Part I: My name is Matthew Ray Culberson. I was given the name Matthew on the day I was born because...
Maybe because school had been filled with so much uncertainty and conflict, when I got to UC Davis, I gravitated to the methodology and empiricism of science. I was laser focused on becoming a medical doctor — on saving lives through the practice of medicine, especially in the underserved Black community. I wasn’t looking to explore my spirituality or cultural heritage. I stayed with the Seventh Day Adventists (“stayed SDA”) because it made things convenient for me and my family, even though it didn’t make sense to me to be Black and Christian knowing that my ancestors were enslaved to the religion.
I wasn’t a fan of the SDA Sabbath growing up. I hated not being able to do secular things for an entire day. But I appreciated that I had a day off dedicated to “the Father.” The way Sabbath was kept as an SDA entailed not doing school or career work, not doing dishes or chores — only watching TV that was about Jesus/god or nature, spending time at church and fellowshipping, learning the christain bible. Not participating in “worldly” stuff. For years, I spent most of my sabbaths watching The Prince of Egypt over and over again. My mom said that I was very connected to the film, that I never got bored of watching it. It makes sense to me why now.
When I got to UC Davis, I had trouble finding an undergraduate research lab. My first semester GPA was too low or I didn’t have enough experience or they didn’t have enough space. Then a professor named Gene G. Gurkoff heard my story and took me in. He said he knew there was something different about me. If the only difference about him was that he gave me a shot, that would have been enough. We studied neuromodulation, therapies delivered to specific targets within the central nervous system, to improve quality-of-life in patients with neurological disorders such as traumatic brain injury, epilepsy, Parkinson's disease or brain tumor.
My job involved surgically cutting TBI rains and using NeuN antibody staining to count the total number of neurons in the hippocampus and medial septum. We hyothesized that TBI was linked to neuron death that resulted in memory loss and seizures, which can be repaired through brain stimulations. It was mesmerizing to be able to visualize through a microscope an actual neuron cell.
For all the things I learned from Professor Gurkoff, I didn’t learn until last year that he was Jewish.
Professor Ken Kaplan and I developed a good relationship in his biology class. Even though he had a busy schedule, he made time to mentor me and later to write letters on my behalf. Professor Kaplan’s research focuses on the mechanisms and pathways underlying chromosome maintenance. Chromosomes — the stewards of our DNA across generations and millennia! When I learned after graduating that Professor Kaplan was Jewish, I connected his generosity to our having some distant chromosomal, spiritual link.
But the people I knew at the time were Jewish did not give me any sense that I was already on a path toward reconnecting with my tribe. Like the kid in my physiology class who had very curly long hair, an undertone in his skin that made him appear to be not just European, a 90’s style dress, small eyes magnified by big round glasses, an outdated phone and laptop. Practically everything I knew about Jewish people was from stereotypes and the media. He was friendly to me at first but then gave me weird vibes later in the class, so I ignored him.
My last housemate at UC Davis had a Jewish father and a Mexican mother. She told me how her grandparents were born in Berlin Germany and raised in Austria but fled to the U.S in the 1930s. Her grandfather obtained U.S. citizenship by serving in the military. We talked mostly about food — based on her description, I could almost taste the Mexican Matzo Ball Soup. She was raised in the Reconstructionist Movement and vividly recalled how people’s Jewishness among her high school friends was determined by how observant they were, rather than their ancestry. Part of her bat mitzvah required her to do a research paper along with Torah reading. She did hers on the laws of kashrut. As a part of SDA, I kept kosher. She did not.
She shared that, when they were younger, her twin sister had nervously approached their dad to tell him that she didn’t believe in G-d. When she opened up about it, her dad comforted her and said, “It’s okay, I’m atheist.” For me, it was shocking to learn that some Jews didn’t believe in G-d.
With the academic rigor and social challenges at UC Davis, I did not have enough time or confidence to explore my Jewish identity. I felt proud to be African American and felt a responsibility to prove my supporters right and my doubters wrong. The closest thing I had to an epiphany was changing tracks from medicine to chemistry — specifically becoming a chemistry professor with a PhD from UC Berkeley.
When the where of graduate school started to feel uncertain, I did not sense that it was Hashem and His will over my life. I remember having an intuition — so clear it was almost a voice — that I should go to University of Michigan. I was freaked out by this, resisted it and remained confident I would go to UC Berkeley. But Professor Kaplan offered to write me a letter for Michigan, so I applied there too. After graduating from Davis in 2018, I waited. Within days of each other, I was rejected by Berkeley and accepted to Michigan.
Like our shabbat dinner after high school graduation, my old principal Mr. Hunter invited me, my mom and then girlfriend Kiara to a Pesach Seder at the Mosaic Law Congregation in Sacramento. Even after four years at Davis — where the Hillel house was less than a mile from the chemistry building — this was the first time I had really been to a Jewish gathering. I was stunned to see the artwork on the walls displaying brown-skinned Jews. Mr. Hunter told me, “They know the truth here that their ancestors were brown.”
I had an amazing time at the seder, but I barely knew what was going on. The Hebrew confused me, the wait to eat made my stomach growl and I thought it was strange that the congregants were hitting each other with long green leaves as they sang “die-die-ainy-you.” But when it finally arrived, the food was amazing.
I was still thinking about the seder as Kiara and I packed for Michigan a few weeks later.