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Testing Positive for Judaism: Unlocking a Family’s Genetic Secret

A genetic test for Tay-Sachs revealed surprising results—and helped my husband and me discover what Judaism means to us

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(Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)
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Matt called his parents to ask them if they knew anything about this, trying to phrase things as delicately as he could. He told them he was undeniably genetically Jewish, that his great-grandmother had a Jewish last name, how his great-uncle could be found on JewishGen.org. “We’re not Jewish,” was all his dad had to say in reply, never again speaking of the topic. He couldn’t believe him. And yet Matt still found himself feeling nothing but relief, a explanation handed to him overnight that made his journey to Judaism all the deeper and more resonant. Once I overcame my initial shock, I found in our news so much for which to be grateful. I saw blessings everywhere: that we had hadn’t been able to get pregnant on our own and thus avoided having conceived a child with Tay-Sachs before Matt had ever been tested, yes, but also that I had chosen a partner who was so willing to acknowledge obvious pain in his past and still choose joy and choose his Jewish faith.

It turned out that Matt’s past wasn’t that dissimilar from my own. Through learning that we were both Tay-Sachs carriers, we learned that we also shared a history of loss. We both came from families that, at some point, felt they could not live the lives they had born into. My grandmother felt the need to hide behind the façade of Catholicism during the Holocaust, before returning to her life as an observant Jew. Matt’s great-grandparents, for reasons we will never truly know, felt the need to do so their entire lives. There was a greater connection between us than we could have ever known: Together, we could acknowledge a history of pain and choose to let it live comfortably in our own lives, a companion and a reminder, rather than a weight. From Matt, I have learned that all Jews choose to be Jews every day. That history informs the present but doesn’t have to define it. I saw my grandparents in my husband, suddenly: people who had lost something, but had chosen to make a new life for themselves on their own terms.

In deciding how to go about building our Jewish family and avoid the one-in-four chances of having a child who would be born with, and die from, Tay-Sachs, we have chosen to undergo in-vitro fertilization with pre-implantation genetic diagnosis. With PGD, our embryos will be biopsied and tested for Tay-Sachs before transfer, thus ensuring that only nonaffected embryos had a chance for implantation and eventual birth. There had been more than enough suffering in our respective pasts, in our people’s past. We felt compelled to do our part to stop the hurt of another human life before it even began. If we are not able to conceive through IVF, we will try to adopt.

Though our Tay-Sachs revelation has revealed to us a shared genetic past, it has, more than anything strengthened our understanding of and commitment to our desire to create a Jewish family. Our genes may not lie, but they also do not define us. My husband is no more or less a Jew now than he was before he knew he was a carrier. He chose to be a Jew, in the same way I, born a Jew, have chosen to live a Jewish life. We know we want Jewish children and a Jewish family. And we now know that having that is not a matter of biology, but of choice.

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Testing Positive for Judaism: Unlocking a Family’s Genetic Secret

A genetic test for Tay-Sachs revealed surprising results—and helped my husband and me discover what Judaism means to us

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