I spent much of the first half of 1998 thinking about dying.
Not my dying, necessarily, although those thoughts were almost inevitable. I spent several months reporting a magazine story about a brilliant, accomplished student at my alma mater — the University of Virginia — who had inexplicably committed suicide.
It’s impossible to spend that much time with people traumatized by an unexpected death and not be deeply affected yourself. Every interview I did meant asking someone to talk about the worst and most painful thing that had ever happened to them, about how losing someone you love suddenly can radically alter your entire worldview. It was humbling. It was overwhelming. …
In January of 2012, my healthy and spry 82-year-old father suffered a catastrophic hemorrhagic stroke. Though he would somehow miraculously survive and regain consciousness, the resulting brain damage left him radically altered both physically and mentally. He died quietly in his sleep a little more than two months later, after contracting an infection.
My father was a scientist, a rigidly logical mathematician who did The New York Times crossword puzzle in pen each day. He prized intellect above all else and had little patience for those who did not. And while there were occasional glimmers of his pre-stroke self during his convalescence — he could recall some sports trivia and still made the occasional clever joke — it was apparent that the person who inhabited his ravaged body was just… not him. The first time he could speak after having his tracheostomy tube removed, he excitedly told me that he’d won a historic jackpot in some kind of internet lottery. When I expressed skepticism, he told me to Google his name. …
Around the turn of the 20th century, a young Italian immigrant named Enrico “Henry” Caputo arrived to work in the steel mills of western Pennsylvania. In 1906 he married another Italian immigrant, Anna Fuoco, the 14-year-old daughter of a janitor. (The Fuocos would later Americanize their last name to its literal translation: “Fire.”)
Every year on Yom HaShoah, I pause and remember the many members of my family murdered during the Holocaust. Sadly, each year, as I do more research, the list of names grows longer.
For more background on my family’s Holocaust experience, see this post.
Shmiel Jäger 1895–1943
Ester Schneelicht Jäger 1896–1942
Leah “Lorka” Jäger 1920–1943
Frydka Jäger 1922–1943
Ruchele Jäger 1925–1941
Bronia Jäger 1929–1942
Shewa Jäger Hallemann 1871–1943
Nuchim Hallemann 1870–1942
Ernst Hallemann ?-1942
Isaac Moses Hallemann 1896–1942
Clara Mandelbaum Hallemann 1896–1942
Eva Hallemann 1927–1942
Beata Rachel Hallemann 1933–1942
Lotte Hallemann Dodeles 1900–1942
Isaac Dodeles 1900–1943
If you need any additional proof that the world is completely upside down right now, look no further than Netflix, where the most-watched show for two weeks running revolves around a flamboyant, tattoo-covered, mullet-sporting 56-year-old inmate at the Grady, Oklahoma County Jail who gained notoriety as an exotic animal zookeeper slash reality TV star slash country singer slash 2016 presidential candidate. (He’s the one who memorably gave out condoms with his picture on them.)
I’m talking of course about Joe Schreibvogel aka Joe Maldonado-Passage, aka “Joe Exotic,” star of the addictively trainwreck-ish seven-part documentary Tiger King: Murder, Mayhem and Madness.
If you’ve been whiling away the hours in self-isolation bingeing on Tiger King, I have news for you. No, I cannot tell you for sure if Joe’s nemesis Carole Baskin actually fed her missing husband to the tigers, although Lord knows it’s an intriguing possibility. But I can tell you that Joe Exotic’s family actually played a fascinating and historic role in the story of American immigration. So if you’ve been laying awake at night wondering, “What exactly is Joe Exotic’s connection to Catherine the Great of Russia and the Seven Years War?” get comfortable. …
Stop the USCIS from holding your family’s records hostage.
On November 14, the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) entered a notice of proposed fee hikes into the Federal Register. The revised fee schedules, which cover a wide range of services to immigrants, are alarming across the board for a number of reasons. But I’d like to call attention specifically to the suggested price increases to the USCIS Genealogy Program, which represent nothing short of a catastrophe that would seriously inhibit the ability of genealogists to do their work. And they should be of concern to anyone — historians, archivists, etc. …
As the new public face of the Trump administration’s draconian immigration policies, acting USCIS Director Ken Cuccinelli has wasted no time stirring up collective ire. Most notably, he set off a firestorm of criticism by rewriting the iconic Emma Lazarus poem that has long functioned as a kind of unofficial American immigration mantra. “Give me your tired and your poor who can stand on their own two feet and who will not become a public charge,” he proudly told NPR’s Rachel Martin, who somehow resisted the urge to burst out laughing and/or slap him upside the head. …
Notorious former Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio, currently running for a Senate seat in Arizona, has made no bones about how he feels about illegal immigrants. Let’s say he is a bit — how shall we say? — hard core.
But what of Arpaio’s own immigrant roots? Born in Massachusetts in 1932, he is first generation American, the child of two Italian-born parents. And, to borrow a phrase from The New Yorker, it turns out — not surprisingly — that Joe Arpaio’s grandma was a so-called chain migrant.
“Chain migration” is the anti-immigration community’s epithet for the perfectly legal mechanism by which well-vetted immigrants come to the U.S: they are allowed to join close family members already here. The policy is officially known as family reunification, and even before it was codified as policy, it was the spirit in which countless millions of Americans became American, including Arpaio himself. …
There’s been nothing short of an explosion in consumer DNA testing of late. How do you decide which test to take and with which company? I’m going to assess the various options with an eye towards Jewish testers, who have to factor in the complications associated with endogamy. But many of these recommendations will be universal. I am not paid or endorsed by any of these companies. This is just my personal experience as a consumer and as one of the moderators of the Jewish genetic genealogy group on Facebook.
Before you start, it’s important to clarify why you’re taking a DNA test. If it’s just because you’re curious about your ethnicity, you might want to test at whichever company is having the best sale —in my experience, and listening to the experiences of countless others, there aren’t huge differences between what they’ll find. (Requisite disclaimer: ethnicity estimates are just that — estimates. It is far from an exact science, so do not take your results as gospel. They will get the big picture right, like the continent, but not necessarily the fine details, like the exact countries. And DNA cannot accurately pinpoint exactly what country your Jewish ancestors were from, anyway, which can be a disappointment for some.) One thing you might want to consider is is whether the company you’re using can identify Jewish ancestry in categories beyond Ashkenazi: currently that means using FTDNA (which also claims to be able to identify Sephardic DNA) or MyHeritage, which has the most Jewish DNA categories, including Sephardic (North Africa), Mizrahi (Iran/Iraq), Yemenite and Ethiopian. …
Perhaps you’ve been lured by the siren song of the commercials (“We thought we were German! But it turns out we’re Scottish!”) and had your DNA tested by a company like Ancestry, FamilyTreeDNA, MyHeritage or 23andme. You’re certainly not alone: Ancestry currently boasts some 4 million people in its DNA database. Perhaps, like me, your secret hopes of learning you were Inuit or Maori were dashed and the test instead confirmed what you pretty much already knew: that your ancestors were, overwhelmingly, Eastern European Jews. (“You could have paid me a hundred dollars to tell you that,” deadpanned my brother-in-law.) …