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Kiss Me, I’m Something

eye on the news

Kiss Me, I’m Something

A meditation on ethnicity, heritage, and Americanness for St. Patrick’s Day March 17, 2017
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My wife spit into a test tube in January, sent it to AncestryDNA, and received an email back saying she’s half-Irish. Alice, who is adopted, is also Jewish and Italian. What’s one more ethnicity? She texted our 32-year-old daughter: “You can celebrate St Paddy’s Day. What do you think of having Irish ancestry?”

“Eh. Surprised bc I don’t like drinking,” our daughter responded. “Ha. Or Irish food. Or the weather there.”

“Have you ever been?” my wife texted.

“No.”

I lived in a heavily Italian neighborhood in suburban Cleveland in the 1950s and 1960s.  I heard “kike” once in a while and got into fights. I never could figure what to yell at my opponents. “Dago” worked only sometimes, because some of my foes were simply white-bread American kids, already post-ethnic. My nadir was when I called a Lutheran a “Big L.” He was not offended.

I brake for ethnicity. Cleveland used to be a jigsaw puzzle of ethnic neighborhoods. I crisscrossed boundary lines for adventure. East 152nd Street was the DMZ—African-Americans to the west, Slovenians and Italians to the east, and Lithuanians to the northeast. I tried the sour turnips at the Slovenian church and didn’t like them. There was a bumper-sticker craze in the early 1980s—the dying days of these neighborhoods—and thank god i’m slovenian was a popular one. (Cleveland has more Slovenian immigrants than any other American city.) The top-selling ethnic bumper stickers were thank god i’m polish and thank god i’m irish.

In 1983, Alice and I bicycled in Ireland. A man in Limerick told us, “Irish-Americans are condescending—stories from Grandpa, green beer, St. Paddy’s. We don’t wear green.” On the bike trip, I was on the lookout for locals who looked similar to Alice: freckles, fair skin, glasses.

“The Irish don’t wear glasses,” I said to a grocery-store clerk.

“But I bet you’ve seen a lot holding glasses,” he said.

My wife was adopted by a Jewish couple from Columbus, Ohio. Alice, as an adult, sneaked into her parents’ safe and found her birth certificate, which listed her birth mother as “Dorothy DerCola” (the last name is a variation on D’Ercole, Italian for “of Hercules”), and there was a blank for “father of child.” It’s still blank; Alice never did find him.

Alice’s biological mother had been a hairdresser in Lyons, New York, a railroad town 48 miles southeast of Rochester. Many Italian and Irish immigrants settled along the New York Central railroad line to work. Alice’s birth mother, it turned out, died in a car crash in 1955, so Alice never met her, either.

After Alice and I married, we knocked on doors in western New York, searching for her biological parents. In Newark, New York—another small railroad town—a man opened his front door and said to Alice, “We always suspected! My sister (Alice’s birth mother) took up St. Anne in her last year. The saint of mothers. Can I give you a kiss?” Then we had dinner: manicotti, provolone, Italian sausage, and pizza fritta.

With Alice’s Irish bona fides lab-certified, she might make corned beef and cabbage for dinner tonight—a Shabbat St. Patrick’s dinner. “And you can come with me to Mass at St. Dominic’s on Sunday,” our neighbor told her.

“Bert would kill me,” Alice said. Yes, I take Judaism seriously. Our family has been celebrating Shabbat most Friday nights for decades. Alice phoned our younger son and said, “I got my DNA results back and I’m about 50 percent–something. Guess what.”

“French?” our son said.

“No.”

“Native-American?”

What was he thinking? “No.”

“British?”

“Getting closer. Irish.”

“I love the Irish,” our son said. “They are so musical.” He’s a musician. His band, Vulfpeck, has played in Ireland and is going back there in September.

“Don’t forget, you’re a Jew,” I said.

“I know I’m a Jew. I just tweeted I’m microdosing matzo meal.” That was Jewish hipster humor, which I didn’t get.

At Menorah Park, a nursing home in suburban Cleveland, I often play klezmer and swing music at a music-performance space called the piazza. The piazza has Campari and Cinzano posters on the wall, and a Vespa parked in the corner. About the piazza’s decor, the former nursing-home director told the Cleveland Jewish News, “So we turned to Italy, because Italy for many of us represents romance, warmth, low tech, relaxation, great food and obviously great wine.”

Alice said she will celebrate St. Patrick’s Day today by “going up to people who look sort of Irish and saying, ‘We might be related!’” Maybe we’ll say a prayer over Guinness tonight. That’s not a Jewish custom. And it’s definitely not a Native-American custom. But it’s pretty American.

Photo by Andrew Burton/Getty Images

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