A while back my girlfriend swabbed my cheek, vigorously, as the manual instructed. She sent my DNA to the Genographic Project, National Geographic’s “landmark study of the human journey.” She was eager to learn about another human being’s ancestry, as is her curious obsession. I, too, was curious. I was interested in the Jew in me.
Several weeks later, when the results of my genetic journey came back, I was more than a little excited to learn that I hailed from the haplogroup K. In a video stream from a red-headed, National Geographic-approved scientist named Spencer Wells, I was delighted to hear that among the peoples comprising the haplogroup K were the Ashkenazi Jews.
Ignoring the note about how “the very old age of [halopgroup K’s] subgroups has led to a wide distribution,” I fixated on the fact that us K’s were “very significant because some specific lineages within this group constitute three of four major Ashkenazi Jewish founding lineages.”
My girlfriend—she’s smart, like a computer!—explained that the results applied to women on my mom’s side, the X chromosome. Mazel tov!
My old habit of exaggerating the Jew in me took hold, a habit that bears explaining.
To say it all started when I came to New York and began working at a newspaper would be an oversimplification. Growing up in the Jewish paradise that is West Los Angeles, I was hit during several carpools with the cruel and unnecessary epithet “goy.” I would eagerly explain that my mother’s grandfather was Jewish—plus, he had made all the money, a fact that, I believed, helped solidify my claim—but as far as my friends were concerned, I was a sheygets.
Take the whole bar and bat mitzvah scene. Please! Despite having earned a Dennis the Menace reputation—there was the time Gabe Gigiliotti and I broke a stink bomb under the Manischewitz tray at Sari Heifitz’s bat mitzvah at the Beth Shalom Temple; for the record, we were not responsible for dropping the barbell into Alexa Coblinz’s pool in Agoura Hills; that was totally David Gross!—I have always suspected that my goyness was a factor in my getting shunned by many of the mitzvahs to which I was not invited.
As high school persisted, the invites to the Hillcrest Country Club did not come in heaps. While my questionable Jewish identity did not haunt me during my years in higher education at non-Ivy League schools, it was once again upon me in 2003 when I took an internship at the New York Daily News business desk. Hoping to hide that I knew nothing about Wall Street, I would make note of how “fakakta” the market was. Inevitably the question would come, and invariably I would answer, “My mother’s mother is Jewish!” I knew full well the significance this carried; I also knew it to be only half-true. (On various occasions family members had tried to explain to me—with a suspicious lack of scientific evidence—that my grandmother’s mother was almost certainly not a Jew.)
Since then, I have continued to emphasize my claim. My poker buddy Guy Melitz believes me.
Suffice it to say, upon hearing the news from Dr. Wells, I called my mother to inform her that her grandmother was more than likely an Ashkenazi Jew.
“I knew it!” she exclaimed. That was enough for me.
Then there I was at an office party, explaining to my colleagues the noble people from which I came. At a gathering of boarding school friends, Mandy Sunshine, Jay Katowski and I bonded over shared heritage. More than ever before, I felt I was being accepted by my people. I wondered if there were any junior-high-school reunions coming up where I might set the record straight.
Discussing this new development over Thanksgiving was more challenging. Our new heritage was not an easy spoonful of stuffing for many to swallow, even though my Uncle Larry did say, “I always knew I was a Jew anyway.”
“Dude, I saw that thing,” my little brother said of the genographic chart I had circulated. “Most vague, general study ever.”
I was made to feel sufficiently uncomfortable that I decided to call Dr. Wells.
For the record, before talking to him, the good doctor had already rubbed me the wrong way. The menace Wells is the sort of “child prodigy” who finished college at 16 and spends his days traveling the globe, surfing, battling snow storms in exotic countries, eating fine foods and swabbing the natives, all in the name of science.
In our phone conversation, Dr. Wells told me that my search “tells you about your mother’s mother’s mother’s mother’s mother’s, all the way back to the very first mother, and you are a member of the haplogroup K.”
“So your ancestors were just like anybody else and started off in Africa.”
He went on to say that “some groups of K are found in high frequencies in Ashkenazi Jewish populations. If your mother’s side of the family is Jewish, then there’s a possibility that she was in one of these founding lineages of the Ashkenazi Jews.”
Give it to me straight, Wells.
“You suspect that one of your maternal ancestors might have been Jewish, and I think there’s a reasonable chance,” he said. “But typically, these Jewish lineages in European populations are very, very low frequency, less than 1 percent. So, it really does depend whether you have a preexisting family story. Often we would say it’s not likely, if you’re European and you have a K, that you’re a member of one of those Jewish lineages. But, it is a possibility.” He added, “We can certainly check for ya.”
I tried to alleviate some of my anxiety by asking if he had been the captain of the chess club.
“No,” he said, “but I did compete in science contests and that sort of thing.”
When we spoke several hours later, he lowered the boom. My “pattern” did not match up with the various Ashkenazi patterns. “But Stephen Colbert shares your haplogroup,” he added.
Thanks for nothing, carrot top!
With my genetic journey at an apparent end, I was forced to confront the real reason I always wanted to be a Jew. It wasn’t just that most of my friends growing up were Jewish, or that many of my media colleagues were, or that many of my idols, including my charismatic great-grandfather, were. Mostly, it was because it always seemed to me that Jews placed an admirable importance on family. A sense of unconditional love, support and acceptance seemed to pervade the Hanukkah and Passover dinners I attended. Whereas my WASP-y family get-togethers were often bathed in silence and chilled vodka.
What the heck is a WASP, anyway? Maybe Dr. Wells knows. But I’m not going to ask him.