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 thesecretgreece.gr|
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 atelierchristine.com|
The rolling pin photo above is from Etsy.com 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 ancestry.com 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 ancestry.com 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 ancestry.com surprises.
Surprise #1 -- I am much more Scandinavian than I thought.
Surprise #2 -- I'm also a little bit Finnish or northern Russian.
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.
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.
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."