With spring break on the horizon, all the students and faculty at Med U were abuzz with plans for the holiday. As usual, there is an overlap of Passover and Easter during the week break. Growing up in such a melting pot of a county, people often simply wish others a happy “break” or happy “holiday.” This year, however, I was asked more than a handful of times, “What are you doing for Passover?” I always respond the same way: smile, and say, “Well, I’m not Jewish…but I am having seder with my best friend Jo M..” In a twist of irony, I, the Catholic girl, have a German last name, which people always equate with Judaism. My best friend, meanwhile, who is Jewish, has a name “as Irish as Patty’s Pig”, as my own Irish nana would say. When I offer this information, my acquaintances assume confused expressions and then inquire about my heritage, seemingly very flustered that my name did not confirm their assumptions.
When I’m not being asked about my religion, I often get other questions about my background. Where I grew up, many of my friends were of one, or two country backgrounds, or so they thought. Usually Irish, or Italian, or some combination of the two. Now that I am in medical school, which is like a mini United Nations, I have the privilege of collaborating with people of so many diverse backgrounds. Many, if not most of my classmates are first generation Americans, if not immigrants themselves. It may be my own projections or insecurities, but when I answer that my background is diluted and muddled, and I really don’t have any cultural connection, I often feel that my classmates seem bored, or pity me for not having culture.
Inspired by a recent television series about tracing one’s ancestry, I decided to delve into my family’s tree, and try to find meaning in my heritage. While researching my ancestry for the first time, in the third grade, I discovered that I was German, Danish, Dutch, English, and Irish. What a mouthful! Later, I got another window into my ancient past when my mother got her DNA tested. As a high school science teacher, my mom takes her class annually to a world renowned research center to do experiments with DNA. One project is to use mitochondrial DNA to trace the maternal ancestral line. The information is then compared to a giant world DNA bank, and you can see where your ancestors arose. My maternal line was 98% Scandinavian, and 2% Transylvanian (cool!). But what I was to make of it? It’s not like I knew of any recent immigrants in my family. This information did not justify having St. Lucia celebrations, or lacquering my nails with Chanel Vamp; it was simply an empty fact.
I then decided to go back and check out the little report I did as an eight year old. A history of the eight great grandparents. Of the eight, only one was an immigrant—from Germany. The rest had random situations—a couple orphans, a daughter of a wealthy businessman, son of a tailor, daughter of a dressmaker, etc. (I was quite pleased to see so many fashion people in the family!) But one thing all my ancestors had in common was New York City. Piecing it together now is fascinating to me. Both my mother and father’s ancestors grew up all over my favorite parts of the city. My father was born as the seventh generation in a brownstone in what used to be a Scandinavian neighborhood in Brooklyn. Seventh generation! In the same brownstone in Brooklyn. It blew my mind. (And made me wish that house was still in the family—Park Slope is pretty nice these days!) My mother’s great grandparents were wealthy people whose family roots lay in Manhattan’s earliest beginnings. For as far back as I could trace, my family were New Yorkers, through and through.
My muddled mix of German, Danish, Dutch, English, Irish, Scandinavian, and Transylvanian, is really a reflection of the melting pot that makes up our beloved city. And I have found meaning in my heritage, and can proudly proclaim that my heritage is simply, and wonderfully, New York.