by Gloria DeVidas Kirchheimer
WHAT’S WRONG WITH THIS PICTURE? A 50-year-old man walks around his patio in San Mateo wearing a fez. Well, you say, Sikhs wear turbans and some Muslims wear embroidered caps. So what’s wrong with a fez?
My cousin Steve is an American-born Sephardic Jewish telemarketer. Maybe the fez gives him courage when he makes his calls, interrupting decent citizens at their dinner. Though he’s not rehearsing for a play, Steve sees himself as an actor in our grand family drama. He considers himself an incarnation of the Spanish Jews who served the kings of Spain in medieval times, before we were expelled from our homeland by the Spanish Inquisition. My cousin’s fez represents our 400-year sojourn in the Ottoman Empire where we were given refuge after our expulsion. His most important incarnation, however, is that of direct descendant of Christopher Columbus.
Along with the cultural mores of our people and a calm religiosity (it’s OK to travel on the Sabbath to get to synagogue) coupled with fabulous food and music, many Sephardic Jews and some scholars believe that Columbus was one of us — “de los muestros,” really a Jew who converted to avoid the Inquisition. This is why my cousin surrounds himself with books, maps and memorabilia about the great Navigator.
My family has always suffered from delusions of grandeur, aided and abetted by their employment in the motion picture industry, the administrative and technical side (my dad and Steve’s and all the other uncles) and their fixation on our genealogy.
And for you history buffs, when we read that Thomas Jefferson had a chromosome associated with Sephardic ancestors, the brouhaha over Sally Hemings is laughable. But seriously, does the fact that I’m the daughter of a woman who was born in Alexandria entitle me to consider myself a descendant of Cleopatra? Me, a stooped 60-year-old divorcée? Do you see me walking around Manhattan with an asp in my backpack?
THE RUCKUS BEGAN with Steve’s daughter Amy, my first cousin once removed. From what? I always wondered. It’s true that I live 3,000 miles away from her and her family. She had a school assignment to construct a family tree. Back in the day, in order to do that you needed a big piece of paper, a ruler and a steady hand to draw the various boxes, and a neat handwriting so you could write in all the begats. Now computer programs do everything for you short of filling in names and dates.
By the end of the project, for which Amy received an A from her sixth-grade teacher, my cousin and I were barely on speaking terms. Despite my painstaking research through family records — citizenship papers, rabbinical certificates, and descriptions on the backs of curling pre-digital photographs — the family tree was riddled with mistakes. For example, Steve lists our grandfather as the chief rabbi of Asia Minor and counselor to the “emperor” of Turkey. Wrong, wrong… Our grandfather was simply a teacher, often called “rabbi” as a mark of respect. Also, Steve, there is no such thing as the “emperor” of Turkey. Where did he get his information? From a barely literate friend of the family who ran a prosperous olive oil business. “The man eats with his fingers,” was how my father once described him. This friend “wrote” and self-published a book purporting to be a history of the Sephardic Jews in Turkey. How could I accept this garbage? In the most diplomatic language I wrote to Steve and told him he was full of crap, citing chapter and verse from my own sources. (And no, Steve, despite what your chart says, I didn’t go to Columbia, I went to NYU.)
But a lot of kilobytes have been consumed and future historians will have only erroneous information which they will cite as gospel. Once something appears in Wikipedia or on someone’s blog, it’s virtually etched in stone unless someone has the time and patience to make corrections. Thus our family tree has added to the decay of our civilization. Or the family tree was decayed to begin with. Whatever.
Look, folks: Steve’s greatest accomplishment was a Passover game he devised based on “Monopoly,” called “Exodus from Egypt.” You risked drowning in the Red Sea if you got an unlucky roll of the dice. If you landed on a square representing one of the Ten Plagues, you were sent back a few spaces. “Do not pass Goshen,” read one of the cards, which meant that you never got to the desert and were deprived of the pleasure of eating matzahs and drinking sweet Manischewitz wine. Steve never had any luck selling the game.
Now he has come up with the notion that DNA tests will establish once and for all our connection to Columbus. As though no one else in the world is laying claim to Columbus’ ancestry. From Genoa to Madagascar people are having their cheeks swabbed, anyone whose name resembles “Columbus,” like “Colon,” “Colombo,” and even “Columbine.” Steve has sent out a call to everyone in our family for a “Public Subscription,” as he terms it, to pay for DNA testing which will establish incontrovertibly our direct lineage from CC. Steve is offering himself as a guinea pig. He will bravely submit to the swab on the inside of his cheek. Where he lives, in San Mateo, California, there are several companies that conduct this kind of research. There are even some do-It-yourself kits, real cheap, available at the local box stores like Costco and Walmart, as well as at the health food coop, and even the gift shop at the medical center. But he wonders how reliable the results are. The cost of going to a bonafide lab is high, not to speak of the expense of coordinating his DNA tests with those being conducted around the world. Hence his appeal for funds.
“I’m a non-profit,” he said in the mailing to all his relatives, which he conveniently combined with his annual holiday letter, printed in the smallest font possible and stretching from margin to margin, the page framed by holly leaves. First he told us about his new dog and his wife’s foot surgery. Then we read about a visit by Mitch, Susan, Dee and Larry and all their wonderful children and their trip to Crater Lake with Joan and Ted and their adorable infant and the state of the garden and the leak in the garage roof, and on and on. I didn’t recognize a single name.
“SO, STEVE,” I said when I phoned him after the holidays. “How much did you raise?” I had sent him $100 to make amends and show my good faith. There was no point in further berating him about that ridiculous family tree.
“I can’t understand it,” he said. “You’d think our family would show more interest. Everyone loved the family tree,” Hello — did you forget my reaction? — “but that only went back to 1800. I am not discouraged.” He quoted an old Sephardic proverb to the effect that one door closes and another opens (what else is new?). He had found a temporary solution: he’d buy one of those DIY kits, just as a preliminary test. I pictured him walking around his patio, wearing that fez which actually belonged to our grandfather, and poking swabs inside his cheek, scraping a little too much flesh and complaining about the pain. His manual dexterity was never any good.
He bought three kits from three different companies to see if the results would be consistent. The first company found that he was closely related to Martin Van Buren, the eighth president of the United States. The second tied his DNA to that of a tribe in Bora Bora, and the third stated that his bloodline showed a direct tie to the Acoma Pueblo tribe of New Mexico.
“That one’s not so far-fetched,” he said. “Maybe some of our ancestors went to the New World after leaving Spain.”
“Maybe they mixed up your swabs with someone else’s. Or they put you in the wrong haplogroup,” I said throwing out a term I had spotted on a website though I had no idea what it meant. “Or the helix was upside down.” I thought he’d hang up on me but he said, “You may be right. Or maybe it was that damn toothbrush I used instead of the swab.”
The description for this particular kit said: “The sensation of using our scraper is like brushing your inside cheek with your toothbrush.” Steve had apparently first applied the toothbrush to his cheek so he’d understand the process and become familiar with the sensation. Somehow, what he scraped off with the toothbrush found its way into the test vial. Maybe the wintergreen residue contributed to the false reading.
Who is processing these vials after all? Do we know? Maybe there’s an assembly line in some illegal workplace hidden away in Mexico or China, with poor women and children working for a pittance, juggling those little tubes all day long. Tubes can easily roll off a counter and end up mislaid and mislabeled.
The report that connected Steve to the tribe in Bora Bora suggested that since he was really not Caucasian, he or his progeny might qualify for minority scholarships and/or affirmative action.
Truth is, he once tried for preferential treatment when he applied to a community college, claiming that he fell within the guidelines for Latino ethnicity on the basis of his Spanish ancestry. When he was denied admission, he threatened to file a reverse discrimination suit but was talked out of it by a lawyer.
I FLEW TO CALIFORNIA ON A VISIT. It was Amy’s birthday, she of the genealogy project. Whenever I go to California and read the Spanish street names, I feel even closer to our Spanish ancestry than I do in New York, despite our large Hispanic population. After all, some of us still speak our own form of Spanish — Ladino — which is basically 15th century Castilian with sprinklings from languages like Turkish, Greek, Arabic and others, depending on where our people ended up after 1492.
Steve drove me around Marin County, one of the most beautiful places on earth. “Don’t I have a terrific sense of direction?” he asked. I knew where he was going with this.
“Are you saying that your sense of direction is in your genes, handed down from the old Navigator himself?”
“He didn’t need a GPS system,” Steve said proudly, “and neither do I.” He showed me the masking tape covering the GPS display on the dashboard. I suspect it was because he didn’t know how to read it. And surely he couldn’t read the intricate DNA diagram he received from one company (the Bora Bora connection), with its numbers and symbols and intertwining strands intersected by vertical bars, which he had enlarged, framed, and mounted over his faux fireplace. “It’s a work of art,” he said, entranced by the colors — red, green, blue — and the wavy lines.
I feared for my cousin’s sanity. His wife couldn’t care less about her husband’s obsession. Why should she, she wasn’t “one of us,” but rather a product of Eastern European Jewry by way of Wilshire Boulevard. As the eldest among all the cousins, I considered it my obligation to straighten out this poor deluded man.
Always a few steps behind, Steve had failed to catch the latest reports about CC’s origins. His birthplace was up for grabs: Catalonia, Italy, Portugal, North Africa… Even his burial place was being contested. Spain and the Dominican Republic were fighting over the bones.
The latest theory claimed that Columbus was really the son of an exiled Polish king, Vladislav III and a Portuguese noblewoman. I sent Steve all the information I had gathered, but rather than being daunted by it, he was exultant. He sent me two pictures, one purporting to be a portrait of Columbus and one of himself, side by side. “Look,” he wrote. “We both have red hair and blue eyes and fair skin — you know I can’t be in the sun too long. Now I have to wait for the DNA from the Krakow cathedral where Vladislav II is buried. He could be Columbus’ grandfather.”
No, that was unacceptable. Why should he be claimed by the Poles? Didn’t Columbus’s notebooks mean anything with their scribbled Hebrew symbols and dates in the margins? Like they say, knowledge is power, and based on what I learned I was willing to concede that maybe Steve was on to something.
I WAS ALMOST DISAPPPOINTED when I didn’t hear from him for a month. Then I got a Fedex package from him. It was a board game, called “The Columbus Gene” (for two to six players). Everything we had talked about, all the bits of information, had found their way to the game board. Like his earlier unsuccessful “Exodus from Egypt” game, this one was loosely based on “Monopoly.” There were colored squares, cards, game pieces and dice. His instructions, badly misspelled, I am sorry to say, described what would happen after you rolled the dice. If you got two dots, you moved your piece to the box marked Genoa, where you could purchase a palazzo. Five sent you to Shipwreck, seven to Mutiny, 10 moved you back a few spaces to the Spanish Court where you could buy a piece of the Escorial. Eight had you — bizarre — marching in the Columbus Day Parade in New York City. The jackpot was rolling 12 with the dice, which sent you all around the board to the gorgeous DNA diagram.
Steve was planning to come to New York to market it at the annual Toy Fair at the Javits Convention Center. Any ideas I might have for improvements would be welcome.
“Sure,” I wrote. “How about adding a box for King Vladislav III, that Polish king? Anybody lands there, they’re cast adrift in a lifeboat with no provisions.” I was really getting into it. “Better yet, how about a box called Auto-da-Fé. You know, a pyre and flames shooting up, that sort of thing.”
“Genius!” Steve answered. “We could be partners on this. Split the proceeds. Seriously!”
Why not? I thought. For once, he might have hit upon a great idea. Columbus Day was half a year away. Timing is all. I felt I had a personal stake in this. That DNA connection still seemed far-fetched but I was willing to go along with it. I called my lawyer to ask about contracts, the kind you need when you become a business partner.
Gloria DeVidas Kirchheimer is the author of a novel, Amalie in Orbit, and a story collection, Goodbye, Evil Eye, a finalist for the National Jewish Book Awards. Her stories have been published in The Antioch Review, Arts & Letters, Kansas Quarterly, New Letters, North American Review, Lilith, Persimmon Tree, and other magazines, and broadcast over National Public Radio (“Selected Shorts” and “Hanukkah Lights”). Her work is included in several anthologies, among them Sephardic American Voices, With Signs and Wonders, The Lost Tribe, Robert Olen Butler Prize Stories, and Shaking Eve’s Tree. Her essay “Out of Smyrna,” in Perceptive Travel, received a Solas award for best travel writing. Other nonfiction appears in Women’s International Perspective (WIP), and The Yale Journal for the Humanities in Medicine. She is also co-author of a nonfiction book, We Were So Beloved: Autobiography of a German Jewish Community. Under the name Gloria Levy, she made one of the earliest recordings of Sephardic folk songs (Folkways/Smithsonian). Visit her website: gkirchheimer.com.