From Russia With Love?

dna

Yesterday my ancestry research introduced me to the term Landsmanschaft, which is German for “cultural society”. When Jewish immigrants arrived in the U.S., they joined societies made up of other immigrants from their village. One of the many things these societies did was provide for burial in the society area of cemeteries. It turns out, if you know the name of the society where your Jewish ancestors are buried, you can find out what town they came from in the old country. There’s even a neat database where you can plug in the name of the society and it’ll tell you the town it’s affiliated with. So, mystery solved — the Gutmans (including my great grandfather Samuel and his brothers and sisters, as well as his parents Benjamin and Mollie) came to New York around 1900 from a village called Pechora in central Ukraine.

But before I buy a Ukrainian flag and celebrate my new found ancestral home, it should be noted that the reason they were in Pechora in the first place was likely because around 1800 Russian Empress Catherine II declared that all of the region’s Jews were to be relocated into one area of the empire known as the Pale of Settlement. Once they got to the Pale, they were considered second class citizens and eventually the locals started burning down their homes and businesses and killing them in what were called pogroms. I suspect that by 1900 my ancestors knew they were in danger and decided to get out of dodge and head to America. It’s a good thing they did, because a few decades later Pechora became home to a German concentration camp and thousands of Jews were killed and buried in mass graves.

I don’t know from where my ancestors were forced out of in order to end up in Pechora, but I suspect the non-Semites didn’t like them there either. It was probably some other part of Russia, but it’s tough to identify with any country that hated your ancestors enough to round them up, force them out and/or kill them. So am I Russian? Ukrainian? Something else? My DNA suggests my bloodline is mostly Eastern European and West Asian. Of course, I believe all mankind came from the first humans who came into existence in Northern Africa. Does that make me African?

Which leads to an even more esoteric question: aren’t we all African? Americans typically have a lot of pride in their heritage or “home country.” We like to identify as Irish Americans or Italian Americans or African Americans. But it’s not that cut and dry, especially if you agree with the majority of scientists who now believe that we do indeed all come from a common ancestor who lived in Africa. Here’s what National Geographic has to say:

Our species is an African one: Africa is where we first evolved, and where we have spent the majority of our time on Earth. The earliest fossils of recognizably modern Homo sapiens appear in the fossil record at Omo Kibish in Ethiopia, around 200,000 years ago.

Doing ancestry research is a fun hobby, and it definitely provides a unique window into how we got where we did. But for all the work, it’s good to remember that if we go back far enough we are all related. That’s a great lesson to keep in mind, especially in a world full of so much geographic and ethnic hate.

 

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Are You Being Eaten by Lions?

My wife Leslie and I have a little saying for when things get rough: Are you being eaten by lions? The reference is from David Eggers’ outstanding book What is the What, which tells the story of a “lost boy” of the Sudan named Valentino Deng. In the book, Valentino and the other boys from his village have been forced to flee and are making their way through the Sudanese countryside without knowing where they are going or what awaits them when they get there. Every so often during this trek, a lion would randomly attack and run off with one of the boys. Thus, no matter how bad one’s life may seem, you have to keep it in perspective. After all, you could be dinner for a hungry beast.

For the past few days I have had a nasty sinus infection that has been kicking my ass. I’ve had some time to kill on the sofa, and so I’ve watched a few movies. Without really planning it, I ended up watching three movies with the common theme of people overcoming hardship. The first of these films was Angelina Jolie’s Unbroken, the tale of WWII veteran and Olympic athlete Louis Zamperini. Louie was shot down over the Pacific during WWII and after surviving nearly 50 days at sea in a tiny life raft was “saved” by the Japanese who proceeded to send him to a prisoner of war camp where he was singled out because of his Olympic pedigree. Zamperini survived and went on to live a productive life which he dedicated to the God he believes spared his life. The following day I watched Tig, the story of comedian Tig Notaro’s surprising way of handling her life after being diagnosed with breast cancer. She used comedy to cope and her attitude helped her recover, but also helped her rededicate her life to her dreams. Finally, I watched Life Itself, a documentary about the life and last days of legendary film critic Roger Ebert. This film, which not surprisingly deserves an enthusiastic thumbs up, shows us Ebert’s remarkable climb to success, but more importantly his will to survive and continue his work even after his body was ravaged with jaw and bone cancer. The dude kept smiling even when he no longer had a face. That is attitude!

All three of these films, and frankly the Eggers book as well, left me with an urgent desire to give myself a little attitude adjustment. In the weeks and months following my heart attack in 2011, I told myself I wasn’t going to take life for granted anymore and I was going to live life to its fullest. For a while, I was true to my word. I got the car of my dreams, I moved to California (and back), and I eventually got a new job that I love. But even while I was singing my own praises for these actions, I was beginning to fall back into old habits. Part of it had to do with the complacency that came with time, but in truth I have also been dealing with another medical issue that I have not been public about and which has caused me a lot of physical pain. I have been down on myself while trying to battle this issue, and it has challenged me mentally as well (and challenged my wife’s patience). It has definitely been a struggle, and throughout it I’ve tried to remind myself that it wasn’t life threatening and…well…I wasn’t being chased across the Sudanese savanna by hungry lions. Nevertheless, I was letting it keep me from doing the things I want to do in life.

These films reminded me to quit whining and get back to living life. Frankly, I was most struck by Tig Notaro’s journey. She isn’t the first person to deal with a family death and then a devastating diagnosis, but she may have been the first person ever to confront these issues on stage at a comedy club. If you don’t know the story, just days after getting diagnosed with cancer, Notaro decided to talk about it on stage. The resulting stand up routine became legendary, it went viral, and soon after Tig’s entire life changed. She became hugely famous, she did every talk show, she sold thousands of copies of her “comedy” routine, she got a TV show, and more. Here’s a few minutes of the actual routine from that night if you haven’t heard it:

You can download the entire set online if you like. Of course Tig beat cancer, but afterward she started to live the life she dreamed for herself, including finding the love of her life, getting married and having kids. She literally smiled her way through cancer. She joked about it wherever she went. She didn’t let her health issues define her. Tig Notaro understood that she wasn’t about to be eaten by a lion. She was certainly frightened, and she thought she might die, but even during the worst time in her life she kept things in perspective.

I needed this little reminder that I wasn’t about to become lion supper. My health issues are not life threatening. In fact, aside from this little battle with my sinuses I’m actually feeling better these days. For a while there, I was feeling all woe is me about life. I was starting to let it get the best of me. But Tig Nitaro is right — you gotta laugh at this shit.