Sunday, August 17, 2014

Identiying our ancestry can be far from simple

My father was born in 1901 in Stockholm his ancestors, maternal and paternal, came from southwest or southeast Sweden.  My Swedish grandmother was born near Goteborg but spent part of her youth in Normandy in France, where she met her future husband who was visiting from a trip to Germany. I can say in good conscience that paternally I come from Swedish ancestry but I can’t claim any French ancestry.
My mother was born in 1893 in Bound Brook, New Jersey, so that makes her American.  Her parents came to the US as immigrants from Tarnapol, then a city in the Austro-Hungarian Empire. In the US census records for 1900 my maternal grandparents are listed as “Austrian.”  After World War I the region that includes Tarnapol was given to Poland, so as a youth I thought first that they were Polish. In 1939, however, Tarnapol was carved out of Poland and given to the USSR so Tarnapol became Russian.  When the USSR collapsed in 1988 Tarnapol  became a part of Ukraine, a country now independent of Russia.  This might seem just a question for map-makers to settle, but it had profound implications for many Americans.
My mother was married twice.  Her first was in an arranged marriage, as was the custom of Orthodox Jews, and the husband her father selected was an immigrant from Chernobyl.  As was the legal policy at that time in US immigration law, my mother became the property of her husband and thus she was a subject of Russia.  She did not know this until she tried to register to vote for Roosevelt in 1940. My brother and I went with her to be re-naturalized as an American in downtown Manhattan.

I could describe my ancestry on my mother’s side as Austrian, Polish, Russian, or Ukrainian.  Most Jews (especially the Orthodox and Conservative branches of Judaism) identify Jewishness as a maternally transmitted trait so they would consider me Jewish.  But Swedes would not consider me Lutheran, the faith my father had until he was about 10 when he became an atheist and his mother converted to Roman Catholicism.

I much enjoy my melting-pot heritage.  It is very American and in the years when I taught genetics and biology, I sometimes had my classes prepare pedigrees of their parents, siblings, grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins.  Along with those connections, I asked for their ancestry.  Most of those who have been in the US for 3 or more generations are melting-pot mixtures who have both ethnic and racial mixtures.  The farther back one goes, the more this becomes a reality because of the migratory history of Americans from coast to coast. Oh yes, when asked about where my mother’s ancestors came from,  I now say “Tarnapol; it’s now in Ukraine.”  Unless, of course, I go into Ancient Mariner mode, and tell them this more detailed story.


Billhackernan said...

I have always found it a mixed blessing. Do many people understand what it means to be mixed Jewish, I have been asked, "is your mother Jewish? Then you are" what are the guidelines for being a partial or unfinished Jew ?

elof said...

I consider being Jewish as a religious identification. In that sense I am not Jewish. I am theologically an atheist. In practice I am a Unitarian-Universalist because that is a non-creedal religion. My paternal grandmother's Catholicism does not make me Catholic. But Jews have difficulty with identification. They see themselves as a people rather than a race, with a culture that goes with their religion. Unlike most religions they do not seek converts and make conversion difficult. Judaism is also a disappearing religion because a significant number of Jews marry non-Jews. This is particularly so for the branches called Conservative, Reform, and Reconstructionist Jews. Only the Orthodox Jews enforce rigorously the ban on their children marrying non-Jews.

elof said...

The Jewish tradition or law uses the mother as the basis for religious identification. To such Jews you and I are Jewish. But that tradition is less accepted by the Reform and Reconstrctionist Jews who invite mixed couples to their services. Conservative Jews oppose religious intermarriage but they do not usually disown their children for doing so. It is the Orthodox Jews who follow Biblical rage against intermarriage.