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Posts Tagged ‘23andme’

DNA and Disease: Would You Want to Know?

Posted by E on February 23, 2016

DNA-image dna evolution

We are the first generation to be exposed to DNA testing for disease, and simultaneously the last generation to be afforded the luxury of not knowing what lies ahead. I predict that the debate of “Know or Not to Know” will end within a generation. The incorporation of genetic profiling in our medical history will become standard practice, as ubiquitous to medicine as a blood test. And this is a good thing – something we should welcome rather than fear.

So many annual deaths due to medication counter-indications and allergic reactions can be avoided. People with high blood pressure and other chronic conditions will no longer have to go through the stress and financial cost of sampling half a dozen prescriptions and trying out different pill cocktails before they find the right one for them – their own body’s genetic sensitivity to some drugs versus others will determine the right SSRI, the perfect hormone or blood pressure pill.

Prescriptions will no longer be not decided by a physician who has their own biases and pharmaceutical preferences, but by what your own body will respond to. This isn’t something to fear, a dystopian, clinical Gattaca scenario where our future potentials are determined in utero – but has the potential to eliminate diseases with gene therapy from infancy or even during gestation.

23andme DNA testing kitMaybe I’m biased, because few of us can claim to be entirely impartial when it comes to something so intimate as your body’s intricate signature and potential disease patterns. Some might think all the information will end up in a government database where “they” will keep track of everything and everyone. But guess what? That’s already happening, and so you may as well benefit from these modern-day advances in genetic screening and disease prevention.

I’m biased because I was one of the lucky ones to order a 23andme DNA kit before the FDA stepped and attempted to shut down the lab, or at least prevent them from informing people about their own medical predispositions. What 23andme offers now is still invaluable information, at least when it comes to familial and ancestral histories, but a watered-down medical report that differs to a certain degree from those kits processed before 2014.

family-tree dnaIn the winter of 2012 I ordered my kit mainly because I wanted to confirm my father’s genetic and ancestral history. For most of my life, I knew nothing about his background. I had only recently learned that he was Jewish, but because he had been born out of wedlock and my grandmother was rejected by my grandfather’s family, that side of my family tree was completely unknown to me – inclusive of their medical history. And since my father died when I was 13, I couldn’t ask him any of the questions I needed to know. Searching for those answers within my blood became a desperate, last-ditch resort to find out the truth.

I bought a kit for myself and for my mother. By isolating at least one living parent’s DNA from mine, 23andme can perform an analysis of phasing against a parent and child, and identify which DNA was my mother’s and which – through exclusion – had to come from my father.

When the results came in, they confirmed my Jewish ancestry and exposed my roots as having extended all over Europe – as far as Russia, Ukraine, Poland, Hungary, Romania, Germany, and basically mirrored the migration of Jews across Europe in the last 500 years. But beside finally learning about my family history, I now discovered a surprising amount of information about my own medical predispositions.

To Know or Not to Know – That is the Question.

DNA-ManEach of us carries a few damaged genes, a twist in a chain, a mutation passed on from an ancestor we never knew but whose blood flows in our veins. Usually bad genes are recessive, meaning people typically don’t find out they are carriers until they manifest in their children. But once genetic testing becomes widespread, and this is only a matter of time, we will all learn our own secret weaknesses.

There are two schools of thought when it comes to this question: the “Knowledge is Power – I have to know” camp and the “If it’s going to happen anyway, I’d rather not spend my life worrying about death” folks.

Neither position is right or wrong, since it’s up to you to decide what you want to discover about your body and its genetic potential. If you’re a worrier and planner, like me, knowing might relieve you of the stress of not knowing and constantly stressing about what might never actually happen.

But if you wish to live in the present and not concern yourself with something that may never happen, that is also a fair decision – especially since just having a genetic mutation does not absolutely guarantee you’ll develop the disease. Toxins in the environment, diet, nurture and lifestyle play a huge part in the onset of so many diseases.

The CONS of finding out your medical history are obvious:

– “There’s nothing I can do about it,” many people have said. “There is no drug or diet that keeps XYZ from progressing. Nor is there any way of knowing whether that progression would end relatively early, in my 40s, or relatively late, in my 80s, when I might already have died of something else.”

– Stress and depression. For example, some women who get abnormal breast cancer test results can trigger anxiety, depression or anger. Even though the results doesn’t mean that a woman will definitely get breast cancer, many women with an abnormal gene assume they will.

– People who learn they have passed on an abnormal gene to their children may feel guilty and worried. (Yet such knowledge may also prepare them for helping their children cope with their genetic information.)

– Some people fear that they could face discrimination in getting insurance coverage or employment. This fear is no longer an issue since, to prevent any such discrimination, the Genetic Information Non-discrimination Act (GINA) was signed into law in 2008 to protect Americans against discrimination based on their genetic information.

The PROS are equally compelling:

– Knowledge is power; being proactive in disease prevention.

– It allows you to begin making dietary and lifestyle changes early in life. If for instance you carry the diabetes variant, you can start exercising, cutting out sugars and monitoring your health better. If you carry the Alzheimer’s variant, you can start mental exercises, doing crossword puzzles, and playing basic computer games that are designed to sharpen your brain’s neural pathways.

– It eliminates unnecessary testing – precious time can be wasted in trying to diagnose people who might suffer from symptoms that could be applicable to several diseases. Alternately, you might constantly go for X-rays and tests thinking you might have cancer because of a family history, when in reality you are not a carrier of that genetic mutation.

– It allows you to take part in early medication programs – just this week I read an article discussing new, potentially life-changing Alzheimer’s prevention drugs that can be taken from your 30s and 40s and will delay or potentially prevent the disease from ever manifesting.

MY RESULTS

23andme breaks down your genotyped results into categories that include Inherited Conditions, Traits, Health Risks and Drug Response.

When I received the email from 23andme stating that my results were ready, I held my breath as I opened the Health Overview tab. In the Drug Response category, I learned that I was sensitive to medicines like Warfarin, and that if (God forbid) I would ever catch malaria, I would likely not respond well to treatment (mental note: don’t ever catch malaria!) I also learned that both myself and my mother had lower odds of responding to the most commonly-prescribed diabetes medicine – a very serious factor given that she had diabetes and it always seemed out of control.

In the Traits category, some of the things I learned were that I had brown hair (correct) and a 10% of having inherited blonde hair (from my mother). I was a fast caffeine metabolizer (which explains why I need more than one cup of coffee a day or I’ll be entirely unproductive) and likely lactose intolerant (yup). I also have a sensitivity to bitter taste and am likely to hate cilantro/coriander. So absolutely true!

I also learned that my eyes were likely to be brown and my hair most likely wavy/curly. Of course I know all these things just by looking in the mirror, but it’s so much fun to see the results get computed from a small vial of saliva and the Illumina HumanOmniExpress-24 format chip.

Although 23andme doesn’t carry out a comprehensive test for all diseases or the entire human genome (that would be cost-prohibitive), I found out that I didn’t carry the gene associated with Parkinson’s or MS – actually, I had significantly lower odds of developing those diseases. I also found out that I didn’t have the BRCA 1 and 2 cancer mutations that are linked with the type of cancers that made Angelina Jolie choose to have a double mastectomy and later on, have her ovaries removed.

alzheimers diseaseBut there was one issue that gave me anxiety above all else: my maternal grandmother had died of Alzheimer’s dementia, and my mother had been going downhill and would become diagnosed with Alzheimer’s later that same year, in 2013.

For the last decade I lived with the fear and uncertainty that I would also, someday, develop Alzheimer’s disease. Seeing its ravages on my mother, I swore that I would end my life early, or at least make provisions while I was still of sound mind for when the disease might strike in me. Being a pessimist, I was convinced that I carried the genetic variant most commonly associated with Alzheimer’s, APOE-4.

And yet there was no question in my mind that I had to know. Either way, since a part of my subconscious already thought I was doomed, if there was a possibility that I was NOT a carrier I could be free of that fear – bearing in mind, of course, that there are other variants that also play into the development of dementia. But APOE-4 was (and still is) the biggest predictor in those with a family history of the disease.

Elisa Alzheimers riskAnd then the moment came for me to click on the Alzheimer’s link. A rather ominous box appeared, asking if I was really sure that I wanted to find out, because some may find the results upsetting. I clicked the yes button and then I saw my fate: I did NOT have the APOE-4 variant. Not only that, but I carried a different gene mutation that actually protected me by reducing my risk for dementia to below the population average.

 

Then I clicked on my mother’s results and there it was – in front of my eyes, what I’d known all along – she WAS a carrier of APOE-4. This is what’s likely to have contributed to her early onset dementia. And only by the grace of God or the universe, or whatever there is out there beyond this world, she had not passed it onto me.

Lucia Alzheimers risk

Chances are, most of you who are reading this know someone who has Alzheimer’s. I’ve had friends and acquaintances whose parents and grandparents are continually suffering from this terrible disease. But not many people my age (unless they work in the medical field) have seen the utter devastation of end-stage Alzheimer’s.

Lucia July31My mother’s dying process took almost a year. In that time, I began to grieve her loss – but none of my close friends understood why I was in mourning. They didn’t understand that dementia is a daily, gradual death by a thousand cuts. With each day, a nuance of the individual fades away. People didn’t understand when I said that she was gone – because technically she was still alive.

But week after week, the human being faded to the point that all that became was a shell – a person with the same DNA, but a body vacant of its spirit. She was only 70 years old, but early onset Alzheimer’s has taken whatever had remained of her. She died a few months after she’d turned 71, on December 2, 2015.

I remember a year earlier, sitting in her apartment and saying sadly, “Someday you will forget me. The same way you forgot all your relatives and your street address and how to use public transport. Someday you’ll forget me too.”

She’d looked at me with a great big smile and shook her head. “Oh no. I’ll never forget you. You are my child – I’ll never forget you. Not you.”

And in the end, she kept that promise. A year later she was in hospital and had forgotten how to go to the toilet, how to eat, even how to chew and swallow. She cried, clawed at and fought with all the nurses, and with me, when we tried to feed her. She thought we were trying to choke her – because she didn’t know what to do with the food in her mouth. It dribbled down her hospital gown. She choked and sputtered, and I kept trying to teach her how to chew, how to swallow, to no avail.

Cu MamaBut through it all, she still remembered me – only me. And she still remembered her own name. I am fortunate for this, because I was the only person who could communicate with her. She had forgotten all English words and could barely communicate in Romanian – she knew perhaps only 20 Romanian words, at best. But she had kept her promise.

Tears are streaming down my face as I am typing this, because I don’t know how to deal with this – how to cope, how to explain the horror and sadness that descended over me the evening of December 2nd, 2015, when – in a softly-lit private room at Mount Sinai Hospital – I held her hands for hours and told her that I loved her, and that she was going to be free soon, that it was okay to let go. And then her breathing went from laboured and hoarse to soft, and then it stopped. And I just held her in my arms and cried and cried and cried.

Knowledge is power. I would always want to know. And I feel so strongly about the FDA and other pharmaceutical bodies trying to shut down sites like 23andme because they would rather bill insurance companies thousands of dollars per genetic test (in North America, the BRCA test costs an average of $2000-$3000) than give people free access to their own genetic history.

dna testingYou could call me a DNA activist. This is my body, and my absolute right to know its predispositions. If for whatever reason you don’t want to know, or you don’t trust independent labs like 23andme, that’s perfectly fine – just don’t get tested. But please don’t interpret the FDA’s moves as anything but a money grab for Big Pharma.

Genetic testing will be the future of disease screening, and the pharmaceutical industry would rather charge you (or your health care system) thousands than have you know your predisposition to 200 diseases for the lowly price of $99. Only a year later, the FDA shut down people’s most affordable way of finding out about their bodies.

Our bodies belong to US – NOT to a corporation. The results are OURS – not the FDA’s to monetize. My mother might have died, but I still have her genetic information and her saliva results will remain in the databank for ten years, allowing for further testing as medical screening improves.

Three years ago, my family members and I received ALL those results (potential cancers, Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s, medication sensitivities and more (over 300 genetic disease potentials, as well as our ethnic heritage) for only $99 per kit. For just one hundred dollars, I discovered my poor mother had the APOE Alzheimer’s gene (like her mother did before her) while I did NOT.

It was like being released from a death sentence.

For this, I will always be grateful.

sadness heart tree

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Journey to Judaism: The Day I Became A Jew

Posted by E on August 10, 2015

Elisa Jerusalem cropped

I became a Jew on the day I was born, December 17. Thirty-eight years had passed between the moment my mother gave birth to me in Romania and the day I was formally accepted as a Jew by rabbis in a North American synagogue.

After I’d completed a year of study, my mentor rabbi informed me that I was ready to take the next step toward conversion – writing a formal essay explaining why I wanted to embrace the Jewish faith, and meeting with a Beit Din. For those reading this who are unfamiliar with the term, a Beit Din is a rabbinical court assembly made up of three observant Jews (at least one of whom is a rabbi) who decide if a convert is fit to be accepted for conversion to Judaism.

Embracing Judaism was the last step along a journey of self-discovery that had taken me many years to explore, and I wanted to do this right – it was important to me that I should have a conversion process that followed the halacha (Jewish law) closely, which meant having a Beit Din made up of at least one rabbi, followed by a ritual immersion in a synagogue mikvah – a pool of water derived from natural sources.

It was the beginning of December and with my birthday right around the corner, it was only natural that I would schedule my Beit Din and Mikvah day on my birthday. How could I choose any other date? What better day to experience a spiritual rebirth and be formally acknowledged as Jewish?

The sun was shining brightly when I woke up early in the morning – too early in fact. The excitement and nervous butterflies churning in my stomach made it impossible to go back to sleep. ‘This is the last day I’ll wake up and not be Jewish,’ I thought. I busied myself by having a long shower, brushing and flossing my teeth, washing my hair and scrubbing my fingernails and toenails free of any traces of nail polish – there was to be no barrier between the body and the Mikvah water.

Brilliant sunshine illuminated the path toward the Beth Hillel synagogue where I would be formally interviewed. I knew it would be a beautiful day, and it turned out exactly as I’d imagined – how could such an important day ever be shrouded in clouds?

The rabbis met me in the lobby of the synagogue at noon. My Beit Din was composed of three ordained rabbis, all active members of the Rabbinical Assembly, although one had retired from his congregation. After everyone arrived, we walked over to the meeting room in the back of the synagogue. A long conference table split the room which could have seated twenty. The three rabbis sat on one side of the table, and I took a seat across from them.

“As we begin, I’d like you to tell us what brought you here and why you want to become Jewish,” Rabbi Levine said.

I summarized some of the key points that I wrote about in my conversion essay:

“The feeling that propels me toward Judaism isn’t as simple as breaking it down into words. It’s a feeling, an echo of something within myself that I am just now recognizing and giving voice to.

I feel that I have always been a Jew. I was born in the mid-1970s in communist Bucharest. Under Ceausescu’s dictatorship, Romania didn’t prioritize religion, choosing instead to indoctrinate their people to worship the State. I don’t remember either of my parents being religious in any way. We never went to church. I identified with my father’s family much more than my mother’s side. I stood out among my maternal cousins by being the black-haired, dark-eyed child who didn’t fit in. People said that my father and I ‘looked Jewish’.”

 Iosif Hategan age 15 Iosif and Ana

Above: me at age 11.  Centre: my father Iosif (Josef) at age 15.  Right: My father and grandmother Ana.

We emigrated to Canada when I was 11 years old. My father subsequently decided to return to Romania and died there when I was 13. I never had the opportunity to ask him all the questions I would have liked to know – Why did he hide his own heritage? Why did he feel ashamed of who he was?

I’ve had people tell me, Why bother to convert. Your father was a Jew, you don’t believe in Jesus as the messiah, so what’s the difference? But it bothers me that I am not recognized by all Jews as a fellow Jew because of my patrilineal descent, and I feel the need to undergo this formal process so that I can both learn much more about Judaism, and to feel like a “real” Jew.

In my soul, heart and mind, Judaism is more than a religion for me. It’s a shared history, a family and a connection that has always been there, just outside the realm of my consciousness and yet was always there. Like a pulse that cannot be subdued.

After my father’s death, I lived in a rough low-income neighbourhood with my mother. As time went by, she grew increasingly abusive and I had no choice but to run away. Between the ages of 14-16 I lived in several Children’s Aid homes. In time, I ran away from an abusive foster home and returned to my mother’s apartment. At age 16 I was friendless and desperate. Eventually I became recruited by a neo-Nazi group, the Heritage Front. They became the family I felt I’d never had, and looked after me at a time when my only choice was to live on the streets. They also put me in touch with an internationally-renowned Holocaust revisionist and Hitler sympathizer, Ernst Zundel. Zundel gave me a job working in his basement printing press, fed me and looked out for me.

By the time I turned 18 I knew that what the group was doing was wrong. I wanted out of the organization but they were possessive of me and I didn’t know of a way out. I attempted suicide and eventually I turned to an anti-racist activist, who put me in touch with the director of a think-tank on extremist right-wingers. He, in turn, asked me to spy on the Heritage Front and Ernst Zundel and collect information that could be turned over to the police.

defection 1994-2Hategan articleMetro Toronto

For half a year I gathered as much information on illegal activities, weapons and dangerous persons, as well as stole Ernst Zundel’s national and international mailing list, which consisted of people all over North and South America and Europe who had sent in money to fund Zundel’s Holocaust revisionist projects. In 1994 I testified in court and sent 3 Heritage Front leaders to prison, effectively dealing a serious blow toward dismantling the group.

I was only 19 years old. I lived in hiding and attended university in Ottawa under an assumed name. Upon graduating Magna cum Laude with a Criminology and Psychology double-major, I taught ESL in Seoul, South Korea and subsequently travelled throughout Europe the following year.

I spent some time in Krakow and visited Auschwitz and Birkenau. Something stirred in me that summer – an inexplicable familiarity, a sense that I was connected to those places in some undefinable way. When I first heard Ladino songs, it was as though I could almost recognize them. The music seemed familiar somehow. Then there were the places in the south of Spain, as well as in Poland and Hungary that I visited – they felt as though I’d been there before. In Debrecen, the city my father was born in, I allowed my feet to take me where they wanted to go, and I ended up on a narrow, cobblestoned street, in front of a half-burned synagogue with smashed-out windows.

It felt like I had been there before. The feeling was strong, palpable, like a childhood memory – a memory that was just outside the realm of my consciousness.

I eventually returned to Canada and tried to lead a normal life. But something always clawed at the back of my consciousness, pushing me toward a Jewish path. I lived along Bathurst street, in a predominantly Jewish neighbourhood. I began to read books on Judaism and spirituality. Ten years went by since I first thought of undergoing a formal conversion to Judaism, but something always held me back – I first wanted to discover the truth about my father, my family’s past. I had to know our own past in order to go forward.

During a visit to my paternal grandmother’s village in Transylvania, I tracked down relatives, old family friends and neighbours, and asked questions. At my uncle’s house, among my deceased grandmother’s possessions, I discovered a box of mementos and photographs that I’d never seen before. The box was marked with the Jewish surname “Kohan” – the Hungarian version of Cohen. I finally began to believe that my suspicions had been true, and that my father had actually been Jewish.

Back in Canada, I ordered a DNA kit from 23andme, sent in my saliva sample and waited for a month to receive my results. When they came in, it was a surreal experience – one of the most significant days of my life. To realize that after so long, what I had suspected was actually true! I burst into tears of joy, knowing that I was no longer alone – at last I had a past, a history. And well over 20 relatives in the 23andme database with the surname Cohen, some of whom offered their help in piecing together our common ancestry.

23andme EH profile  23andme EH profile2 

Part of my conversion essay:

In my soul, heart and mind, Judaism is more than a religion for me. It’s a shared history, a genetic memory, a family and a connection that has always been just outside the realm of my consciousness, yet was always there. The more I learned about Judaism through my study, the more I felt my bond to the past grow stronger.

My father’s denial of his religion and heritage was like an invisible wall that kept me from my past. But with each day and each hour, the wall becomes increasingly transparent. The bricks fall apart and I begin to see a glimpse of something beautiful and mystical on the other side. The shadows of those great-grandparents and the whispers of their lives comes through to me, through me, and out into my very own existence.

I have had thousands of Jewish ancestors from Poland, Russia, Galicia, Ukraine and Romania, whose truth, lives and stories have been wiped off in only two generations. One hundred years. That is all it took to wipe out my family’s connection to their own lineage and heritage.

I look at the world and wonder how many others walk around unaware that the blood of Sephardic conversos or Ashkenazim forced to hide their religion runs through their veins.

I aim to reclaim that heritage.

“Please read your Declaration of Faith for us, Elisa.”

I stood up and read the piece of paper which I had practically memorized over the past year.

declaration of faith Iosif and Elisa Anna-Philip

Left: my declaration of faith. Centre: my favourite photo of me & my father.  Right: grandmother Ana with her husband.

Afterwards, they asked me to sign it and I did so, then handed it back to them. I answered several questions related to holidays and ritual, and recited a couple of prayers. Then one of the rabbis asked me more about my father’s family. “Did you know the biggest group of immigrants to Israel after the war were from Romania?”

I hadn’t known this, and he smiled at me warmly and told me a story about his friends who had come from the same part of Transylvania as my father. Then our conversation touched on the Holocaust, and I mentioned the profound experience I’d had in my twenties when I visited Europe’s biggest concentration camp, the largest mass-murder site in the world.

Rabbi Fertig sat up. “You were at Auschwitz?”

“Yes,” I answered.

“What was it like?”

I gazed into the distance, recalling the summer of 2001 when I had backpacked across Europe, and how my journey to find my roots had led me to Auschwitz. “I went in the summer, when the grass was this high.” I said, lifting my hand to indicate waist-height. “It was a sunny day. A very beautiful day. The sun was high up in the sky, and there was such a vivid a juxtaposition of life and death. The grass was buzzing with crickets and frogs, filled with life….right up among those terrible barracks at Birkenau. I walked inside the barracks and felt that emptiness….the void, the echoes of the lives that had been lost there.”

Rabbi Levine stared at me for a long time. “So many millions perished in the Holocaust – and now you are returning to the fold.”

“I am but one drop,” I said quietly, my eyes filling with tears.

We all fell silent. After some time, Rabbi Brief asked me, “Have you chosen a Hebrew name?”

There was never any doubt in my mind what my Hebrew name would be – Elisheva, of course. The Hebrew version of my own given name. Better yet, it somehow ‘fit’ me. It felt more right than anything else.

“Elisheva Sarah.”

Rabbi Levine cleared his throat. “I am obliged to inform you that although a Conservative Beit Din is accepted by all conservative and affiliated denominations, some Orthodox will still refuse to see you as Jewish.”

I nodded. “Yes, I know this.”

“Do you have any questions for us?”

I hesitated. “Do you think….will I be accepted by a Reform synagogue?”

The rabbis looked at each other in amusement. “They’re going to love you,” the oldest of the rabbis answered. “Reform already recognizes you as a Jew because you have a Jewish father – so just based on the fact that you still went through this when you didn’t have to.”

Rabbi Levine peered into my eyes. “I read your conversion essay and I have to say it really moved me. You’re a very good writer. A very gifted writer.”

Something stirred inside me. Trying to fight back the knot in my throat, I said, “I’m working on a book to preserve the memory of those in my father’s village who have been forgotten. I want to do this for them – I’m the only one left who still carries their stories. Everyone else has passed.”

He nodded, and his eyes communicated such a deep empathy, such a sense of recognition and understanding, that I had to bite my lip to keep from tearing up. My eyes swept the room – the other rabbis were nodding, acknowledging me. I felt, in that moment, that they were seeing the real me – that part of my core I had kept hidden for so long. The vulnerability. The sadness and the truth of what I’d always known to be true. The real core of me.

Rabbi Levine pushed back from the table. “I am ready,” he said. He looked to the others: “I know it’s cutting this short, but I’m satisfied with this. I’m ready to make this woman Jewish.”

my Mikvah my mikvah2

We walked out of the synagogue and around to the side of the building, where another door stood open. A tall, thin woman waited for us there, her hair covered under a beret-type hat. She beckoned us in and we shook hands. “Welcome Elisheva,” she said, smiling at me. “You can leave your coat and stuff here. I warmed up the water really well for you, and have everything set up for you. Come and let me show you around.”

I smiled back at her, and Carol’s eyes glided to my hair. “You have long, gorgeous hair,” she said with a smile, and I instantly read between the lines. The hair was going to be a problem. Making sure there were no tangles was going to be challenging enough. But then she added, “I’m concerned that it might float up when you submerge. Every strand has to go underwater.”

The rabbis sat down on a small bench in the narrow corridor that led to several rooms, including the one where Carol was leading me. It turned out to be a small but perfectly clean bathroom with a shower stall and all the toiletries one could imagine.

She closed the door behind us and pointed out everything, careful to inspect that I wasn’t wearing any nail polish. I started to remove my earring studs and put them in my backpack while she explained what I already knew – I was to scrub off everything once again, wash my hair thoroughly and brush it so there were no tangles anywhere. Then, when I was ready, to walk through another door wearing little bootsies to keep from slipping and only the towel.

“The Mikvah is completely private,” she assured me. “The rabbis will only listen to the submersion and I will be the only one in the room with you. They will hear you say the prayer, but they cannot see you. I am here to make sure your privacy is respected and I myself will not look at you – when you descend into the Mikvah I will hold up the towel and respect your privacy. You can rest assured that your privacy and modesty will be respected at all times. So take as long as you need to get ready, and I will be on the other side of that door.”

After she left, I tried to keep myself from shaking. To think that I was so close to the Mikvah I’d read so much about, so close to the completion of a journey that had taken me years to achieve!

The bathroom was spartan and super-clean. A shelving unit ran beside the sink, and everything I could possibly have forgotten was there: nail polish remover, cotton balls, extra soap, toothpaste, shampoo, dental floss, even a small vial of Air d’Temps perfume that I planned to spritz on after the ceremony was complete (but forgot to, in the ensuing excitement). As Carol had promised, two different kinds of combs lay ready to tackle my difficult hair. I chose the one with the wider-spaced teeth and bravely stepped into the stone shower stall.

The shower itself was as I’d expected, with the worst part being – of course – running the brush through my well-shampooed (but not conditioned) curls. Needless to say, when it was all said and done I lost more than my usual amount of stray hairs, possibly because I was so excited, nervous and emotional about the ritual to follow that I brushed a bit too impatiently and managed to snap off some more split ends.

The last thing to go were my contact lenses. The Mikvah rules were that nothing could stand in the way of the water immersing the body, not even contacts. I placed the case carefully on the sink ledge and wrapped the fresh white towel around my body.

Then I reached for the door handle and stepped into the other room.

The room was low-lit, with several pot lights illuminating only the water – which was as blue as the sea. The Mikvah was larger than I’d imagined, much larger than a Jacuzzi but not quite the size of a swimming pool.

Am I really here? Is this finally happening? I wondered, gazing in awe at the water that would soon immerse every bit of my being. It’s so beautiful.

I kicked off the bootsies and held still while Carol the Mikvah Lady inspected me in order to pick off any stray hairs that may have fallen down my back. I checked myself also and found an additional long hair that I handed her.

After she discarded the loose hairs, Carol came back and stepped behind me. “You can give me the towel and go in now,” she said, holding the towel I handed her up in front of her – as promised, to protect my modesty. Although I’d wondered what it would feel like being completely naked in front of a stranger, I realized that I didn’t feel embarrassed at all – this felt like such a perfectly natural, even maternal process.

I walked toward the Mikvah and began to descend the seven steps that led down to the main pool. I held the railing and stepped down the seven steps–each one representing a day in the Creation story. Then an unexpected challenge arose: by the fourth step I could already tell that the water was too deep. As in, over my head. I’m not a swimmer by any stretch, and have never managed to hold my own in the deep-end of a swimming pool. I would never be able to touch the bottom.

Over the past year I’d researched anything I could find about other people’s accounts of their conversion ceremonies, but had never read about the situation that confronted me now – being only 5’2” tall, by the time I reached the lowest step I was already immersed up to my chin.

I gazed into the shimmering depths of the main pool and realized, not without a fair amount of trepidation, that I would never be able to stand upright in it. The water was high enough to go over my head. Although I love splashing around in water, I’m not a swimmer and have never managed to tread water in the deep end of a swimming pool.

An irrational fear seized hold of my mind. Has anybody ever drowned in a Mikvah? I wondered, cringing inwardly at the ridiculousness of the question. Worst case scenario, Carol the Mikvah Lady was here, along with three rabbis on the other side of the wall partition. Surely somebody would pull me out if I didn’t resurface after a while, right?

My desire to become a Jew was now confronted head-on by my fear of drowning. The combination didn’t make for a particularly mystical experience. Did I want to convert badly enough to risk drowning? Would you rather live as a Christian or risk drowning to become a Jew?

The answer came hard and fast: YES. Yes, I wanted it that badly. Badly enough to jump off into the deep end, where the water towered above my head – not knowing if I would bob back up or sink right to the bottom.

Over the months that led up to this ceremony, I’d imagined this day to be a peaceful, holy, life-changing process. In a way, this was still partly true – with that tranquil blue water so warm and lovely, lapping at my skin, an aura of serenity had surrounded me. But suddenly another part of me was seized with fear. As anxiety mounted in my chest, I realized that in order to become a Jew I would have to conquer my terror.

I took a deep breath and tried to balance myself on the lowest step, which was really hard because the salt water makes you buoy about, making it impossible to keep your feet firmly planted onto the tiled ground.

“Are you ready?” Carol’s voice resounded behind me. “Take your time. When you’re ready, I want you to take a deep breath and jump away from the step. When you’re fully immersed under the water, lift your legs up so that you don’t touch the bottom to make sure that for an instant, you’re floating free.”

I sucked in a deep breath, steadied myself….and then stepped off the ledge. Water flooded into my eyes, mouth, over my head, and suddenly I was up again, sputtering and flailing toward the metal rail in the corner. I seized hold of it and clambered up onto the last ledge again.

Carol looked at my ungainly flop and smiled sympathetically. “We’ll have to do that one over again. Your hair didn’t go all the way under.”

Strands of my hair had floated to the surface since I hadn’t sank deep enough. “Does this happen a lot?” I asked her.

She nodded. “You’re very buoyant – we all are – so what you’ll need to do is really let go and try to jump up a little when you step away from the stairs. The force of you jumping up will ensure you submerge all the way down.”

I took another deep, shuddering breath, and felt determination flow through my entire body. I hadn’t come this far to allow fear to stop me now. I thought about my father, my grandmother, about our family friend Steve Bendersky and the relatives he’d lost in the war, about the numbers tattooed on his arm, about the heritage that had been denied me. I thought about the people who had been killed over the centuries for being a Jew, about all who had walked down this path before me as converts and embraced their Jewish neshama.

I had come this far. I was ready.

It still felt scary, taking that plunge – but I no longer cared about drowning. I wanted to leap as far into that water as I could, to take it all into my heart, to let it remind me of my strength and ability to survive anything.

I was enveloped in a cocoon of blueness and warmth – the perfect heat of a womb made of nature’s own waters that seemed to have always existed in and around me. I opened my eyes underneath the water which coated every pore of my being and thought, This is the day I was born. Back then, and then again today.

No sooner did that realization hit than a force propelled me upwards – the force of my own buoyancy. I hadn’t drowned after all. In fact, I felt stronger than ever.

Carol’s voice echoed throughout the small room: “Kasher!”

I repositioned myself on the last step, filled my lungs with air, and leapt up again. I sank down into the depths of the Mikvah and didn’t fight it this time – I gave myself to it in body and soul.

When I bobbed back up, Carol called out “Kasher” for the second time.

I half-swam back toward the steps, found my balance again and turned to face the blueness. This would be my third jump. When I came back up again, I would be a Jew.

“Take your time,” Carol said softly. “If you want to take a moment to say a silent prayer – just for yourself.”

I closed my eyes and felt tears brimming behind my eyelashes. I mouthed the words of the Shema silently, for everyone before me, and then again for myself – that I be worthy of that painful, beautiful legacy and that I might contribute toward making the world a better place.

And then I took the biggest leap of my life into the waters that had always waited there for me. I lifted my knees up to my chest and spread my arms out to my sides, and the Mikvah embraced me.

And as I came up to the surface as a Jew, Carol called out for the third time, “Kasher.”

My voice shook as I spoke the words of the final prayer, Shehecheyanu, a prayer uttered by Jews for two thousand years: “Barukh Ata Adonai, Elohenu Melekh Haolam, Shehecheyanu, Vekiyimanu, Vehigiyanu, Lazman Hazeh.”

As soon as I said the last word, “hazeh”, voices all around called out “Mazel Tov!” I heard the rabbis break out into applause from the other side of the partition carved in the wall, congratulating me.

I turned around and emerged out of the water slowly, its warmth following me. Carol was beaming at me, holding out the towel. “Mazel Tov, Elisheva.”

I pitter-pattered back to the bathroom where I was shaking as I toweled off, got dressed as quickly as I could, and put in my contact lenses once again. I was too impatient to take the time needed to blow dry my long hair, and as a result I was still dripping water when I re-emerged into the little room where everyone was waiting for me.

The rabbis surrounded me and put their hands on my shoulders, breaking into song. As they sang, said their blessings and gave me all the official conversion paperwork, tears started to course down my face. They sang the old traditional Siman Tov/Shalom Aleichem song and I just folded my arms across my chest and bit my lip to unsuccessfully stop myself from crying. The oldest rabbi, probably close to eighty, wrapped his arm around my shoulders in a way a father might comfort a daughter and as he held me while I cried, I felt the warmth of his joy – I had come home.

Elisa and rabbis my menorah

Above: me with rabbis after the ceremony.  Right: a beautiful antique menorah – my conversion gift

In April 2015, a couple of years after my conversion to Judaism, I left for Romania in order to research my newest book, Remember Your Name. Because Bucharest is only a two-hour flight from Tel Aviv, I decided to make my first journey to Israel. I also fulfilled a secret wish I’d carried since my conversion – to go to the Western Wall and recite the Mourner’s Kaddish for my father.

IMG_9298 Jerusalem arches IMG_9131

It took me a lifetime to realize that my parents had been a by-product of their time – they had suffered so immensely that they had absorbed their oppression and passed it onto others. They made others suffer because that was the only way they could relate, after the pain they had endured. They hurt me because they themselves had been hurt. And then I too, as a child of their hatred, had tried my best to keep that light of hate alive – because I’d never known another way. So many scarred, wounded people have created the world we live in today, where suffering and oppression breeds brutality.

When I was in Israel, a new understanding flooded me – that my story doesn’t end with dissecting my own family’s hatred and buried identity. It doesn’t end with me converting to Judaism. I’m also digging back further into the history of hidden Jews and forced converts in Europe, and the internalization of hatred, the transformation of victim into oppressor. We see this everywhere today – oppressed becomes oppressor, persecuted people turn the brutalization they suffered into outward brutality – from the peasant workers’ 20th century revolutions that turned into communist dictatorships, to the Jewish-Arab conflict in the Middle East.

It’s all a vicious cycle. A cycle where hatred and religion-fueled intolerance supresses the spark of divine essence, the oneness, that connects all beings. A cycle of hate and judgemental intolerance so brutal that it’s pushed me toward feelings of worthlessness and thoughts of suicide for most of my adult life. Until I realized that the future of humankind doesn’t rest with governments and profit-driven policies but within us – that love is stronger than hate. Unity is stronger than division. Kindness reveals much more courage than brutality. That is where everyone’s G-d resides. In deeds of loving kindness. In recognizing our mistakes and showing forgiveness to those who harmed us. And in understanding that our differences are nothing in comparison to the beautiful light that shines within us all.

Elisa TelAviv sunset yad vashem vista

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Posted in anti-semitism, family, hate, identity, jewish, life, news, religion, romania, thoughts | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 9 Comments »

A year of new beginnings

Posted by E on January 1, 2013

new year

May this year bring all of us the fulfillment of all our dreams and ambitions. I will be mostly absent from this blog over the next little while. I am embarking on both a new manuscript and a new exploration of my family’s past — and these two paths will hopefully interact in some significant, as-of-yet unknown way.

My results from my DNA test at 23andme have returned with a bang — something I have always known within myself, yet never had any confirmation of before now — that I am indeed of a Ashkenazi Jewish background. I have over a hundred cousins with the Cohen surname from the 2nd-3rd cousin level and up. Several other spellings of Cohen, Kohen, Kuhn and Kahan also pop up, as well as similar variations. (Also related to a significant portion of Kaplans, Friedmans and Rosenbergs). Although I’ve always known I was Romanian (born there, after all!) and Hungarian on my father’s side, now I have just discovered that I am of Polish and Russian Jewish backgrounds (with some German thrown in)….as much as 40%.  From the levels of my matches, the Jewish connection comes from BOTH of my parents, which is a shock given how anti-semitic and racist my mother has been throughout her life. But sometimes the strongest persecutors are those who have something to hide. There is also notable Southern European percentage that traces back to the Iberian/Spanish peninsula, and leads me to believe there’s an influx of Shephardic blood in my dna as well.

Like I said, it’s a confirmation of what I’ve always felt — and yet to see this in person, like this, decades after my father’s death, just made me weep. I just found out a couple of days ago….transferred my raw data to FamilyTreeDNA last night, so in another couple of weeks hopefully I will have more family matches. I strongly believe in genetic memory, and after the reaction I experienced in Kracow, Poland 10 years ago, and once again in Budapest and Debrecen, Hungary, it all begins to make sense. The fog is clearing, and it feels surreal to finally catch a glimpse of the truth that lies beyond the window that was obscured to me all of my life.

So the question remains — with nearly all of my 985 relatives on 23andme bearing Jewish surnames, and both the sides of my family descending from a Jewish line, does my heritage reside in my DNA, blood and ancestry, in my dreams and my senses, in my deja vus and my physical appearance, or in what a rabbi declares I am (or I am not)?  The answer, at least to me, is pretty obvious. And such is the way of the future, both for Israel and for the notion of what makes one a Jew.

Posted in ancestry, belonging, history, religion | Tagged: , , , , , , | 1 Comment »