I just got an letter in the mail inviting me to a retreat by organization that has been called a “Jewish hipster skull and bones.” The letter wasn’t an invitation as much as it was a provocation, inviting me — in advance of the retreat — to get myself genetically tested (FOR FREE!!) and then, take part in a conversation about “how genetics influences our sense of identity.”
Um…. I’m creeped out. really? you want me, a post-holocaust Jew to get my Jewish genes genetically tested because there is a correlation between my genes and my Jewish identity? And presumably, you expect there to be some value in understanding my genetic makeup as it pertains to my Jewish self?
Apart from the obvious creepiness that my genetic makeup is going to be cataloged by a for-profit corporation, and apart from the fact that the relationship between one’s genes and one’s health (to take but one example) is still really dicey, there are so many, many ways in which this is troubling or otherwise difficult to swallow, so I’ll focus here on just two:
1. I am pretty sure that my notion of “identity” is well-past the tribal-genetic-blood-quantum idea of identity that sits firmly in the maw of late 19th century pseudo-science. I believe that W E B DuBois was right, when he said that the “color line” was going to be one of the definitive phenomena of the 20th century, and I was hoping that here, nine years into the 21st century, we maybe figured something out that would allow us, at least, to ask more interesting questions about identity — particularly communal or “ethnic” identity — than what our genes (might) tell us. Most of my scholarly life (and my personal life, too) is about working AGAINST these archaic ideas about identity being tied to one’s bloodlines, and just because we now can find out a person’s genetic makeup doesn’t seem to me to promise a whole lot in the way of helping us understand our identities.
2. Even if we take a cultural constructionist approach to identity, adding a little about one’s genetic makeup to the mix seems to me not a bad idea, necessarily. I mean, our identities are constructed, in part, by social responses to our physical manifestations (whether one presents as tall, short, good-looking, a male or female, light or dark-skinned, and so on). Thus, genes aren’t completely beyond the pale of conversation, but they’re no more part of the conversation, it seems, than those other aspects of identity; Why not also convene conversations about height? about blonde-vs-brunette hair color? About left-handedness.
Apart from making people panic about their health (or the potential proclivities toward particular diseases), I can’t figure out why or how looking at one’s bloodline – from a strictly biological standpoint — is really going to help advance this conversation, or our understanding of what it means to be Jewish. Or tall. Or good looking. Or a man or a woman. Or, simply, human.