DNA test, Israel trip connects woman with family’s Jewish roots

Sindy Smith-Kubitschek

BY SINDY SMITH-KUBITSCHEK

As a small child, I remember seeing the Star of David in the stained glass windows of the Agudas Achim Beth Israel in my hometown of Belleville as I walked past the synagogue with my maternal grandfather who helped raise me. I was drawn to the design all those years ago. The star spoke to me silently. 

I was born to an unwed mother in 1960, and raised mostly by her parents. I didn’t know much about my father, a Sicilian who was married and had three children long before I came along. Needless to say many things were hidden from me about my heritage on my father’s side as I was growing up in a mostly Christian environment.

As I grew older, and my father’s wife passed away, he and I formed a wonderful relationship. I decided it was the right thing to do by welcoming him into my life instead of being bitter. I also learned of my paternal roots, which I otherwise probably would not have known about. I knew many things about my maternal Irish/Scottish roots since I was with my mother’s parents a good portion of my life.

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Finding out about my biological father’s side was fascinating. I discovered that my paternal grandfather, Baldassare Gioppo, migrated to the United States in 1913 through Ellis Island from Sicily. My father told me that he had come here seeking freedom, like so many others. I found out many things about Grandfather Gioppo, such as the special loaves of bread he would make and candles he would light on Friday nights before sunset. Dad never told me about my grandfather’s religious affiliation. I assumed he was Catholic, since my father was. Strangely enough, it was at that time that I started reading a little about Judaism because I knew nothing about it. Something told me to get mezuzahs for all of my doors, which I did. I also bought a Star of David, which I wore most of the time and had another one dangling from my SUV rear view mirror. 

By this time I was drawn to everything Jewish, still not knowing why. I also had a strong desire to go to Israel and pray at the Western Wall in Jerusalem.  

In my soul I knew there was only one G-D. That was my belief then as it still is now. G-D gave the Jewish people an eternal covenant, not just for a set period of time, but for all of eternity. 

As time went on, my father passed away, and with him many secrets of his father.

About a year ago, I received a DNA kit as a gift. I submitted the sample and waited for the results. My daughter had also submitted a sample of her DNA at the same time to the same company. I remember the day when my daughter told me that she had gotten her test results back and learned she had a certain percentage of Jewish DNA. She asked where it was coming from, and I said I didn’t know. I assumed it was from her father’s side, but I didn’t know of any Jewish ancestry that he may have had. 

The next day I opened my email and read my results. It had the same Jewish reading, but only a larger percentage. Amazed, I thought it might be a mistake though with my daughter’s reading I realized it probably wasn’t. Still, I decided to look into another company that specialized in Jewish DNA testing. I knew that whatever the results showed from this company would be the proof positive that I needed. 

Again, I submitted a sample and waited. Finally the results came back. The test revealed that I was approximately 25 percent Sephardic Jewish. Suddenly, a light went off inside my heart. I have to admit that I was somewhat in shock. I asked my husband, who is an attorney, if he thought that the test was accurate. He said, “Sindy, DNA is what is used to determine paternity for many child support cases as you know.”  I then wept for all of my ancestors that came before me, for everything that they had endured. But, in so many ways I was also proud and honored as well.

After learning about my heritage, and the Crypto Jews, I then understood my grandfather very well. Without the DNA test I would have never found the missing threads of my life, and the special connection to my people. I am grateful to now know.

The Jewish people and their story are beyond description. They were scattered throughout the world and survived things too abhorrent for me to write about without sobbing. So what was hidden from me just below my olive skin explains to me who I am, who I have always been. I am now in the seminal process of a formal conversion. I keep a Jewish home, and light Shabbat candles each Friday before sunset. I go to temple and have connected with the most amazing and wonderful people.

I recently discovered that Grandpa Gioppo’s family came from a small village in Gioppo, Italy in the Calabria region. He is buried in a small cemetery across from the Catholic/ Protestant side of a nearby cemetery. 

In late October, I went with the Jewish Federation of St. Louis to Israel. I had the chance to experience this amazing place with a group of the most wonderful of people. The experience of being there often left me speechless, yet I knew I had to write about it.

After almost 59 years I am able to tell my story and honor my ancestors who endured so much so that I can live the Jewish life that I was destined to live. My Jewish roots go very deep — so deep, in fact, they were hidden below the surface. Roots that were lost but then dug up and felt with my heart. 

Ams Yisrael Chai

Sindy Smith-Kubitschek is a published author and illustrator.  She lives with her husband, Kevin and their many rescue pets. She is an environmentalist, animal activist and loves being in the natural world.