At age 60 I was the daughter of a Polish-Catholic woman and a Scotch-Irish man. Now, at age 61, I have a new identity. I am the daughter of a Jewish man, and it turns out that my late mother fooled us all throughout her entire life.
Last year I uncovered her long-time secret, when Ancestry.com sent me my true identity in a pie chart. Half of my DNA pie was labeled “Ashkenazi Jewish.” None of it was Scotch-Irish. There was no match with my supposed father or his nieces, all of whom had tested recently in Ancestry.

Before the pie chart

I grew up an only child in a Jewish urban neighbourhood and I always “felt” Jewish. I went to the Jewish community centre, Jewish summer camps, and a high school that was mainly Jewish. And I pretty much only dated Jewish boys. But I thought all this just meant I was Jewish “by association.”
My mother and Scotch-Irish father had fled their own small-town families and moved to the big city. They divorced when I was 10. I was raised in isolation but neighbour families were kind to me, letting me join in their dinners, outings, family and holiday celebrations, and even vacations. They provided me with the family atmosphere I desperately wanted, rescuing my childhood. They were all Jewish.

After the pie chart

As the shock of my mother’s secret settled in, I knew I had to try and find out who this Jewish biological father was. I named him “J-dad,” to distinguish him from the very elderly Scotch-Irish man who believes that he is my biological father. Mother was clearly quite a philanderer….
So I began slowly combing through my Jewish matches on Ancestry, eventually picking out two to contact. Third-cousin JJ was living in my current city and works at a major university, so she was easy to track down. I relayed my story by email and she agreed to meet in person. I was excited about my first time with a Jewish relative. We shared all kinds of information but we made no ancestral progress.
Then I emailed third-to-fourth cousin PP, mainly because I found out that he had academic expertise in genetics. He kindly guided me through the next critical steps –  testing in all the main DNA systems and sending my DNA files to some database consolidators.
PP’s suggestions led me eventually to second-cousin VV, who topped my list when I tested in the final system, 23andme. I contacted VV but he said knew nothing beyond his Jewish grandfather’s name. However, with VV being only 25 percent Jewish, it was easy to trace his ancestors up the chain to our potential mutual great-grandparents, and then come back down the lines looking for men of the right age to be my father. Luckily, there was only one: RR, my likely J-dad.
But records showed that RR was long deceased, and I could find little information about him, except for one associated person whose name kept coming up – HH. Soon I realised that she was a very young, second ex-wife of J-dad. I then easily located her – another academician – and fired off an email with my story.
Within minutes she replied. “This is an email I never thought I’d get,” she wrote, and we arranged to speak by phone that night. I was overwhelmed to learn that she already knew of my existence! She had been briefly married to my J-dad in the 1980s and he had told her that he had one child, a daughter, and that the mother had taken the infant and run away. And he’d told HH the child’s name, my name…. “That’s me,” I yelled with glee into the phone – that’s me!”
Jackpot! I had found the right man. It all lined up. My mother had become impregnated by RR, then returned to Scotch-Irish “dad” – who was still her husband – and passed me off as his.

Way beyond the pie chart

However, to my great disappointment, subsequent searching did not reveal any new close family. RR’s only brother was also deceased, and among all the parents, step-parents and pseudo-parents that I could now claim, there were no other offspring. I was able to find just one first cousin, the only child of RR’s brother. But, at only 38 years old, he knew only a tiny amount of family history. Still, he had once met our mutual grandmother and his description of her matched the one that HH had given me.
This seemed to be the end of the journey. There were no further close relatives to locate. My hopes for some half siblings, or even more first cousins were dashed.
But then I had one more idea. Along the way, I’d convinced my fully Jewish husband to test his DNA in one of the systems I had used. When his results came back he said he’d seen nothing of interest, nothing new, and nothing surprising – a few known relatives and lots of more-distant cousins he’d never heard of.
Before closing the book on all of this, I asked my husband if I could review his results and matches, just out of curiosity. While looking at his list of cousins, I had a sudden urge – I decided to roll the dice, and entered the surname of my J-dad into his search function.
I blinked in disbelief as I saw names begin to populate the page – my cousin JJ’s name, my cousin PP’s name, and several other names I recognised from months of studying my own Jewish matches. I felt another pie-chart moment arising yet I remained calm enough to enter about a dozen more of MY top Jewish matches into my husband’s list. And all but one showed up. To varying degrees, my husband shares ALL BUT ONE of my top Jewish matches!
I ran and re-ran these searches. It was real. There was no doubt – he and I share a boatload of Jewish relatives (though we don’t appear to be direct matches to each other). It seemed impossible because we’d never met until we were over 30, grew up in vastly different regions, and had nothing and no one in common.
I presented this evidence to my husband. Understandably, he had a bit of trouble processing this new twist. He felt like he wanted to dismiss this whole DNA thing. He half-jokingly considered becoming a science denier.
But I felt something more important, perhaps the hand of fate. Maybe this was an answer to my quest for finding more family — I’d actually been seeing family ever since I met my husband more than 30 years ago! He always “felt” like family to me. And so did his nieces and nephews, and his many second and third cousins. And now I know they really are family, to one degree or another.
So now I’ve labeled myself his “half-Jewish cousin-wife,” and every time we encounter one of his cousins, I always ask him “Are they my cousin too?” – hoping they are from the ancestral lines that I think we share.
I know the old quip about every Jewish person being related. But you’d have to reference twentieth-thirtieth cousins for that to be literally true. Our matches are much, much closer than that.
Recently my husband met a new local rabbi and decided to challenge him with a basic question: “What is a Jew?” Are we an ethnic group? A religious group? An historic race?” The best way to describe us, said this rabbi, is that we are a “family.” Yes – family! A wonderful family and one that I belong to, after all.
OK, I know I’m only Jewish on my father’s side, but it’s good enough for me. And it allows me to ask: Are you my cousin too?

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E Rothman
E. Rothman is a former magazine editor and journalism professor. She now works in communications for a major international conservation organisation and other animal-related causes.

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