My Ancestry, Patriarchy, and Anti-Jewish Oppression

Ancestry research can be a mirror that reflects the truth about family history. Previously I have shared about my genealogy research and what I have learned about how my family history connects to the ongoing genocide of Native people and to the effects of enslavement and racism on Black people. Genocide and racism are part of the past and present in North America. A look at the documents and current events shows that they are both real, despite what we might want to tell ourselves about living in a post-racist, multicultural world. When I look in the mirror of my own ancestry research, there are two more pieces that I want to reckon with. The first is patriarchy. The second is anti-Jewish oppression. Both figure prominently in my own family history.

If I want to be part of creating a just world, where everyone has equal opportunity and the planet is protected for future generations, then I need to look at my own history with a critical eye. How did I get here? This is not to blame my ancestors or to say that they were bad people. The opposite is true. My ancestors were people of their time, and holding a mirror up to my family history reveals as much about their time as it does about them.

Disclaimer: I know for me to talk about patriarchy might seem like I am just another man stating the obvious. Alert! Here comes Captain Obvious! Likewise the oppression of Jews is so obvious that we have specific names in English for when Christians try to wipe Jews out. Do we really need a Christian to tell us more about it? My answer is: maybe. I suppose there is a fine line between using my place of relative privilege as a white, male, hetrosexual, Protestant, USer to try to contribute to the dismantling of white supremacy culture and just being another man-splaining blowhard. Please accept that I am trying to be the former, while I might unintentionally stray into the latter.

I am part of a patriarchal system. My last name is Gaertner, which I received from my father and he received from his father, and so on. When I look at my DNA, my great-great-grandfather Gaertner contributed to only about 1/16th of my DNA (more or less depending on recombination). And yet I am a Gaertner, and when I started my genealogy research, I was intensely interested in the Gaertner family history. I still get a special kind of happiness when I discover a document about a Gaertner ancestor. I am pleased that my brother’s children will carry on the Gaertner name. I am proud to be a Gaertner. We are a long line of people who have lived lives of service and integrity. It is an essential part of my identity. But what percent Gaertner am I, really?

If we go back four generations, I am less than 10% Gaertner. And if we go back 6 generations, I am less than 2% Gaertner. At that level there are 63 other people with different surnames who contributed equally to my genetic existence. They lived and died and raised children who found their way to adulthood, and those children coupled and raised their own children. Why do I care so much about one line of my ancestry, that I named my tree the “Andrew Gaertner Family Tree?” Patriarchy is in the air I breathe. I was raised to be a Gaertner and not a Myers or a Roll or a Lovekamp. Patriarchy is important to me because it has been important to people around me for a long time. It is time for that to change, but to dismantle patriarchy, we need to see it. It is obvious in the family history documents.

On my ancestry quest, I value documents above all. If someone’s name is on a census or a birth certificate, and I can attach that document to the person in the tree, then I have a little lego block in the construction of that person. Each person has a profile in the tree, sort of like a facebook profile. With documents, I can place the person in space and time, and they come alive. I love the draft cards especially because they list height and hair and eye color and have a place where the draftee signed the card. That is the literal signature of my ancestor. I love the censuses, because the whole family is listed. If the documents are a mirror, then the documents are reflecting back patriarchy at almost every level.

In every census, the oldest male in the house is considered the head of the house. In wills and probates, when a man died before his wife, the property often went to his oldest son, with a clause to ensure the deceased’s wife is maintained by the son. Until very recently, as a rule, wives took their husbands’ last names, and children took their fathers’ last names. As I look at newspaper stories, women sometimes disappear entirely after they marry. For example, I end up having to search for a Mrs. Henry Gaertner to try to find out anything about my grandma. As I look at the censuses, patriarchy shows up in two prominent ways. Most censuses list the occupation of the person in question. For most of the mothers in the censuses I have access to (1790 to 1940) their occupation is listed as “at home” or “housewife.” Men were defined by their occupation and the associated income, and women were defined by their role in the home. This was reinforced by official laws and policies. The other evidence of patriarchy that I notice in the censuses is how seldom divorce shows up prior to 1940. Marriage for life is the rule, with divorce being the occasional exception. Most of these censuses are pre-birth control, and families can get quite large. Childbirth was a dangerous prospect. It is not unusual for a man to have a large family in one census, and then show up with a new much younger wife on the next census. This young wife was needed to care for the children when the first wife died in childbirth. While women are now generally expected to have an occupation, and can get divorced, and can decide how many children they want to have, it was not that long ago that none of these were true. The echoes of patriarchy are present in what our society still expects of men and women.

Those expectations of patriarchy can be harmful to men as well. In looking at a family tree, I know when the wars happened. As I look at the documents, if a young man in the tree is born about 20 years before a war, I get a jolt of concern in my lower back. I see those wars as bottlenecks for the young men who lived through them. Some did not survive, and others were likely scarred for life by the experience. I shudder to imagine the cascading effects of a war on families. The trauma of violence can become generational when soldiers come home. There is an expectation that young men will go to war if called upon, and the patriarchal system trains them from boyhood to be accustomed to violence and domination. Fathers dominate sons (and wives and daughters!) and brothers dominate brothers (and sisters!). Patriarchy demands that men play their role, just like it demands that women play their role. One thing I notice in looking at family trees, is that it is impossible to know who was gay or lesbian or trans prior to the current era. If current percentages are reflective of general human nature, then about one in twenty of the people in my family tree might identify as LGBTQ if they were born today. The patriarchal system did not have a way for people to identify as anything other than a het man or a het woman.

It is time to end patriarchy once and for all. In my family tree, I am deliberately celebrating and claiming every branch. It takes more time to be curious in 64 or 128 directions, but it also gives me a richness of family history and also gives me hours of fun and enjoyment as I discover more and more. What is my role in ending systems of male domination? I guess the first thing is to see them. This also applies to all other systems of oppression. They can be invisible to the person who is set up to be the oppressor in the system. A clear example of this is anti-Jewish oppresion.

As a family history geek, something that I am curious about is how my DNA test came to have me having 2% DNA that matches samples taken from people who identify as Ashkenazi Jews. I did my DNA through two different websites. One website is famous for having accurate ethnicity estimates as well as a wealth of health information that they glean from the DNA test. The other’s DNA is great for matching your test to your family tree and the trees of other people who take the test. My test from the first site says that I share 2% DNA with Ashkenazi Jews. How did that happen? I don’t have any Jews in my tree, and for most of my lines, it goes back at least 6 generations. My Jewish ancestor should be there, but he or she is not. This has me thinking about my connection to anti-Jewish oppression.

As a person who grew up reading the Bible and going to church, Jews have always been important to me. I loved the Old Testament stories of Abraham and Moses and David and more. I can thank my preacher father for setting up seders and celebrating Passover within the context of the Lutheran church. In my childhood understanding in my father’s church, the Jews were the good guys. I don’t remember my Christian religion blaming the Jews as a people for Christ’s death, nor do I remember overt stereotypes or prejudice against Jews, but those stereotypes and blame are part of the US culture, whether I see them or not. I am ashamed to say that in my small town Wisconsin childhood, most of the Jews I met were in the Bible, and so they were part of history, in much the same way that I learned about Native people.

When I did eventually meet real Jewish people, I think my approach to Judaism was sort of akin to my childhood approach to Black people (again, I am ashamed to say this). I considered myself “colorblind” and, by extension I guess, “Jew-blind.” I didn’t see color or religion. All people were equal and good, and I didn’t care if you were different. Just like colorblindness is now revealed to be another way to allow the racist system to continue to exist, Jew-blindness is also keeping Christianity in a dominant position within the system. To be colorblind is to ignore the lived reality of Black and Brown people and ignore their history and culture. Jew-blindness is a similar sort of erasure. For me to really look at my family history, I want to unerase that part of me. I want the whole history. How did I get DNA that is consistent with Ashkenazi Jewish people? I probably have a Jewish ancestor who married into a Christian family and assimilated into that religion. When I look at all the scapegoating and persecution of Jews, I can see how a person might choose to (or be forced to) do that. As an adult, I look back on 2000+ years of history and see what a bad deal Jewish people were given by Christians (understatement of the year). The blaming of Jews for the death of Jesus is the first in a long string of times that Jews were set up to take the blame when things went wrong for Christians.

For me to be interested in genealogy and for me to be of German ancestry is to become aware of how the Holocaust and Nazism impacted my family. It might be easy for me to say that since my direct ancestors emigrated from Germany in the 1800’s, that there is no connection. I can wash my hands of it. Not so fast. When the middle school I work for visited DC several years ago, we visited the Holocaust Museum. It was overwhelming to me, and I was the last one from our group out of the museum. The teens were playing on the steps, when I walked out shaken and disoriented. At the time I did not know about my own family connection. I did not know at the time that my DNA would connect me to people who most assuredly perished in the concentration camps. It is hard to imagine the horror of the Holocaust, and harder still to see that I might be connected. I want to not think about it. That is one of my privileges: to not think about things that I don’t want to think about. But I think truth is important. Bad things happen when we ignore truth because it is too painful.

I am on a path of increasing awareness and action motivated by that awareness. To be aware of the past is to be poised to improve the present. This past summer I read Ibram X Kendi’s book How to Be An Anti-Racist. A thesis of his book is that to be anti-racist benefits everyone, not just Black people. There is a tiny fraction of the population who benefit from racism, and the rest of us would see our lives improved by ending racism. I think that is true for all oppressions. The liberation of women and LGBTQ people allows men like me to be less confined by patriarchal gender roles. I am free to be myself, masculine when I want to and feminine when I want to and everything in between. Your liberation is tied to my liberation. The same is true for ending anti-Jewish oppression. In today’s society Jews continue to be set up to be the scapegoats and take the blame. If we stopped that, then the blame would likely be appropriately placed, and it might lead to real liberation for all people. By continuing to misidentify Jews as the cause of oppression, it allows the actual oppressive structures to stay in place. Likewise, by blaming Black people for their situation, and not looking at the racist policies, we allow racist policies to continue. Most of these racist policies also hurt white people like myself with collateral damage. Finally, by ignoring the ongoing genocide of Native people, and the ecocide of the planet that goes along with it, we risk planet-wide collaspe of ecosystems and the end of life as we know it.

The personal is political and the political is personal. The work of liberation is incomplete, and I have a part to play.

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Andrew Gaertner

To live in a world of peace and justice we must imagine it first. For this, we need artists and writers. I write to reach for the edges of what is possible.