Book Review: Shapiro’s ‘Inheritance’ Proves There Are Layers to Who We Are

“What’s fascinated me from the time I was a little kid was the way we construct our lives through stories.”

Henry Louis Gates, Jr.

Who are you? I suspect we all have a basic sense of who we are. I’m a 52-year-old husband and father, born in New York but raised in California, a sports fan, a writer, a liberal, an atheist. I’m Ashkenazi Jew on both sides of my family tree going back as far as the historical record. This is the “story” I tell myself and others about me. But what if one day you found out that a huge piece of your story was based on a lie?

Author Dani Shapiro thought she knew her story as well, until one day the results of an Ancestry.com DNA test she took “on a whim” came back with a shocking result. She was not genetically related to her father (the only father she ever knew). Shapiro’s world was turned upside down and her story changed in an instant. As a writer who specializes in memoirs, she handled this life event in the only way she knew how — she wrote a book about the experience. The result is Inheritance: A Memoir of Genealogy, Paternity, and Love (Knopf ( 2019).

I’m not going to ruin the book for you with spoilers, but suffice it to say the memoir reads like a mystery novel and it’s beautifully written. I didn’t know Shapiro’s work prior to reading Inheritance, but I was really blown away by how she weaves this story and by how she lays herself bare in the process. It’s clear she was devastated by the results of the DNA test, but that doesn’t stop her from taking the reader along for the whole intimate ride. At each turn of the narrative she delves deeply into her psyche as she starts to put the pieces of the story — her new story — together like a 1,000 piece jigsaw puzzle. Truthfully, it’s a brave retelling given how much of herself she lost along the way.

It’s interesting to think about the simple, almost matter-of-fact decision that led to the unraveling of Shapiro’s sense of herself. Her husband purchased a DNA test for each of them (even though she was not overly keen on the idea) and then decided to compare her results to those of her half-sister. Maybe she subconsciously knew her results would provide a surprise, especially given that as we learn in the book she had always felt a nagging feeling that she didn’t quite fit. There were little moments in her life that, on reflection, gave her pause about her deep Jewish roots. Plenty of people told her she didn’t “look” Jewish.

In 2003 when the Human Genome Project was completed, I suppose even the scientists involved couldn’t have imagined less than than two decades later people all over the world could spit in a test tube and for a hundred bucks or so get their entire genome mapped and categorized. Genetic sequencing has become an integral part of medical science and disease diagnosis and treatment, and it has applications in law enforcement, paternity testing, and of course ancestry research. With these advances have come a host of ethical issues, not the least of which involves privacy, and perhaps mankind has been slow to put sufficient guidelines around those ethical issues. Of course, when you agree to take a DNA test for ancestry research you agree to see the results no matter what news the results may bring. The internet is full of stories like Shapiro’s.

Ever since I almost died from a heart attack in 2011 I’ve been obsessed with ancestry and genetic detective work. My interest in genealogy has not been driven by my medical condition, but rather by a desire to know who I am and where I come from in order to pass my story on to future generations (especially my son). I was able to get my DNA sequenced as part of a heart study at the University of Michigan and in return for allowing them to use my DNA for their study I received a summary of my results. No surprises for me: I’m 65 percent Eastern European and 34 percent West Asian and North African. My people come from the area around the Black Sea and likely migrated up from the Middle East and Northern Africa. A classic story of Jewish diaspora.

But while reading Inheritance I found myself wondering what it’d be like if my DNA test had come back with a surprising result. I watch a lot of ancestry shows like Finding Your Roots with Henry Louis Gates and Who Do You Think You Are? and people get surprised all the time. Hell, last season on Finding Your Roots, white actor Ty Burrell discovered he is part African American and African American radio host Joe Madison found out he was part white! Talk about changing your perception of self?

Of course, I knew I was genetically related to my parents. All you have to do is look at us to see that. Still, what if I found out a few branches back we were not Ashkenazi but rather something altogether different? You can imagine that kind of genealogy discovery would change who you are, let alone finding out you weren’t related to your father like Shapiro uncovered. And to find this out in your 50s, after both your parents had died, would make it even more hard to handle.

For Shapiro, a big part of her identity was tied to her upbringing as an orthodox Jew. So many of her childhood memories were tied to that Jewish culture, especially the times she spent with her devout father. And then to find out she’s not even related to her father? That’s she’s Jewish, but only on her mother’s side? She moved on from her religious upbringing, but it was still part of her identity — her story.

The book really made me think about story and how we identify. You know where you’ll find your story in its most basic form? Your Twitter profile! Mine says: “Husband, Dad, Desert Dweller, Sports Fanatic, Survivor.” Shapiro’s declares: “Novelist, memoirist, essayist, teacher, wife, mom.”

What’s your story?

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.

 

Hobby Roulette: Genealogy

OK I admit it, I’m obsessed with ancestry. I got the bug a few years ago when I found a new service called Geni that helps you build your family tree and collaborate with your relatives who are also doing ancestry work. It’s essentially social genealogy and it is addicting. More on Geni in a sec.

The real question to ask is why am I so interested in genealogy these days. Yes, there is a Renaissance of sorts going on thanks in large part to the wealth of online information now available at sites like Ancestry.com and Ellis Island online, not to mention several great ancestry television shows like Finding Your Roots and Who Do You Think You Are? I am all in on these shows — it’s like watching a mystery unfold right before your eyes. But for me the impetus is more personal. For one thing, having a kid has made me want to give him a better sense of where he comes from and knowing your roots is a large part of that. Additionally, nearly dying a few years ago has left me thinking a lot about my legacy and that in turn has led me to want to know more about what my predecessors left behind.

I have never felt much of an affiliation with my heritage. Most people know where they’re from in general terms — they are Irish or Italian or Polish. But I was always told my heritage is Jewish, which makes no sense at all to me since Jewish is a religion not a culture or nationality (I know some of my Jewish friends will argue this point but you are wrong!). On top of that, I do not practice Judaism so I can’t be Jewish. Now this might all be a moot point for a science-based person like myself because I understand through science that all human roots can be traced back to northeastern Africa making me (ahem) African-American. Regardless, my more recent ancestors came from somewhere and I want to know where.

Back to Geni. It’s a free service (with pro options that cost a bit) that allows you to build your tree. You simply add your name and details and then add in your family members. As you add people to your tree it identifies other people on Geni who may be connected to you and then you can combine forces to grow your tree together. You can also invite your relatives by email to join your efforts and add their information and whatever they know about the family. Pretty soon you have a huge interactive family tree. It’s not a place to do in-depth research on your ancestry like Ancestry.com or MyHeritage.com, but it’s free and fun and ultimately its goal is to build a tree that includes everyone on the planet. In fact, it will tell you how you are connected to people, so you can see how you are connected to famous people. But that’s just a side-show. The real power is connecting you to existing relatives and growing your tree.

Using Geni I found Lois Gutman, my second cousin once removed’s wife, whom I did not know. Lois was working on a different branch of our family tree, and what we discovered together was quite remarkable. Her husband Michael’s grandfather and my grandfather were brothers. Michael has a sister named Sheila Mae Gutman who lives in Staten Island New York — just a few miles from my aunt who is also named Sheila Mae Gutman. They’ve never met. On top of that, Lois and Michael have a daughter named Jodi Beth Gutman — my sister is also named Jodi Beth Gutman. Crazy. Together Lois and I have been adding to our tree and we recently discovered my second great grandparents, Benjamin & Mollie Gutman, I then sent away for Mollie’s death certificate from the state of New York and found out that her parents were named Benjamin and Charna Sherman — another generation added to the tree.

So what have I learned about my ancestry so far? Well, it turns out the paternal side of my family is Eastern European, primarily Russian and Ukrainian with some Polish thrown in. Basically I am from an area known as the Pale of Settlement  created by Catherine the Great in 1791 to remove the Jews from the heart of Russia. Jews were forced to live in this region, which covers areas that today include Ukraine, Western Russia, Belarus, Lithuania and Poland. Jews lived in villages called shtetls that were made famous in Fiddler on the Roof. Basically a rural slum. On the maternal side it’s more of the same, though I still need to do more work on that side.

Ancestry is a really interesting hobby, especially if like me you have a little journalist or historian in you. I’m really enjoying putting the pieces together to uncover my roots, but more than that I’m discovering and meeting new relatives. Another of Lois and Michael’s daughters lives here in the Phoenix area and I’m hoping to meet her soon. On my mom’s side I discovered my cousin Paul Fleischman, a Newbery Medal Winning author.

Another great thing about ancestry is that you can do most of the work from home thanks to the wealth of information available on the Internet. There are lots of free resources including FamilySearch.org, and for a small fee you can use more advanced tools like Ancestry.com or MyHeritage.com. If you don’t want to pay the membership fees you can get free access at the public library or at one of 4,500 LDS local family history centers worldwide. The Mormons are very serious about their ancestry for some reason and say what you will I found a very nice quote on their website that brings it home: “A life not documented is a life that within a generation or two will largely be lost to memory.”

I want to bring the memory of my ancestors to life, and I don’t want to be lost to memory.