As some of my readers know, I’m really into genealogy. I’ve done lots of research on my family’s roots and have even created a Google Map showing the various villages in Europe they lived in. I’ve done a DNA test and am about 93% Ashkenazi Jewish, which squares with the Lithuanian, Latvian, Polish, Hungarian, Ukrainian, and Romanian locations I was able to piece together on my family tree. I did extensive research, including using Ancestry.com, FamilySearch.org, Ellis Island records, and more. Technically speaking, this project really started in my childhood Hebrew school class when we did family trees. Jews love knowing where we’re from. And as the name of my site suggests, roots matter to me- big time.
Roots place us in a moment in time. Ultimately, all people are from the same creation, from the same roots. But there’s something about knowing where your ancestors lived, breathed, ate, cried, laughed, and lived that puts things in context.
And this week I got a new piece of information that totally scrambles my sense of self.
As confirmed by a relative, my great-grandmother (father’s mother’s side) Baila/Beile/various spellings of “B” names, was descended from Romanian gypsies. The more correct term (which I’ll use from now on): Roma.
Not familiar with this group of people? You might have heard someone “gypped” you. It’s a degrading colloquial expression (not coincidentally synonymous with “to Jew” someone) that means to rip someone off. And is based off the word gypsy. Maybe you’ve seen countless bands or stores or brands use the word “gypsy” (considered a slur by many in the community) to market their products. Anything wandering, mysterious, unsettled, and filled with smells of the East. A metaphor for something exotic, not from here.
I’ve met Roma. Other than the fortune tellers I’ve sometimes seen in American cities, I met Roma when studying immigrant students in Spain. Parts of Spain (as well as apparently Hungary according to a friend from there) actually have separate schools for Roma- both Spain-born and migrants from elsewhere in Europe. While in Spain this is billed as a “progressive” tactic for “integration” into the marketplace (instead of presumably wandering into a life of crime), in Hungary my friend explained it was simply a racist tactic. One with which we’re familiar in the American public school system.
I’ve also met Roma in Romania. For my frequent blog readers, you may have noticed I’ve been to Romania three times. More than any other country in the past two years other than Israel. It’s a country that has intrigued me for over a decade. When I was 21, I first discovered the magic that is manele music. This Romanian gypsy pop is infectious, and you can see I actually wrote a blog about it years ago on my previous website, Culturally Curious. To this date, people continue to read the post to get an introduction to this unique style of music.
I fell in love with this music before I really knew about my Romanian roots. I have 15 hours of it on my iTunes and another 4 hours on my phone. It’s fun and ingrained into my soul, like somehow this rather obscure style of music was perhaps meant to be a part of my life. Or blood.
Something drew and continues to draw me to Romania. Its music, its mamaliga, its incredible Jewish history and civilization. Its gorgeous mountains, some of the most beautiful I’ve ever seen. It’s a complicated place worth visiting and I highly recommend it for a more raw, authentic view of Europe than going up the Eiffel Tower.
What threw me for a loop, then, was that my Romanian roots aren’t just Jewish. In fact, they may not be Jewish at all.
Beile D. (as most of her records show her name) was born in Bucharest. One of her parents was from Galicia (a highly Jewish region of Eastern Europe) and one was from Romania. She spoke Romanian according to American Census records. Nowhere have I been able to find her last name or birth records. Given her possibly nomadic, highly oppressed background, this is less surprising. Roma are known for being wanderers in many cultures and for being highly discriminated against, even today. So 1880s birth records for this community may be scarce, although I’ll continue to look now that I realize the papers may not be in Jewish community archives.
Now my grandmother on this side of the family grew up speaking Yiddish, so her father was clearly Jewish. And perhaps her mother was of a mixed Roma-Jewish marriage, or a Roma who converted to Judaism- it’s not clear. What is clear is that if Beile D. was in fact Roma and *not* Jewish, then technically my entire dad’s branch of my family tree is not Jewish by Orthodox standards. In Judaism, with the notable exception of my own branch (Reform), Judaism is matrilineal, meaning it is passed down exclusively by your mother.
For me personally, it doesn’t matter according to Jewish law. My mother’s family is 100% Jewish (though really, after learning about this revelation, should we really assume anyone is? Haven’t we been a mixed people since the time of Ruth’s conversion?), which means by even the strictest standards I’m a Jew. And certainly culturally both sides of my family are Jews by both self-definition and practice for generations.
On some level, the question is a bit irrelevant. For the reasons above, I’m Jewish no matter what my genealogical research has revealed this week. And yet something gnaws at me. That DNA survey I did showed I was 93% Ashkenazi Jewish. What about that extra 7%? As much as it excites me to be part of a new ethnic group, does it make me less Jewish? Does it explain why when I was a kid someone at my synagogue teased me for not looking Jewish? Does it explain my caramel skin- or is that simply a function of my Mediterranean genes going back 2,000 years? Or both?
When I did several further analyses on GEDMatch.com, it was clear that most of my ancestry was in fact Mediterranean. That my Ashkenazi DNA was most similar to that of Syrians, Lebanese, Sicilians, Greeks, and yes, Palestinians.
What was also strange at the time, but makes more sense now, is why “South Asian” and “Anatolian” kept coming up as well. Which matched with what my FamilyTreeDNA.com results showed for 6% of the non-Ashkenazi component. The remaining 1% being “other European”, whatever that might mean.
At first, I thought this was statistical noise. After all, while I love bhangra music and mango lassis, I couldn’t be South Asian. And while people have always noted my darker skin and facial features (I’m usually confused for Hispanic in the U.S.), I thought this test must have just been a bit off the mark.
And yet, while I have a lot more research to do about this new revelation, most experts agree that the Roma originally come from Punjab and northern India.
Furthermore, if in fact one of my great-grandmother’s parents was Roma, that person would account for approximately 6.25% of my own DNA. Which matches starkly well with the 6-7% figure of non-Ashkenazi material detected by the test I did.
Some of this is conjecture. I can’t know for sure because my great-grandmother isn’t alive, a reminder to all to do this kind of research while you can talk to the living, not just research the dead.
Yet the numbers seem to add up. Beyond the metaphysical element of me liking Romanian Gypsy pop and then turning out to have precisely this descent (does feel a bit bashert, right?), family folklore, my own research, and my DNA test seem to match up.
Where does that leave me? On a new journey. That ties me to a new people, to a new culture, to a new part of me. To the shared struggles and cultural heritage of Roma and Jews, including musical traditions that apparently led to more than a few musicians intermarrying.
I hope it leads me to love even more my olive skin, to wonder exactly when and where it came from, and to embrace who I am as a full person. And as a unique mix of human cultures. And to want to explore my difference.
So who am I? I’m Matt. I’m Matah. I’m a Jew. Like the Russian Jews in Israel, like the Ethiopian Jews, like the many others who have mixed heritage- or heritage viewed with suspicion by the Israeli Rabbinate. It leaves me more empathetic to people who’ve been excluded from our people for looking differently or intermingling with their neighbors. Nobody is pure-bred anything- we’re all from Africa after all. A poignant reminder in a time of rising nationalism around the world.
So perhaps that’s part of the message I take away. While I’m no less Jewish (who knows, maybe Beile even converted!), a part of me feels a bit “lesser”. And that’s a part I want to work on and understand.
Because in the end, Roma, Jewish, or both- I’m a person. Just like everyone reading this. And if the Jewish people (including myself) can focus a little less on who looks “like one of us” and more on what makes us a great people, then that’ll be a positive influence on humanity.
In the meantime, I’ll be wandering. It’s something both Jews and Roma have been doing for years. For all our roots are, in the end, portable. Even as their shape changes with each bit of new soil they seep their foundations into. Deeper and deeper until the new generation of seedlings flock to far flung pastures. Keeping some of the old and integrating the new. Like my ancestors at Ellis Island, me at Ben Gurion Airport, or anywhere in between.