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My Days of Awe discovery: I have a half-sister

'We told her a bit about ourselves, then moved to the thing Jean most wanted to know. What was he like, the man who had fathered her and raised us?'
(Illustration by Avi Katz)
(Illustration by Avi Katz)

On Rosh Hashanah it is written, and on Yom Kippur it is sealed,
How many will pass from the earth and how many will be created…”
-Unetaneh Tokef prayer

The second day of Rosh Hashanah had just ended last year when the email arrived.

It contained the results of a DNA ancestry test I’d submitted a few weeks earlier.

I went digging around in my DNA because I was hoping to find something ‘interesting’. By ‘interesting’ I mean something beyond garden-variety Ashkenazi. Something more exotic than matzoh balls and brisket.

For years my kids accused me of being a Sephardi or Mizrahi ‘wannabe’. It’s true! Everything about those cultures speaks to me, touching something deep and unexplainable inside. I was certain that I had a few Spanish forbearers, an ancestor from Baghdad, or a faint trail leading back to the Balkans.

Finally, when one of the popular ancestry test kits went on sale on Amazon, I bit. “Let’s settle this once and for all!” I declared.

I mailed off the kit, hoping it would confirm what I felt. I couldn’t wait for the results to arrive!

At last, the email landed in my inbox. I held my breath and opened it.

99.6% Ashkenazi Jewish

I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t disappointed.

I called the kids to share the results.

They were hysterical. “You are SHTETL GIRL! We told you so!!” they hooted. That got me laughing too.

So much for finding something interesting.

The next day I clicked on the part of the report that reveals DNA relatives, people with whom one shares DNA ranging from one to three percent (distant cousins), to fifty percent (siblings, parents, children), to one hundred percent (identical twins).

My list consisted of a thousand Ashkenazi Jews with whom I shared one to three percent. Generations ago in the shtetl we must have had a common bubbie or zayde.

Sigh. More gefilte fish and kugel.

As I was about to close the page, my eye landed on the first name on the list. A woman. The entry said we shared 23% of our DNA.

It suggested that we were half-sisters.

I clicked on her profile, which had little information other than: “Mother and maternal grandparents ancestry – German”.

The space next to “Father” was blank.

Long seconds passed. What had I stumbled upon? Maybe a mistake. Or maybe something enormous, astonishing, shocking.

I thought about my dad, who died suddenly in 1976, when he was 53 and I was 18.

Two options. Close the page and pretend I never saw it. Or try to find out.

It was an easy call to make. I had to know.

My hands were shaking as I clicked, ‘Send a Message’.

I wrote, “It appears that we are closely related. If you’re interested in pursuing this, please message me”. I paused for a second.

The image of opening Pandora’s box had never been more vivid.

I hit send. The site would forward the message for me.

Then I called my brother to tell him what was happening (our mother had long since passed away).

He was dismissive in a good-natured way. “It’s a mistake,” he laughed. “You’ll see. If she replies at all, she’ll tell you that she was born in 1980, or that she was born in some foreign country rather than Minneapolis. Or she will tell you her dad’s name. You’ll see. A mistake.”

I got an email reply within an hour.

“My name is Jean. Please call me.” And she gave me her cell phone number.

I went outside and sat on the deck. I took a deep breath and dialed.

“I’m Sally,” I said, when Jean answered the phone. “Please tell me your story.”

“I was born in Minneapolis in September, 1954,” Jean said.

My parents met and married in Minneapolis in 1955.

“I was born to an unmarried Catholic mother. A Catholic couple adopted me and raised me and my adopted sister in a suburb of Minneapolis. I recently moved back to the area.”

The lurch I felt was exactly like when a plane hits turbulence. The plane drops suddenly and your stomach is left behind, thousands of feet above.

Jean continued. “The adoption agency told my parents my mother was German and my father was Irish. Six years ago I submitted my DNA to this site. The results showed I was 50% German or “Unspecified European” and 50% Ashkenazi Jewish. I was sure the Ashkenazi Jewish part was a mistake, so I sent my DNA to another company, and I got the same results. I was flummoxed, but reconciled myself to having reached the end of the line – I just figured the source of my Ashkenazi ancestry (the identity of my presumed father) would always be a mystery.”

My head was spinning. Her story and the DNA were pointing toward a shocking conclusion.

“Can you text me a picture of yourself?” I asked.

A moment later a photo popped up on my screen. And I found myself looking into eyes I had not seen in over forty years. The same blue-green color. The same thick brows. She had the same ruddy skin, the same chin.

Not a dead ringer. But she was unmistakably my father’s daughter.

“I think I may have answers for you,” I said.

I counted back nine months from September, 1954.

December 1953. My dad’s first marriage of seven years had recently ended. His business had failed too. He was a good-looking, down-on-his-luck guy, driving a cab.

If my dad was Jean’s biological father- and it was sure starting to look that way- what was his relationship with her biological mother? We speculated on the possibilities. Maybe they were two lonely people who found each other at holiday time, when life’s sharp edges are felt most acutely. Maybe it was something more. We will never know. Both are long gone. Anyone who knew them back then is long gone.

But we do know this. In the 1950s, Minneapolis was considered one of the most anti-Semitic cities in the US. While being an unwed mother in 1954 was scandalous, to be a Catholic mother whose baby was fathered by a Jew was even more difficult.

Jean knew that her birth mother was sent immediately to a home for unwed mothers and that she gave her baby up for adoption at birth. We wondered if the father ever knew.

Both of us wanted to take the next step — to let the website compare our DNA. Because if we were indeed half-sisters, not only would we share about a quarter of our DNA, but we would share it in big chunks across nearly every chromosome.

Most important, if we had the same father, we would have an identical X chromosome. Females get an X from their mother and an X from their father, and the X chromosome from the father passes to his daughters virtually unchanged.

A moment later, we had our answer. Matching DNA in huge chunks. Matching X chromosomes.

The DNA fit. The story fit. The photo fit.

I called my brother to update him.

He wasn’t laughing this off any more. He was flabbergasted. So were our spouses. Our kids were speechless.

To remove any shadow of doubt, we sent our results to a geneticist not affiliated with any ancestry website.

A day later, her conclusion: You two have the same father. There is no other explanation.

We made plans for Jean, my brother, and me to meet for dinner later that week, on the night before Kol Nidre.

I thought of little else over the next few days. My brother and I talked a dozen times. Our shock turned to excitement, which we tried hard to manage. “This could be a one-and-done. She may want answers to her questions and that’s it,” he warned me. “We can’t go into this with expectations,” I said. “It’s all uncharted terrain. It will be whatever it’s meant to be.”

I tried to imagine how overwhelming this must have felt to Jean. To have lived a lifetime with questions about who your biological father was, and then, one day, the answers turn up in an email. To discover you have half-siblings you’re about to meet.

The day arrived. Jumpy as a cat, I busied myself as best as I could. The hours until dinner time crawled by. At long last it was time to go.

My brother and I got to the restaurant at least thirty minutes early.

We watched the doorway, waiting for a living piece of our long-dead father to come walking through the door.

At 6:30 on the dot, Jean arrived, smiling (but as she would later confess, equally skittish).

There is no script for such a moment.

We hugged each other, gently. We stared at each other.

My brother spoke first. “We are as certain as it’s possible to be that our dad never knew about you. He did not abandon you or reject you. We believe he never knew. Because if he had known, he would have moved heaven and earth to find you. He was that kind of dad. He was crazy for his kids. We believe he went to his grave never knowing.”

As Jean took that in, I continued. “He would be so glad we found each other,” And we raised our glasses to toast the man who had fathered us all.

Jean told us more about herself (a single professional, no kids), her childhood (happy), her work (groundbreaking). Her parents had both passed away some years ago.

We told her a bit about ourselves, then moved to the thing Jean most wanted to know.

What was he like, the man who had fathered her and raised us?

We tried mightily to convey a sense of who he was, this larger-than-life man who filled the room with his enormous personality.

“He was a bit of a rebel, a non-conformist, ” I said. “Nothing like any other Jewish dad I knew. He drove a truck cross-country and was gone for weeks at a time. His work was grueling, but he loved the freedom and the open road.”

“He was funny as hell,” my brother added. “He’d have you gripping your sides as tears rolled down your cheeks.”

He was an extraordinary, devoted husband and father. Family was everything to him. His impact was so profound that even after over forty years, we can bring forth his voice, his quirks, his expressions, his outlook as vividly as if we saw him yesterday.

Our dad had more grit and resilience than anyone we’ve ever known. He survived a horribly abusive childhood. He made his way with only a 10th-grade education, which consigned him to a life of hard, physical work. Once, he was stabbed nearly to death in a dispute with men hired to unload his truck. He withstood lifelong financial woes and countless setbacks. Yet, he never lost his cheery optimism, he never indulged in self-pity. He kept reaching for a good life, a solid marriage, a happy home.

He never stopped laughing.

Life knocked him to the mat over and over, and he got up every time. Until January 9, 1976, when a massive heart attack knocked him to the frozen ground alongside his truck. And he never got up again.

“You carry the DNA of a giant,” we told Jean. “All of us — his children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren do.”

In the year since that first meeting, we are finding our way in building a relationship. From the start, our message to Jean has been: “You have a place in this big, noisy, happy family if you want one. All you have to do is pull up a chair to the table. You set the pace and we will follow your lead.”

We understand the lopsided equation. While we gained one sibling, Jean gained a bushel basket of people: siblings, our spouses, our seven kids and their spouses, our thirteen grandchildren. Overwhelming? Of course.

But little by little, we’re getting to know each other. Jean’s come over for Shabbat dinner a few times, and she’s hosted us for dinner at her home too.

Will we share more than DNA with Jean? Time will tell. I hope so, but as Jean points out, we’ve lived completely different lives, and as a result, we’ve arrived at very different places in the world. Yet there is an uncanny connectedness, and an acceptance that plays itself out in the ways that most matter. And just to have found each other at all feels downright miraculous.

Recently Jean and I took a drive through north Minneapolis to find the houses where our dad grew up. It was Jean who dug up those addresses by scouring old city directories.

It was Jean who uncovered all kinds of tantalizing information about our dad’s first wife. A Jewish actress and singer, doing screen tests in Hollywood, who left it all behind to move to Minneapolis with her new husband. That young guy must have had it going on!

Thanks to Jean, we have a fuller picture of our dad’s earlier life, years we knew little about.

We are not even half kidding when we say we should turn his life into a screenplay.

Which brings me to the words of the Unetaneh Tokef that we will soon recite, words whose meaning is forever altered for me.

Jean’s life began in September 1954, but for us, she was born a year ago.

She entered our lives not in January or July, but during the Days of Awe, the ten days that begin on Rosh Hashanah and end on Yom Kippur, days when we ponder who will leave this world and who will enter it. When our ears are attuned to signals from a frequency we often ignore. When we perceive something transcendent, hovering a breath away.

I sense God’s fingerprints everywhere in this story. In the intricate genetic code that is God’s blueprint for humans. In the intelligence that enables us to examine that code and unlock its mysteries. In the timing of our astonishing discovery.

On the night before the holiest day on the Jewish calendar, God placed before us an opportunity to know and embrace an intimate stranger, and in doing so, to complete our dad’s story.

To complete all of our stories.

About the Author
Sally Abrams co-directs the Speakers Bureau of the Jewish Community Relations Council of Minnesota and the Dakotas. She has presented the program “Israel and the Middle East: the Challenge of Peace” at hundreds of churches, schools and civic groups throughout the Twin Cities and beyond. A resident of suburban Minneapolis, Sally speaks fluent Hebrew, is wild about the recipes of Yotam Ottolenghi, the music of Idan Raichel, and is always planning her next trip to Israel. Visit: sallygabrams.com
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