“In this fast-food, fast-fame world, we are like singleblades of grass,” says Dr. Maya Angelou, the poet, author and historian. “Butwhen we know our roots, we are like trees and we stand a little more erect.”
The pithy remark can serve as both introduction andsummation of “Finding Our Families, Finding Ourselves,” an exhibit ofremarkable scope and imagination, opening Tuesday, Feb. 11, at the Museum of Toleranceof the Simon Wiesenthal Center.
In exploring the roots and genealogy of nine famous Americansof diverse accomplishments and ethnicities, the exhibit illustrates both thesingularity and the common strands of our experiences in this nation, whetherour ancestors arrived as immigrants, as slaves or were among the originalnatives.
Even for the Wiesenthal Center leadership, which likes tothink big, the statistics for the project are impressive. As the largestmultimedia exhibit in the decade since the museum’s opening, “Finding OurFamilies” took seven years from concept to completion, cost $7 million andextends over 10,000 square feet of the museum’s third floor.
Its centerpiece is the reconstruction of the childhoodmilieu of four of the nine diverse Americans.
For Angelou, it is the general story of the early 1930s inStamps, Ark., where her African American grandmother raised Angelou and herbrother after they had been abandoned by their mother.
For actor-comedian-director Billy Crystal, whose father diedwhen he was 15, it is a Brooklyn apartment on Fulton Street, re-imagined fromwatercolors painted by his uncle.
Another Brooklyn setting is the dinner table of the ItalianAmerican family of Joe Torre, National League Most Valuable Player and managerof the four-time World Series champion New York Yankees.
A simulated recording studio reflects the life of CarlosSantana, multiple Grammy winner and Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Famer, as he recallshis Mexican heritage.
Complementing the in-depth excursions into the past, someextending four centuries back, are video encounters with five other literary andsports figures. They are basketball great Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Native Americanauthor and poet Sherman Alexie, figure skating champion Michelle Kwan,journalist and talk show host Cristina Saralegui and quarterback Steve Young ofthe San Francisco 49ers and National Football League Player of the Year.
A visitor mounting the stairs to the exhibit floor hearsfirst the voices of past immigrants arriving in America and then faces ajumbled attic with mementos hinting at the lives of the nine featured men andwomen.
Crystal, in appropriate immigrant garb, welcomes visitorswith a tongue-in-cheek video spiel, as he struggles with a heavy trunk (“Didthey have to bring the stove along?”) and salutes the huddled masses who”dreamed of a land with indoor plumbing.”
Passing a strategically placed camera, visitors becomeinstant new immigrants, passing through Ellis Island and its dreadedexamination and detention rooms, as well as a display of historic artifacts.
Next, a large, abstract “quilt,” featuring video segments ofthe nine participants, leads into the four rooms recreating the childhoodsettings of Angelou, Crystal, Santana and Torre.
At the end of the approximately 80-minute tour, a bank ofcomputers guides visitors in the initial steps toward discovering their ownfamily histories.
The seeds of the exhibit were planted in early 1996, whenNew York-based genealogist Rafael (Rafi) Guber met with Rabbi Marvin Hier,founder and dean of the Wiesenthal Center, to broach the idea of an innovativeproject on family histories.
“Two minutes into my pitch, Hier said, ‘Let’s make ithappen,'”Guber recalled (see page 15).
Shortly afterward, and quite separately, Guber was contactedby Janice Crystal, Billy’ wife, who commissioned Guber to explore the historiesof her parents’ Polish Jewish and Irish Catholic forebears as a 50th weddinganniversary present. Happy with the results, she next asked Guber to do thesame for her husband’s family, as a surprise for his 50th birthday.
It wasn’t long before the Crystals and Hier, linked byGuber, decided to merge their efforts and the actor and his wife assumed theresponsibilities as executive producers for the future “Finding Our Families”exhibit.
“We wanted the project to be unique and fun, unlike anyother museum experience, with a sense of humor, immediacy and atmosphere,”recalled Billy Crystal. “Ultimately, we wanted to inspire people to go out andsearch for their own stories and find their own mentors and heroes.”
For the Wiesenthal Center, there was the added incentive ofcreating a child-friendly exhibit in a place devoted largely to more matureHolocaust and racial prejudice themes, said Liebe Geft, director of the Museumof Tolerance. School tours of “Finding Our Families” are planned forthird-graders on up, while families visiting on their own are encouraged tobring children of any age.
All of the nine participants in the project made discoveriesabout their ancestors to reinforce Angelou’s dictum that “it is impossible toknow where you’re going, unless you know where you’ve been.”
Poet Alexie found out that his grandfather, killed in actionin the Pacific, was a World War II hero, and he learned something more.
“I’m realizing that every family has Shakespeare in it,”Alexie says. “Every family has a King Lear and a Hamlet and a Romeo and Juliet,regardless of skin color or income level.”
Santana, remembering a father who played at baptisms and barmitzvahs, traced his lineage back to 1715. Marveling at the hosts of newlyfound ancestors, Santana exclaims, “I am a walking world, a walking universe.”
Torre discovered his mother’s home in the Italian villagewhere she was born and in a visit, found that a third of its residents wererelated to him. As in many other immigrant families, Torre credits much of hissuccess to an indomitable mother, who, in his case, shielded the children fromtheir abusive father.
Angelou, with whom The Jewish Journal connected in KansasCity during a break in her one-month trek by private bus from Winston-Salem,N.C., to Los Angeles, said she got to know for the first time the names andexistence of enslaved ancestors.
Crystal was startled to find out that one of hisgreat-grandfathers was an apparent bigamist, who maintained two separatehouseholds — one in Brooklyn, the other in Queens — and gave the same firstnames to his children in both family arrangements.
Even Hier learned that when his father, Jacob Hier, a lamppolisher by trade, arrived at Ellis Island in 1921, he came within ahairbreadth of being deported back to Poland because a relative, who wassupposed to meet him, didn’t show up for 28 days.
As in Hier’s and Torre’s cases, Guber said he finds thatships’ manifests, listing the names of passengers, are often the first clues toan immigrant ancestor’s arrival and life in the United States. Such a manifest,now accessible via the Internet, often “leads to 24 other documents,” Gubernoted.
However, he warned amateur researchers to be careful aboutthe quality and proliferation of genealogy Web sites, which are now second innumber only to pornographic sites.
Among the exhibit’s creative talent are producer-designersDoris and Geoff Woodward of Taft Design, who worked off initial concepts byWalt Disney Imagineering.
On Monday evening, Feb. 10, the opening of the exhibit willbe celebrated during a tribute dinner at the Beverly Hilton Hotel. Among thehonorees will be Billy and Janice Crystal, Angelou and Torre, with Santanadoubling as honoree and entertainer.
“Finding Our Families, Finding Ourselves” will open to thegeneral public on Tuesday, Feb. 11, and will remain at the museum for at leastthree years. Tickets may be purchased for the exhibit alone or in combinationwith an extended visit to the entire museum. For information, phone (310)553-8403; or visit www.museumoftolerance.com.
The exhibit will require a large number of docents andvolunteers. For information, call Dr. Carolyn Brucken at (310) 772-2508. Â