Compelling personal stories
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I might have been half joking when I told my family I wanted a genetic-spit test instead of a cake to celebrate my 46th birthday. But what better way to face a midlife crisis than to discover new mysteries lurking inside my DNA? Then 11 people died a spitting distance from my living room at the Tree of Life synagogue, and I now believe genetic introspection may be a key for us all, as a society, to come to terms with what we really are.

I come from a city on the Mediterranean coast of Turkey, and it was a winding journey that took me to my home now in Squirrel Hill. As a child, I would listen at bedtime to my French great-grandmother’s stories about World War I. She was a Red Cross nurse traveling with the French army; she fell in love with a Turkish soldier in the French-occupied territories of what was then the Ottoman Empire. She never returned to her home in France.

My great-grandmother was whimsical, opinionated and just different from any grandmother I knew of. I inherited her weak spot for French macarons but wondered what else she might have left me. With the privacy of a home-genetic testing kit, I decided to find out.

My family obliged. My spit test came back. The results? Well, my reality was hardly shattered. I am 48 percent of what I was expecting, and the 10 percent Southern European suggests that my great-grandmother did come from Toulouse after all.

On the afternoon of the shootings, raw with all kinds of emotions as I tried to come to terms with what just happened in our backyard, in our neighborhood, in our city, in our country, in our world, my genetic report gained a very different meaning. I looked at it again and cried.

There at the very bottom of the listing of all the other things I am, it said I was also 1 percent Ashkenazi Jewish. All I can think of since the attack is that if somehow we could make everyone spit in a paper cup, if we all discovered that none of us is one of anything, but are made out of all kinds of things, could we hate another person for being who we think they are?

Müge Finkel, an assistant professor of international development at the University of Pittsburgh, teaches a gender and development class on Tuesday. (Photo by Ryan Loew/PublicSource)
Müge Finkel, an assistant professor of international development at the University of Pittsburgh, asks,”What if that comfort and security is better found in our common diversity, hidden in a single spit at the bottom of a paper cup?” (Photo by Ryan Loew/PublicSource)

I hear a lot about ‘power of one’ these days. My students at the University of Pittsburgh are quick to note that the one Muslim roommate they had in college made them less fearful at airport security waiting behind a veiled woman. They speak of the fun they had at their first gay wedding, and it seems to them bananas that same-sex marriage became legal only in June 2015. One transgender person looking you in the eye is worth a hundred TED lectures earnestly explaining why no one should deny anyone the security of a public bathroom. But what if we each already have the power of one we need to understand the other?

What if the 0.1 percent Chinese in me was enough to shatter all the stereotyping I see? What if the 7.6 percent East European in me gave me the strength to challenge prejudices against Roma? What if the 14 percent Russian in me felt the guilt by association some of my Russian neighbors must have been feeling since the election?

I calculate that I was having my second cup of coffee when the first shots were fired on Oct. 27. As I was hassling my son about his homework, the gunman was running up to the third floor. By the time I put down the cup, 11 people had died. It still feels surreal.

I look at my genetic composition. The 1 percent Ashkenazi Jew, which was going to be the talk of the Thanksgiving table with my Jewish mother-in-law, now burns like a brand.

When our son was in second grade, clearly in the middle of his first identity crisis, he proudly came up with the word “Jewslim” to mark his impartial love for his Jewish father and Muslim mother. He quickly followed up with a question: “Are there more people like me?”

What he felt when he was 7 is what we all need to feel now. We seek security and comfort in commonality. But what if that comfort and security is better found in our common diversity, hidden in a single spit at the bottom of a paper cup?

Müge Kökten Finkel is assistant professor of international development at the Graduate School of Public and International Affairs at the University of Pittsburgh and co-director of the Gender Inequality Research Lab [GIRL]. She can be reached at

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