It turns out I’m more complex than I thought.
There I was, believing that my red-gravy Italian-ness summed me up succinctly, the roaring stories of gesticulating relatives serving as sacred tribal doctrine that explained me to me.
But my wife bought me one of those learn-your-heritage kits and, mama mia, what a revelation.
Yes, my ancestors were Italian. But also Greek, European Jewish, Middle Eastern, and from the Caucasus, a region that includes people from Russia, Georgia, Azerbaijan, Turkey, Armenia, and Iran.
What I’m experiencing now is what Rutgers University sociologist Eviatar Zerubavel calls a “genealogical epiphany.”
It’s parlor-game fun to know this stuff. But does it matter or make a difference? I can’t decide yet. I’m still figuring out this gift, holding it up to the light and seeing which way the sun shoots through.
My first question was whether this is real or, like astrology, a kind of tantalizing hokum.
“Absolutely, there is science to this,” said Glenn Gerhard, chair of medical genetics and molecular biochemistry at the Lewis Katz School of Medicine at Temple University. And, he added, for areas like Europe, where there is a large database of people’s genetic backgrounds, “there is good data that’s getting better.”
Gerhard tried one of the ancestor kits himself. “I’m a geneticist and needed to find out,” he said.
The second thing that hit me was that I’m descended from Catholics, Jews, and Muslims.
How will I get the holidays straight? And the fasting?
Then again, how important can any single religion be if I’m everything? The more religions I am, the less religious I feel.
It’s odd the thoughts that pop into your head when you learn you aren’t precisely who you thought you were. I immediately recalled a girl I had a crush on in high school who refused to date me because I wasn’t Jewish.
How do you like me now, Jane?
Along with Jane, I now know I proudly share a background with Albert Einstein, Philip Roth, and, of course, Scarlett Johansson. But with just 10 percent of my genes being Jewish, I can’t lay claim to all eight crazy nights of Hanukkah. Maybe just a raucous afternoon.
As I tried to figure some commonality among these disparate cultures, the only thing I could come up with is that most of the people in them eat lamb. I still prefer steak pizzaiola.
Given that so many of my ancestors were a bellicose bunch — the Romans, the Greeks, the Persians — it’s no wonder I get testy at the DMV.
When I listed our antecedents to my brother, the chromosomally closest human to me, he noted the Russian and Iranian influences and joked, “You know, I always had a problem with democracy. Now I know why.”
It occurred to me that DNA testing is something I could use to help get my 13-year-old daughter into college. Adopted from Guatemala, my daughter is Latina and Central American Indian — Mayan, the adoption lawyer said. Universities award scholarships to Native Americans, I was told.
But my daughter’s papers list only her Latina side. So I asked her to take an ancestry test to prove her Indian heritage. The one I used requires that a person spit into a test tube for a saliva sample.
My daughter will not. Too icky or something.
This has led to me making odd demands of her: “Spit! I can’t afford college.”
As fascinating as my new genetic preoccupation is, I think it’s brought me to a basic realization: Our experiences are more important than our chromosomes.
My daughter and I share not a drop of blood. But I love her more than baseball, or cannoli, or myself.
And I don’t need a DNA test to tell me that.
Have you or someone in your family taken an ancestry test? What did you learn? What surprised you? Email us at email@example.com to share your story. Some responses may appear on Philly.com.