When I sent the sealed tube back to a laboratory in America, I had high hopes for what would come back. My parents were mixed – Scottish Presbyterian and Anglo-Jewish. I had grandparents and great-grandparents from Poland, Portugal, Peru and Prussia. (By Prussia, I mean Germany, but that doesn’t begin with P). Family legends trace our roots to Italy, Spain and North Africa.
I was excited. I hope my DNA results would come back like a scratch map of the entire world. I would proudly proclaim myself a global citizen. I would research my relatives in Tanzania, the Philippines and even more exotic locations like Scunthorpe.
After weeks of waiting, I opened the results with trepidation. Here they were. European: 99.7%.
Breakdown: 47.8% British and Irish. 48.4% Ashkenazi Jewish. Trace amounts of other ancestries: 1.9% ‘Broadly European’. 0.7% French and German.
I was so disappointed. Where was my globe lit up with dots on every continent? Where were my secret ancestors from places I’d never heard of? And what was I going to do with all my ‘We Are the World’ t-shirts? Perhaps all the family narratives were unreliable.
Maybe I’d need to rethink my entire identity. I wondered if I should perhaps just accept my Ashkenazi heritage and start pronouncing tafs as samechs, mumbling my prayers to myself, even letting my sideburns grow into locks. Or perhaps I should celebrate my connection to the British Isles by listening to Gaelic folk music and trying to revive Welsh as a language.
I confessed my confusion to a friend, who is a geneticist. He reassured me: “these tests are 92% nonsense.”
“But what about the other 8%!” I exclaimed, “surely that counts for something.”
He laughed “That 92% is just as arbitrary as all the percentages on your DNA results. DNA testing is like getting your fortune read at a funfair. They pick 100 genes out of a sequence of thousands, run them up against trends they’ve already found, and act like they’ve given you a whole picture. Treat it as a science-based game, not as a guide to your whole history.”
Well, now I felt even more confused. My family history might be unreliable, and the science was probably pretty suspicious too. The pillars I thought I could rely on for my identity were toppling around me.
I thought about this week’s parashah. Here, in Shmini, as part of all the levitical rules on sacrifice and cultic life, were the rules on which foods we could and couldn’t eat.
Although historians once understood these rules to be about health and cleanliness, biblical critics are now less sure. They point to the fact that any of these meats could cause diseases, and raise the issue that almost every neighbouring nation of the Ancient Near East had its own proscribed foods. Rather than taking a rational, medical approach, they suggest that the original purpose of these rules may have been to develop a sense of national unity. When people knew they had to eat the same foods as each other, they bonded as a community, creating an in-group. Kashrut rules were really there to form a sense of national identity.
I wondered if I could apply this to my own life. Perhaps what made me Jewish was my engagement with its food and ritual life. I seek out beigel bakeries, love challah, won’t eat pork or shellfish, and make cholent on Friday nights.
Maybe that was what made me British too. I think the slightest glimpse of sunlight is an excuse for a barbeque. Nothing makes me feel more at home than a pint of cider in a beer garden. I even like marmite.
I lived out my internationalism, too, in all the curries, sushi and pizza I could eat as a Londoner. My internationalism was bound up in important rituals like voting in the most important decisions facing our continent, like who should win Eurovision.
But this answer wasn’t that satisfying either. Rituals and foods can help build communal identities, but they don’t tell us that much about who we really are. These forms of banal nationalism might well create a sense of in-group, but the flipside is they create exclusions. In the wrong hand, any sense of nationhood based on these traits can be turned to nationalism, chauvinism and xenophobia. By comparison, DNA results and family legends felt relatively benign.
I came to realise what the founders of Liberal Judaism understood long ago. All ideas of nationhood are myths. Whether we route them in science, history or culture, they’re just stories we tell ourselves to make sense of the world. They don’t really help us know how to act, and in the globalised world of the 21st Century, they can even be harmful to facing our challenges. What we should really ask ourselves isn’t “who are we?” but “what do we need to do?”
In 1917, in the midst of the First World War, Lily Montagu delivered an address to the West Central Club. In it, she gave a scathing critique of Jewish nationalism, challenging its very foundations. She insisted that her citizenship was British, but her primary allegiance was to the religious goals of Judaism. At its inclusion, she declared: “the Jewish ideals, the ideals of peace and unity and love and righteousness, are for all times and all places. We are to express them to the world. That is our life’s task.”
Reading this again now, I realise that the reason why Liberal Judaism is so embracing of mixed families, of converts and of diversity, is not just a matter of pragmatism or a weak sense of tolerance. It is born out of the firmly held conviction that what makes life matter is what we do with it. What makes a Jewish life matter is how ethically we live, and how hard we strive to apply these values of social justice in our world today.
When Judaism is defined not by nationhood, but by ethical principles, it is open to everyone who shares them. What is at stake in conversations about who belongs is a fundamental question about what being Jewish really is.
Our founders had it right when they proclaimed Judaism’s emphasis to be in its prophetic vision. Today, what makes us who we are isn’t who our ancestors were but what world we create for our descendants. That is our life’s task.
I delivered this sermon on Shabbat 30th March for Parashat Shmini at Finchley Progressive Synagogue. I’m still disappointed by my DNA results.