Charles Krauthammer’s column “Turning up Jewish” is both funny and serious. Funny because his thesis–that, scratch a politician these days, and you get a Jewish ancestor–though hyperbolic, is based on the odd but true fact that it’s now a campaign plus to talk about Jewish roots, and such roots seem to turn up in the most unlikely of places. Serious because it reflects on two controversial points: the fact that Jews are high-achievers, overrepresented and illustrious in so many fields; and the phenomenon of the Jew who keeps the fact of his/her Jewishness (or Jewish birth) a secret, even from his/her children.
The last two points would each require a book–or a thousand books–to explain, or to attempt to explain. I’m not going to tackle them right now. But what of all those Jewish ancestors? I don’t know what’s made it something politicians want to talk about lately. But, given that they do, I don’t think it’s so very strange that so many are popping up. The fact is that most of us have far more variety in our ancestry that we believe. So if you’re looking for such a thing, it’s not all that hard to find.
Krauthammer states his law as follows: Everyone is Jewish until proven otherwise. He’s talking about politicians, and he’s exaggerating to make a joke. And the politicians of whom he speaks are mostly rather closely related to their secret Jewish ancestors, as it turns out. But if you go back in time long enough, perhaps everybody is Jewish. In fact, perhaps everybody is everything, or a tiny little bit of everything.
Go back only two generations and each person has four grandparents; one step further gives eight grandparents. Mathematically speaking, it doesn’t take all that long to hit the big big numbers. In fact, I read a book ages ago (I recall it as The Tower of Names, although my efforts to look it up right now have failed me–both Google and Amazon have drawn an uncharacteristic blank) that asserted one only has to go back a surprisingly small number of generations and we all are related, because the number of ancestors expands and interrelates in some elegant mathematical fashion I no longer remember.
If any person looking for a single Jewish ancestor is willing to go back far enough, one wouldn’t be all that hard to find, even though Jews themselves are surprisingly scarce, given their enormous visibility and the amount of hatred directed their way.
Geneology buffs–and I’m not one of them–are a bit like those who believe in past lives. That is, they tend to pick and choose among ancestors. Whoever talks about the ancestor who went to debtors’ prison, or the past life in which one was a ragpicker? It’s the illustrious or royal ancestors or lives we prefer to talk about. For geneologists, they are probably also the easiest to research, as well. But they are the tip of the iceberg.
The bottom of that iceberg is the far larger number of unknown and inglorious progenitors, and those of different ethnic origins. So if it’s Jews you’re looking for, you can probably find them.