My Ethnicity

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The family: mine that is, on one side. If this doesn’t say “Russia” to you, before it says anything else, you are invited to a serious discussion at our mutual convenience.

My Ethnicity

It’s taken all this time (and, as trigger, after reading a Louis Menand book review cum essay about Franz Boas and his followers) to understand that in saying I am an ethnic Jew, it means not that my ethnicity is Jewish. My first pass at understanding this in broad terms is that religion has not much at all to do with ethnography or ethnology (Jews, in short or in long, are not the same the world over).

Rather I am of a certain ethnic group, probably with some specificity, the first generation of Eastern European immigrants from the Pale of Settlement in the last wave of migration from that region to the United States that was admitted more or less without negotiable impediment.

My parents both were from Ukraine/Belarus, dating from a time that these distinctions were not made geopolitically. These nations, as they are recognized now, were all part of Russia. And being right on the border, or as near, with Poland, there is some dispute as to the exact way in which such derivation should be characterized precisely. Saying the “Pale of Settlement” covers a lot of inexactitude.

In any event, they both came from families that lived in small towns, definitely not shtetls (though my father did a good job of describing life during his boyhood in remarkably similar ways to the descriptions embedded in classic shtetl literature – Sholem Aleichem, and the like). And so, though there was some resonance, life was not exactly Anetevka and there were no fiddlers perched precariously on thatched roofs. There were resonances for sure, but my father and his entire family were used to many what I would call bourgeois amenities.

He spoke with equal fervor of the “emporium” (I’m sure he used that word at least once) owned by my grandmother’s relatives. It was a capacious store with many departments and sold a wide variety of goods, from the pickles in barrels and caviar (packed in similar fashion, though displayed and dispensed and sold in ways he never specified) to all manner of household goods, clothing, and the like.

My father told me of forebears (though from how many generations back he did not say) who were “magistrates,” a term he meant to be understood as interchangeable with judge—which in many jurisdictions, including current ones, is not an unfair definition. The reason this came up at all, aside from a current of motifs in his stories about his childhood that were evidentiary of the somehow higher or greater status accorded to holders of our family name, was to make a reasonable case for the etymological roots of that last name. He said one theory (apparently held by the clan’s wise men; though he never singled out these individuals as to identity) was that, the Hebrew word for law being “din”… as in “beth din” (house of the law) and these being Jewish judges, the intimation was that the laws used by them to adjudicate matters before them were talmudic derived from Torah, and there you have it. Though the intermediary steps of how these magistrates came to acquire the family name Dinin, as if they themselves embodied these laws, was also never spelled out.

I have potentially valid blood relations with other Russian emigré descendants who settled not only in this country, but even more favorably (given the coincidence of localities from which we can trace our family roots, plus the still relative singularity of the last name) in Israel. These latter, though the choice was voluntary as to the appropriate orthography of the surname, call themselves Dinim, which, in fact, is more consistent with the orthography of Hebrew plural spellings and pronunciation.

With a contemporaneity that extends back at least as far as my paternal grandparents’ births, which occurred in the waning decades of the nineteenth century—which makes it now at least 140 years—the name was spelled Dinin.

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