How a DNA Test and a Dream Led Me to Judaism
I was born on Rosh HaShanah in Bethlehem, PA, and raised as a Lutheran. I spent every Sunday at Sunday school and church, where, by age 13, I could recite all the books of the Bible in order, knew most of the stories by heart, and always played Pharaoh in our annual Exodus play.
I was the only child in Sunday school who argued with the teachers. I did not believe in the concept of original sin or that a person could pray both to God and Jesus. I had to choose one, I told them – and I chose God.
My family was Slovak, but growing up, German and Slovak exchange students often commented that I didn’t have the typical round, flat Slovak face. I was also curious about our Italian last name, which meant “cloth.” I started studying Spanish at age 25 and the language felt inexplicably familiar to me – so familiar, in fact, I picked it up quickly, and was soon working as an actor on Spanish TV.
Walking down the street with friends one day, a member of a local Chabad picked me out of the group and thrust a leaflet in my face, demanding to know whether I was Jewish. Me? Huh? This encounter began to happen daily, him staring me down as I walked his way: “Are you Jewish?”
I began to think about my grandfather, who arrived from Czechoslovakia in the 1920s. In his cryptic stories about life in Europe as a Gentile, he mentioned hiding in haystacks from Cossacks, and being shot at by Catholics at village dances. After he died, we found a letter from his brother, written in 1945 from a displacement camp in Germany. It talked about the Nazis burning the village and dragging him out of his home, and putting him into a camp that was eventually liberated by the British.
I decided to have my DNA tested through Family Tree DNA using a sample of my saliva, and the results told me my haplogroup was Jewish. I finally found my surname in an Italian genealogical index: “metonymic occupational name meaning ‘cloth’ given to Sephardic cloth merchants.” In 1600, my ancestors left for Hamburg and finally ended up in 20th-century Czechoslovakia.
I hired an ancestral DNA expert to analyze my Jewish blood but, frustrated with my demands for details, he sent a curt email I will never forget: “You’re either Jewish or you’re not,” he wrote. Suddenly, I remembered that Chabad guy asking me, “Are you Jewish?” Maybe this search was as much about my faith as it was about my heritage. Maybe I really was a Jew at heart, too.
I traveled to Segovia, Spain, where cloth merchants lived before 1492, and stayed in the Jewish Quarter. While there, I had a dream about my grandfather, who was sitting at a table with me and two silver candlesticks, communicating without speaking; he told me he wasn’t happy I had discovered our Jewish heritage but was proud of my detective skills. Suddenly, the most beautiful book I’d ever seen appeared on the table – it looked like a Talmudic volume covered in red velvet and gold embroidery – and when he cracked it open, music and colors and light arose. As I reached to open it fully, my grandfather snapped the book shut, laughing, and said that although the book had all the answers, he wasn’t just going to hand it over. I had to keep wrestling.
I began to search for a congregation, ultimately choosing Temple Israel of Greater Miami – without even knowing that the synagogue’s interior columns are exact replicas of those in the Santa Maria la Blanca Synagogue of Toledo, Spain. I was home.
As the rabbi helped me define my personal and spiritual journey during our private meetings, my participation in a local Introduction to Judaism class provided the pillars I needed to shape my belief system. The class served as an updated version of the red velvet book I touched in the dream. My fellow students came from various faith traditions and backgrounds; all of our questions were encouraged, and our discussions were robust. Our instructors helped us explore a range of topics, including Shabbat, Jewish holidays, lifecycle events, prayer, Torah, Israel, the Holocaust, and much more. No ritual dogma was forced down our throats. They explained and interpreted concepts in a manner that was appropriate and relative to the beautiful modern world, created by God, that I found myself in.
My world is much different from my grandfather’s world of war-torn Europe and his ancestors’ chaotic world of 1492 Spain, represented by the beautiful old dusty book. Maybe that’s why he shut it on my fingers – or maybe he wanted to show me not to try to do it all on my own. Find your tribe, join “the People of the Book,” and find your neshama – your Jewish soul.
Jeff Stoffa is an account development executive for Akamai Technologies and worked in a comic role on Spanish television. He lives in Miami, FL, and is a member of Temple Israel of Greater Miami, where he participates in Shabbat services and directed the Purim spiel. He also teaches Latin dancing and lectures on how to search your family tree using document research and DNA research sites.
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