I am often asked what my ethnicity is. My skin is olive and my hair is dark, leading most people to assume I’m Italian or Portuguese; but my last name (Kaletsky) is clearly Eastern European—Russian to be specific. My family comes from Russia and Poland, mostly, but I have never considered myself Russian or Polish. I didn’t grow up eating pirogues, and I don’t speak a lick of Russian beyond what I learned in the cartoon-movie Anastasia. Instead, when asked what my ethnicity is, I simply say, “Jewish.” But is it in my DNA?
My answer to the ethnicity question is sometimes, well, questioned. Some responses include “Judaism is a religion, not a culture,” or “if your family is from Russia, you are Russian.” It’s a complicated issue with a complicated bunch of answers, which now include a new book by Harry Ostrer entitled Legacy. Ostrer’s book discusses, in detail, the genetics of the Jewish people, raising questions such as “are Jews genetically unique?” and “are Jews a separate race?” in a day and age when the idea of “race” seems to be phasing out all-together.
But if our ethnicity is defined by our genetics, what does that mean for people who have not been born into Judaism, but rather have chosen it, whether because of a personal choice or intermarriage? And what of the children of one Jewish parent and one parent of another background? Does this mean they are half of one “race” and half of another?