Tiamat by Miriam Sagan and Isabel Winson-Sagan

Here is our most recently completed project as creative collaborators Maternal Mitochondria. It is a series of photographs Isabel and I took of each other. Text is added to the images. The muse is Tiamat, ancient Near Eastern goddess of primordial creation, goddess of where fresh water meets salt.

We had a potential gallery space for these, but the pandemic put an end to that. Interestingly, the project then grew larger. It is a paper sculpture, based on a screen.

The photographs have been altered, scratched, and collaged.

The hanging knit pieces reference the net that a god threw to catch and entrap Tiamat.

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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.

Maternal mitochondria, Izzy, & Me

Maternal mitochondria, Izzy, & Me

My daughter Isabel and I recently decided to join in the human genome project. As the young brave one, she clean swabbed the inside of her cheeks twice and and sent the cells on to Natioal Geograhic. A few weeks later, we had information about our gretest of granmothers–our very own Eve.
Our ancesstress, like all of the human race, came from Africa. She didn’t emigrate inthe first great wave of migration but rather more conservatvely waited for the second. She and her daugher’s daughters noodled around in the horn of Africa for a bit before a sojourn in the Caucus Mountains and a visit to the Near East.
Then they broke out into western Europe and stayed there–getting as far as Italy, Spain, and Ireland. No wonder I’ve always wanted to visit the Caucus Mountains! Not to mention Barcelona!
Of course this was the Pleistocene era–and before. Neanderthal still shared the earth with Homo Sapiens. This is the old stone age–although I’m sure people were recognizably that–both good and evil.
My daughter and I were so excited. I was even weepy. We felt so connected–to each other–to the past. No one else in my family cared at all. What was to get excited about? So we were from the most common western European mitochondrial group. So what? How does that help our problems today?
Maybe it doesn’t. I just love the past–that unbroken chain of women back to the common African mother of us all. And so does Isabel.We must be related.