What is my ethnic heritage?
March 8, 2022 12:00 PM   Subscribe

This is something of a nagging philosophical question. My late mother’s long-deceased immigrant Jewish father died when she was in her teens. When she described him, she would say he was Russian from near Kiev, which was all she knew. Fast forward to 2020 when I started getting interested in genealogy, and suddenly I am confounded by what I’ve learned. Can you help me frame my heritage?

As I found more information about my grandfather and his siblings, I started to read about the Pale of the Settlement and the history of that region, which I should have been taught in school, but never was.

Throughout their lifetimes, my grandfather and his siblings answered official questions about their nationality based on the political truth in that moment. From the late 1800s or so, my grandfather and his siblings identified as Polish, Russian, Soviet and, in one case of mistaken identity, Romanian.

Bit by bit, I also began finding overlapping evidence of the same ancestral town for several of them, about an hour from the city of Kiev: Bila Tserkva

Nowadays, there are about 100 people in Ukraine with my surname. From past experience, I know there are some in Russia, too. I have also traced my family name in Bila Tserkva to 1850, and I highly suspect it goes back much earlier. I was actually already consulting with a genealogist in Ukraine when the war broke out.

Now, I know that evidence of Ukraine as an independent people long preceded its ability to realize its nationhood. But it was certainly not a nation when my ancestors were there, and I have never heard, two degrees removed, any mention of the place. But it also seems increasingly unlikely that I am of Russian descent. I know many might simply answer Jewish to the "What are you?" question, but I wear that identity lightly and don’t identify overmuch with Israel. I am, however, in strong need of a place to identify with, if only a little. Although I am relatively young, I have no family left.

Help me frame this.
posted by Violet Blue to Religion & Philosophy (44 answers total) 9 users marked this as a favorite
I’m not completely sure what you’re asking, but (according to my mom) some of my ancestors were from an area of Eastern Europe that is now Poland, but was Russia at the time they left (late 1800s I think). If I were to describe my ethnicity, I’d say that I’m of “Eastern European Jewish” descent or “Ashkenazi Jewish” descent.
posted by maleficent at 12:16 PM on March 8, 2022 [7 favorites]

So, for the "simply Jewish" part--especially if you have discomfort with Jewish identity linked with Israel, (as maleficent says), you could identify as Ashkenazi. If you want to get finer grained, depending on how far north of Kiev we're talking, you're likely descended from Litvaks; that is, Jews from the territory previously known as the Grand Duchy of Lithuania; see wiki article here. (One good question to check: did your Jewish relatives ever make gefilte fish? Was it sweet or savory? Savory = Lithuanian Jews, sweet = Galician Jews.)
posted by damayanti at 12:22 PM on March 8, 2022 [4 favorites]

Ethnicity is not really related to political borders. We like to think it is, but it isn't. Not every ethnicity has an associated, clearly defined physical location, particularly not one that is related to a modern nation-state. Realistically, if you're looking to identify specifically with the background of this one particular ancestor, "Eastern European Jewish, my family is from an area that's now in Ukraine" sounds right to me.

I'm not sure what identifying with Israel has to do with it; many people who are Jewish identify more strongly with other places. (I would hesitate to tell a Jewish New Yorker who identifies strongly with New York that they ought to consider themselves Israeli instead because they are Jewish.)
posted by Rock 'em Sock 'em at 12:26 PM on March 8, 2022 [14 favorites]

I don't know how you feel about DNA testing, but Ancestry narrowed my ancestry from that part of the world down to the Baltic region (I'm half Lithuanian, so I knew it was correct). They were also correct about the specific region of Ireland my other ancestors were from.

I'm sure there are all sorts of problems with relying on Ancestry, so I'm just sharing my experience in case you think it could give you some useful data.
posted by FencingGal at 12:30 PM on March 8, 2022 [2 favorites]

More detail on the above points: Why Russian Jews Are Not Russian. That distinction continued through the Soviet era: "In the Soviet Union, no one in their right mind, Jew or non-Jew, would have ever thought of identifying Jews as 'Russians'!"
posted by Mr.Know-it-some at 12:31 PM on March 8, 2022 [6 favorites]

Best answer: it's extremely gross to jump in and tell a poster they should be ashamed of being Jewish because (you) hate Israel.

OP, that side of your family were Eastern European Jews. The Russian government never considered the Jews within its borders to be Russian; they did not identify themselves this way; the national borders in the Jewish Pale of Settlement changed all the time; everyone around there, including the Jews, considered the Jews to be a distinct ethnic group, one of many in the region. To the extent they might have labeled themselves more specifically, it would have had to do with the language they spoke in addition to Yiddish. (Like my family spoke Polish, and considered themselves Polish Jews, although the map of the spot they were from now says Ukraine; and in any event, the distinction only ever mattered in comparison with other Jews.) Eastern Europe has always been extremely diverse and borders do not correspond to ethnicity.
posted by fingersandtoes at 12:43 PM on March 8, 2022 [16 favorites]

Best answer: For me, to some extent my ancestry goes back as far as I can be certain of. I am 3rd generation American for 3/4 lines of my family, and my grandparents had enough ties to hear the stories/connections to the old country. Like you, my mom said her mom's side was from "near Lviv" and with some digging and help from a Ukrainian ancestry facebook page, I was able to locate (and get translated) my great-grandfather's birth record, which was actually in a Greek Orthodox church. Further digging shows that ethnic group was originally from further south (vicinity of mainland Greece, more or less) and got pushed north to the area he was born. However, while interesting, I don't feel certain enough of his exact heritage to be able to say I have Greek ancestry - and what does that even mean, to the modern world? But I am sure that he was from the territory of modern Ukraine and closely related to modern Ukrainians, so I describe that part of my ancestry as Ukrainian.

I also did AncestryDNA out of curiosity and while I find it generally supports what I already knew, it's not great for eastern Europe - I think the sample size of its database is just not good enough. It's amazing for Irish, and adequate to interesting for most of western Europe.
posted by DoubleLune at 12:44 PM on March 8, 2022

Best answer: I was quite puzzled myself this week to realize that Odessa was in Ukraine. I'd been told growing up that particular side of the family was German, though it was somehow in Russia during my childhood, which I never understood. Indeed, my grandmother's native language was German, despite being born in the U.S. (Apparently, great-grandfather was born in the U.S. just a couple months after his parents immigrated, and great-grandmother was born and raised in Odesa.)

Finally managed to stumble on the phrase "Black Sea Germans"... so I don't quite know what I am, other than the "heinz 57 mutt" as I've always been told... I've wasted most of two nights this week wandering Family Search, because someone out there managed to add an ancestor I couldn't find myself, and it opened up a wealth of doors.

This weirdness of multiple immigrations might also partially explain why my daughter, when she did dna testing, found some Ashkenazi Jewish mixed in with the expected Irish and English and German (from the other sides of the family).

But it's been quite disconcerting to realize that I very likely have 3rd cousins living - and fighting - in Ukraine right now... especially when on another branch of my family tree, I was raised with calling my third cousins just "cousins".

Edited: to correct spelling of Odesa. I've been looking at too many old documents with it spelled with two S's lately.
posted by stormyteal at 12:46 PM on March 8, 2022 [3 favorites]

Best answer: That part of the world has changed hands and overseers so much in the last four centuries that just about everyone has a complicated answer to the ancestry question. In just one line in my family, the son of a Belarusian woman and a Ukrainian man identified firmly as Russian, but his multiple children fleeing west after World War I produced grandchildren that identified as Polish, Lithuanian, Ukrainian and German. And some of them intermarried with Jews from the same regions, who as far as I can tell ranged from identifying as "Polish of Jewish origin" to "Jews from Belarus" to "don't talk about it and vote for whoever is in power".

Please be careful that around 1850 national identities in the region were still very young. The local empires (Russia, Austria, the corpse of the Commonwealth of Both Nations that they happily tore apart) always consisted of disparate regions acquired under often dubious circumstances, and local identities - hometown, culture, home language, the food you put on the table - were much more important than the detailed labels, as evidenced by your ancestors.
posted by I claim sanctuary at 12:52 PM on March 8, 2022 [9 favorites]

Best answer: Ethnicity and ancestral identification are very complicated particularly if you, like so many of us, have ancestors that immigrated (or were enslaved/deported/transported, of course) from an ancestral homeland or nation to a multicultural settler state. Add in ease of access to genealogical records and many of the beliefs or stories we tell ourselves about our backgrounds are upended by new discoveries.

I don't have a direct answer to the OP because I end up asking the same questions about myself.

I did notice OP that you only reference one side of your ancestry; perhaps there is something to be gained from identifying with the other family. In our case, I identify far more with my paternal heritage and my wife with her maternal heritage; not because of any gendered preference but because the stories are much less complicated to understand and are much better documented.
posted by fortitude25 at 12:56 PM on March 8, 2022 [1 favorite]

it's extremely gross to jump in and tell a poster they should be ashamed of being Jewish because (you) hate Israel.

Sorry, are you referring to my comment or perhaps one that was deleted? I don't at all think anyone should be ashamed of being Jewish because of anything to do with Israel. In case anyone else is confused, the question states that:

I know many might simply answer Jewish to the "What are you?" question, but I wear that identity lightly and don’t identify overmuch with Israel.

My point is quite the opposite of what you seem to have read from my comment, so I'll clarify in case it was confusing. It's very possible (and quite common, at least in my experience) to identify strongly as Jewish without feeling particularly identified with modern-day Israel. I don't think that stating that your ethnicity is, simply, "Jewish" means that your primary entho-political identification is with Israel, the modern nation-state. My father is Jewish, for example, and no one mistakes him for being Israeli when he says that.
posted by Rock 'em Sock 'em at 1:00 PM on March 8, 2022 [20 favorites]

I have a similar lineage and have thought of my ancestors as Russian Jews. My great grandparents, who died long ago, spoke Russian and both described themselves as being from Russia, although from what I know they came from cities in Ukraine and Moldova. It was the Russian Empire at the time. They immigrated to America in the early 1900s.

Even though it sounds like you don't quite think of yourself as Jewish, you might be surprised to learn that there are a lot of others with similar lineage who feel the same way, and that could be something you can hang onto.
posted by wondermouse at 1:13 PM on March 8, 2022 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: I was unclear because I'm still working it out myself: I'm interested in identifying with a place. Eastern Europe is too big for me. Israel isn't mine either. I was getting a bit dreamy about some of the glorious landscapes and architecture in Ukraine, but it's not really mine to identify with now that there's a war going on. (The other side of the family doesn't do it for me for banal reasons.)
posted by Violet Blue at 1:18 PM on March 8, 2022

Something that also helps me frame my heritage is knowing that my Russian Jewish ancestors fled their countries because they were Jewish. I have never felt like I identified with exactly where they came from, maybe somehow because of that. Russian Jew means something pretty specific in my mind, as millions of Russian Jews fled the area for the same reason. So, I am part Russian Jew, which in my life mostly means I like smoked fish, matzoh brei, and borscht.
posted by wondermouse at 1:31 PM on March 8, 2022 [2 favorites]

Also I could've been wrong earlier when I said they spoke Russian. They may have spoken Yiddish as a first language. I'm not sure.
posted by wondermouse at 1:33 PM on March 8, 2022

Best answer: Okay, why not Bila Tserkva? Plenty of people identify with specific cities or sub-regions.
posted by Rock 'em Sock 'em at 1:49 PM on March 8, 2022 [8 favorites]

As someone also of Eastern European Jewish descent: wait what

I am incredibly leery of constructing cultural/ethnic identity around places, around land, around, uh, biological ancestry and soil. I feel this way particularly strongly about locations you have some kind of many-generations-back connection to, but have never actually lived in.

One of the stories of who we are as a people says essentially that we are text-based, that Rabbinic Judaism is a product of exile, of reconstructing a tradition built around a holy temple in a holy city into a tradition built around a collection of books and commentaries.

As a Jewish person who is not a Zionist: you tagged this post 'homeland' but an important part of my identity is the bit where I don't think we have one, except maybe Planet Earth. The term 'Diaspora' literally means 'scattering' and we have been scattered across the world for a very long time. We get kicked out of and/or have to flee places all the time. What we have are food and stories and memories, thinkers and rituals and intellectual traditions, language and jokes and values.

Oh, and also the area some of my great-grandparents immigrated from has a memorial to the pogrom that probably drove them out. So there's that, to look at, if I ever want to get on a plane to Eastern Europe and see for myself. But that's not exactly a grand human accomplishment that makes me feel warmed and soothed by my connection to that area. It's just a place.

The way I tend to feel about this kind of longing is that dirt is dirt and will not love you back or keep you.

I know I sound kind of bleak, here, but I am trying to expand on my thinking about this cultural/ethnoreligious concept in the hopes that it will help you work out what you believe, even if we are in extreme disagreement.
posted by All Might Be Well at 1:55 PM on March 8, 2022 [36 favorites]

I'm not going to stop you with identifying with wherever you want, but your ancestors would almost certainly have felt a closer kinship with Jewish people from across Eastern Europe than with their gentile neighbors or worth any larger-than-village-sized area they lived in.

I don't know what your family's history is in North America, but as for me, five-eighths of my family tree immigrated through New York City and many of my grandparents and great-grandparents spent significant portions of their life here. Certainly New York feels more like home than any town in Belarus that shares the name with a shtetl that the Nazis burnt to the ground that my ancestors used to live in. So that could be an option too as a place to identify with.

You could also try reading Everything Is Illuminated which IMO does a good job of talking through some of the things that could make identifying with your ancestors' Eastern European home somewhat fraught.
posted by goingonit at 2:10 PM on March 8, 2022 [13 favorites]

Most of our ancestors didn't describe themselves as "Russian" or "Polish" or "Ukrainian" or "Romanian" because the people who did identify themselves that way were actively trying to kill them. Those of us who are now Americans are Americans because our ancestors fled those countries for their lives, and many of them never spoke the names of the towns or countries they fled ever again, because of the trauma they faced there and how grateful they were to be here. Anti-Semitism is the reason many Jewish people with ancestry in that part of the world describe ourselves as Jews or Ashkenazi Jews (regardless of how we feel about the current state of Israel and its government). Jews are a diasporic people -- not being from the places we're from is part of our ethnicity and culture.

Reading your questions, I wondered if internalized anti-Semitism might be part of why you have trouble with using Jewish as your own ethnicity. Being Jewish doesn't have to mean endorsing the politics of the Israeli government (or the history of Israel as a state), any more than being American makes me a fan of the American government and its actions, past and present. Being American doesn't mean I endorse either Donald Trump or Andrew Jackson.
posted by shadygrove at 2:15 PM on March 8, 2022 [20 favorites]

And to add to shadygrove, the very idea that being Jewish implies an automatic affinity to Israel is connective to the very anti-semitic idea of dual loyalty, explained here by the ADL.

OP, if you are interested in learning more, I'd suggest reading (interestingly titled given your goal here) A Biography of No Place by Kate Brown. Despite being published by a university press, it is very readable for non-academics. It's one of the better history books I've read, and I'm a historian.

From the book description:
This is a biography of a borderland between Russia and Poland, a region where, in 1925, people identified as Poles, Germans, Jews, Ukrainians, and Russians lived side by side. Over the next three decades, this mosaic of cultures was modernized and homogenized out of existence by the ruling might of the Soviet Union, then Nazi Germany, and finally, Polish and Ukrainian nationalism. By the 1950s, this “no place” emerged as a Ukrainian heartland, and the fertile mix of peoples that defined the region was destroyed.

Kate Brown’s study is grounded in the life of the village and shtetl, in the personalities and small histories of everyday life in this area. In impressive detail, she documents how these regimes, bureaucratically and then violently, separated, named, and regimented this intricate community into distinct ethnic groups.

Drawing on recently opened archives, ethnography, and oral interviews that were unavailable a decade ago, A Biography of No Place reveals Stalinist and Nazi history from the perspective of the remote borderlands, thus bringing the periphery to the center of history. We are given, in short, an intimate portrait of the ethnic purification that has marked all of Europe, as well as a glimpse at the margins of twentieth-century “progress.”

posted by coffeecat at 2:24 PM on March 8, 2022 [13 favorites]

A note for all: the correct spelling is Kyiv.
posted by cooker girl at 2:25 PM on March 8, 2022 [4 favorites]

Lots of good perspectives above. I am 100% Ashkenazi Jew (at least that’s what 23 And Me says) with ancestors from Ukraine, Lithuania, and likely more nearby places. I have always expressed myself as simply Eastern European in descent, especially when I don’t want to outright say that I am Jewish.
posted by gnutron at 2:26 PM on March 8, 2022 [2 favorites]

I'm interested in identifying with a place.

I think you have a difficult problem here. Others have expressed well why, for the Jews of Eastern Europe, this kind of identification is fraught and often impossible to pin down, and many if not most have historically eschewed such efforts. I also think it's in conflict with the question you used to title this post, "What is my ethnic heritage?" There simply may not be an overlap that suits you between "ethnic heritage" and "place" in this particular Venn diagram.

Hopefully the thoughts of others here who are similarly situated can help you reach a place of some satisfaction, though. Quoting fingersandtoes above:

my family spoke Polish, and considered themselves Polish Jews, although the map of the spot they were from now says Ukraine

Exact same story with my father, who grew up what is now called Lviv (then known as Lwow) and identified the same way, as a Polish Jew. He never called himself just "Polish," for reasons similar to those referenced above in Mr.Know-it-some's comment.

I'd also add that I've never heard any Jews who were not born in or did not at one point live in the state of Israel identify as "Israeli" just because they are Jewish. And even if they were born or did live there, not always then: My father became a citizen of Israel after the war before later moving to the U.S., but he didn't generally call himself "Israeli" either.

I personally identify ethnically as Jewish, but this can just be very tough question for people of our background, especially because Jews long predate modern concepts like nationality. Good luck to you.
posted by Conrad Cornelius o'Donald o'Dell at 2:27 PM on March 8, 2022 [2 favorites]

Response by poster: Okay, okay, everyone. I tried to take Jewish off the table when I asked the question. Several people understood that, and responded accordingly. A hell of a lot of you are getting stuck on my perceived feelings for or against Israel. Please, that is not what I asked. The clue here is dead family, not Jewish and not Israel.
posted by Violet Blue at 2:28 PM on March 8, 2022 [1 favorite]

If you want to identify with the land where your ancestors used to live in a way that feels meaningful to you, I don't think any of us are going to try and stop you (nor could we!) But if you are asking, "how would my ancestors have identified themselves, but don't say Jewish", that kind of puts us in a bind.
posted by goingonit at 2:33 PM on March 8, 2022 [9 favorites]

The reality of being of central or eastern European descent is that ideas of "nationality" (which seems to be more what you're after than ethnicity) are extremely hazy. There simply weren't single-ethnicity nation states in the way we're often encouraged to talk about ancestry in the US until the twentieth century, in many places not until after 1945. Your physical location (and who controlled it at the moment) mattered, your religion mattered, your primary language mattered, on and on.
posted by hoyland at 2:36 PM on March 8, 2022 [2 favorites]

Response by poster: "But if you are asking, "how would my ancestors have identified themselves...."
Only I'm not. I've repeatedly talked about place.
posted by Violet Blue at 2:37 PM on March 8, 2022 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Another point -- ethnicity in the region was important to our ancestors, but always as a modifier to the word "Jewish." So, for example, my grandfather (and more importantly, his mother) considered himself to be in a "mixed marriage" (whatever that means!) because, even though he and his wife were both born in the U.S., he was a "Litvishe Jew" and she was a "Romanische Jew." There were major conflicts between Jews with roots in different communities -- and many of these conflicts shaped contemporary Judaism. "Litvishe" came to mean not just Lithuanian Jew, for example, but also Misnagdim -- someone who was not Hasidic. We use Sephardi Hebrew pronunciation in many synagogues today because some European Jews considered the Ashkenazi pronunciation to be associated with Polish Jews, who they considered "backward." German Jews considered themselves especially refined. So it's not as if the country where your ancestors lived would not have mattered to them, it would -- but it mattered in a specifically Jewish way, which it would be difficult to honestly erase if you want to understand your own heritage.
posted by shadygrove at 2:40 PM on March 8, 2022 [10 favorites]

My family on my mom's side are Jews from a shtetl near what is now Lviv, but which they would have called Lemberg. Family lore says that something like this conversation happened at Ellis Island:

Immigration agent: and what country are you from?
Great-grandpa: I come from the Austro-Hungarian Empire.
Agent: That doesn't fit on my form.
Great-grandpa: Well, the Russians invaded during the war, and then the Austrians recaptured it, and it is currently occupied by the Polish army..
Agent: (writes "Poland") next
posted by theodolite at 2:45 PM on March 8, 2022 [10 favorites]

Some of the answers here are pretty harsh. I don't want to flag anyone, but please respect that the OP is in the midst of research and reflection and not really knowing where that research is heading.

My maternal family has its roots in the Lithuanian part of the Pale. We don't know much about it. Most of the people who immigrated from there were very poor and also had no sentimental memories of the place. Imagine if you immigrated in the 1840s, as I think my ancestors did. That was only fifty years after the Pale of Settlement was created, and maybe they had been forced to move there from some other area within the Russian Empire - the physical appearance of my ancestors seems much more southern than many Ashkenazi Jews. They felt no connection to Lithuania at all, they had been subjected to terror in the form of pogroms, and they did not pass on anything about their time in Lithuania. Think back fifty years from right now, to the seventies. It doesn't seem that long ago. I was an immigrant then, but I still had ties to the old country, and eventually we went back. When you "delete" everything, it's because everything was bad. I think this may be why there are so strong reactions here.

Fifty years on from that, in the 1890s, my great-great grandfather had made it in the new country. My impression is that while moving up in society, he was integrated into the international/European Jewish society which was the norm in Western Europe until the Nazis killed all Jews, and as shadygrove wrote above, here the Sephardic jews were seen as more sophisticated and European. An interesting insight into this community can be found in "The Hare with Amber Eyes", by Edmund de Waal. My family was not nearly as rich as de Waal's family, but I can recognise a lot of the cultural aspects. Not least that however you identify, the Jewishness identifies you in the eyes of the antisemites, and that both creates a problem and a community. Edmund de Waal begins his story in Odesa.
I feel that there was probably something similar going on in the Jewish community in NYC, except that there was probably more assimilation going on in Western Europe at the time, and also it seems there was more of an Ashkenazi culture.
posted by mumimor at 2:47 PM on March 8, 2022 [11 favorites]

As a fellow amateur genealogist, I just want to point out that "place" is tricky when you consider how many people you descend from: 2 parents; 4 grandparents, 8 great-grandparents, 16 gg-grandparents, 32 ggg-grandparents, 64 gggg-grandparents. Even if you arbitrarily choose to focus on the living place of the great-grandparents, you still have 8 of them from (most likely) different towns.

And the towns may change even in the lifetime of one person. I have a handmade object from my gg-grandparent that I want to donate to a historical society. Should I choose the town he was born in? The town he lived as a child? The town where he had a farm? The town he lived out his elderly life? The town where he is buried? These are all different places.
posted by xo at 2:49 PM on March 8, 2022 [7 favorites]

Best answer: I’m entirely ashkenazi according to my family. My mom is keeper of the genealogy, something that has been kept even before they fled the different regions they did to come to the states. My dad’s side is from the same region as the family you are trying to figure out, and they were similarly concerned with heritage and kept records (and were lawyers and judges and continued to be so when they came over.) Genetically, I’m a combination of Polish, German, Hungarian, and Russian people, all of whom would not have been considered actually from any of those places due to being Jews. But I have definitively had this answered for me on a personal, visceral level, so that might be of interest to you.

I’ve always been told how I am very much like my Hungarian great grandparent. I look just like my mom and grandma and apparently my great grandma, the Hungarian one, looked even more like me even though my mother and I mistake childhood pictures of each other for ourselves all the time. In terms of personality, I am evidently like her. In terms of life choices and wishes, I am evidently like her. In terms of our overriding misanthropy, I am like her. I suspect, as a queer adult, we had that in common too. I have always had favorite family dishes, and they all were from her. When I got in a mood as a teenager my grandfather would tell me my Hungarian was showing.

Then, when I was in undergrad, I had the opportunity to visit Budapest. It was nice, as cities went, but to me personally it was revelatory. Because it was like… I went home, but didn’t speak the language. Everyone looked like me. I had American teeth and American clothes but I looked like I could be related to half the people on the street. I didn’t stick out, I felt for the first time like if I wanted to I could blend and not be salty about it. Everything on the menu in almost every restaurant sounded (and was) delicious. I went to the city’s Jewish Quarter and did the religious tourism and despite being pretty much an atheist I became overwhelmed with emotion and like this… unfathomable absolutely real connection. I liked everything about the architecture, everything about the attitudes of people, everything about the way people talked in big raucous groups and made space for those who were busy or wanted to be alone. I took hundreds of photos and turned it into almost half my photography minor’s projects for school.

When I came back I did a lot of thinking. I went to Prague on the same trip and Prague was beautiful, and at times magical, and fun. But it was bracingly different from Budapest and I figured out why after some good sleep and a bunch of calls to my parents, and it’s because it was, somehow, my ancestral home. I totally get why you’re asking this question. If money and language were not a barrier, I might be there right now, not to find family but to just be with… myself.

Most of the time I am happy to identify as Eastern European Jew, since that’s the demographic that does cover the most of my genetics. But when I’m actually asked, by a curious person, I tell them I am Hungarian by way of my great grandmother’s force of personality traveling through the generations.

If that part of the world and travel in general were not so fraught, I would really suggest visiting a few different areas to see how you feel in them, if at all possible. For now, maybe cook recipes? Maybe read books written by people there? Listen to contemporary and historical music from these places?

Diaspora is hard for lots of reasons, and the loss of a sense of place is one of them. Us Jews have been struggling to regain it since… before Egypt. So now we have this kind of warped thing with Israel, to which I do not personally ascribe and leave to others to argue about, as is our way. But there are things we’ve done over generations to maintain connections. Food, humor, music, art, attitudes. You have this random person’s permission to sample from wherever and whoever you want to try to find that thread.
posted by Mizu at 2:53 PM on March 8, 2022 [40 favorites]

Seconding fortitude25 that if what you're looking for is a landed place to call your heritage, you might have better luck tracing your matriarchal line. It's not that people are trying to force this into a Jewish conversation, so much as that your grandfather's being ethnically Jewish made it close to impossible to be settled in the geographical way that you're looking to find roots. During various regimes Eastern European Jews (and for quite a few centuries all European Jews) weren't allowed to own land; we weren't allowed to be rooted. The whole point of the Pale of Settlement was to keep Jews within a narrowly defined region, but prior to its establishment, Catherine the Great's predecessor officially expelled all the Jews from the country (on pain of conversion or death), so a significant number of the Jews living in the Pale were themselves an influx from Germany / Prussia.

There was also the matter of forced conscription into the army, which caused many Jewish families to either flee to another town or outright change their family name to avoid their son being drafted. So it's not surprising if you're hitting a dead end (a dead beginning?). You're having trouble finding records because there aren't many - most place-based genealogical records get traced through church records and gravestones, and the farther east you go, the less likely you'll find a standing Jewish cemetery that's older than the late 1800s (I just did a bunch of googling without any luck). The International Jewish Cemetery Project might be a place to start.

The concept of the "Wandering Jew" is ancient and it's self-perpetuated throughout history as different leaders came to power and needed a convenient scapegoat to throw out, or a set of merchants to bring in. Families staying in one place for generations just didn't happen all that often.

So yeah, I'd take a look at what your mother's mother's roots were. Needing your ethnic heritage to come from your father's place of origin is (literally) reinforcing the patriarchy anyway.
posted by Mchelly at 3:06 PM on March 8, 2022 [6 favorites]

-- I missed the edit window, apologies for saying father's rather than mother's father - though of course tracing your own father's heritage should also be fascinating and worth exploring, even if it may not be as complex on the surface.
posted by Mchelly at 3:14 PM on March 8, 2022

I was unclear because I'm still working it out myself: I'm interested in identifying with a place. Eastern Europe is too big for me.

The unclearness is because you identified the place in your original question, so it was and is unclear what additional ideas you are asking for.

Based on the information you gave in your question, you can say, "Much of my family once lived in the area around Bila Tserkva, which is now in Ukraine."

ETA: And, I don't think a place can be an "ethnic heritage," as mentioned in the title to your question. Ethnic refers to a people, not a place.
posted by JimN2TAW at 3:27 PM on March 8, 2022 [3 favorites]

A few folks have mentioned it and it is definitely not a perfect thing, but now when you take an Ancestry DNA test it can sort you into "communities".

I know one part of my family is Armenian, but I've often wondered what felt like the right homeland for them, to me. They called themselves a term that meant they were from Arapkir in Turkey. But then they were in Aleppo, Syria for quite some time before they came to America. None of them was ever in what is now Armenia, so... it's hard to feel connected to the sense of place there.

Anyway, all to say is that Ancestry has put me into a community called, "Eastern Anatolia/Armenia 1800-1975", which is really... right-on. Armenians also call it "Western Armenia." So that one village I know about, really is their homeland. And that works for me.

This won't solve exactly what you're after, but it could give you more ways to think about it all. There really isn't one right answer, except the one that feels right to you.
posted by jdl at 3:54 PM on March 8, 2022 [1 favorite]

I tried to take Jewish off the table when I asked the question.

The question I have is... why? Is it because you don't feel like you're Jewish? If so, that's okay. If your mother's father was Jewish and came from what he described as Russia but was more specifically a city near Kyiv, all that is an important part of your ethnic heritage. It's essential for understanding where your ancestors came from, why they left (thankfully, considering the pogroms and the Holocaust), and why it's so difficult now to feel a satisfying connection with that place.
posted by wondermouse at 3:56 PM on March 8, 2022 [1 favorite]

It's incredibly difficult to transpose the living conditions of the past onto the present nations of Eastern Europe. Not just for people of Jewish ancestry--I went to an area near where my grandmother had left for America, not expecting to find anything current because of the Holocaust, just expecting to see gravesites. But when I got there, I remembered that my grandmother always described herself as Polish Jewish, that she grew up "in Poland." So what happened to all the Poles? Well... Let's just say that whoever is living in your ancestral village now may be completely different than when your ancestors left. And they may or may not have moved there of their own free will.

I can't order you to consider yourself in a certain way, but if you don't feel comfortable with the religious aspect or saying "I'm Jewish" (and yes, that is fraught), I would suggest telling people that you have Ashkenazi Jewish ancestry. Plenty of people have mixed backgrounds or have rediscovered Jewish roots that are now a source of pride or interest, even if they now are a different religion or have a different primary ethnic identity.

If you are looking for family connections who you can possibly share experiences with, a DNA test might help.

Oh, and don't think of the other side of your family as boring! I grew up in an almost all Ashkenazi Jewish family and thought that Christian classmates all had wonderfully peaceful and charming family histories.
posted by kingdead at 4:21 PM on March 8, 2022

I have (non-Jewish) Eastern European ancestors—they came to the US from what was then Austria-Hungary. Within my own American family, some people identify those origins as Czech, others Slovak or Hungarian. Genealogy-wise, I don’t think any of us know much about the European side of things (the surname is Slovak, but my great-grandmother cooked a lot of Hungarian dishes). I usually just say Eastern European.

For what it’s worth, when I hear Ashkenazi I think less of Israel and more of diaspora.
posted by box at 5:11 PM on March 8, 2022 [1 favorite]

Best answer: You may be interested in this passage from Calvin Trillin who was dealing with somewhat similar facts.
posted by rustcellar at 5:28 PM on March 8, 2022

The first thing that I would say is that it sounds like you're asking for permission to identify with Ukraine, and I don't think that anyone is entitled to give or withhold that permission. You're the boss of your own identity. I have thoughts, speaking as someone with similar ancestry in what's now Ukraine, but I don't get to tell you what to think or to do.

Having said that, I think it's going to be really tough to engage in any non-superficial way with your roots in Bila Tserkva and ignore the centrality of Jewishness to your ancestors' identity and experiences. Bila Tserkva was a really, really Jewish city, until it wasn't. Any records you can find of your ancestors are going to reinforce how much they identified and were identified with their Jewishness. Your grandfather left as part of a larger exodus of Jews from that city and from other parts of what is now Ukraine, an exodus that was driven by a wave of antisemitic violence in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. You are probably not going to find any living relatives in Ukraine, because the overwhelming majority of Jews who didn't emigrate were murdered during the Holocaust. Bila Tserkva itself was the site of a famous massacre of Jewish children in 1941, which was perpetrated by Ukrainians. I understand that you don't want to associate with Jewishness, but I think it's going to be really difficult to engage with this part of your family history without either grappling with Jewish experience or committing some pretty immense lies of omission. I'm not sure what it means to identify with the place where your ancestors lived while completely erasing everything those ancestors believed, experienced, and identified with.

And finally, I guess I do think that there's a danger that you'll commit something like appropriation, especially now when people are so focused on and inspired by Ukrainians. I understand that you were looking into this before the invasion, but still. There's a large Ukrainian diaspora in the US, and it's filled with people who are terrified for the safety of their loved ones and mourning the destruction of places that have real significance for them. I guess I'm not sure about the morality of asserting a personal connection to a place that is under siege, when you're disconnected enough that you aren't experiencing any of the terror and loss that are being visited on people who really are from there.
posted by ArbitraryAndCapricious at 5:37 PM on March 8, 2022 [8 favorites]

Response by poster: I want to thank several of you for your comments, but particularly Shadygrove for their subtlety who pinned down a kind of dual identity for some Eastern European Jews, which may not be universal, but which in many cases does exist. I also want to thank Miko for the sensitivity and sensibility of their post.
posted by Violet Blue at 5:59 PM on March 8, 2022 [1 favorite]

Describing yourself as "of Jewish descent" might feel comfortable if "Jewish" doesn't feel appropriate to you. I think this is a respectful and accurate way of drawing a little distance for someone who is in a discovering/reconnecting stage with a heritage that is vulnerable to appropriation.
posted by dusty potato at 6:46 PM on March 8, 2022 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I think this book, "Yiddish Civilization -- Rise and Fall of a Forgotten Nation" could be interesting to you, to flesh out the world where these ancestors lived.
posted by hungrytiger at 12:44 AM on March 9, 2022 [3 favorites]

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