“What are you?”
I heard the question many times in my life.
I am tall (5’9.5″), blonde and green-eyed.
I used to hear people verbalizing the ethnic list in their heads, most often ending in a conclusive ”Irish!”
If it was a Jewish person asking, I usually answered the query by saying something in Yiddish (my first language).
If it was a non-Jew, I simply said “My father was a Polish Jew, my mother, a Romanian Jew.”
Nevertheless, growing up in Williamsburg and then Borough Park, Brooklyn I had my own doubts.
I looked nothing like my parents.
Before she started to turn gray in her early 30s, my mother had black hair though she she insisted that she had been a blonde when younger. She was brown eyed and had olive skin. She had a difficult time retrieving my older sister (also blonde but not resembling me) from the Catholic orphanage across the street from our tenement to which we had run in order to to “play with their toys.” The authorities didn’t believe she was our mother and my sister, from whom I took my cues (I was four) remained silent.
My father was likewise brown-haired and brown eyed.
And there was more.
I was American-born.
I knew nothing of the small towns of my parents’ births. They had no photographs, either.
Everything they said was, it seemed to me, fantastical, like the stories in my Book of Fairy Tales.
The forests were dark and threatening.
There were bad people
I, on the other hand, wanted to be a cowgirl.
I adored Roy Rodgers.
I even posed on a long-suffering Shetland pony whose handler moved it through the streets of Williamsburg encouraging mothers to place their offspring on its bowed back for a photograph.
I remember the smell and creaking sounds of the saddle leather. I held the reins in one hand and a revolver in the other. A too-small cowboy hat was plastered on my curls.
Those respites were few and far between.
I was always aware of the differences between myself and other children.
Their mothers just seem to know how to respond to teacher requests, what we should wear, how to pack a lunchbox. My mother, invariably filled mine to the brim, making it difficult to close. She sent along a glass thermos filled with chocolate milk, too. The other children had peanut butter and jelly sandwiches (“What’s that?”). I had omelettes with cheese and fried onions. It meant that she had to rise even earlier to make them, but she did.
Our Williamsburg landlady who had come to America “before the war,” once pointed at me and told my mother, “She looks like Shirley Temple”.
“Vere iz Shirley Temple?”
Who is Shirley Temple?
My mother had missed decades of American culture in her rural Carpathian town.
The anxiety continued.
One day, age 10, I burst out in tears and asked my mother “Am I adopted?”
She may have smiled. She was a gentle person. She understood the feelings and fears of children.
“No,” she said.
And that’s all she said.
Years later, I submitted a saliva sample to a genetic testing site and when the results arrived at midnight a few weeks later, I sat straight up.
Yes, I was my parents’ daughter.
My nephew shared 25 percent of my DNA.
I found second cousins with the same last name as my mother, whose grandparents had been born in her hometown.
The results also said that I was .03 percent Finnish and Swedish and 97 percent Askenazi.
And that made me laugh.
My father was a straight-laced self-disciplined Jew. He was a member of the priestly class which meant that all the women in his ancestry had been born Jews.
But maybe somewhere, back in those cold, sunless Eastern European nights, someone, as I liked to say, “jumped the fence.”
Or maybe, the Scandinavian ancestry was on my mother’s side.
Was there some fairy tale prince who had fallen in love with a Jewish Romanian (or wherever they immigrated from. Istanbul?) girl?
Or, maybe, the Jews had just wandered to other countries seeking safety and opportunity as my parents had done when they immigrated to the United States?
The implication fulfilled a biblical prophecy “I will scatter you among nations” and then I finally realized that recalling and referencing the Torah, no matter where one lived, made me a Jew in my heart and my mind, not just my descent.