If I’d written this before July, I’d be saying different things.
On my mother’s side we are mixed race, and descended from Jewish refugees who fled to America. On my father’s side, we are mixed race, and there is an intertwined narrative of Irish Diaspora and life after the Indian Reservations were left behind. My family is expert in the words and story of exile and Diaspora, loss and flight. I grew up as a part of that narrative, and for years it was both pride and a source of comfort. I was encouraged to pass for white whenever possible, and we attended Protestant Christian services. No one breathed a word of being anything but white, claiming English ancestry and being coached by the generations before us to speak with practiced diction and without accent.
My father’s family is complicated. But despite their ‘unreliable narrators’ the meat of the story they passed down is true. And my father has his memories of childhood, of watching his father the fancy-dancer dance.
My mother’s maternal side is where the refugees were said to come from. At the end of July, one of my Aunts received a call from a man claiming to be related to our family. He said he was descended from a relative we had never known about. He’s the grand-child of my maternal great-grandfather’s brother, but in the nest of complex explanation of genealogy: he said my great-grandfather was not a refugee. It has been implied, but not confirmed, that he wasn’t a Jew to their knowledge.
I converted, at 21. I may have grown up with stories of a Jewish heritage, hidden, but I wasn’t raised practicing. A line of strictly maternal descent was murky and unconfirmed, and I would not ever take back my conversion. I love my faith. I love being a Jew. But great-grandparents I had never met, who died decades before my parents would ever marry? I felt less lonely, less like a resident alien in my own family, because there had been Jews in our family at some point. They had been Jews. Someone had come before me. Family story said so. My Grandmother had said so. My Grandmother had told me about how she watched her father pray on Friday nights.
Now that things have been called into doubt, and I have to negotiate for myself how this changes things for me, if it changes them at all. If no one, no one ever in either side of my family was a Jew before me, that doesn’t change that I’m a Jew in the here and now. It doesn’t change that my Dad isn’t white. It doesn’t erase how I grew up.
Now, all I can say is that my identities are still there. I’m still Indian. I’m still a Jew. But for now, till things are sorted with this man who claims my family as kin, I feel even more like a resident alien in a foreign land.