For years I checked the “other” box when it came to identifying my race, but the results of my recent Ancestry DNA test have me wondering– am I white?
I grew up in an almost entirely white suburb where the only reason you didn’t have blue or green eyes was because you were Asian. I had deep hazel eyes, coarse textured hair, and olive skin from day 1. I remember my friend Liz in first grade asking if I was Puerto Rican, and I said “I think I’m just regular Jewish… is that the same as white? Am I white?” I remember Liz’s somewhat intense stare, and looking back, I’m pretty sure she was thinking Bryce is totally Puerto Rican and doesn’t know it. I went home that night and asked my parents if I was Puerto Rican and got a fairly detailed answer about my father’s Sephardic heritage. Our family spoke a different version of Spanish, Ladino, in generations past and that most of his family had deep olive skin and darker features because of our Middle Eastern background. I remember going back to school and telling Liz I was Middle Eastern, had access to stuffed grape leaves, and that my dad said I might be lucky enough to have his afro one day. I explained to her that our Spanish was different than the Spanish you might hear in Puerto Rico, but that my grandmother would totally be able to talk to Puerto Ricans in Spanish if she wanted to. Seemed good enough to me– and from that day on I identified as a mixed up version of Spanish and Middle Eastern.
By the time I was 12 I noticed at sleepovers with my friends that I used different shampoos, much more conditioner, and my almond-shaped eyes required a different color palette and strategy than Liz, Katie, and Tara’s. I carried on the rest of my life truly believing that while I wasn’t technically Puerto Rican, black, or Asian, I was a sort of casualty of non-whiteness. I was a version of beige, and as similar as beige was to white, it just wasn’t the same.
Fast forward to age 26, when I first met my husband. Our first date was a mix of perfect and confusing– his limited English was sexy but hard to maneuver, and I couldn’t understand why he kept claiming he was “Moroccan on both sides” and wasn’t completely hairy (side note: most Sephardic people have spicy personalities, food, and enough body hair to keep a waxing salon in business for years). I was always told that a Sephardic man would be able to guarantee me two things: better tasting food and a super hairy chest. That first date was on a hot, August night and I remember his button down sleeves were rolled up to expose his arms, and the top two buttons of his shirt were undone for anticipated ventilation. I didn’t spot any of the telltale signs of Sephardic men like the poof of chest hair that creeps up the neck and out of just about any shirt, never mind one that’s already slightly undone. I laughingly said to him on that first date, “are you sure you’re really a Moroccan? You don’t seem dark enough?” He assured me, reassured me, and kept reassuring me that he was as authentic a Moroccan Jew as any other. We were married the following year and quickly added two children to the one I already had from a previous relationship.
This is where I feel like I should step in and describe what the kids look like.
My eldest looks exactly like me. If I cut my hair short and became a boy, that’s Benjamin. The first child I had with my husband, Rivie, was born looking exactly like Dora the Explorer. Her birth affirmed the “I swear I’m Moroccan” statements from prior years. But then… then my third child made his way into the world. He was born by C-section and I was behind my surgical tent when I heard Yossef cry out “He’s so blonde?!” What? A blondie? I’m excited, but SO confused. Avi, my third born, came out looking exactly like my husband had he taken a shower in bleach. But how could there be such a blonde version of Yossef, and how did his eyes stay piercing greenish blue nearly a year later? SURELY it must’ve been a happy genetic mixup to keep things exciting.
Well, not really. We decided one day a few weeks ago to take an Ancestry.com DNA test just to get to the bottom of where we really come from. As Jews, diaspora left us with a spotted gaps-in-stories heritage that is hard to totally pin down. Most of us know where the last 3 or 4 generations spent their time, but often our families were rushed out of nations, homelands, and businesses too quickly to keep written or detailed records of the generations before. We thought maybe Yossef would turn out to be 6% Swiss, or maybe my partial Belarusian heritage had conquered all the other genes and made Avi a light version of Yossef. As we spit into the test vials (it’s that easy), Yossef joked about finding out he’s really Japanese, I wondered if the tests would come back and tell us we were actually distant cousins all along.
My test results came in first. I was a whopping 76% Eastern European Jew. I knew I was Jewish, but Eastern Europeans were who I shared my genetics with? How could that be– I mean, I never felt like I looked like my Ashkenazi Jewish counterparts. I looked closer at the detailed map of my DNA and found traces of Spanish heritage (expected), Greece (somewhat expected), Turkish/Iranian heritage (very expected), about 30% from the region where Belarus stands today, and the rest spread out around Ukraine, Georgia, and Northern Turkey. But 76% Eastern European, by all accounts, equals white lady. Was my 2% North African or 2 percent East Asian responsible for my features? Am I white with a side of textured hair? Or did I just believe for the vast majority of my time on Earth that I appear different to the world than the reality?
Better yet were Yossef’s test results- the most shocking of them all. My Moroccan husband turned out to be almost entirely Greek with a splash of North African. It all made sense. His features. His obsession with feta cheese. His insistence on taking me to Greek restaurants for many of our first few dates. We poured over the results for a couple hours– called his family, called mine, and then a few close friends. In fact, we haven’t been able to stop talking about it because there’s something so perfectly uncomfortable about turning out to be someone or something you never expected.
If you’re interested in giving Ancestry.com DNA testing a whirl, it’s about $99 and takes roughly 6 weeks from the time you order the tests till you get results. It’s an incredible conversation starter, and an excellent source of clues about your own history. And, if anyone else in their database has similar DNA they’ll alert you with “possible matches.” I’ve found an endless supply of second and third cousins so far, and my husband has reached out to a few potential relatives as well.