18 October 2009

Never Been and a Map to Nowhere

I recently got a letter in the mail inviting me to a conference of cool Jewish media types and at that conference I would be promised a discount in figuring out the genetic make-up of my Jewish ancestors and all the cool things they did. I sat staring at the letter, moments after reading it, and wondering why it was important to be genetically connected to people I'd never met, as opposed to being, say, morally connected; or historically connected. And the only response I could conjure, over and over again, was that I kept thinking of Nazis.

I know--I admit it--it's an extreme reaction. But the obsession with Jewish genetic ancestry seemed relevant in two ways: for Jews, to understand and cure ourselves of genetic diseases; and for Nazis, to locate and eradicate the Jewish gene.

But the notion of locating Jewish genes in order to, well, celebrate them for existing, seemed downright narcissistic. And not particularly relevant to anything. Except the biology of it all, which doesn't ring any bells for me. After all, the Rabbis who founded Judaism long ago dispensed with the Priests politically--and even though geneticists out there still convey deep satisfaction with research that shows linkages over generations between Cohens and Lemba Tribes of Southern Africa, it doesn't prove a whole lot except some genetic codes last a long time.

I dunno. Maybe this whole new fangled celebration of long-lasting genes is a reaction to the utter vacuousness of our own digital age when nothing lasts more than second. Or two. Three and I'm bored. Bye!

23andme, the guilty party which promises Ancestry Painting ( a cute nod to Margaret Mead and indigenous, tribal marking?) is a company which promises to place one of its costumers on a "global similarity plot" which, for a guy like me is another name for the grave. How's that for global similarities?

Is it my naturally sunny disposition? The fact that in Wisconsin, the land of my more recent ancestry, my teams always lose, or the fact that as I get older I just have a lower and lower tolerance for bullshit?

I wonder if I'm related to Hillel's contemporary, Akavya ben Mahalael? I wonder if it matters? "Reflect upon three things and you will not come within the power of sin: know where you come from; where you are going; and before whom in the future you will have to give account and reckoning. You come from a fetid drop (that's sperm and egg.) You are going to a place of dust, worm and maggots (that's presuming the "cool" thing at death is still burial.) And we will all have to answer before the Supreme King of Kings, the Holy One, Blessed be God." Never a comfortable proposition. And less autonomous than 23 pairs of chromosomes.

Call me stupid for not realizing that there was a genetic answer to eradicating poverty, war and greed but it seems to me that Jewish gatherings that encourage genetic marking so that insights into Jewish identity can be celebrated are nothing less than a monumental waste of resources. And hey, people have the right to spend their money in whatever way they want, right? Right!

So here's my deal, full disclosure. At my shul we don't care where you come from. We care about where you're going. And if you want to invest in that, great. Be present.

We offer a swab-free shot at being who YOU are, in our Jewish community in Brooklyn.

In the meantime, I'll leave it to the Sander Gilmans of the world to figure out what kind of sick joke it is that some communal professionals play with philanthropic dollars by mapping the Jewish gene pool for a super hip continuity game. It's not too far removed from the shmuck who gets off the train at Union Square with his iPod at full throttle, in blissful, digitized ignorance of the outstretched hand that asks for food or, perish the thought, money.

Some maps, on a grid, lead you to another space, on the grid. And other maps, on the pages of a book, or experienced in community, lead you to places you or anyone else you've ever been related to, has never been.

Between "never been" and a "map to nowhere," I wonder where you stand?


Randi said...

^^lurker in a far-away flyover state is standing and applauding this post^^

This argument could also be used against the recent premise of Israeli historian Shlomo Sand: http://www.tabletmag.com/news-and-politics/18203/inventing-israel/

I know practicing Catholics who discover they have the "cohen-Y" chromosome and suddenly declare themselves a crypto-Jew. And many in the Jewish community encourage this notion! As a giyoret, I find this supremely annoying. I suppose genetic or geneological reasons are as good as any to spark an interest in Judaism--but the privilege that chromosomal information is given is just ridiculous.

Thank-you, Rabbi Bachman, for this post.

Andy Bachman said...

Right on.

Ross said...

Question any wise Jew would ask himself is -- can I re-gift the free DNA test?

Andy Bachman said...

Yes, regift it. Or trade it like junk bonds and baseball cards.