As a man who values imagination much more than reality, I have always believed that my wife Charla has Marrano lineage. There are so many clues.
For starters, there’s her venerable Hispanic surname: Soriano. It denotes a resident of the Castilian town of Soria. But, under various spellings, it’s now proudly borne by Spaniards, Filipinos, Latinos and, as Seattleites well know, Sephardic Jews. A Spanish surname shared by Catholics and Jews must be the legacy of crypto-Jewish ancestors, no? Think DeCastro, Cordozo, Lopez, or DeLeone!
Now consider a second marker: her family’s hostility toward institutionalized religions of all sorts — Christianity in particular. Granny Gloria Soriano, after all, still complains that one of her six brothers, Chuck, “turned Christian on us and moved to Oregon.”
And Granny’s religion? “I’m a Unitarian!” she declares with pride.
Charla, for her part, confesses to having “felt Jewish” since the age of 8, even though her conversion wasn’t final until well into adulthood.
So: Judeo-Christian Hispanic surname; suspicion of hierarchical religious institutions; a gnawing sense of somehow being “really” Jewish: all this adds up, in my mind, to the “Marrano connection.”
This is thrilling yiches indeed for an Ashkenazi American Jew who lost exactly zero family to the Holocaust (our people were all safely promenading on the Grand Concourse). By virtue of Charla’s genetic material, I can at least hold my head up in the company of a buddy whose father organized an escape from Treblinka!
So when Charla sent a DNA sample to an Internet genealogical service, I anticipated finding some rare nuts in the Soriano family tree — say, a Sephardic Pope, a renowned Kabbalist, or at least (please God!), a follower of Shabbtai Tzvi.
But no. When the results came back the other day, our fantasies evaporated like the Torah’s manna in the heat of late morning. Charla’s genetic lineage, we learned, falls into something called “Mitochondrial Haplogroup T2.”
The explanation, as best I can tell, is provided in the e-mail note that accompanied the DNA test results, “The mitochondrial Haplogroup T is best characterized as a European lineage. With an origin in the Near East greater than 45,000 years ago, the major sub-lineages of Haplogroup T entered Europe around the time of the Neolithic, some 10,000 years ago.”
So far, so good. Charla stems from Middle Eastern ancestors who migrated to Europe during the Stone Age. Of course, I was thinking that the migration was a bit more recent, but there’s still plenty of room for my fantasy in this account of Haplogroup T. But, reading on, things get more complicated. Consider this:
“Haplogroup T2 is one of the older sub-lineages and may have been present in Europe as early as the Late Upper Paleolithic. The T2 subclade is most frequent in Europe, with the highest frequencies in the Mediterranean and Near East areas. This subclade appears to be older than the T1 subclade, and has higher levels of occurrence among Palestinians.”
The vertigo of a dissolving identity engulfed us. What now? Do we plant trees in the orchards of Nablus and send checks to madrassas in Gaza? Will shluchim from Hamas start knocking on our door? Will there be reprisals if we only give them $18?
But after the first shock had worn away, the obvious question dawned upon us. Exactly who are today’s Palestinians?
Textbooks taught in the schools of the Palestinian Authority claim that, while Jews are the offspring of monkeys and pigs, Palestinians are the direct descendants of the Biblical “Canaanites.”
Well, not exactly…
According to modern scholarship — and despite some well-known injunctions in the Torah — Canaanites thrived in the Kingdoms of Israel and Yehudah. Eventually, they blended into the peasant and urban populations.
After the Babylonian deportations of the Judean royal and priestly elites (circa 597-587 B.C.E.), the “People of the Land” remained in their villages and farms. They were still there when Ezra, Nehemiah and other Babylonian returnees enforced the Torah as the law of the land in the new Persian province of Yehud (circa 450-400 B.C.E.).
Jerusalem and its environs remained an ethnic melting pot for centuries. Native Judeans eventually blended with the offspring of Babylonian returnees, Samaritans, and others who, despite war and poverty, still clung to ancestral homes in the Land.
When the Hasmoneans extended their kingdom’s borders (circa 140 B.C.E.), they further stirred the ethnic pot by forcibly converting neighbors such as the Edomites (“Idumeans”) to Judaism. Herod Agrippas, a descendant of one such convert, indeed became the last professedly Jewish king of Judea under the Roman occupation (37-44 C.E.).
Finally, during the millennia that saw Roman domination yield to other rulers, the ancient Jewish community of the Land of Israel combined its genetic heritage with that of a succession of newcomers: Egyptians, Greeks, Arabs, and Turks. Especially under the Arab empires, many Jews embraced the familiar, pork-abstaining monotheism of Islam, exchanging life as a religious minority for the privileges of the Muslim religious mainstream.
By the dawn of the 19th century, the population of Ottoman Greater Syria had simmered for millennia in the rich stock of Haplogroup T2. But DNA is no match for a social reality scarred by absolute ethno-religious boundaries. The bearers of Haplogroup T2 knew themselves foremost as Ashkenazi and Sephardi Jews, diverse communities of Eastern Christians, Druze, and, of course, Sunni–Muslim Arabs.
Getting back to the first modern Palestinians, then: they were the Christians and Muslims of the Ottoman provinces of Nablus, Acre and Jerusalem who discovered “Palestinian Arab” identity in reaction to the Jewish nationalism of the early Zionist halutzim. And, nationalist ideologies of both parties aside, the Palestinians may have been genetically as “Jewish” as the Zionists themselves.
Which means, among other things, that Charla’s “Palestinian gene” gives her a leg up on her Ashkenazi husband in the “Who is a Jew?” sweepstakes!