Yom Kippur 5778, Shabbat AM, September 30, 2017
Rabbi Michael Friedland, Sinai Synagogue
Five years ago, Alice Collins Plebuch made a decision that would alter her future — or really, her past.
She sent away for a “just-for-fun DNA test.” When the tube arrived, she spit and spit until she filled it up to the line, and then sent it off in the mail. She wanted to know what she was made of.
Plebuch, now 69, already had a rough idea of what she would find. Her parents, both deceased, were Irish American Catholics who raised her and her six siblings with church Sundays and ethnic pride. But Plebuch wanted to know more about her dad’s side of the family. The son of Irish immigrants, Jim Collins had been raised in an orphanage from a young age, and his extended family tree was murky.
After a few weeks during which her saliva was analyzed, she got an email in the summer of 2012 with a link to her results. The report was confounding.
About half of Plebuch’s DNA results presented the mixed British Isles bloodline she expected. The other half picked up an unexpected combination of European Jewish, Middle Eastern and Eastern European. Alice was certain that Ancestry.com had screwed up. She wrote them a nasty note. She insisted that they redo the DNA test. They did and the test results were the same.
After the initial shock of her test results, Alice wondered if her mother might have had an affair. Or her grandmother, perhaps? Alice had 6 siblings, several of them had their DNA tested. Results were returned - along with some relief – no hanky panky, all had the same gene distributions.
Alice and her sister, Gerry, now plunged into gene detective mode. Where did their Jewish ancestry come from? Their mother seemed unlikelier since they knew much of her family history. But what about her father?
Born in the Bronx, Jim Collins was a baby when his mother died. His longshoreman father was unable to care for his three children and sent them to an orphanage. He died while Jim was still a child, and Jim had only limited contact with his extended family as an adult.
But still, the notion Jim could somehow be Jewish seemed far-fetched. His parents had come to the United States from Ireland, and his Irish identity was central to Jim’s sense of himself.
A more detailed analysis showed that the Jewish DNA contributions did come from her father. Alice and her sister Gerry reached out to a first cousin from their father’s side seeking to find a Jewish connection to the Collins family tree.
They’d been so certain of their family roots, and “now”, they felt, “we know nothing” . They became obsessed with their origins “It is the first thing I think about when I wake up in the morning and the last thing I think about as I drift off to sleep” wrote Gerry. “I really lost all my identity,” said Alice. “I felt adrift. I didn’t know who I was — you know, who I really was.”
The test for her first cousin produced another surprise. Genetically they were not related at all becauseJim Collins and his sister were not genetically related. Alice then pursued records from the orphanage where her father grew up, the hospital where he was born. Nothing came of the efforts.
Until one day when her first cousin told her that he had been contacted by a woman who found through genetic testing that she was related to him. Alice emailed her and Jessica Benson responded “I was actually expecting to be much more Ashkenazi than I am”, instead, she wrote, she had discovered “that I am actually Irish, which I had not expected at all.”
Alice asked Jessica more questions - was anyone in your family born on Sept. 23, 1913, possibly at Fordham Hospital in the Bronx? Jessica replied that her grandfather, Phillip Benson, might have been born around that date and he was from the Bronx.
Pursuing hospital records from the Bronx the mystery was finally solved. Phillip Benson and Jim Collins were both born on the same day in the same hospital and somehow - the hospital accidentally switched the babies. The Jewish Benson baby ended up going home with an Irish family, and the Irish Catholic Collins baby was taken home by the Jewish Bensons.
In the end, Alice does not regret going down the rabbit’s hole of DNA testing. She has a better understanding of her genetic past, she solved a mystery but her sense of self has been jarred awake. “I didn’t know who I really was”. DNA revealed that Alice Plebuch was not who she thought she was. And her story asks a larger question of all of us: Who are we really?
Are we the sum of our genes? A distillation of the cultural milieu we grow up in? Are we our own person?
Yom Kippur forces us to ask that question of ourselves. Am I who I think I am? Am I the role I play or that was assigned to me? Is there a deeper self waiting to be revealed?
We emphasize the importance of doing teshuvah all the time but especially during these 10 days. Teshuvah has many meanings. Teshuvah can mean ‘response’ – responding to God’s call to “turn from evil and do good”. It can mean turning. And teshuvah can mean return. But return to what? In the Book of Isaiah, Isaiah states that the essence of the problem in sinning is “Ki im avonoteychem hayu mavdilim beyneychem l’vein Eloheichem” Your sins have separated you from your God. But the first part of the verse can be understood “Ki im avonoteychem hayu mavdilim beyneychem” Your sins have separated yourselves. Sin is considered a break, a departure from one’s true self. Professor Byron Sherwin wrote that “Sin is an action that alienates an individual from himself or herself and from God. Teshuvah denotes return to one’s own self and to God.”
The point of doing teshuvah is, in a very real sense, to find out just who we are. We can do that by repairing broken relationships.
Jonathan Goldstein is an American-Canadian author, humorist and radio producer. His father, Buzz, is 80 years old and his uncle, Sheldon, his father’s brother is 85. The two had hardly spoken in 40 years and had not seen each other for 20. The source of the bitterness was not clear. It may have begun at the funeral of their mother. When Buzz the younger brother was incensed that Sheldon demanded more money from him for funeral expenses. Or it may have been an issue between wives. Or maybe it had to do with Buzz being insulted the way he was treated when he visited Sheldon in Florida, or maybe it was Sheldon who was insulted when he visited Buzz in Montreal. But Jonathan Goldstein knew that his 80 year old father did not suffer regret lightly. And if he and his 85 year old brother did not soon make up, his father might lose the opportunity and then suffer to the end of his days living with regret. Goldstein resolved to find a way to bring the two together.
Like Aaron of the Bible, he sought to bring the brothers together by telling each one that the other very much wanted to see him. His father at first wanted no part of it. “He has no interest in seeing me. I used to look up to him when I was a kid. He was the older brother. But you know, he always had an angle.” Eventually though Goldstein is able to get his dad to agree that if Sheldon would want to see him he would visit. Sheldon, a widower, was a gruffer version of his younger brother. He told his nephew that he liked being a loner these days, though it was sometimes lonely. “Sure, if he wants to see me. I mean we’re not close but he’s my brother”.
So with not a small amount of trepidation, Jonathan Goldstein accompanies his father to visit his uncle in Florida. His father gets more and more anxious as they get closer to the house. Goldstein reveals that his grandparents had a tumultuous relationship. The grandfather had a terrible temper and had once chased his wife from the house after beating her. The grandmother had a cold personality. Goldstein’s father always felt that his mother favored his brother and deep within had nurtured a resentment towards both. This was due to his memory of when his mother left the family following a domestic abuse situation. She soon returned and took Sheldon with her. Buzz had been left with his father and grandmother. Though his father had never been harsh with him, it hurt to be rejected by his mother. A year later the mother moved back with her husband and Sheldon and Buzz grew up together, but each according to Buzz, now knew whom their mother loved better. Even more so, the event had cast a shadow overthe rest of Buzz Goldstein’s life. He always saw himself as passed over for someone else, sensitive to the smallest of slights.
Eventually they arrive at Sheldon’s condo and the first two days together are somewhat awkward. Buzz is shocked to find out that his brother’s wife had died years earlier and had never been told. They tiptoe around touchy subjects. But they also share warm memories of growing up in rough and tumble Brooklyn. By the end of the short visit the brothers are clearly enjoying their company. And Goldstein decides he needs to know more about that painful moment in his father’s life when his mother chose his brother over him. So he asks his Uncle Sheldon if he can recall the event. “From my Dad’s memories you were favored by your mother, was that true?”
Sheldon admits that perhaps he was, because he and their mother had similar temperaments. But he also reveals that their father used to verbally and physically abuse him. “A lot of things that went on and you didn’t really understand all that was going on cause you were so young”. Buzz admits that he never knew this and turns to Jonathan, “you know I never realized all that Sheldon had to carry with him. It wasn’t fair. He was a good son, he worked hard, he was a good boy.” Sheldon responds “You make me sound like I’m some kind of a loser”. “No” says Buzz, “it’s just that I realize now the emotional impact all of that had on your life.” “Yeah, that’s true,” admits Sheldon, “and it took a long time to come to terms with it. But now I am at peace with it. I can even laugh about it”. At the conclusion of the visit before they part Jonathan asks, “So this was important for the two of you to see each other?”. “Yes”, responds his father, “There was a lot of water under the bridge and we want to close that bridge now. I want to feel easy now, I don’t want to have to stand on ceremony to call him for a birthday. I am happy I came.”
They take their leave and as Buzz and Jonathan return to the airport, Buzz keeps repeating to his son, “Johnny I feel so different now. I just feel so different.” Even at 80 years old, teshuvah can renew a soul and a relationship. Buzz Goldstein thought he was a younger brother beleaguered through life because his mother preferred his older brother, a man who allowed his resentment at being passed over by his mother to encumber numerous interactions in life. But in fact he was a beloved son, who could appreciate the burden an older brother carried and could love him for it.
Teshuvah is reconciliation, it assists a person in returning to their true self, or finding that true self. Teshuvah demands hope and faith. Adin Steinsaltz has written that teshuvah is an act that breaks the moral laws of causality. If one does something wrong, what's done is done. We cannot go back in time and undo what we did. We can only move forward in time. Yet with repentance we do precisely that in the moral realm - we can undo what we did, we go back to the misdeed, we examine ourselves, we make amends for it, we apologize for it, we find that part of ourselves that led to doing the transgression and reform ourselves. It is that emphasis on the future, not only the introspection, the expressions of remorse and regret, the apologies and acknowledgement of doing wrong. Teshuvah is the resolve to change going forward so as not to repeat the wrong. Teshuvah requires a leap of faith, a leap of faith in oneself.
Many years ago, Danny Landes, a popular teacher of Talmud in Jerusalem, had a friend at Yeshiva University who was studying hard to get into medical school while Rabbi Landes was preparing for a career in the rabbinate. His friend was a relentless, driven, and ambitious student. His parents were Holocaust survivors who had scraped their meager earnings to provide their son with a life so many of their family members were not able to see. Landes’ friend pushed himself hard to get into an elite medical school and pursued that career as a committed Jew.
He was conspicuous in those days by his choice to wear a kippah and continue daily Talmud study in addition to medical studies and rounds. He had one mentor, a senior white-haired surgeon he always called “The Professor”. This doctor was a gentleman: impeccably dressed, with a precise and sparing manner of speech, incisive understanding of the body, and amazing technique. He reigned over the oncology ward with full authority and an exceedingly dry wit. This Jewish medical student was in awe of him.
One day during rounds, “The Professor” led his charges by the bed of a severely ill patient. They reviewed the patient’s history, surveying his charts and X-rays. Landes friend, the medical student, was asked to summarize the case, which he did and added off-handedly his personal analysis: “He hasn’t a chance.” “The Professor” led his charges out of the room. In the corridor, he seized the student by the arm, took him aside, but within earshot of his colleagues, said through gritted teeth: “You casually pronounced a death sentence by that man’s sick bed. A person like you has no right to be a doctor. You are thrown out of this school. And don’t think that you can get in somewhere else — I still have enough influence to have you blackballed everywhere else. Get out!”
Rabbi Landes’ friend was devastated. He sulked home, barely able to speak to his friends. All of Shabbat he sat in an almost catatonic state. Everything his parents had sacrificed for, all of his hard work, his commitments, all forfeited. How would he tell his parents, his shame was overwhelming.
After the weekend, he dressed in his black Shabbat suit in order to clean out his locker and apologize to “the Professor”. Rabbi Landes wrote that “To us, adjusting his tie and pale-face, he looked like he was going to his own funeral.”
After he cleaned out his locker, he went to his teacher. The secretary told him to wait and half an hour later eventually buzzed him in. He sat down and tried to speak but the words would not come. Finally the teacher looked up from his papers. “Son, I know why you are here. Of course, you can stay on as a medical student. I am not removing you from the program. You might yet even become a good doctor. I just wanted you to know what it is to live without hope.”
Rabbi Landes concludes the story: His friend changed, still driven but clearly more kind and more gentle. The Professor - who was not Jewish – had spoken the emes – the truth. Teshuvah — the ability to change and to reconcile, – it is all based on hope.
And that is what Yom Kippur instills within us. The hope and even the confidence, that we can, in fact, change. We can return to the true self within us, to that unblemished, whole self that God delivered to us the day we were born.
Who are we really? We are whom we resolve to become. May this year be a year in which teshuvah leads us to become the kinder, gentler, righteous individual God expects of us.