One of the treasured books that my father had in his library was called Lionhearts, about the heroes of the Israeli state. A forthright praise of Zionism and nationalism, one which both my father and I shared support for, this book contained a great many stories of heroism and self-sacrifice. One of the most poignant stories that I remember from that particular collection is the story of a Moroccan Jew whose name I cannot remember. The story goes that during military training there was an accident and a live grenade was present in a large group of soldiers, and a Moroccan Jew warned everyone about it and jumped on it, sacrificing his life to save that of his fellow soldiers. The story was made more poignant by the fact that at that time, at least, Moroccan Jews were looked down on by mainstream Israeli society, and so it was that the Ashkenazi elite was, to some extent, shamed by the self-sacrificial spirit of someone who was viewed as a second-class citizen within Israeli society.
One of my own personal interests is genealogy, the study of where it is the people of my family come from. As someone who has studied a fair bit into my family’s history, I have found many cases where my own family’s history is wound up with the larger history of the nation and world as a whole. Despite being an obscure person from a generally obscure line, from time to time my family ends up having very interesting ties to somewhat important people. Even when not studying my own personal family history, my general interest in studying the family history of various dynasties tends to show as well the way in which elites tend to marry among themselves, and that alongside the mundane stories of families farming and working from one generation to another there is also the sometimes more romantic story of families that are connected to elites. Some of these stories are fanciful, like Ludwig von Beethoven’s believe that he was the natural son of Frederick the Great of Prussia. At times, though, such stories are a reality, as was the case when the formerly impoverished daughter of the older woman that C.S. Lewis long lived with inherited a noble title from a paternal relative and became part of the upper aristocracy of Scotland. How are we to distinguish between which connections are fanciful and which have the chance to uplift our life and completely change the way that we are viewed by others?
How is it that we preserve the scarlet thread of our heritage and ancestry throughout history? There are a few ways this can be done. Our DNA is received from our parents and our ancestors further and further up. Even more specifically, males receive Y-DNA from their father’s line all the way up, and both men and women receive mitochondrial DNA from their mother’s line all the way up (but only women pass it on to their offspring). Through the testing of DNA we can determine ancestry, though the passage of our DNA can be threatened through “non-paternal events” where people are raised as the children of a father when someone else, often an illicit lover, has been the actual father of the child, something that can render whole lines of a family as not being actually the descendants of the family that they are raised in and identify with. Linguistic and material culture as well can continue to be carried, but even here elites can disappear within a larger group. The expansion of the Slavic peoples was brought in large part through elites from Persia, with names clearly connected to the area, but whatever language and culture they brought has long been swamped by the dominant slavic culture. And some of the descendants of these Slavs, having settled in what is now Greece, consider themselves to be Greek. A great many Celts were overrun by Anglo-Saxons and were raised to think of themselves as English when they were in fact Celtic. The Kievan Rus were brought to prominence by an infusion of elites from Scandinavia, but one would be hard-pressed to recognize that heritage in contemporary Ukraine or Russia. And so it goes.
There are only a few ways the thread of a legacy can survive the complications of history. If it is recorded in texts, those texts must survive and must be viewed as authoritative by later generations not afflicted (as ours is) with what C.S. Lewis called chronological snobbery. If material culture is preserved, like the passage of calf figurines across space and time with differently named peoples, then those peoples must be correctly linked together. If linguistic clues are carried like the names of people or tribes, those clues must be deciphered in an atmosphere where it is easy for both false positives and false negatives depending on the standards of the people making the judgment. After all, some thousands of years the destiny of rulership within the tribe of Judah was decided by a scarlet thread and a breach. As it is written in Genesis 38:27-30: “Now it came to pass, at the time for giving birth, that behold, twins were in her womb. And so it was, when she was giving birth, that the one put out his hand; and the midwife took a scarlet thread and bound it on his hand, saying, “This one came out first.” Then it happened, as he drew back his hand, that his brother came out unexpectedly; and she said, “How did you break through? This breach be upon you!” Therefore his name was called Perez. Afterward his brother came out who had the scarlet thread on his hand. And his name was called Zerah.” From such accidents of history great repercussions follow.