Who Am I? Jewish Identity and 30,000 Years of Maternal Mitochondria

I’m in a little group of Jewish women that has been discussing identity.

Who am I?

My name is Miriam. Mir means bitter, bitterness, rebellious people. Miriam is associated with water, a well that follows the Jewish people. If my name were New Mexican, it might translate as bitterwater. My father’s name was Eli. Actually, on his birth certificate, Elias. Our last name is ostensibly Sagan, although we think my grandfather changed it at Ellis Island to match his brother-in-law’s name. My Hebrew name is Miriam bat Eli.
My father was a Levite, from the tribe of Levy. Sagan is a Levite name, meaning lieutenant or helper to the high priest. I’m a Jew through my mother; my tribal affiliation is through my father. My mother’s father was also a Levite, but in orthodox circles you can’t claim that through your mother.
My maternal mitochondria is 30,000 years old. Swabbed from my daughter’s cheek and sent to National Geographic. My foremothers were on the second great migration out of Africa. Into western Europe—what is now Spain. My mitochondria is the most common European type.
My mother’s family was in Spain, expelled in 1492. My four grandparents were Ukranian Jews. My paternal grandmother, aged 13, said she’d kill herself, drown herself in the mill pond, if she couldn’t go to America. She was smuggled across the borderlands of the Austrio-Hungarian Empire buried in a sausage cart. My maternal grandmother was in a pogrom. Men on horseback killed the child standing next to her. She came to Boston.
I carry their ambition and their fear.
My father had a hand disease that the specialist told him was from the gene pool of the Arctic. He asked my father if he was a Cossack. My father was appalled, and said, “No, I’m a Jew!”
My pretty face, my sometimes green eyes, the way I look in a kerchief…these things come to me from rape. I look European by means of the Viking Rus and the marauding Cossacks.
When I was growing up, Jews were not white. In the 1950’s and 1960’s in New Jersey we could not buy houses in certain neighborhoods, join country clubs, and swim in certain swimming pools. We could not attend elite dancing school or presumably date non-Jews.This was a lot better than running from horsemen, but it was still being an outsider.
When I came to New Mexico thirty years ago I became an Anglo. In general, assimilated American Jews now seem little different than “white” people in general. My daughter married into an Irish family. All my nephews have non-Jewish partners. My genes are now in the giant millennial free to be you and me pool. Where perhaps they have always been.