In the early 1990s my mother decided to investigate her ancestry. One day she proudly presented us with her findings: a 13-page printout of our family tree going back to her great-grandparents, Hirsch Zvi and Rachel Blasenstein, and Moishe and Bella Gitza Schnabel.
No one else in the family took as much interest in genealogy as my mother. We had no fantastical family legends: as my cousin Jack likes to say, back in Zablotow, Galicia, our people were “dirt farmers.” The actual pursuit of finding these relatives on far-flung branches of the family tree anticlimaxed around 1995, when a bunch of us squeezed into a car and drove from Connecticut to the Jersey Shore to find Cousin Bill. I don’t remember much, but I recall everyone returning home feeling satisfied that they’d found him. Good enough. We didn’t need to do that again.
Nevertheless, my mother persisted, poring over records on ancestry websites and communicating with potential long-lost relatives around the world, trying to find that cousin who jumped on the boat headed for Africa and the great-great-grandmother just over the “brick wall” of Ashkenazi genealogy. Genealogy — as David Laskin explores in this issue — for all its perks and pitfalls, helps us figure out the essential questions: who are we? Just how meaningful, or random, is our existence? Genealogy holds the promise of inflating our lives with meaning and threatens to let the air out of family legends. Surprises abound: some thrilling, others ignoble. We found that my mother’s maternal grandmother made garter belts for prostitutes. This seems a far cry from my family tree on my father’s side, which is in full bloom up to Priscilla Mullins and John Alden, who alighted from the Maylflower at Plymouth Rock in 1620.
DNA testing adds a whole new layer to our personal unsolved mysteries, which we hope to explore in a future issue. My 23andMe spit vial returned an analysis that confirmed what I knew: 50 percent Ashkenazi Jewish, 50 percent Northern European mashup. With one surprise: I share DNA with the Neanderthals.
Maybe someday genealogy will take me back to my pre-homo sapiens ancestors. For now, though, I’m good.
Emily K. Alhadeff
P.S. We are honored and humbled to announce that Jewish in Seattle won Best New Publication at the Western Publishing Association’s Maggie Awards last month! Thanks for being part of our exciting first year!