IT HAPPENED TO ME: I Found Out I'm Jewish in My Mid-Twenties

I don’t know where I stand spiritually. I don’t know what, if anything, I should do with this information.
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Danielle Austin-Herb
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I don’t know where I stand spiritually. I don’t know what, if anything, I should do with this information.

My exploration of my roots has been an interesting journey, to say the least. I'm 26 years old, and for most of my life, I was unaware that I was Jewish. My mother was never told about her Jewish heritage. My grandmother kept it a secret; I’m not even sure my grandfather, her husband, knew.

My mother-in-law graciously got my husband and I the AncestryDNA tests a couple of Christmases ago. I've always wanted to do this because my father was adopted and knows very little about his family or ancestry, and because my mother’s family was never very forthcoming about theirs. I did some searching on ancestry.com, but it didn’t really get me anywhere.

So, my husband and I spit our phlegm into our separate vials and hurriedly sent them off for testing. The results take about two or so months to be processed and posted, so we kind of just forgot about them until we both got an email informing us that our results could be viewed. My husband’s results came out as he more or less expected, a little Western European, a little Scandinavian, etc. But mine, however, did not. The moment I got my test results back, I was left speechless. 

Some of it I expected, like English and Scottish, but some of it I didn’t, like Caucasian — not “white,” but rather someone who is from the Caucasus region, an area between Europe and Asia, where countries like Armenia, Georgia, and Azerbaijan reside — and Ashkenazi, or European Jewry. 

I was shocked, to say the least. How could I be Jewish?

My family set about doing some digging into our Jewish background. My mother spoke with one of her sisters and found out that she had documentation on my great-grandfather, my maternal grandmother’s father, that said he was a Jew from Germany. Why hadn’t we seen this documentation on our family history before? Well, my mother’s side of the family loves each other very much, but their communication is close to nonexistent. My aunt had kept these documents in boxes in her basement, and her seven other siblings, including my mother, knew nothing about them. 

With this documentation in hand, we also found out that my great-grandfather and his family escaped from Germany during the 1930s, which, of course, was at the time when Hitler and the SS party were on the rise. He and his family left for obvious reasons, and thank G-d they did — I might not be here if they hadn’t.

It’s weird to grow up not knowing you're Jewish, learning about the Holocaust in school, all the while never knowing that your family were and are the people most affected by it. They were there, and they were terrified, and they fled their homes in order to escape persecution and death.

Visiting the New England Holocaust Memorial.

Visiting the New England Holocaust Memorial.

After my great-grandfather came to America as a teen, he grew up, got married (also, we think, to someone with Jewish ancestry) and told his children they were Jewish but that this was not a good thing. He was scared, of course, for himself, for his family, for his people, so he coped the only way he knew how: he hid his ancestry and religion from most people, and instructed his children to do the same.

I would never, ever claim to intimately “know” or “understand” the Jewish experience, in large part because I grew up in ignorance of my heritage, and therefore did not really experience what it was like to grow up Jewish in America. I’ll never know that reality, and therefore I do not feel like it is mine to claim, despite my genetics. I grew up with parents who did not really practice any religion, but leaned towards Christianity, because my grandparents are somewhat Christian, though they do not practice their faith, per se (they believe, but don't really attend church or anything of the sort). I consider myself religious, and did at one time semi-regularly attend church, as my husband is Catholic.

Even now, when I tell people that I'm part Jewish I hear things like, “Oh, that makes so much sense, you know, because you’re careful with money,” or "You don’t look Jewish! You’re so pretty,” or "Really? That sucks.” People I know say that like it’s somehow okay. I’ve been Jewish (or known to be) for, like, five seconds and I’m already hearing messed-up stuff.

One time I got, “But you’re only part Jewish, so you’re not really Jewish,” which is their opinion, I guess? But according to halakha, Jewish law, I would technically be considered fully Jewish because I inherited my Jewish ancestry from my mother. However, the issue of who or who not is a Jew is a highly debated, nuanced issue in the Jewish community, as I've recently learned.

I know something like this can either greatly affect one’s life or not really touch it in anyway, but most of the time I feel somewhere in-between. I’m still struggling with how I feel about this information. I kind of feel like, Oh! It's so amazing that I am part of such a fascinating, amazing group of people, but I still don't feel a part of that group. Or I do in some ways, but not in others. I don’t know where I stand spiritually. I don’t know what, if anything, I should do with this information. 

My first Hanukkah.

My first Hanukkah.

As time goes on, though, I do feel Jewish, and I have embraced it in many, many ways. I observed Hanukkah this year, and it was a beautiful and meaningful experience for me. I've talked to a couple of rabbis and fellow Jews, I've read books and blog posts on it, and I've visited Jewish museums and temples in order to try to get a better understanding.

I'm really grateful to my family and for this amazing opportunity to explore Jewish culture. I'm excited to see where this road takes me, and no matter if I begin to practice Judaism (I am highly considering it, actually) or not, my family’s life has been shaped by the fact that we are Jewish, and we will never be the same now that we know.