23 and Me and Our Obsession with Identity

23andMe heritage breakdown. Image credit: FlaglerLive via Genetic Literacy Project

By Dina Rabhan

There are at least a dozen or more DNA discovery companies.

What used to be reserved for courtroom trials to identify guilty persons and solving birth father mysteries is now a phenomenon sweeping the world, with people who are hungry to know who they really are.

Why do people care to know that they are one-eighth Cherokee Indian and one-third Nordic? What need does this information satisfy? Similarly, why do adopted children seek out their birth parents despite being fully integrated into a loving, caring family?

And why does my family spend hours intensely discussing which genetic pool dominates our new grandson’s adorable little face?

The need to know who we are is primal and we spend our lives trying to figure it out, genetically and existentially. And now there are a dozen or more companies that are validating this lifelong quest by offering a measure of solace with sometimes sparse and obscure information.

Identity is everything in Judaism, but as the CEO of an educational media company focused on strengthening Jewish identity, I sometimes struggle to articulate the urgency of our work compared to the work of feeding the hungry or clothing the poor. According to Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, the most basic human physiological needs of food, water and shelter are prerequisites that must be addressed before the higher-level needs, which include psychological needs and self-actualization.

Maslow posited that though needs are not rigidly sequential, it’s extremely difficult to think about or aspire to the higher-level needs if basic needs are lacking. The author John Green thinks differently and in his book Fault in our Stars the 16-year-old protagonist, battling terminal cancer, says, “According to Maslow, I was stuck on the second level of the pyramid, unable to feel secure in my health and therefore unable to reach for love and respect and art… (but) The urge to make art or contemplate philosophy does not go away when you are sick. Those urges just become transfigured by illness.” She expresses the totality of being human and that lacking lower-level needs does not preclude the yearning for satisfying the higher-level needs. She is referring to our inner selves, our soul, and our need to nourish and develop it.

Human beings long for belonging and identity and community just as they long for safety, security and basic needs. No matter what kind of conditions exist, our soul yearns for attention. It’s not a frivolous endeavor. Feeling loved and belonging are powerful and necessary.

This excerpt helps me understand my work in a whole new way. Jewish identity work is not only about continuity and securing the Jewish future (though these are compelling). Knowing who you are, feeling rooted and having a strong sense of belonging are deep human needs that, when left unaddressed, leave people feeling untethered and painfully alone. Providing pathways to community and connection are vital.

There is great irony that our world is more connected than ever yet people feel more isolated and alone, manifesting in all types of health and mental health issues: depression, anxiety, drug addiction. Connecting people with their heritage and history, providing a strong sense of belonging to community, and nourishing the yearning in everyone’s souls to know who they are and what their story is has never had greater meaning and urgency than it does today.

Dina Rabhan is CEO of Jerusalem U.