How Our DNA Echoes Across Time

For better or worse, we see our parents in our own faces. Or our grandparents in our children.

It’s proof the theory of genetics is on to something. We’re aware of the physical attributes that pass to us from previous generations. Why, they’re as plain as the noses on our faces. Other things pass down to us also. Less apparent but, often, more significant. Genetic diseases like Tay Sachs or sickle cell anemia pass silently from Jewish generation to Jewish generation and Black generation to Black generation. But, other subtle things pass down to us, too. Good things. Being the father of two young adults, I can see both my DNA’s past and I can glimpse into its future. We’ve learned that our DNA is more malleable than first thought. Data says that traumatic experiences like the Holocaust actually changes the experience-survivor’s DNA. So, experience (and the “memory” of it) can ride along from generation to generation. It turns out, ideas can, too. I am bearing witness in real time to an “idea” that stated itself plainly in one generation and — without being stated — has carried itself down through four succeeding generations virtually intact. It’s like a game of “telephone” where the message arrived unscathed.

For reference, I’m 62. Born in 1959. My father was born in 1929. I couldn’t tell you what year his father or mother were born for various reasons but I can tell you where. In the case of my father’s maternal grandfather (his mother’s father), Havis Cohen came from Vilnius, Lithuania sometime during the Great Migration in the 1890’s. I don’t know what Havis did for a living. I know he had a wife and three children. One became my grandmother Elinor, the mother of my father Jerel. After Havis and his family arrived, everyone hurried to become official Americans. There wasn’t much point to being here if you weren’t a citizen; my tribe learned that quickly.

But, while everyone around Havis became “American” as quickly as possible, Havis demurred. He was happy to be in America, but he was in no hurry to BE an American. As I can’t ask Havis directly WHY he didn’t want to become an American like the rest of his family, I’ll have to deduce it more from what my DNA tells me. Havis’ explanation was “I’m a citizen of the world”. Spoken like a true socialist which, I suspect, he was. Havis had three children — my grandmother Elinor, my aunt Jean and their brother Herman. Herman was a lawyer but never made much money because his passion was defending poor people. Herman also never married though he had a female “friend” from time to time. I suspect Herman was gay and the female friend was a beard. I know Herman was in fact a socialist because my father, who adored the man, told me he was.

As I said, my father adored his socialist uncle Herman. I think of it as a “genetic predisposition”.

My father was a general surgeon. He grew up in an upper middle class Jewish household in an upper middle class Jewish neighborhood in West Philly in the 1930’s. His father Simon was a dermatologist (Elinor did well for herself). Simon was a genuinely happy man without an ounce of ambition as far as I know. Elinor ruled their roost. Any ideas that became core values in that family came from her. Quick side note about my father’s family. Polio was a scourge when my dad was a kid. The search was on for a vaccine; the Salk vaccine was still a ways away. One of my grandparents’ social circle had created a vaccine and was testing it. Fearing polio more than the unknown, my grandmother insisted my father and his brother Horace get that vaccine. The live virus inside the vaccine their social friend was using gave both my father and his brother polio. In the current environment, that might sound like a cry against vaccines; it is not. My father went on to become a physician who religiously vaccinated himself and had his children vaccinated.

The idea of vaccination stands. That particular vaccine shouldn’t have. We need to differentiate.

Despite the cruel twist of fate that GAVE him a terrible disease (rather than him just “catching it” from someone else like most people did), my dad never displayed an ounce of anger or resentment toward what happened. Make no mistake: polio caused him physical pain every day of his life. When post-polio syndrome struck later in life, it ratcheted up the pain quotient exponentially. He didn’t keep the pain a secret, but he didn’t roll in it either. It just “was”. Like the polio that caused it, pain did not define my dad. I believe this, too, was Havis’ spirit. In my dad’s case, it saved his sanity.

Havis, it seems, has informed almost every blog post I’ve written here. I have never been happy sitting inside the box. Frankly, I’m not good at it. If the world does something one way, that makes me suspicious. Sure, sure — there might be a good reason, but, what if there was another, BETTER way — that required a bit of imagination and daring but would pay off massively.

My son’s about to graduate from UC Santa Cruz, a poli-sci major with a minor in a thing called “History Of Consciousness”. Tristan’s high school friends from the Silver Lake neighborhood of Los Angeles were a pretty outside-the-box group but even they couldn’t grasp what my son’s major was. Yet, my son just told us, with graduation approaching, that he loved his college experience and believe he found the perfect balance between partying and studying. He also found himself at Santa Cruz. Found his purpose.

Needless to say, my son won’t be dropping from college into any sort of 9-5 world. Even if that world was as prevalent now as it was when I graduated from college in 1981, Tristan wouldn’t be joining it — as I didn’t. As I couldn’t have and he (because of me and our genes) can’t.

Over the course of my working life, I’ve held a few “real jobs” on a temp basis. Knowing I was only visiting the 9-to-5 world and not moving in permanently saved my sanity. But, I loved visiting it. It’s like how I feel about weather. One of the great advantages to living in LA is that we only marginally have seasons. I mean, we DO. February and August are nothing alike. But it doesn’t snow here except very, VERY rarely. I could (in theory — which means traffic permitting) ski in the morning and surf in the very same afternoon. I can drive to seasons like I can drive to “entertainment”.

I had kids relatively late in life compared to most of my contemporaries and schoolmates. I have the luxury of added perspective. As I stare at that photo of Havis, I can’t help wondering which of the ideas floating around behind his eyes now float around behind mine. And which float behind my son’s and daughter’s.