AN INTERFAITH LOVE STORY FROM THE 1700's
By: Susie Fields
In the spring of 2006, my husband and I were entering the world of parenthood. Like so many first-timers, we were overly conscientious. We investigated the proper neo-natal diet, neo-natal vitamins, considered moving into a larger home, bought a sensible car, and looked into genetic testing. We spoke to our OB/GYN at a large downtown practice and decided we were not candidates for genetic testing. After all, only one of us was Jewish. My husband is 100% Ashkenazi Jewish and I am 100% not Jewish, or so we thought.
In fact, my husband, Steve, found novelty in sharing the details of my American family lineage with new acquaintances. It dates back hundreds of years but falls a handful of generations short of the Mayflower. As my family legend sings, the first of my American grandparents were part of the Huguenot immigration out of France, a Protestant group fleeing religious persecution. Regardless of which family line we traced, my North American roots are solidly planted on all sides by the late 1700s. We even have family celebrities participating prominently in both the Revolutionary and Civil Wars. I am the embodiment of colonial immigration, believing my DNA was a mix of French, Germanic, and English ancestry.
Steve’s ancestry included its own family legends. Two Jewish brothers risking their lives to escape Russian pogroms. They entered the cold waters of a Black Sea port, swimming towards two different ships which ferried them to adventures on two separate continents, never meeting again. The story continues with one of the brothers entering the United States, and having a son who eventually changed his surname from Finglefield to Field. (My children thank that ancestor regularly in their prayers.)
So there I was, 16 weeks pregnant for the first time. As is customary, I had diligently made successive appointments with each of the doctors in the large practice. On this day, I was meeting with Doctor 3. She casually walked into the room, introduced herself, noted my age, and verbally wondered why I hadn’t undergone a number of neo-natal and genetic tests. (I should mention, I was almost 37 years old.) I explained that my husband and I were comfortable with all of the results of the “extra” ultra-sounds. The chances of medical issues were minimal. And…after all…I was not Jewish.
The next few words Doctor 3 bluntly stated not only made me laugh out-loud but also caused a flurry of activity. “Well, Mrs. Field, as long you are neither Creole nor French Canadian.” I was dumbstruck. My mother is 50% French Canadian. I guess, that makes me at least 25% French Canadian. What did that mean? Was that enough to call myself French Canadian?
Without going into a deep dive of French Canadian history, I will sum it up for you with a few key facts. The British Army’s entrance into Canada in the mid-1700s resulted in the immigration of Ashkenazi Jewish soldiers, especially to an area outside of Quebec. And frankly, love knows no bounds. In fact, one of the first and most prominent Jews in the British Army, Samuel Jacobs, had several children with two French Canadian women.*
A few more important facts: Everyone regardless of ethnicity is at risk to be carriers for different genetic conditions. Although Tay-Sachs disease is commonly associated with the Jewish community, individuals with French Canadian, Cajun, and Irish ancestry are also at a higher risk to be carriers for Tay-Sachs. No condition is exclusive to a particular community which is why genetic counseling and carrier screening is important for all individuals and couples that are beginning the family planning process.
Let’s go back to 2006; I was sitting on the examination table, staring, bewildered, at Doctor 3. She followed up, “Why don’t we give your husband a quick call and have him come in for genetic testing. Regardless of what you decide to do with the results, it’s better to know if you are carriers of genetic diseases.” I couldn’t argue with that. (For more information on what it means to be a carrier of a genetic disease, please see the Center’s website: https://www.jewishgenetics.org/FAQ).
Because I was 16 weeks along, the in-house genetic testing team had Steve’s blood drawn within an hour. We headed home that afternoon, where Steve gleefully called my mother to say, “Hi, Barb, I want to formally welcome you to the tribe!”
Luckily for us, our results indicated that Steve was not a carrier for any of the major diseases tested. Steve and I have two fabulous, rambunctious children. As recommended, we completed a new round of genetic testing with each pregnancy. Since the field of genetics continues to evolve, it is important to check in with your health care provider to check for updated recommendations.
Although, our families were always supportive of our interfaith marriage, I am reminded that we did not break new ground. Interfaith relationships have always been a part of human history. As a result, carrier screening is important for all couples, whether both partners are fully Ashkenazi Jewish or neither are fully Ashkenazi Jewish, because ethnicity can be complicated. Learning about our DNA is a path that leads many of us to meet ancestry we never knew existed.
Anderson, Mark. The battle for the fourteenth colony: America's war of liberation in Canada, 1774-1776. Hanover, New Hampshire: University Press of New England, 2013
Greer, Alan. Peasant, Lord, and Merchant: Rural Society in Three Quebec Parishes 1740-1840 (Social History of Canada, 39) Paperback – October 1, 1985. Toronto, Canada: University of Toronto Press, 1985.
InterfaithFamily is the premier resource supporting interfaith couples exploring Jewish life and inclusive Jewish communities. We offer educational content; connections to welcoming organizations, professionals and programs; resources and trainings for organizations, clergy and other program providers; and our InterfaithFamily/Your Community initiative, providing coordinated comprehensive offerings in local communities, including Atlanta, Boston, Chicago, Los Angeles, Philadelphia, the San Francisco Bay Area, and Washington, DC with a pilot affiliate program in Cleveland.