I am a product of my heritage, one full of turbulence and animosity as well as culture and deep, critical thought. I come from a Jewish family, with my roots originating in Western Europe. My political views are far-left but my compassion and curiosity forces me to seek viewpoints from those unlike me and those who oppose my ideologies. I am made up of my family, my continuously-acquired knowledge and my experience.
On a typical questionnaire, I would identify myself as “white” or “Caucasian.” A white male of European heritage. But this so-called whiteness does not accurate portray who I really am. For I am not a White Anglo-Saxon Protestant (WASP); I am a Jewish German, French, Polish gay American male. To simply submerge all those identities into one overarching identity – white – which also encompasses white Christians and people of other nationalities and sexualities, cannot even closely portray any human being. I receive better treatment in public institutions than many others in society because the color of my skin is white. However, my identity does not surround the notion of whiteness and the ideals of racial superiority. I think I have, however, grown up with white privilege in being able to more freely explore myself than I would if I were another race in United States society. Still, my identity is far more complicated.
I grew up as a Jew in a relatively accepting time in the United States. I have never faced discrimination for being Jewish – part of that may be due to my residing in the liberal San Francisco Bay Area and having particularly left-wing ideologies; my beliefs separate the religion in which I am based from the state of Israel. At San Francisco State University, there have been a smattering of people who have complained in the Jewish organization Hillel about anti-Semitic professors who speak out against actions committed by the Israeli government. I am not a practicing Jew – one who attends synagogue and prays habitually – but I struggle with my faith as I do not follow many of the practices in my traditions. I believe that if I pursue the truth in my struggle and doing what I can to ethically (my ethics oftentimes determined by what I learn to deem unethical) find it.
My sexuality is a major contributing factor to my identity. I come from a very accepting immediate family; almost as soon as I realized my new at-the-time sexual orientation as a sixteen-year-old, I immediately told my parents and siblings of my bisexuality. As a preteen and young teenager, I was straight – I had attraction to girls. While some of that attraction may have come from simply wanting to date someone in my younger life, I was heterosexual. After I came out as bisexual, my sexuality changed further. I more and more realized I had less attraction to girls and more attraction to boys. Finally, at 18 and 19-years-old, I came out again as gay.
Spending nearly all my time in San Francisco, I can only appreciate living in such an accepting environment, one that celebrates varying sexual orientations. In my Reporting class, I chose to cover the Castro to spend more time exploring my identity through the LGBTQ community in the district. I came to SF State not only for its robust, hands-on journalism program, but also because it is in The City, a highly accepting environment for gay men.
I also know that I am one-half second-generation American, one-quarter third-generation American, and one unknown-generation quarter American. My father was born from Jewish German and Polish immigrants who fled to the United States fearing Nazi persecution. My grandfather Martin (Mordechai) Wolins (Wolyniec) was born in Poland and left his family to come to the US before the onset of World War II. The majority of his family was wiped out in the Holocaust. From stories that my father told me, my grandfather decided that after he enrolled in school that he was being taught too slowly and went to the library. Using Oxford’s dictionary and an English-Polish dictionary, a man who grew up speaking some seven different languages including Polish, Hebrew, Yiddish, and other European languages read the dictionary and learned how to speak English. After the US declared war on Germany, my grandfather enlisted but was found to have tuberculosis. According to legend, while he was in the hospital, he completed his bachelor’s degree in social welfare in the hospital.
My grandmother, Irene Wolins (nee Stern) was born in Germany. She was the daughter of a baker and there is a picture of her on her first day of school holding a massive pretzel. After the Adolf Hitler seized power in 1933, she and her family were exiled from Germany. This is quite meaningful to me now given political circumstances. She and her family were refugees from a country that would have otherwise had them murdered. According to stories that my father told me, she and her family settled in New York, where she became a singer as a young woman. After the war broke out, she became a nurse. Reportedly, in the hospital where she worked, she met my grandfather – her future husband.
They had four children together and moved with my grandfather’s work. He worked as a professor of social welfare at UC Berkeley and encouraged youth Aliyah (moving to Israel for permanent residence), living in Jerusalem. After World War II, there were thousands of orphaned children; my grandfather would arrange for them to move to Israel to live on kibbutzim, community-based organizations that work together for the benefit of all – the size of towns. My grandfather would test children at these kibbutzim to ensure their learning. He can be found in the Encyclopedia Judaica and in obituaries from UC Berkeley. I have read pieces of his dissertation in the UC Berkeley library. I never met my grandfather, who passed away from prostate cancer when my father was in his twenties. My grandmother lives on the East Coast and is 92 years old.
My great-grandfather Henri Levy was born in France. I believe he was training to be a doctor or lawyer but when his wealthy parents would not pay for a top-notch French school, he left and moved to Oxnard, California, where he became a banker at a bank that he co-owned with his brother. Stories passed down from family included that of his wife who would receive guests who would give their gratitude to Henri as he reportedly saved their life savings during the Great Depression. Their son, my grandfather Joseph Levy, served as a lieutenant colonel in the US military after WWII and helped in the reconstruction of West Germany.
There’s a segment of my family, that of my grandmother, that I know little about. I have heard stories that her father was a successful shoe store salesman and that she may have been from Oregon. My grandmother passed away from a stroke and my grandfather passed away after a long diagnosis with Alzheimer’s.
My family has a long and deep history – some of which I know much of (and which may include stories not entirely true), and some of which I know very little or none of. I was excited to see my DNA results. While I learned nothing new about myself, I received confirming proof of my identity: I am 100 percent European Jewish, dating back thousands of years. Both my familial mother and father knew of their Jewish identities—particularly my father, who grew up in an orthodox Jewish-religious household.
I also began constructing a family tree on the Ancestry website to try and locate other family members and see whom else I may be related to. By using the information on my family tree on my mother’s side, I entered in my maternal grandmother Helen Jean Levy (nee Hyams) and grandfather Joseph Eugene Levy. There were DNA “hints” available to me. I looked at them and various family trees from other families registered to the site emerged. One of these trees belongs to the Rothschild family. I have no way of guaranteeing the validity of this possibility, but if that is true, I am connected to perhaps the wealthiest family on the planet. She was possibly connected to the Rothschilds, the Banks, and the Halpins. I again cannot prove this, but with further investigation I may be able to determine whether I have any familial connection with them. However, because my grandfather’s father came from France (per family stories), there is a possibility I have relation to the Rothschilds. I am completely flabbergasted by that possibility; I never in my life expected that that could be true, let alone a possibility.