What is your Montreal DNA?

Inspired by a commercial about finding one's ancestry, CBC/QWF writer-in-residence Joshua Levy ordered a DNA kit, hoping to find some exotic strain running through his veins.

After getting his genetic test results, Joshua Levy concludes blood and saliva don't tell the whole story

Joshua Levy samples a warm Fairmount bagel. (submitted by Joshua Levy)

This is the first in a series of blog posts by the 2018 CBC Montreal/Quebec Writers' Federation writer-in-residence, Joshua Levy.

It was a commercial about DNA that first piqued my interest — a mix of "and your biological father is…" sensationalism and "the meaning of self, society and life is…" philosophy.

It stars a group of strangers finding out their DNA results together. There's a white supremacist in the room. He discovers he is genetically 16 per cent West African and that the black woman standing immediately to his right is a distant cousin.
People in the U.K. await the results of their DNA tests in this Youtube video. Moved by the emotions their findings aroused, Joshua Levy decided to take a test himself. (Momondo: The DNA Journey/Youtube)

Hearing the news, the white supremacist turns a shade or two whiter. His hands ball up into fists. Then he wraps his arms around the woman and bursts into tears.

"I've never had a cousin before," he sobs.

I like this commercial.

It gives me hope that we will one day be a united species. Sure, we live in an age of escalating xenophobia, blind nationalism and "my button is bigger than your button" nuclear posturing. But at the end of the day, we are a planet full of cousins — and isn't that beautiful?

What treasures lay buried?

I ordered a kit and dutifully swabbed my cheeks when it arrived. What treasures, I wondered, lay buried in my blood?

I shared this exhilarating thought with my parents, but they just shrugged and said I was Jewish.

Maybe, I thought, I get my dark complexion from a great-great-great-great-great Indian grandfather.

Maybe I am the spitting image of a long-forgotten Persian ancestor.

Joshua Levy wondered if he had a little Portuguese blood, which could help explain why he felt so at home the instant he set foot in Lisbon. (submitted by Joshua Levy)

Maybe, just maybe, I have a few drops of Portuguese blood swimming in my veins — which could explain why I experienced a sense of déjà vu on my first trip to Lisbon.   

Also, I don't really look like my father.

My results arrive

Months later, an email arrived notifying me that my results could now be viewed online. Excited, I clicked the link, and the page loaded slowly, seemingly for dramatic effect.

When it finished, I stared at the screen, dumbfounded.

My genetic makeup confirmed what I thought was impossible: I am "100 per cent Jewish."

When the results of his DNA test came back, Levy was disappointed to learn he is, in fact, 100 per cent an Ashkenazi Jew. (submitted by Joshua Levy)

Of course, there is nothing wrong with being 100 per cent Jewish.

I am, you could say, pure laine, on a biblical scale.

But to be honest, I was hoping that my results would paint me as a citizen of the world.

Other key ingredients

Blood and saliva only tell you so much of the story.

My DNA does not give credit to the sexy stranger who helped my great-great-grandfather escape the Russian pogroms by spontaneously kissing him at the border crossing in order to distract a guard.  

Boris Kaplan escapes from Russia

4 years ago
Boris Kaplan describes how two women helped him escape from Russia into Germany. 1:55

My DNA does not allude to the Nazi officer who probably saved my great-grandfather by phoning in the middle of the night and urging him to leave Berlin before dawn.   

Nor does it hint at the month my grandfather spent holed up in Lisbon during World War II, safe from the Nazis, killing time eating pastel de natas while he waited for his immigration papers to Canada.
Joshua Levy's paternal grandfather, Samuel, ended up in Lisbon, via Switzerland, safe from the Nazis, for a month in 1940 while he awaited his immigration papers to Canada. Levy found himself wondering if his grandfather's life-changing journey to Lisbon helps explain why he felt an immediate familiarity when he first travelled there. (submitted by Joshua Levy)

My Montreal DNA

Regardless of where my ancestors once lived, my parents were both born and raised in Montreal. I was born in Ottawa, but my folks moved back here by the time I turned one. That makes me, for all intents and purposes, a Montreal native.

But you would never know that from analyzing my DNA.

That is why I like to think that I also possess "Montreal DNA" — the places in Montreal that shaped who I am.

My Montreal DNA includes an early memory of watching my father shovel out a neighbour's car.
Joshua Levy returns to the very spot where he once stood as a boy, watching his father shovel a neighbour's car out of a snowbank. (submitted by Joshua Levy)

It includes the view of the mountain changing colours from my grandmother's kitchen window.

It includes that beam of light from Place Ville-Marie rotating across my childhood bedroom ceiling, again and again and again.

My Montreal DNA includes the eggs and potatoes at Cosmos.

Joshua Levy drops by The Famous Cosmos, the NDG greasy spoon now co-owned by Nick Koulakis, left, who runs the restaurant his late father Tony founded in 1967. (submitted by Joshua Levy)

It includes the oddly perfect pairing of Indian food and cheese blintzes at D.A.D.S Bagels in NDG.

It includes wearing two piping hot Fairmount bagels as edible mittens and leaving a trail of sesame seeds behind me in the snow.

My Montreal DNA includes the endless hours spent with my childhood friends at the Cavendish Mall in Côte Saint-Luc. It includes the hours spent with my teenage friends huddled in lines outside clubs and bars and concert venues.

My Montreal DNA includes walks with my dog on top of Mount Royal.        

One day, if my wife and I have a child, they will inherit our DNA.

I will also make sure to tell them stories of my Montreal DNA. And I will really look forward to watching them discover their own.  

What is in your Montreal DNA?

Comment below, or share your story on the CBC Montreal Facebook page. 


Joshua Levy

2018 CBC/QWF writer-in-residence

Joshua Levy is the 2018 CBC/Quebec Writers' Federation writer-in-residence. A poet, writer and storyteller with deep roots in Montreal, Levy has contributed to CBC shows including DNTO and Wiretap, performed stories for QWF's This Really Happened, The Moth Toronto and The Raconteurs and been published in various literary magazines.


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