Ancestral Portraits - Poem by gershon hepner
My ancestors did not have portraits, but
they’re all portrayed, in one way or another,
by their descendants, of which there’s a glut,
including me, my father and my mother,
and my four children, three sons and a daughter,
all portraying traits my ancestors
transmitted, in a narrow ethnic quarter,
with forms determined by genetic laws.
In tribal cultures portraits are prestigious
far more than photos, which are print’s poor brothers,
but Mendel’s laws make everyone religious
when contemplating how we give to others
the traits that, dominant sometimes, sometimes
recessive, come from ancestors, and make
our own descendants resonate like rhymes
with ancient portraits that no man can fake.
Inspired by an article in TNR, June 25,2008, by Jerome Groopman, Dina and Raphael Recanati Professor of Medicine at Harvard University, reviewing David B. Goldstein’s Jacob’s Legacy: A Genetic View of Jewish History (“Genes and Identities”) . He recalled going to Sherborn, Massachusetts, to visit a patient dying of metastatic melanoma. This patient had a series of portraits of his forebers, hung in chronological order, going back to the founder of the family, more than two hundred years ago. Groopman writes:
My paternal father came from Vilna, worked in a sweatshop on Rivington Street, and married my grandfather, who has also fled the czar, first to Holland and then to New York, where he sold fruit in the streets. The known roots of the Groopman reach only to the nineteenth century. My mother’s family was from the Carpathian Mountains of Hungary, close relatives of the Hasidic rebbe of Satu Mare, or Satmar; but despite this prestigious status at least in certain Jewish circles, his family lost much of its historical memory during the Holocaust…So it is not surprising that, like African Americans, American Jews would turn to genetics as a way to reclaim their history. This attempt to reach into the past by using modern science, as Goldstein clearly and compellingly shows, is not as simple as many in the media have made it out to be. Mapping genes and then extrapolating to modern groups is nothing more precise than an exercise in probability. We can come only to partial conclusions, never to full certainty, about what the prevalence of certain genetic traits and markers say about our imagined ancestors.
He quotes David B. Goldstein, who now teaches molecular genetics at Duke University:
Genetic history is both more and less significant than it is depicted in popular accounts. It is les significant because the historical insights than can be achieved with genetics are always very specific and often fairly modest. Caught up as it is in the excitement of modern science, genetic history’ power and importance are often overstated, whereas the real grandeur and detail of human history can only be seen in the context of our archeological and written legacies and, of course, our memories. But at times genetic history stretches the boundaries of its scientific formalism and hints at answers to bigger questions. What makes a people a people? What binds them together through time? What alienates them from some and aligns them to others?
In his typically wry tone, Goldstein remarks: “Forced to choose between Jewish mothers and Jewish genes, I’ll take Mom every time.” Perhaps that is why my mind moved so far from my on clan and remembered my poor patient, the scion of New England Puritans. David Goldstein’s inclination is splendidly universal. Deeds rather than descent are what define a person.
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