One lazy winter morning an ad popped up in my inbox inviting me to become part of a DNA database. Curious about my ancestors, knowing only that they came from Russian and the Ukraine and were Jewish, I went ahead and sent for the 23andme DNA test kit. The kit that came in the mail included a vial to spit into along with instructions on how to return the package. A short time after sending the package back I received a message telling me that the results could be found online. When I logged onto the site and got to my personal page, the heading read, “95% Ashkenazi”. There, embedded in my bones, blood and saliva, lies the story of an ancient Ashkenazi Jewess.
Having grown up in a secular Jewish household, I learned only the basics of what it means to be a Jew. As is the case with many other American Jews, a good number of my relatives have pervasive feelings of shame about their Jewishness. Even in the melting pot of America, as late as my mother’s generation, people hid their Jewish origins in order to get better jobs. As a child, my father was chased down the street and beaten up by other children as they called him a Christ killer. Ground down by centuries of living on the outside of numerous cultures, amid constant danger, not having a land of their own since leaving Israel thousands of years ago, always unwelcome or, at best, tolerated visitors, and portrayed as coarse and miserly, has had a long range affect on the Jewish psyche. The tribe hung tight to one another in order to survive. But when we came to America, and life became easier, many members of my tribe finally gave in and acculturated, leaving “Jewishness” in the dust as we chased the American dream.
As many of you know, I have a passion for bringing Buddhist practices and wisdom into the home. I’ve wondered, at times, where did this drive come from? The DNA test led me down a new path of inquiry regarding the origins of my passion for home and the sacredness of everyday activities.
After the destruction of the temple in Israel thousands of years ago, many of the Jewish rites and rituals were taken into the home. Although the men read the Torah, take the lead in the temple, and the culture is as sexist as most other cultures, the women run the home. Much of Jewish ritual is home centered and Jewish culture is matrilineal. One is not considered Jewish unless their mother is Jewish. The woman is in charge of the rituals that create the Jewish home and family and, therefore, a significant actor in the creation of Jewish culture. Home rituals, such as weekly Sabbath, which are presided over by women, take place in homes throughout the world every week. Wanting to touch this Jewish home spirit, I researched the phrase “Jewish home” on amazon and found a book called “How to Run a Traditional Jewish Household” by Blu Greenberg. I ordered the book and began to read.
Funny, direct, clear and intelligent, this book embodies the Jewish love of words, love of family, and love of community. Blu Greenberg writes, “I have learned that one need not apologize for mixing the unmixable-devotion and humor, piety and irreverence, spirituality and a bit of spoof, faith and lapses, fidelity to practice and backsliding in intent”. She leaves nothing out-mistakes and rebellions are included in her narrative as are the details of keeping kosher in the midst of a secular society. Preparing for the Sabbath, for Passover, and for other home rituals, if done with joy and understanding, as described in this book, are clearly mindfulness practices. “…process and preparation are part of the spiritual payoff. It is not only the celebration of the Passover Seder itself; it is also the prior experience of vacuuming out pretzel crumbs from the keyholes, products of the silly game of a three and five year old the week before…In preparing for this book, I became much more sensitive to the thousand and one little actions-often mundane and barely noticeable-that create the ambiance of an Orthodox Jewish household. As is probably true of most things in life, the lines between preparation and celebration are often blurred. Or, more accurately, preparation is also celebration-of life, of spirit, of family, of community, even of the holy.”
This same spirit of experiencing the holy in mundane everyday activities has informed my homemaking, turning, what could have been tedious and irritating tasks into opportunities to become clearer, simpler, and happier. It was in my home that I discovered that joy can come from anything, even scrubbing a toilet or pacing with a cranky baby. It’s a simple truth, but it takes a lot of support and practice to apply this truth in the moment. Remembering that mindful homemaking has been a part of my ancestor’s spiritual life for thousands of years was like waking up from a dream. I did not learn mindful homemaking and parenting from Buddhism, Buddhism only reinforced what was already living in my bones. It’s in my DNA to practice mindful cleaning, to cook with the impulse to nurture, to have my home be a temple. This ancient practice is a natural segue to Buddhist mindfulness practices. They enhance one another.
We are raised in America to believe that if we don’t like our circumstances we have the power to reinvent ourselves- anything is possible. Small town girl makes good by rising from the ashes of her impoverished past is the classic American story. That we can lift ourselves out of difficult spaces, that change is constant, are certainly pieces of our human story. But there is another piece of the story, a more constant piece, which is often forgotten in our effort to change ourselves into a vision of what we wish to become. It was no surprise that my ancestors were Eastern European Jews. The surprise was that these ancestors were still alive in my body, now. Anyone can look at my saliva and meet my ancestors. These DNA results turned my sense of who I thought I was, and my perceived place in the scheme of things, on its head. As it turns out, culture is not something that can be easily discarded. Our ancestors live on in every cell of our body, which gives new meaning to the notion that we can’t escape our past.
When looking more closely at our ancestors we are apt to find something very deep and sweet that has been left for us. What story does your DNA tell? We are each descendants of the strong- the ones who endured for thousands of years, passing their DNA on through the ages. Now we are now the runners in this ancestral relay race. Maybe, like me, you will find some clues as to what special gifts have been passed down to you, gifts that you can pass down to the next generations.
In this New Year may you embrace any forgotten or left out parts of your completeness. Each story, each culture, is a beautiful and necessary piece of our human mosaic. May you celebrate your ancestors, feel a connection with all of life, and offer a fullness of spirit to the next 7 generations and remember to find joy in everyday simple moments.