It’s Christmas Day, 2016. My family is seated at the dinner table at my sister’s boyfriend’s house, with his family, for a non-traditional holiday meal. It’s a paper plate, buffet style affair with lasagna, homemade meatballs and garlic bread. There are more pastas than I can name, with a dessert spread that’s primarily a massive sheet pan full of cannoli off to the side. Not that I’m complaining.

“These Ancestry DNA kits, man, they’re full of surprises,” says my sister’s boyfriend, Mike. The conversation has reached this point because we’re talking about how Italian this Christmas dinner is, and how a buddy of his was also a hardcore Italian, but took an Ancestry DNA kit and found himself to be, in fact, more Irish than Italian. In Rochester, NY, where Italian blood is the ultimate badge of pride, this was viewed as a catastrophic event.

I know that Nana was from Italy, Sicily I’d been told, so I’m probably in the vicinity of 25 percent Italian. I took five years of Italian between middle school and high school because I was taken by this missing piece of my heritage, now with Nana out of my life. I had surmised that my last name, Berry, must be British or French, primarily because that’s what Google tells me.

“Dad, did you ever figure out where your dad’s family is from?” I ask. He’s never clarified just how hard he’s looked into this, but in the times he’s spoken of it, he talks about it like it’s an ongoing search, a work in progress.

He hedges. “Ahh, I’m not sure. I always heard Irish, or maybe a little bit of something else,” he says, but then I remember an out-of-place comment he’s made more than once.

“Wait, didn’t you say you always had a weird feeling that your dad wasn’t your dad? Why did you ever think that?” I ask.

“I have no idea,” he admits. “I just always felt like I was different from my sisters, just didn’t look like them. But my dad was dead before I could remember him, so who knows.”

Everyone else laughs. They’ve seen the pictures, and there’s no doubting he’s related to his sisters. They all have the exact same jawline, the same intense eyes.

But given the surprise we’ve just heard from Mike’s friend, I wonder if I can help him uncover some more details. I’m three glasses of wine in at this point. “Ya know what?” I say, as if making a bold proclamation. “I’m gonna order one of those Ancestry kits. I’m gonna figure out where ‘Berry’ comes from.”

Seconds later, I’ve ordered the kit off my iPhone, and I show the assembled group the confirmation email. They laugh. “You’re such a dumbass,” my sister jokes. 


A month later, the kit arrives in the mail. The literature inside instructs you to fill the plastic vial with your spit—not as easy as it sounds—then put the enclosed cap over the top and send it in. Who knew that it could be so simple?

Weeks go by, and I login to to see if my results are in. Going in, I knew that mom’s side is German and Dutch. Dad’s is Italian and who knows what else. As I login to my account, I’m intrigued to find out what that extra piece is, but…

I’m 56 percent European Jewish. Huh?

Sure enough, according to the site, most users who share my DNA are European Jewish. The roots of these people, or rather, more than half of me, are allegedly an amalgamation of people with roots scattered across Poland, Belarus, Ukraine, Russia, Hungary and Israel. The site also provides rich details of the origins of my DNA ancestors, and goes on to say:

“…European Jewish region is not geographically defined in the same way as most other ethnic regions. The historic dispersal of the Jewish population from its origin in the Levant on the east coast of the Mediterranean resulted in insular communities scattered throughout Europe, North Africa, Central Asia, and the Middle East. Although some Jewish communities enjoyed positions of relative peace and prosperity, many more were segregated from mainstream society by law, custom, and prejudice, experiencing sustained persecution and discrimination. Jewish populations from northern and eastern Europe are often known as “Ashkenazi.” “Sephardic” refers to Jews who were expelled from Spain during the Inquisition and mostly settled in North Africa and southeastern Europe.”

I’d known there were different ‘sects’ of Jews, but Ashkenazi and Sephardic aren’t words I’d used before, and if I’d heard them, I hadn’t recalled them. And certainly not in the context of my own family.

I scan the room around me, as if waiting for someone to come around the corner and tell me this ‘discovery’ I’ve made in the privacy of my living room on an otherwise uneventful weekday was a case of mistaken results, swapped with a stranger.

But after some additional clicking around, I learn that a second, somewhat less frequent group of these European Jewish folks, are in fact German. Which after an initial shock, makes plenty of sense; mom’s side of the family is heavily German, and the rest of my DNA makeup calls out a 42 percent root in Germanic Europe. With some back-napkin math, adding the 56 percent that I’ve rationalized as German, with the other 42 percent that’s definitely German, makes me 98 percent German. 

It makes more sense, but it leaves the ambiguity of how I’d have an Italian Nana with the last name ‘Ciaccia’ and not show an ounce of Italian blood or heritage; I’d studied the language for five years between middle school and high school thinking I’d put myself in touch with my roots. Maybe she was born in Italy but her blood had come from Germany?

I guess.

The surprises aren’t over, though, and the next one is harder to rationalize. The site’s main dropdown menu features Your DNA Results Summary, which I’d just reviewed, and then it lists DNA Matches; people who share the same DNA as you, or some of it.

Under the list of people listed as matches for me, there’s a laundry list of those listed as potential fourth cousins. But at the very top of the list, under ‘Close Family,’ is the name Morgan *redacted*. There’s a green bar next to her name, like the fuel marker on your gas gauge, and it’s full. Next to it is text that explains why.

Predicted Relationship: Close Family

Confidence: Extremely High

I click the information icon next to it to see what ‘Extremely High’ means and see the following description:

You and your match share enough DNA to prove that you’re both descendants of a common ancestor, and the connection is recent enough to be conclusive. Likelihood of a single recent common ancestor: Virtually 100 percent.

I have never seen this name before, and well, virtually 100 percent is clear enough for me: this is someone I’ve never heard of that I’m definitely related to. Upon expanding the potential relationships listed under ‘Close Family,’ the site says she is an aunt, first cousin or half-sibling. There’s not really a plausible explanation for any of those, but since I’m curious, I send her a message. 

Next up: Morgan and I exchange messages over the next several weeks and learn more about each other – including the fact that we were born less than a year apart, within 20 miles of each other.

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  1. Holy smokes…I was on edge (edge of my mattress, too) and wide-eyed the entire time I was reading. As usual, you’re an excellent writer. Thank you for sharing…truly heartfelt. Can’t wait for the next chapter! Better than telenovela.

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