In My Own Words: DNA Testing

By: RABBI RACHEL ESSERMAN, EXECUTIVE EDITOR

I have no desire to have my DNA tested. This was true even before I read Dani Shapiro’s “Inheritance: A Memoir of Genealogy, Paternity, and Love,” in which she writes about learning that the man she thought was her father was not her birth father. (To read a review of the book, see page 4.) There is nothing wrong with people wanting to learn more about their family history. People connect with relatives they never knew existed and uncover more about their family’s national and ethnic backgrounds. Since there can be so many positive results, why am I still not interested? That’s because even if DNA proved I was the product of different parents or that I was not Jewish, I would still be the same person.
Let me explain: We are a combination of our genetic coding and our environment. Together they have made me who I am – something that would not change if I learned I had different parents or that they came from a different religious or ethnic group than we previously thought. I understand why knowing your medical history is important, but, for me, learning it is different doesn’t change the essence of who I am as a human being. Why should my current feelings change due to an accident of birth? The sum of my experiences has made me who I am right now.
For example, why would my feelings about Judaism change? Even before I increased my religious practice, and decades before the thought of being a rabbi crossed my mind, being Jewish was important to me. That meant not hiding my heritage in high school even when it was clear there was antisemitic prejudice. I know I have ancestors who came to the United States from Germany and Russia, but their particular stories are only part of my history. When I read fiction and nonfiction from the early part of the 20th century, I feel that all those stories are part of my history – no matter the country from which the writers emigrated. Even though I have no children, the children of my friends and my synagogue are part of my continuing heritage. All this who emigrated are all my fathers and mothers, and all of the next generation are all my children.
Perhaps I feel this way because my early life was settled and content. Now, I know members of immediate family might disagree with that because, of course, every family has its traumas. And, of course, life was not perfect. However, those events never made me feel like I didn’t belong, nor that I wanted to be part of a different family. My connection to both my parents is/was strong. My father shared his intellectual heritage with me: He gave me books to read – the works were important to him and influenced his view of the world. Later, I shared my favorite works with him. That is a wonderful way to connect.
I also have always been close to my mother. My father’s side of the family was not religious, but my other grandparents – my mother’s parents – were among the founding members of Temple Beth El in Endicott, which was my formative Jewish home. My mom and I shared a love of theater – often traveling to Scranton before heading to New York City with my Aunt Naomi to shop and see a Broadway show. Even though I have no musical talent, my mom would play show music on the piano so I could sing along. She never once told me how bad I sounded. (Now, that’s true motherly love.)
One of the biggest traumas in my parents’ lives was the birth of my younger brother, Larry, who had Down Syndrome. Yet, that turned into one of the best things that happened to us. Larry gave us something indescribable. Nothing can change that. Even if I learned we weren’t related by blood, I know we were related by something far more important: love.
I am not a particularly nostalgic person. My focus is more on the here and now. I’ve never had halcyon days – perfect times in youth – that I look back on. But I feel clear about who I am and how I would be that same person even if I learned that my genetic history was different. I also don’t feel the need to contact long lost relatives because I already have so many wonderful people in my life. I know a great many people feel differently and I’m interested in learning what they’ve discovered. But for me, at least right now, what I know is enough.