If I am not for myself, who will be for me?
If I am only for myself, what am I?
If not now, when?
The wondrous news about Rashi, the Maharal of Prague, Hillel, and King David enlarged my reputation in the greater family. I got calls from distant cousins wanting a copy of the book. I was a genealogist now, though to be sure, the book wasn’t really a book. It was more a collection of charts, including the miraculous chart from Israel, three-hole punched and bound at Kinkos. (Smashwords had yet to be invented.)
One new-found cousin, a man named Jonas who worked for the New York Department of Records, was particularly impressed with my work. He had access to many documents. He was a Pascoe, although our exact relation, which went back to the town with the unpronounceable name, was uncertain.
Jonas sent me a cornucopia of evidence: a photograph of his grandfather sitting next to my grandfather at the meeting of the town society in 1938; the passenger manifest of the ship my grandfather took to New York; my grandfather’s death certificate; my father’s birth certificate.
Jonas was sure it was only a matter of time before we would crack the code and pinpoint our exact relationship. One day he had a brainstorm.
“Let’s send in our DNA,” he said, “And see how it matches up.”
It had been bothering me that, despite the fact that I now could trace my ancestry to Rashi, and through him to Hillel and King David, I still couldn’t penetrate the mysteries of the unpronounceable town in the Carpathian Mountains, the fount of all Pascoes. For example, I still couldn’t substantiate the old family legend that my Aunt Mary and Uncle Saul (my father’s brother) were third cousins.
My Aunt Mary, whose maiden name was Pascoe, had a nephew from her side of the family. His name was Norman Pascoe, and I had known him, through my Aunt, for many years. Presumably, we were fourth cousins.
“Let’s ask Norman for his DNA as well,” I said. “That should shed some light.”
“Brilliant,” said Jonas.
The test analyzed Y-chromosomal DNA. Y-chromosomes are passed from father to son, just like a last name. Recently, a man living in rural England was discovered to have the same Y-DNA as a 5,000-year-old man found preserved in a nearby peat bog–his direct ancestor.
Presumably, Jonas’, Norman’s, and my Y-DNA would match. The technology wasn’t precise enough to tell the exact degree of kinship–say, whether second or third or fourth cousin, but at least it would document a relation between us, and affirm the consanguinity of my aunt and uncle.
We mailed off test tubes containing tissue scraped from the inside of our mouths. We waited weeks for the laboratory results. One afternoon, Jonas called.
“It’s confirmed,” he said. “We’re all cousins! Norman and I are an exact match.”
He emailed the report. Norman and Jonas had identical Y-DNA. But mine was nothing like theirs.
“My DNA doesn’t look like it matches yours,” I said.
“Sure it does. It’s the same in two places.”
“Yeah, but not in the other places. We could just be two random guys.”
It took a day for the news to sink in. Norman and Jonas were Pascoes. I wasn’t. I might have been my father’s son, I might have even been my grandfather’s grandson, but somebody recently in my direct male line, whether through adoption, illegitimacy, or perhaps because he took his wife’s name when he married (a common practice), had the wrong Y chromosome, and wasn’t a Pascoe. That non-Pascoe Y chromosome had been passed to me.
I was devastated. Was I really Wolf’s grandson? Was I my father’s son? My parents were both gone. My sisters could shed no light.
I had one, tantalizing clue. In the year before her death, my mother and I had grown closer. We had a few long, frank talks. During one of these, she looked at me and said, “There are secrets I will take with me to my grave.”
What did she mean? She never mentioned it again. What was I going to do now? Exhume the bodies of my father and grandfather and test their Y-DNA to see if it matched mine?
“I’m a pretender,” I said to Jonas. “I’m probably not related to Hillel or the Maharal.”
Jonas laughed. But after that, we corresponded less and less, though he became close to Norman.
“Then we’re not descended from King David?” my sister said.
“You could be. I’m not. I’m illegitimate. Maybe you’re my half-sister.”
Hundreds of hours of work had come down to a few missing base pairs. I had seen, in the marvelous chart going back to the fourteenth century, the lining of the world. Except it wasn’t. Not my lining, anyway. My lining was in those missing base pairs, a little joke the universe had reserved for me.
The uncertainty surrounding paternity is why, according to the Talmud, Jewishness is matrilineal—passed down through the mother, not the father. The mother is the surer bet.
I lost my appetite for genealogy. I gathered my family’s information and tucked it away in a closet of my hard drive, where it rests today. It might as well be in the closet of the Cairo synagogue. I don’t look at it.
And now there’s Nick, who came along years later. He’s also not a Pascoe, but a wanderer such as I, with DNA gathered from the four winds.
We could be cousins.
. . .
This is the third post of a three-part series.
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Any thoughts about DNA and cosmic jokes? I invite, bestir, and exhort you to add your comment below. I always respond here.