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Jewish Journal

Mystery Mother of Long Ago

by Eileen Douglas

May 4, 2010 | 7:12 pm

The author's great-great grandmother.

The author's great-great grandmother.

I wonder who she was.

My “Common Female Ancestor,” as she was called in the write-up that came with the results of the DNA test I took. We all have one, this mother from another time, or we would not be here today.

I never thought about her before. A real woman. My mother’s mother’s mother’s mother, and so on and so forth, so far back into time that the string of mothers fades away into a vanished world. Like many others today, I was simply trying to discover my deepest roots with a genetic test that promised to unlock my “ancestral past.” 

Women can test their female line only. And when I scraped my cheek and sent the tubes back to the lab, all I was thinking was, “Who are the people I come from? Where on the face of the Earth did they once live?”

Eventually, back came the report, tracing the route from Eve — the first mother from whom all humans now walking the planet descended, a woman who lived 60,000 years ago — out of Africa, in a line passing through what is now Israel, looping around the Black Sea and into Europe, ending finally in what looks on the map to be Romania, where my grandmother Rose Nadler was born in 1892. A journey of 60,000 years ending in the land where the women of my family lived for generations.

I thought that was pretty remarkable.

To see where I came from and how I got there, so clearly laid out and depositing me exactly where family history said it should. I would have been happy with that alone.

But that was not the end of what the DNA lab offered:

Would you like to post your results and contact information on our Web site? In case others with similar results would like to know about you? And would you please tell us what country your longest-ago known female ancestor came from?

Sure. Why not?

And so I did.

Soon e-mails began popping up, telling me another contact had been added to a list of genetic cousins, others who had taken the test and shared with me — for the first time I had ever heard the term or thought to think of the concept — a Common Female Ancestor. One woman to whom we could all trace our lives.

At first the list threw me. I had expected to find on it one Jewish name after the other. People named Steinberg and Goldman. But that was not the case. Yes, we had an occasional Cantor or Cohen. But many more with last names like Roberts, Baker, Kirkpatrick and Walker. And when you looked at the column showing where each person’s earliest traceable grandmother or great-grandmother had lived, instead of Romania or anywhere else in Eastern Europe, the biggest number came from places I would have sworn I had no connection with: England, Scotland, Ireland, Germany, with a smattering of France. Naturally, this raised all kinds of questions I hadn’t expected to ponder. As with African Americans who discover they are half-Northern European, or people in Nebraska named Smith who discover they are descended from Genghis Khan, I began to think about this woman, this mystery mother, the Common Female Ancestor for all of us on this long, growing list, which now stretched to more than 500 people.

Was she Jewish? For me to be Jewish today in a line of mothers and daughters that I know to have been Jewish for centuries, did this woman marry in? Or, if I have genetic relatives who are not Jewish, did someone who was Jewish marry out? And when? Eventually, I would come to know the likely answer to my question. And it would seem to be a history many of us share.

As the FAQs for the list explained, the Common Female Ancestor in this case might have lived a couple of thousand years ago. (In fact, one out of three people now living in Europe have my kind of DNA. And so do many American Jews, but more about that later. That’s millions of genetic cousins throughout Europe, and clearly not all of them are Jewish.) This is a woman who lived, perhaps, in the time of the Roman Empire.

The author

Then a second, much shorter list — still today with only a dozen people on it — began to form, all of them matches the lab said were even closer genetic family. And, lo and behold, everyone here was Jewish. Men and women named Kuznets and Feinberg, Friedman and Haskvitz, with roots in places like Ukraine,  Russia, Austria, even several from towns a stone’s throw from my grandmother’s in Romania. Like pieces of a family puzzle reassembling itself after generations, from a point in the chain of life not as far away as the distant cousins of what we’ll call the Big List, we few on what I’ll call the Short List share a mother much nearer in time. More than likely a Jewish woman.

This is the woman I now began to try to imagine.

Who was she? What did she look like? What was her life like? Where did she live? How did she live?

If I met her, what would I ask her? What would I tell her?

Try as I might, though, there was no true picture in my head.

Many years ago, when my grandmother was already 90-something, I was rummaging through her sideboard drawers and came across a stash of photographs tucked in with her linens.

Among them was a sepia photo of a very old woman, dressed in peasantlike clothes, a scarf around her head, three children at her side. This photo sits on my desk as I write. On the back, in pencil, I have scribbled my grandmother’s cryptic remarks from that day: “Grandma Rose Nadler’s grandma, died age 95.” Her name may have been Frommeh, if I read my scrawls correctly. And the photo was taken in Romania, by a photographer from Bucharest, though not in a studio, as the stone-pocked dirt road at the old woman’s feet suggests.

The stash of Old World photographs, to my shock and amazement, also included well-dressed men and women in fine clothes, even a fur coat, standing in what clearly was a beautiful city, not a poor shtetl. And, although the peasant-looking woman is of the life I imagined myself to have come from, the other photographs, which so surprised me, set me off on a search.

What is the name of this city? I asked my grandmother, who identified my late grandfather’s mother and father, brothers and sisters in these photographs of well-dressed people. The city was named Kovno, she said. A city in Lithuania, now called Kaunas, which I had never heard of. Once the Iron Curtain fell, I made my way there, even making a film called “My Grandfather’s House” as I searched to put back the pieces of lost memory. I sat with my daughter on a bench in the Jewish Quarter around the corner from my grandfather Sam’s childhood house, on a cobblestone street my great-grandmother Chaya must have walked many a day.

Today, I sometimes imagine myself sitting down next to her on that bench and saying to her, “I am your child. I wear your name. The 16-year-old boy you sent off to America and never saw again was my grandfather.” In my smattering of Yiddish I would tell her, “Ich bin dayn zun Shulem’s tuchter’s tuchter.” I imagine she would hug me and weep, and we would be beloved to each other as we shared stories: She would tell me about the son she knew only as a young man; I would tell her about his later life as my grandfather.  I can see this scene in my mind’s eye because I have Chaya’s photographs.

But this woman from my mother’s mother’s side, who is Common Female Ancestor to my long-lost fellow Short List cousins — when I think of her, at first, all I can imagine is the sepia, peasant-looking, very old woman with the scarf around her head. My grandmother’s grandmother, whose first name may be Frommeh and whose last name I do not know. Rather than approaching her to sit together on a bench, instead I imagine myself standing at the edge of a shtetl, observing from the sidelines the mystery mother of long ago, only looking on as she goes about her day, watching her feed the chickens in the yard of her rickety wooden house, lighting her stove, looking like my grandmother’s grandmother, the old lady in the picture.

Then, of course, I could be wrong, very wrong. Perhaps she was young. A young mother. Maybe not more than a teenager. In a new vision, I see her teaching her little daughter how to cook and sew. I imagine them being close, but again, who knows, perhaps I romanticize. Mother and daughter, did they get along? Then I think, perhaps she never knew her daughter at all. Never grew old. For all I know, perhaps she had her baby girl and died in childbirth. Perhaps. Perhaps. Who knows?

As it turns out, Bennett Greenspan, founder and president of Family Tree DNA, where my testing was done, can tell me more. Looking at my DNA results combined with his knowledge of Jewish history — he explains, with a few caveats on how he can only speculate — the math says there is a 50 percent chance this woman, the Common Female Ancestor from my Short List, in his opinion a Jewish woman, lived sometime in the last 28 generations, less than 700 years ago. Something like 500 or 600 years ago. Going further, he imagines she lived after the time of the Black Death, which peaked between 1348 and 1350, since by the end of the plague historians calculate there were only roughly 25,000 Jews left in all of Europe.

He imagines my mystery woman, from sometime in or after the late 1300s, probably lived in the embryonic Jewish community of Prague or Southern Germany’s Saxony. Triangulating where my Short List genetic cousins come from in a corridor through Eastern Europe that stretches from Lithuania to the Black Sea — that makes sense to me, to put her in the middle. Her descendants spreading out from the center, some going west, some going east.

“I see her in a shtetl,” I tell him.

“This is before shtetls,” he tells me.

Sure enough, shortly after, I read in a book on Jewish life in the Middle Ages that most Jews lived in towns, or were exiled outside of towns. I have never been to the towns of Saxony, but I have walked the streets of Prague, had my picture taken in front of the Altneushul, which would have been standing when this woman I seek lived. Walking through the crowded Jewish cemetery in Prague even then, I felt I might be walking past the bones of an ancestor. Now I have more reason to wonder, was I?

At least, with this knowledge, I begin to see her more clearly.

Turning to the Big List matches, the one with the more distant genetic cousins, Greenspan cautions that it would be wild speculation to say where the woman who was Common Female Ancestor for the Big List lived, though clearly somewhere in Europe. He says the DNA matches “do tell a story”: The odds of history are that she lived in the third century or before, as the practice was for Jewish men to take local women, non-Jewish wives, and convert them, a practice the Roman authorities eventually put to an end. Since conversions were outlawed in the third century, she may have lived as long ago as the first or second century C.E. And she would have been one woman, alone, who split off to begin a Jewish line, while the rest of her family’s descendants became Brits and Germans with names like Kirkpatrick, Potter and Mueller on my list of distant genetic relations.

As I can only test my female predecessors’  line, for all I know the Jewish husband in question back in those Roman days may have descended in a line straight from Moses or Abraham. But my female DNA is European DNA. As Greenspan puts it, “This is not Middle Eastern DNA.” Adding, and here’s the crucial point: “And 40 to 50 percent of American Jews have this DNA.”

So someone in Roman times, somewhere in Europe, married a Jewish guy and for a thousand years, down through centuries of turmoil and trouble, their daughter’s daughter’s daughters — and sons — remained Jewish, reaching the common female ancestor we know about who lived in Prague or Saxony, and on still, down through centuries more, each having a Jewish daughter who survived to become a mother, until today, where, through the scrape of a cheek, a Jewish doctor in Houston, a journalist in New York, an author in Arizona, a lawyer in Denver, a librarian in California learn somehow back in late 1300s Prague or Saxony we all had the same mother.

A woman who does not know we come from her.

A woman who, if I sat with her on a bench, might, I hope, hug me and want to hear stories of my life.

As I would certainly want to hear stories of hers.

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