perspective. Writing via email, Jason shared some thoughts with me on the importance of Jews reclaiming their heritage.
“The Baal Shem Tov, the founder of Hasidism, famously said, ‘Forgetfulness leads to exile. Remembering is the key to redemption.’ In keeping our history as a constant companion, and our heritage as sustained through ritual and tradition, we continuously adapt ourselves without losing our most essential values. Most Jews don’t really know much about Jewish history and this makes it easy to ‘forget’ and to drift away, anchor-less. Plus learning about this stuff is super fun! Or at least I think so.”
Jew Oughta Know was the first Jewish podcast that became a regular part of my listening diet, but I’ve since expanded to a handful of other podcasts that cover different aspects of Jewish religion, heritage, and identity. Why Jewish History Matters and Unorthodox are also on my list. Jason Lustig’s Why Jewish History Matters is a simple, no-frills conversation with an expert covering the topic of the day. Episode 26: Could It Happen Here? Fascism and Nazism in America with Steve Ross and the episode before that on the Kishinev Pogrom were especially interesting.
Unorthodox is a team effort from Tablet Magazine (also a great source for reading material) covering a variety of contemporary Jewish issues. Their July 2019 episode on Jews Across America was my first episode and I’ve been a regular listener ever since.
The short-lived Kibitz Podcast may be gone (or on hiatus?), but their back catalogue is worth exploring. Marvelous Mrs. Maisel fans will enjoy their episode explaining the popularity of the Catskills and religious skeptics should check out the episode on Jewish Atheism.
For more history, download some episodes from Adventures In Jewish Studies. Don’t let the vaguely academic name throw you off. The two episodes I’ve listened to so far (Are Jews White and The Origins of the Jews) were fascinating.
I generally have a hard time picking up one book and sticking with it all the way through before picking up another. That’s not because I lose interest but rather my interests in the topic expand so quickly, that I want to simultaneously expand my research. That said, the books listed below have been vital for one reason or another to my research and I either have or will finish them.
- World Of Our Fathers: The Journey of the East European Jews to America and the Life They Found and Made by Irving Howe and Morris Dickstein
- From Generation to Generation by Agnes Tomasov
- Abraham’s Children: Race, Identity, and the DNA of the Chosen People by Jon Entine
- Night by Elie Wiesel
- Born To Kvetch by Michael Wex
- A Place They Called Home: Reclaiming Citizenship. Stories of a New Jewish Return to Germany edited by Donna Swarthout
- My Jewish Year: 18 Holidays, One Wondering Jew by Abigail Pogrebin
- Surprised by God: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Religion by Danya Ruttenberg
- The Torah: The Five Books Of Moses by God(?)
I’m ashamed to admit that most of my knowledge of Judaism has been heavily framed by Christianity, which is strange since I’ve never considered myself a Christian. Something I learned early on (thanks to the Jew Oughta Know podcast) is that Judaism isn’t just the Old Testament. That Christian book is configured in a way so that the messianic realization of the New Testament makes sense to Christians.
Despite my strong skepticism of religion, organized or otherwise, I’ve been diving into The Torah (a.k.a. The Hebrew Bible). Yes, there’s plenty of that redundant biblical language (this dude begot this dude who begot this dude and begot, begot, begot) and God is very much all about that fire and brimstone when God’s not busy being, well, kinda catty.
Still, you can definitely get something out of the Torah. Even if you come to it from an atheistic or agnostic framework, they’re still stories and we get things out of stories all the time without necessarily believing in all (or any) of the mythology within them.
Nonetheless, I still struggle with it. It can feel like homework when I’d rather connect to my Jewish heritage through, say, food and more food. Fortunately, Judaism has broken the Torah into a weekly Torah portion or parsha. These parshiyot cover the 55 weeks to end on the holiday of Simchat Torah just a few weeks after Rosh Hashanah (Jewish New Year) and Yom Kippur (Day of Atonement).
Tip: Head to My Jewish Learning to see the next Torah portion and featured commentary.
In other words, that means you can limit your reading to the weekly Torah portion, which really isn’t long at all. You’ve definitely spent more time scrolling through Instagram than it would take to read the Torah portion. Plus you get a week to read it. I’ve swallowed far worse pills than that. Besides, after reading, you can listen to podcast commentary on the Torah portion, which I get far more out of than just reading it myself (amateur Jew that I am).
For that, I recommend Tablet Magazine’s Parsha in Progress featuring the aforementioned Abigail Pogrebin of My Jewish Year and Rabbi Dov Linzer. Each episode is just about 10 minutes and you’re getting a breakdown of the week’s Parsha from two different perspectives of Judaism. It’s good stuff. If you feel like going above and beyond, Reform Rabbi Rick Jacobs hosts On the Other Hand: Ten Minutes of Torah covering the weekly Torah portion.
Want more Torah? Check out Bim Bam’s YouTube channel. The channel is mostly directed toward kids, but if you’re brand new to this stuff, it’s the best way to learn. Not only do they have older videos covering the weekly Torah portion, but they explain all the little things you’ve probably tangentially heard of, like the story of King David, as well as what all the holidays are about.
Last but not certainly least, feel free to consult a rabbi! That’s what they’re there for.
“So, am I really Jewish?”
You might be asking yourself that. I certainly did.
When I was in elementary school, I joked about being Jewish. Christian was the most common identity in suburban Cleveland, but I never felt comfortable with it even before I knew what it really meant.
So, if a kid asked me: “What are you?” I’d say “a quarter Jew.”
If they wanted to know more, I’d add: “My grandpa’s Catholic and my grandma’s Jewish. That canceled my dad out!”
Or, as I became especially flippant about the question, I’d say I’m “Joe-ish” practicing “Joedaism.” I thought it clever at the time but it feels painfully narcissistic to recount now.
From then on out, I never thought about it much. When I was working at Guest Services in the mall, a middle-aged woman who worked at a store would ask to borrow our phone at the end of the day. Once she said something to the effect of, “You’re so nice. You must be Christian, right?”
That really rubbed me the wrong way and I instinctively said. “Nope. Jewish.”
But this wasn’t because I felt Jewish in my bones or had a Jewish identity. I just thought it’d irk her.
Important side note: Jews of Color often get overlooked in discussions of the Jewish people. That’s not my intention here. If you want to learn more about Jews of Color––and you should––start here.
My Jewishness (to whatever extent I had any) only came up two other times that I can really remember. Once, a kid in social studies told me I was Jewish enough to be killed in the Holocaust (I later found out he was right, but still a weird thing to say to someone) and in college, my small circle of supposed friends would call me a “Jew” in a Borat voice. (I don’t think they knew that Borat, played by Sascha Baron Cohen, was Jewish.) These same people would later draw a swastika into a cake before offering me a slice. Besides the blatant anti-Semitism, they ruined a perfectly good cake.
Then I graduated college and I never gave my Jewish heritage a second thought until people started getting their DNA tested. And as I started taking steps to reconnect with that heritage in a real way (going beyond proclamations of being a quarter Jew and Joe-ish, that is), I wondered if I really am Jewish.
It’s complicated. And if you dive into this topic as I have, you’ll learn that Jews love argument and debate without necessarily ever coming to an answer. That’s partly why you can find a smorgasbord of answers to this question. I’ll run through the main answers that might help you.
Orthodox Rabbi: Did you convert? Have you had a bar or bat mitzvah? Were you born to a Jewish mother?
If the answer to any of those is “no,” then an Orthodox Rabbi will say you’re not a Jew.
Reform Rabbi: Are one of your parents Jewish? Have they done anything Jewish, like have a bar or mat mitzvah?
You can see the path to being a Jew is easier in Reform Judaism.
Israel: What did the Orthodox Rabbi say? That’s what we’re going with.
Yes, as far as I can tell, you could be recognized as a Jew in Reform Judaism, but Israel might not recognize it.
If you’re just discovering Ashkenazi heritage, then you probably don’t fit any of these categories. But these definitions are all tied to religion and there are cultural definitions out there as well. After all, most ethnic Jews these days aren’t even religious. It’s the culture that binds them (us?) all together.
Here’s a definition that may or may not fit you depending on where you decide to go next. It comes from the late Amos Oz, an Israeli writer. He said, “a Jew is anyone who chooses or is compelled to share a common fate with other Jews.”
It’s the phrase “compelled to share a common fate with other Jews” that really gets me. I have seen how, historically, my existence has been tied to the fate of the Jewish people, so I personally don’t feel like I can deny or ignore it––even if I wanted to. Reclaiming this heritage has felt intrinsically right to me. I can feel it in the same way that being in nature brings me peace. So I’m going to keep going, keep learning, and do it all so long as it feels right. If that sounds like you, then I hope this has been helpful. If you decide it’s something you just want on your IMDB trivago page, that’s fine, too.
But considering the history, I do wonder how I could be so drawn to closely aligning myself with one of history’s most persecuted people. For that Oz has another line that I think sums it up pretty damn well.
“Who is a Jew? Everyone who is mad enough to call himself or herself a Jew is a Jew.”