Friday, January 29, 2016

The American Melting Pot That is My Heritage

 I've always been very interested in different cultures, traditions and family history, my own as well as everyone else's. I'm always curious to know what people know about their family history and heritage, and it's a question I like to ask. Occasionally, I've come across people who are a little suspicious of the motive behind that question. I suppose a bigot, unfortunately, may have his own reasons for asking, but I'm not coming from that point of view. I think I have more xenophilia than xenophobia.

Every spring, some of the Greek Orthodox churches in my area host Greek cultural festivals, and, every year, as I pass the signs on my commute, I think I'm going to crash one of these festivals some time. I haven't yet. I'm not Greek or so I thought. (It turns out I may be a little bit Greek, but more on that later.) I know I would enjoy the cuisine, and Greek folk dancing always seems fascinating to me.

The photo is from

Some years ago, the newspaper where I work published some photos of an event at an Armenian Orthodox Church where some ladies were making a traditional Armenian pastry. I looked at these photos with great interest and asked our photographer questions. My editor, who happens to be Armenian, was, I think, wondering what my fascination was with Armenian pastries. I remember the women were twisting dough, so I think this may be the recipe here.

This photo is from
I like Old World-y traditions, and I wish I had more connection to them. I have British heritage, but I don't have an afternoon tea habit. I have German heritage, but I don't eat German cuisine, at least not very often and not often using family recipes. I do have several German cookie recipes from my paternal grandmother and a springerle rolling pin from an aunt on that side of the family. These are treasures.

The rolling pin photo above is from but seems similar to the one we have. A couple of Christmases ago, I used our springerle rolling pin and my grandmother's springerle recipe to honor tradition.

We do celebrate St. Patrick's Day each year with a corned beef dinner, although this is more of a tradition that my mother decided to start and continue, not one with which she grew up. Mom found a recipe in the Silver Palate cookbook for Irish soda bread which we've now made almost every year for quite some time now. We love it. It's loaded with butter and baked in an iron skillet. I usually add dried currants and caraway. The recipe is called "Grandma Clark's Irish Sodabread" in the cookbook, and people could conclude that this was our family recipe. Interestingly enough, the Irish part of my heritage is not even on the Clark side.

Here's a slightly altered version of the "Silver Palate" recipe.

If you were to ask my younger self about my family history, I would have told you that I was English, German and Irish. It wasn't until I was in high school and saw some Swedish names in the Clark family tree that I knew I had any Swedish heritage. I found this quite astonishing, although Mom told me at the time that the percentage was small and didn't seem significant.

I grew up in a northern New Jersey town, Cedar Grove, that has a 29.7 percent Italian population and now live in a neighboring town, Verona, with an Italian population of 25.8 percent. My Italian school and neighborhood friends always seemed to be more closely tied to Old World cultural traditions. Some of them had grandparents or members of the family who spoke Italian. I have eaten some of the most fabulous Italian food at church pot luck dinners and community events as well as countless independent Italian restaurants in my area. I'm not complaining! I just never had quite as much sense of connection to my own heritage.

Have you seen the commercial for the DNA kit where a man says he discovers he's not at all German as he thought but Scottish instead? "I traded in my lederhosen for a kilt," he says.

My brother Bruce recently took the DNA test. Although some things confirmed what we already knew, there were quite a few surprises in those results. What would be true for my brother would be true for me too. We discovered we are of 40 percent Great Britain heritage and 22 percent Western Europe heritage. That's not the surprising part. Bruce presumed that this was mostly German, although it seems the test doesn't break it down. According to my cousin Kevin, that would include some French too.

Kevin is the family historian, looking into our genealogy and sharing his discoveries with the rest of us. He discovered that there are French Huguenots in our history on my father's side. This seems to make sense, because we have ancestors from Alsace-Lorraine, actually on both sides of the family.

For the past two years, I have performed with my Salt and Light Puppet Team for an Oktoberfest event at my church. In the first one, I did a little skit with my ventriloquism style puppet, Professor Votshisname. I told the professor something to the effect that much of the audience must have German heritage.

Votshisname: And what about you? Are you German?

Susan: Yes, I'm German. My ancestors came from Alsace-Lorraine.

Votshisname: So, you are French!

And from there, we argue while making a quick tour through the history of Alsace-Lorraine switching back and forth between French and German territory. By the way, this was a tough bit to memorize!

And now, since that event, I learn that both are true. I actually am French, at least a little bit.

So, now on to the surprises.

Surprise #1 -- I am much more Scandinavian than I thought.

According to the test, I am 20 percent Scandinavian, although it doesn't break that down into Swedish, Norwegian or Danish. This is more than my brother's estimated 12.5 percent Swedish and more than Mom had led me to believe when I first learned I had some Swedish blood.

Surprise #2 -- I'm also a little bit Finnish or northern Russian.

According to my brother's test, we are also six percent Finnish or northern Russian. Again, it's not highly specific as to which of the two. Learning this, I was sparked by curiosity about the Finns and why "Finnish" was listed separately from "Scandinavian" on this test. I did some Google searches and learned that Finland is considered a Nordic but not a Scandinavian country. This reminded me of something I learned while teaching English in Hungary in the summer of 1994. The Hungarian language has no relationship to the neighboring Romanian language, which is a Romance language, or to any of the Slavic languages in Eastern Europe. It's in its own little language group with only two other languages, Finnish and Estonian. Finland and Estonia, of course, are geographically close together, so I wondered how Hungarian language was related with these. Of course, ancient people groups migrated everywhere. Now, again, I am curious on that question. This is what research does to you, answers some questions and raises others. If anyone has some insights on this or knows of a source for information, comment below.

Surprise #3 -- Although my DNA is 100 percent European, it is not 100 percent Northern European.

Specifically, I am three percent either Italian or Greek. So, after repeatedly telling various people that I didn't have any Italian blood in me, I actually might? As I said, I live in an Italian area, so this question comes up fairly often. Someone will tell me that he or she is 100 percent or 50 percent Italian, and I'll tell that person that I'm not at all Italian. Some of the towns I cover as a reporter also have a high Italian population. I can remember covering a dinner hosted by the Sicilian Federation of New Jersey where a local politician was honored. My neighbor at the table used the placemat map of Italy to point out to me the area from which his ancestors came. It turns out that I actually may be Italian, just a little bit. I can not express how surprising that is to me.

It would be interesting to know more specifically if this line of my ancestors were Italian or Greek. The two ethnicities seem to have some physical similarities. A Greek-American writer friend, Stephanie Nikolopoulos, and I were just recently talking about Sophia Loren, an Italian actress, who portrayed a Greek sponge diver finding an art treasure in the movie, "The Boy on a Dolphin."

Photo from "The Boy on the Dolphin," taken from Amazon

However, Italy and Greece seem very culturally distinct. I know it doesn't ultimately matter, and I may never know the answer to this question. It is merely interesting.

Along with this surprising finding, I also learn that I am six percent Iberian, either Spanish or Portuguese.


Really? I would never have guessed it. This leads right into Surprise # 4.

Surprise #4 -- I'm a lot less Irish than I thought.

According to this test, we are only three percent Irish. That's much less than the 12.5 percent we thought it was. Compared to this, I have six percent Iberian DNA, which is twice the amount of Irish. This completely astonishes me.

I am reminded however of a theory I've read about the "black Irish," the dark-haired Irish. My Irish grandfather, my maternal grandfather, had very dark, dramatic and black hair and fair skin. So did his siblings and our other Irish ancestors. My mother also had black hair before it grayed. I have read an explanation, apparently a controversial one, that the "black Irish" got their dark-haired characteristics from Spanish invaders to Ireland. Suddenly, this theory seems very possible to me. Maybe some of that Iberian blood is actually through the Irish line of the family.

 I suppose I've always assumed I must have a good dose of Irish DNA, because my skin is very fair. "A Whiter Shade of Pale" could be my theme song. I don't have the bronzed Sophia Loren skin tone. I don't tan. I fry. However, just because I have Mediterranean European DNA would not necessarily mean that I would reflect that in my apperance.

This is the exact reason why I didn't blink when retired New York Jets football player, Bruce Harper, told me he was Irish. I'm not name dropping. In fact, I'll confess that I know so little about professional sports that I was not familiar with his name at all before meeting him in the context of his work with the Boys & Girls Club, where he works on the board of directors for a local club. I met him while covering another dinner event for the paper -- my job does have its perks! -- and was seated beside him. I found him to be very personable.

When he told me, "I'm Irish," being gullible, I answered, "Oh, really?" No, he doesn't look Irish, but I didn't think it was completely impossible that he might have some Irish DNA that didn't reflect itself in his appearance. He was joking with me. He went on to tell me how he had traveled to Ireland with his family and had jokingly convinced his children they were Irish in the same way he was teasing me. By the way, Harper has a great youth mentoring program, Heroes and Cool Kids.

Surprise #5 -- I am one percent Jewish!

One percent may be a tiny amount, but it is, nonetheless, interesting and surprising. I am very pleased to identify in some small way with the Chosen People. My first novel, currently out of print, "And the Violin Cried" has some Jewish themes, about a broken friendship that's repaired, a family that experiences anti-Semitic abuse and an heirloom violin that survives the Holocaust. I remember a former coworker, a Gentile, tellling my Jewish coworker that I was an "honorary Jew." I'd love to be considered an honorary Jew, although I'm not sure a goy can be the one to bestow that honor on me.

In another memory, in seventh grade, I was in line at the school cafeteria, and a boy asked me, "Susan, are you Jewish?" I said, "No." He then swung his arm in front of him, snapping his finger, in a gesture we all recognize as meaning, "Too bad." I was too stupid or too humble to understand his question had any romantic significance before that moment. On another day shortly after that, again in the cafeteria line, he asked me if I liked bagels. This time, I answered, "Yes."

I wonder what I or he would have said if I knew about that one percent at that time? His question could mean many things. He could have been asking if I was culturally Jewish, ethnically Jewish or if I was a practicing religious Jew. It's highly likely that the last option was what was most important to him.

I came across some interesting statistics about Jewish people recently. Below is one of them.

I think this is a reflection of God's continued blessing on His Chosen People. Mom and I also were very curious and interested in a list we came across of notable Jewish entertainers. Some on that list were surprises. It seems there are many accomplished Jews in history as well as in current times. This all leads to an even more recent discovery over which I stumbled, much along the same theme. I now follow Youtuber Grant Woolard who has some very creative videos, including this parody of the Beach Boys' "God Only Knows What I'd Be Without You?" Disclaimer: I think his intentions are meant to be flattering, but I only wish he left Monica Lewinsky out of this, since there are better Jewish female role models he could have chosen.

So, what will I tell people now if they ask about my family history or ethnic background? I can no longer name just three or four countries of origin. Do I go through the whole list and give all of the percentages? Perhaps, I could, or perhaps I could use comedian Steve Carrell as a model. I had read that when someone asked him what sort of accent he did for the Gru character in "Despicable Me," he apparently answered, "You know Europe? From there." I think that could be my answer to this question. "You know Europe? From there."


  1. Fascinating! I should send this to my cousin, who is big into geneology (spelling?)

  2. I had my dog DNA tested because she's a mutt...but I haven't had myself DNA tested. I guess we're all mutts, in a sense!

    1. :) That's very interesting that your dog had a DNA test. I hadn't thought about that for dog breed testing. What was your doggy's results? I grew up with a dog who was a mutt. She was an abandoned dog. My three brothers and the cousin mentioned above actually found her while hiking. The DNA test wasn't available at that time, but the vet made a guess that she was part fox terrier and part cocker spaniel. The purebred dogs that remind me of my dog are border collies. She had that long fur, pointy ears and coloring pattern. However, her body was much smaller, on the small end of a medium sized dog.

    2. ^^^Those sound like our results. It said she was mostly "spaniel" and part Jack Russell terrier. She looks kind of King Charles Spaniel-ish, only bigger and with a longer snout. She doesn't look at all like a Jack Russell or a cocker spaniel, so I'm not sure what to make of that...

    3. Now, I want to see a photo of your dog. Do you have a post featuring her? I'm a dog lover. :) I like to give my fictional characters dogs. In my work in progress, even some of the suspects have dogs, so I think, so far, there are three dogs and one African grey parrot in the story. :)

  3. Hi Susan!

    What a great post. You have such a diversified background. Not just your genealogy but foods you've eaten. I've never heard of half of the foods you described. The armenian bread looks especially good. I feel like I need to try some new foods now from different cultures. Thanks for the information!

    Diane Lynn

    1. Hello Diane. :) I live in a culturally diverse area, as you might have concluded. I live about 15 minutes away from New York City, so I suppose the multiculturalism of New York spills out into my area. I just read some interesting facts about the city, that 800 different languages are spoken there. This blows my mind, because I don't think I can name a list even close to 800 languages! Not every New Jersey town is equally diverse. Each town has its own demographics. Collectively, however, we represent every tribe and nation. As a reporter, it's interesting to discover the flavor of each town our paper covers. For instance, the town where my office is has a high population of Russian Jewish and Israeli immigrants, and a couple of the other towns we cover have a little pocket of a Polish community. Because we're so diverse, we do have a variety of food available in this area. New Jerseyans who move out of state seem to miss the food, particularly New York style pizza and bagels. Many of the New Jersey diners also are run by Greek families and offer, among other things, some Greek classic dishes.

  4. Oh yes, the American melting pot. I'd love to do a family tree. I was on, but they charge too much a month. Plus, records of my family jump too quickly over to Europe, and I don't have all the names, birth dates, etc. It's time consuming. I hope when I get older, and have more money, I could really look into it. The DNA test sounds interesting though. Thanks for sharing.

    1. Hi Denise. Yes, I agree that looking into family history is time consuming. I'm really glad other members of my family have looked into it for me and shared their results. Kevin is a cousin on my father's side, so he looks into Clark family history. My mother has also looked into family history on her side. One time, one of her first cousins (I think?) shared some information that included little stories about some of our ancestors on that side. Photos too. I hope you get to learn more about your family history some time, one way or another.

  5. Susan,

    Wow! Very interesting family line. I will certainly have to take one of the DNA tests to see what's hanging out in my DNA! Thanks for sharing.


    1. "... what's hanging out in my DNA" I like that expression. :)

    2. "... what's hanging out in my DNA" I like that expression. :)