Clan-Do Spirit

A genealogical surprise led the author to ask: What does it take to be one of the family?

Irmgard, Jake and Jane at Plitt reunion (Greg Halpern)
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According to Elisheva Carlebach, author of Divided Souls: Converts From Judaism in Germany, 1500-1750, neither theory is likely. The romantic theory is especially suspect, Carlebach later told me, because conversion to Judaism was considered heresy by the Church. The practical theory is also problematic. Jews who converted to Christianity almost always adopted a new last name, such as Friedenheim (meaning "freedom") or Selig (meaning "blessed"), to reflect their new identity.

I found Carlebach's skepticism bracing, and yet, to my surprise, some deeply sentimental part of me yearned for one of the two theories to be true. I suppose I hoped that the blood relationship itself would serve as proof that the ethnic and religious distinctions that we make among ourselves are ultimately arbitrary. And I was not the only one who felt this way.

In fact, I found no one at the reunion who acknowledged the possibility that our shared last name was simply a coincidence. We seized upon any and all commonalities—thyroid conditions, almond-shaped eyes, stubbornness, even entrepreneurial success—as signs of our shared heritage. The most exciting and mysterious "evidence" involved the Plitt coat of arms. At first glance, its iconography seemed straightforward: a shield, an anchor, a knight's helmet, several stars and two elephant trunks. Upon closer examination, however, I noticed that the stars are six-pointed, like the Star of David, and that the elephant trunks resemble shofars, the ritual horns of Israel. For a moment, I felt like Professor Robert Langdon in The Da Vinci Code. Only slowly did I realize how desperate I had become to find a connection to my fellow Plitts.

On the final day of the reunion, almost everyone made a field trip to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington. I walked through the exhibits with Irmgard at my side, and we shared a prolonged and awkward silence. At one point, as we watched a short video about the Nazi Party, she told me that her father had been a member of the Sturmabteilung, or SA, a gang of thugs also known as the brownshirts or storm troopers, who were instrumental in Adolf Hitler's rise to power. "He joined early, in 1928, when he was just 20 years old," she said. "He never talked about it. In fact, I only discovered this through my sister, many decades later."

That night, as we gathered for one final dinner in the Hilton ballroom, Irmgard stood up and led us in a round of Hebrew songs. She sang quite well, and her Hebrew was so good that she corrected my pronunciation of the final verse of "Shalom Chaverim."

"How do you know these songs so well?" I asked her.

"It's in the genes!" someone yelled out.

As it turns out, that's not likely. Shortly after our Rockville reunion, half a dozen Plitts, both Jewish and gentile, underwent DNA testing. (I did not participate because the test they used examines the Y chromosome and was therefore restricted to male Plitts. I am, of course, a Halpern.) According to Bennett Greenspan, the founder of Family Tree DNA, the testing service that we used, there is a 100 percent certainty that the Jews and gentiles who were tested have no common ancestor within the past 15,000 to 30,000 years.

I was disappointed, of course. But that feeling soon gave way to a vague sense of hope. After all, why should it take a bond of blood for human beings to regard one another as kin? Isn't it a greater feat to set aside old prejudices in the name of humanity? If our connection to one another were founded on choice rather than obligation, wouldn't it be a more meaningful bond?

We'll find out, we Plitts. The next gathering in the United States is scheduled for 2010. Irmgard has already told me she'll be there, and I know I will, too. My mother, who had her misgivings before her first Plitt family reunion, has volunteered her house in the Berkshires for this one.


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