Who do you think you are?

by roadsideservice

Recently I was watched an episode of the British TV series Who Do You Think You Are featuring Jeremy Irons. In it, Irons believes that he must have Irish ancestry and be descended from someone who had something to do with the ocean, such as a sailor. The logic for Irons is that because he likes the Irish, and because he loves the ocean, this must be something he has inherited – almost genetically. This episode is at times excruciating – Irons is so desperate to validate who he thinks he is. But the show fails to provide that narrative. On the other hand had he found, say, an Irish pirate or two, it would be excruciating in equal measure. I say excruciating in the sense that the question itself – ‘who do you think you are?’ – leads you into a corner.

‘Who do you think you are?’ demands a response. It is not an idle question – it solicits action. But it is almost threatening as well – I can hear it from the mouth of a bourboned up meathead. And it adds a further question to the one that distracts me constantly – who am I? It also asks what roles people in our families past have in our lives today – Irons would like an Irish seafarer, but how would he resolve finding someone utterly foul?

Irons doesn’t “think” he is in love with Ireland and the sea – he is. The title at the same time it is tantalizing – what is it that you know about me that I don’t? Is Irons any different having been a little disappointed in his family history? Is it really who he is?

I have been thinking a lot about my Jewish great-great-grandmother. My sister’s middle name is Teresa. I think about the Magen David my mum, Anne Maree Theresa, wore as a young adult because she descended from a “Jewess” (a term that I find grating, but which I think in her mind at the time might have been for her a kind of romanticising, like a non pejorative  “Jewish Princess”). I think about notes my grandmother, Theresa (or “Teresa” when she was going through a Spanish phase) made on some family history documents I have where she is trying to get the spelling right for “Israel”. I think about my great grandmother Monica Theresa, having uncles and aunties and cousins who were Jewish and wonder how, when pictures came back from the Holocaust, would she have regarded the Jewish world?

I think of Theresa running off with her Irish Catholic boyfriend, away from her observant family in the gold mining town of Bonnie Doon. Did she convert out of convenience? Did she think praying to St. Anthony when she lost her keys a little ridiculous and that Jesus of Nazareth was, probably, a heretic? Or did she enjoy the ritual and maybe felt relieved of the side effects of matzo, recognizing Seder at Eucharist.

Who did she think she was?

In the photo of Theresa below she is wearing a cameo brooch. This brooch has been handed down through all of the Theresas.

I am distracted by the Jewish law that says being Jewish, or having a “Jewish soul”, is matrilineal. I am speaking generally, obviously there are many different thoughts about this, but of the basic reading I have done all allow matrilineal descent. I have thought for some time that the logic of such thinking considers myself “more Jewish” than someone who, say, only has a Jewish father, has been circumcised, had a Bar/Bat Mitzvah, gone to a Jewish school, speaks fluent Hebrew, or any other construction of identity someone could choose. Such essentialising logic, at its heart, feels like a “pure Jew” actually exists.

In any case, it is the occasional response that I get that is important. Usually responses range between curiosity to disinterest. The most recent thing that happened was meeting my grandmother’s cardiologist (now my grandfather’s) and realizing that he was Jewish I mentioned that Tess’s Grandmother was Jewish. He responded by saying “oh well that means that your Jewish, whether you like it or not!” and, jokingly, hands me his yarmulke from his pocket. Other times – to try and avoid an awkward situation like this when talking about my Jewish background with Jewish friends – I’ve started off by talking about the laws of matrilineal descent as a funny “technicality”. But almost always I get back, in a serious tone, “no, it’s not a technicality”.


This photo is a bit blurry because my grandmother had the original professionally/permanently framed and I would have had to rip it apart to scan it. I like this.
Monica is on the far left, Theresa on the right.

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