I began my journey in Siberia. Yes, SIBERIA. The reaction I tended to receive when I told people this before I departed was usually a look that said “You’re going where?! Why?!” Not all of Siberia is the desolate frozen expanse of tundra that it is known for. Siberia is a land full of majestic wilderness places. Pristine rivers and lakes. Lush taiga forest. Vast, towering mountain ranges. It gets hot here in the summer during the day.
I don’t have significant root connections here. My initial main reason for beginning in Siberia was because, well, I wanted to visit Siberia, to experience one of the vast wildernesses that is home to some of the major wonders of the world. I figured that while I’m on this side of the world, I might as well combine a visit to Siberia with my Ancestral Roots Journey. And I did have a loose connection with Siberia as I mentioned in my first post: my uncle worked as a professor at Barnaul University and spent a lot of time in the Altai Mountains.
I was envisioning traveling to Lake Baikal, another Siberian world wonder I was feeling called to in addition to the Altai Mountains. During the initial stages of planning my journey, I took the Ancestry.com DNA test as part of ancestry research I had begun before planning this journey. The DNA test results revealed (no surprise) that I’m 94% Ashkenazi Jewish. There were a few other ethnicities in the mix as well. According to Ancestry.com, about 1% of my genetic makeup comes from East Asia, with the likely region being in Siberia. Siberia was no longer simply an adventure that was a side note to my ancestral journey. It was now part of it.
About a month before I departed for the journey, I took the 23andMe.com DNA test as well, as it provides more info than Ancestry.com. A few days after I landed in Ulan-Ude, on the east side of Lake Baikal, I received the results of that DNA test. The small percentage of Siberian heritage belongs to the Yakut people. I read about them and learn that they were some of the original inhabitants of and indigenous to the Lake Baikal region. Synchronicity.
There have been moments in my life when I feel pulled in a particular direction, called someplace, and I don’t know why until after I arrive. This was one of those moments.
~1% might not seem like much, but it means that somewhere between 6 to 9 generations back, I had a full-blooded Yakut ancestor. That means they were likely born sometime between 175 to 250 years ago. Or I had a few ancestors 6 to 9 generations back that had each had some sizeable percentage of Yakut heritage.
Yakutians and Altaians belong to the same family group of Turkic peoples. Research suggests that the Turkic languages and peoples originated in the Altai region. The call to the Altai took on a new significance as well.
I began at Lake Baikal, volunteering with a trail building project there. From Baikal, I traveled to the Altai Mountains where I’m volunteering at a nature reserve under the jurisdiction of and managed by indigenous Altaians.
From Altai, I travel to Moscow where a few relatives lived, then onto Saint Petersburg where my parents went for their honeymoon. Then I cross the border into Ukraine, and meet with a JDC Entwine group for an 8-day service learning program called Inside Jewish Ukraine. The program begins in Kiev and ends in Odessa where my parents and grandparents are from. After the program ends, my mother and brother are flying in to meet me and spend two weeks in Odessa, showing me the city they and my most recent ancestors are from.
From Odessa I’ll head to Zhmerynka, a small village where my great-grandfather Mendel Berchenko was from. I’ll also spend time in other parts of Ukraine, including the Carpathian mountains, the homeland of some of the prominent Chasidic sages.
After Ukraine, the journey takes me to Lithuania to visit the homeland of my great-grandfather Yakov Meitus. Then to Kishinev, Moldova, the homeland of my great-grandmother Rosa.
Somewhere in there, I’ll likely make a trip to Poland and one of the concentration camps to bear witness to and confront the grief in my Jewish heritage.
After I complete my time in Eastern Europe, I head to Israel to connect with the ancient roots of my Jewish heritage. If I still have money left, I’ll head to Egypt as well to see the sacred sites my ancient ancestors may have helped build as Hebrew slaves. The DNA tests revealed a small percentage of North African heritage as well, so Egypt may hold some roots for me aside from the time my Hebrew ancestors spent there.