Dani Shapiro’s Inheritance: Full of Grace, Suspenseful, Resonant
Two years ago, 23andMe informed me that I was fully, shockingly, 26.1% Ashkenazim Jewish. One-quarter. I had a Jewish grandparent.
My personal story of discovering that I wasn’t who I thought I was, because my father wasn’t who he thought he was, and perhaps that was the reason he was a damaged and destructive man, tagged along with me like a little dog wagging its tail when I picked up Dani Shapiro’s memoir Inheritance.
Standing in the book store with my husband and daughter browsing nearby, I fell headlong into Shapiro’s gorgeous prose and mastery of story. I brought home Inheritance and devoured it.
It was wrenching, stimulating, provocative. Shapiro, raised Orthodox Jewish, discovered from her DNA test that her biological father was someone other than the dad who had raised her. She was only half-Jewish. She sussed out quickly, through an unknown first cousin DNA match, who her father was: a young medical student donating sperm at a dubious fertility clinic in Philadelphia at the time Shapiro was conceived.
It led Shapiro to re-examine her whole life, her family dynamics, her very appearance and mannerisms. Who was she if she wasn’t Paul Shapiro’s daughter? This question was an arrow that struck to the inner sanctum of her being.
For me, a dozen years before 23andMe quantified my ethnicity, FamilyTreeDNA showed so many mtDNA Ancestral Origins results in the Ukraine, Russia, and Poland labeled ‘Ashkenazi’ that I phoned support. There was a mistake. My people were Scotch-Irish, English, German, French, and Cherokee. I said, “I don’t understand my results.”
The service rep said brightly, “Oh, you’re Jewish.”
Yes, I had chosen to be, but who knew?
I filed away the information as unbalanced and subject to change. Some forebear married a Jew; only those relatives participated in the database. Such are the machinations we use to contain order in the construction of our lives.
Shapiro writes of her blonde, milky-skinned looks inviting constant challenges to her ethnicity. The poet Mark Strand sat across from her at a writer’s dinner, perused her face, and stated with the drumbeat of absolute conviction, “You are not Jewish.”
Shapiro spent a lifetime fighting to keep the mooring lines of her Jewishness tied to her perceived background, responding to such statements with a recitation of her upbringing: she spoke fluent Hebrew in her childhood, she attended yeshiva.
It was almost the reverse for me. In my twenties, I was an impecunious shiksa who converted and married into a closely-knit, wealthy Jewish family. They were observant Conservative Jews. I kept a kosher home while I was married to my former husband.
Judaism is beautiful to me: the rituals and prayers, the holidays and the love of book and text, the piercing, inconsolable sweetness of Kol Nidre and the rambunctious story-telling of the extended family seder. I was happy to choose to be Jewish. I went into the mikvah with joy and seriousness as the twin pillars of my heart. My soul was at Sinai for the revelation of the Torah.
I wrote about the mindfulness of my choice for the conversion ceremony. One observer, Rabbi Greengrass with Auschwitz’s numbers scrolling across his arm, listened to my essay on becoming Jewish and asked, “Did you write it yourself?”
He had retained his Yiddishkeit accent from the shtetl. Knowing what I know now, that my grandfather’s grandmother Esther Polosky came from Poland in the 1890s, I wonder, were Rabbi Greengrass and I distantly related?
Research has revealed that one of my great-grandfather’s cousins was marched into the gas chamber at Auschwitz. Others were driven into a pit at Babi Yar.
At the time, I did not know that I was returning to my roots. I simply smiled at Rabbi Greengrass. Yes, I assured him. I wrote it myself.
Traditionally converts have an exalted status. In my experience, other Jews seldom accepted me as Jewish. My former in-laws are a generous people, but they assigned me second class citizenship within the family, a position for which I was supposed to be grateful because of my humble origins.
I had met my former husband at Yale, so at least I was a functioning uterus with an Ivy League diploma. Translated, that meant the grand-kids were likely to be intelligent.
Shapiro recounts a bizarre experience of being photographed for a Christmas advertisement as a child. The episode grew prickly new thorns of meaning for her as she explored a reality in which her mother, a difficult woman, knew all along that Dani was other, a fundamental misfit in the Orthodox world in which she was raised.
This exploration is where Shapiro shines as an author. Her inquiry into the nature of identity is luminous and suspenseful. It isn’t just the hauntingly beautiful language of her search, it’s the heart-felt accretion of wonderment, scrutiny, analysis. Inheritance is a quest story, a hero’s journey. Shapiro has left the ordinary world for an underworld of unknowing. I think Joseph Campbell would have seen its mythical dimension.
I too experienced sharp departures from my expected trajectory. There was no reason I should have been able to attend Yale, let alone be accepted when I was sixteen-years-old and a junior in high school. (And no, I never checked the Native American box on any application form.)
My mother Jo was a teen-aged high school drop-out when I was born, my father Jim a twenty-year-old sailor in Navy submarine school. Jo’s mother Lorine, my cherished Granny Bee, dragged her kids from farm to farm in the deep South, picking crops in season: cotton, tobacco, muskmelon. She had a third-grade education but more spirit and grit than most Ph.D.’s I’ve met. She had to have, because the life of an itinerant farm worker consists of drudgery, poverty, and insecurity.
Jo’s father Robert, the first of Lorine’s five husbands, died a vagrant in jail.
Jim’s mother Jenny Maxine was functionally illiterate, an Arkansas farm girl who married at fourteen and then migrated to Michigan when her husband Dallas sought work in the automobile industry. In her youth, Jenny Maxine was a shapely brunette beauty.
Dallas I never liked. He was an obese, chain-smoking alcoholic. Worse, he was dim.
I remember being very little and looking at him with the sheen of whiskey-fume oil covering his puffy freckled face. I thought, “You are not related to me.” It was visceral. It was the kind of bone-scored knowing, like scrimshaw etched into living tissue, that little kids embody that reasonable people — adults — discount.
When Dallas dropped dead of a heart attack, I was unmoved. My mother and sister scolded me for my lack of interest. They continually found fault with me; kindness was not the hallmark of my childhood. To this day, they will sneer, “You know how Traci is.”
Differentness is an uneasy skin to inhabit.
At the time, I replied, “He was morbidly obese, he smoked three packs a day, and he drank alcohol from the time he woke up in the morning. Aren’t you surprised he lasted this long?”
Then there was Dallas’ character. He was reputed to have stolen money from the union. It wasn’t proven so he wasn’t killed, but he never worked the same way. Instead, he gave his six-year-old second son to a childless, well-to-do farmer to raise. In return, the farmer promised to take care of Jenny Maxine and Dallas.
People whispered that the farmer was in love with Jenny Maxine.
That second son was my father Jim. He called himself the black sheep of the family and enlisted in the Navy as soon as he graduated high school. He looked nothing like his parents or siblings — except that he inherited Jenny Maxine’s straight shiksa nose. He was small and lean and fair, with even, symmetrical features, cold blue eyes under thick black brows, and kinky iron-gray hair. That was his hair color: iron-gray, from the time he was a boy. He kept it short to prevent the spring-wound curls from taking over. No one else in his family had hair like that.
Jim was athletic, brilliant, and sharply analytical; he read voraciously; he had low-brow grammar and a chip on his shoulder about college-educated Naval officers. His most striking characteristics were his alcoholism, his explosive, two-fisted rage, and his inability to connect with other human beings.
I describe him as a mixture of Solomon and Goliath. That’s a positive handle for a sociopath.
My mother claims Jim never bonded with anyone in his life. I barely spoke to him after I was seventeen, when I left for college and my parents divorced under sad and shameful circumstances.
I was thirty-two when Jim died of lung cancer. I grieved not for him, but for the daddy I would never have — for the empty space in the little girl who had longed for a father to adore, a father who treasured her in return. It’s been a life’s work to peer into that void regularly so that it never becomes a bottomless abyss. That’s the commitment to staying on my edge.
My former husband accompanied me to morning minyan so I could say kaddish for Jim. Surely Jim was on the other side of the veil jeering at me; that was his nature. But kaddish is a gift to the living, the way sacredness is.
When I first received the DNA results, I feared a switch in the hospital. But my mother also spat into a vial. 23andMe confirmed that she was, indeed, my mother. Notably, she had 0% Ashkenazi Jewish ethnicity.
I sent away for an Ancestry kit as a check. Ancestry calculated my ethnicity at 28% European Jewish.
Then I was on a mission to find my Jewish roots: to find Jim’s Jewish roots. To perhaps understand how my father’s sense of otherness had wrought him in the image of a monster incapable of love or empathy.
It was a year-long trek through second cousins scattered from Toledo to Portland, through the archives of Paris and redacted U.S. State Department records, and into a closed German-speaking Facebook group for a little town in Hesse, Germany. Who emerged like the apocryphal wanderer was a Jewish soldier named Melvin Weisberg.
Twenty-four-year-old Melvin had a fling with twenty-two-year-old Jenny Maxine, both of them married to other people; Dallas and Melvin appear to have worked for the same automotive company. I imagine a company picnic and two good-looking young people who had met each other before.
Soon after, Melvin shipped out overseas for the second wave of D-day. He never returned to the states but stayed abroad after the war, playing poker and selling Encyclopedia Britannica. He sired at least two families, one in Paris and one in Germany.
I located a half-uncle in Germany whom I quite like. Testing confirmed Melvin connects us. We share over a thousand centiMorgans of DNA.
My half-uncle and I phoned Weisberg’s in Paris, where Melvin married Marie-Louise Salaneuve in the 8th arrondissement in 1947 and then was the proprietor of a bar. The French Weisberg’s hung up on us. It’s understandable. Melvin, who seems to have bequeathed to my father Jim his emotional coldness, walked out on their family.
People are ambivalent, sometimes hostile, to the life-altering results of DNA tests. Shapiro’s biological father sent her a letter severing their communication. Happily, he reconsidered. Shapiro is developing textured relationships with her father, his wife, and her half-sister. These relationships enrich her life.
Nothing in this world is free or entitled, perhaps even our identity in the time of DNA testing. Even so the riches of relationship bear a price tag. Is the loss of blind trust in the gospel according to our family a fair price to pay? Or is it that there are now more opportunities for us to engage in our individual hero’s journey through the shadowy byways of time and lineage?