Back in February, I wrote about how, in my pre-Internet teens, my curiosity about my family history sent me to the genealogy room at the New York Public Library – where, though I failed to find anything about my father’s forebears (his parents had been poor Polish Catholic immigrants), I managed to trace some of my WASP mother’s lines to colonial-era settlers from England, Wales, Scotland, Ireland, and France. Late last year a family member picked up where I’d left off, and, using today’s extraordinary online resources, soon discovered – as I noted in February – that we’re part American Indian. Soon afterwards, she ascertained that we had Italian and Dutch antecedents. Then she had me spit in a vial, and the DNA results – which I got a couple of weeks ago – informed me that I’m also part Baltic, Swedish, and Jewish.
Swedish? Jewish? Okay, I was hooked. As Al Pacino put it in Godfather III, just when I thought I was out, they pulled me back in. Putting aside my most recent online distractions (geography quizzes and Scrabble in Norwegian), I clambered once again up my family tree, and within a few days I’d traced some of my distaff lines back to the early Middle Ages, locating progenitors in Spain, Hungary, and pretty much everywhere in between.
Of course, I was fully aware that once you get to medieval times, you’ve left behind researching your very own family tree, in the sense of cobbling together something that’s unique to you, and are instead poking around in the lives of people from whom untold millions of us are descended. This past weekend, wondering about the numbers on this, I tracked down a 1998 study by Yale statistician Joseph Chang, who concluded that sometime in the late thirteenth century, there lived a European man or woman who – get this – is a direct ancestor of every white person currently alive.
That’s not all. Go back to a thousand years ago, and one-fifth of the Europeans who lived then have no living descendants today (their gene pools having dried up relatively soon), but every single one of the others is an ancestor of everyone of European heritage living today. “All lines of ancestry,” as statistician Adam Rutherford putsit, “coalesce on every individual in the tenth century.” Five years ago, a DNA study reached the same conclusion as Chang’s math.
Rutherford’s own calculations suggest that the chances that a Briton living today is not a direct descendant of Edward III (1312-77) is one in 100 nonillion. “Everyone from this room,” he recently told a British audience, “is directly descended between 21 and 24 generations from Edward III.” Just last week, as it happens, I found one of my own direct lines back to that particular royal. Yep, twenty-four generations.
You might think that the fact that our family trees all ultimately converge would make it a waste of time, after a certain point, to keep plugging away at this stuff. On the contrary, it’s a neat way to enhance and refresh your historical memory. This time around, every time I’ve added another famous name to my family tree, I’ve googled that person and read up on his or her life. I’ve always loved history, but now it feels considerably less distant. To stumble over Geoffrey Chaucer, Eleanor of Aquitaine, and Charlemagne in your direct ancestral lines, as I have in the last few days, has to affect the way you think about these immense figures – and the way you view your own relationship to history in general.
As it happens, one name in particular really hit home for me when I found it in my tree. That would be the name of Charles Martel – the man who, on the tenth of October in the year 732, led the army that saved Europe from the forces of the Umayyad Caliphate at the Battle of Tours.
Yes, I was aware that every Caucasian on earth today is descended from the guy. But sue me. I still found it moving to be able to trace one meandering line back from me through forty-six (count ’em, forty-six) specific individuals – all of whom, to those persons immediately above and below them on my chart, were not just names on a computer screen but family – and to wind up at the man who repelled the nefarious forces of Islam at the height of its European power. To follow an ancestral line from yourself to someone like him is to experience a compelling sense not only of one’s flesh-and-blood connection to history but of one’s intense and ineradicable filial obligation to it.
Nailing down that Martel nexus underscored for me a vitally important fact: namely, that one weapon that Muslims have in spades, and that we Westerners don’t at all, is history. They remember these things. We don’t – at least not in the fiercely acute way that they do. In this era of social networks and reality TV, an overwhelming number of us folks in the West inhabit an eternal present, preoccupied by the latest tweets, Facebook postings, and celebrity Instagram photos. We live and die by the daily news cycle, allowing ourselves to get worked up into a lather over trivial events that we’ll forget about in a week. Issues that weren’t even on our radar five years ago (transsexuality, anyone?) now steer what we think of as our moral compass. Meanwhile we have little or nothing in the way of historical perspective. Kids graduating from some of the “best” colleges in America don’t know who fought whom in World War II, let alone World War I or the Napoleonic Wars – or, needless to say, the Battle of Tours.
In this regard, we could hardly be more different from those people in the Muslim world (and, increasingly, in our midst) who are more than willing to sacrifice their earthly lives to drag the nations of the West into the House of Islam. To them, the forty-seven generations that separate you, me, and them from the Battle of Tours are absolutely nothing – nothing at all. They have a feeling of intimacy with their forefathers of fifty-odd generations ago that is a good deal more potent and profound than whatever sense of attachment most of us in the West have with our late great-great-grandparents. Their values and principles, if you can call them that, haven’t changed in fourteen centuries.
Indeed, to any Muslim who’s been properly educated in his faith and in his solemn duties thereto, the very earliest days of Islam – only a little over a century, nota bene, before the Battle of Tours – are realer, more vital, and more significant than his own quotidian existence. That’s a momentous psychological force and a not inconsiderable asset for the jihadist cause; it’s a phenomenon that we in the West, however hard we may try, are probably incapable of fully replicating within our own hearts and minds. But my experience of the past couple of weeks has taught me that even a brief climb up your family tree can give you something of an idea of what that closeness with the past must feel like. And this act of forging ties with our shared Western patrimony, it seems to me, can only aid our current struggle to do for our own posterity what Charles Martel did for us all those centuries ago – namely, to ensure that his and our civilization is saved, yet again, from the scourge of Islam.
Published in Front page magazine
A 2018 demonstration against antisemitism in Berlin. Photo: Reuters / Fabrizio Bensch.
A slight drop in the number of antisemitic incidents in Berlin during the first half of this year is no excuse for complacency, the city’s antisemitism commissioner emphasized on Thursday following the publication of statistics for hate crimes targeting Jews in the German capital from January-June 2019.
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People wear kippas at a demonstration in front of a Jewish synagogue denouncing an antisemitic attack on a young man wearing a kippa, in Berlin, Germany, April 25, 2018. (photo credit: FABRIZIO BENSCH / REUTERS)
The population of the State of Israel has increased 2.1% since last year, according to a report released in time for Rosh Hashanah by the Central Bureau of Statistics.
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A women holds up a sign against anti-Semitism at a rally in New York City on Sept. 22, 2019. Photo: Rhonda Hodas Hack.
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The beach in Tel Aviv, Israel, May 17, 2019. Photo: Reuters / Ammar Awad.
On the eve of the holiday of Rosh Hashanah, ushering in the Jewish year of 5780, Israel’s Central Bureau of Statistics released its traditional end-of-the-year findings.
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Drew Seigla and Stephanie Lynne Mason. Photo: Instagram.
Drew Seigla and Stephanie Lynne Mason play Pertshik and Hodl, whose love story takes them all the way to Siberia in the award-winning show by the National Yiddish Theatre.
Oct 25, 2019 0People arrive at a polling station to vote in the federal election in Beauce, Quebec, Canada, Oct. 21, 2019. Photo: Reuters / Mathieu Belanger. A top Jewish advocacy group said on Friday it...
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“There is nothing more deceptive than an obvious fact.” — Sherlock Holmes, The Boscombe Valley Mystery
“Israel must, in the most blunt and clear way possible, illustrate to Washington that the prosperity of Jordan is a first-rate Israeli security and strategic interest.” — Former head of Mossad Ephraim Halevy at “Between Jerusalem and Amman: 25 Years Since the Signing of the Peace Agreement Between Israel and the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan,” Institute for National Security Studies, Sept. 25, 2019.
A thought came to mind the other day.
For all the bluster about Judaism and anti-Semitism in America, I am not convinced that far-out-left and liberal young Jews, who have been very strident and even threatening on Israel-related issues and local American political battles, have done much on the ground to confront and quash, one way or another, attacks on Jews. They have portrayed themselves as gliding along a moral highway but have permitted immoral actions to exist quite close to home, far from Gaza (did any of them recite a public Kaddish in the town square for murdered and injured Jews, or their damaged and desecrated property)?
One of the hallmark features of Yom Kippur are the communal sins which we need to repent for. Most Jews focus on what we have done personally towards G-d and towards others. Little thought is given to how we could be better as a community. Or the sins we bear as a community.
However, the communal recitation of the Al Chet, repeated over and over on Yom Kippur is to drive the point home that we are responsible for one another
Incoming freshman Member of Knesset from the leftist, Democratic Union list, Yair Golan, did it again. Golan’s constant delegitimization of his political opponents on the right, smacks of the same delegitimization that tyrants, dictators, demagogues and assorted totalitarians always use, just before the Putsch.
In that regard, he’s right when he said recently, “I’m reminding people that the Nazis came to power democratically, so we have to be careful, very careful, so that radicals with a messianic view won’t exploit Israeli democracy to replace the system of government.” Think “
As Israeli frustration mounts about violence coming out of Gaza, the idea of a ground invasion, and once and for all to finish with Hamas aggression, becomes more appealing. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has endorsed this approach, saying, “There probably won’t be a choice but to topple the Hamas regime.” While sympathetic to this impulse, I worry that too much attention is paid to tactics and not enough to goals. The result could be harmful to Israel.