June 18, 2019

Jewish Genealogy Explored in ‘Finding Your Roots’

Sarah Silverman and Henry Louis Gates, Jr .;Courtesy of McGee Media/Ark Media

Over four seasons, the PBS genealogy series “Finding Your Roots With Henry Louis Gates, Jr.” has traced the ancestry of many Members of the Tribe, including those of Barbara Walters, Alan Dershowitz, Tony Kushner, Carole King, Gloria Steinem, Julianna Margulies, Dustin Hoffman, Carly Simon, Paul Rudd and Amy Schumer. 

Thanks to DNA testing, non-Jews Jessica Alba, Gloria Reuben and political commentator Ana Navarro learned about heretofore hidden Jewish roots, and Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and his “Saturday Night Live” impersonator Larry David were revealed to be distant cousins. With producer and host Gates, a professor of African-American studies at Harvard University serving as genealogical guide, the surprises continue in the 10-episode fifth season, airing Tuesdays on KOCE.

The revelations begin with Andy Samberg in the premiere episode, which repeats at 11 a.m. Jan. 13 and will be available on PBS digital platforms. The “Brooklyn Nine-Nine” star, whose mother, Marjorie, was adopted, sought Gates’ help in finding her birth parents. Marjorie knew her birth mother was Jewish and born in Germany in 1920, and that her mother had a sister, a famous singer who had lived in India in the 1940s. That provided Gates’ researchers with a vital clue that led to her identity. 

Then, DNA testing and matching enabled researchers to find Sandberg’s Sicilian paternal grandfather, who met his grandmother in San Francisco when she was studying in Berkeley and he was in the U.S. Navy, stationed nearby. She became pregnant in 1945 and gave up her daughter for adoption. Samberg and Marjorie were able to meet her half-brothers and several cousins from her Italian-American family.

“I’m overwhelmed with happiness for my mom,” he told Gates. It’s fantastic. It’s finally something my mom gets to know. She can explore all of this now.”

“Game of Thrones” author George R.R. Martin; Photo courtesy of McGee Media/Ark Media

The episode also features “Game of Thrones” author George R.R. Martin, whose pie chart reveals British-Irish heritage on his mother’s side and 22.4 percent Ashkenazi Jewish heritage on his father’s. Martin had always thought his paternal line was German-Italian, and family lore had it that his grandfather cheated on his grandmother and then abandoned her. As it turns out, his grandmother was the one who had the affair, with an Ashkenazi Jew.

“You’re uprooting my world here. I’m descended from mystery,” Martin said. “I would not have guessed this. This is a bombshell here.” Alas, that was where the information trail ended. Gates’ team was unable to find any additional details about Martin’s grandfather.

“At a time when immigration has become such a deeply controversial and sensitive matter, I believe that the more each of us understands about where we came from, the more richly we can live our lives.” 

— Henry Louis Gates Jr.

In the fifth episode, airing Feb. 12, former Speaker of the House Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) discovers he has Jewish roots in his mother’s German line. His DNA chart reveals 3 percent Ashkenazi-Jewish ancestry, meaning one of his third-great-grandparents was Jewish. The surprise news “about knocked his head off, to tell you the truth,” Gates said at a panel discussion promoting the series. “And then he was very proud of it.”

Ashkenazi-Jewish immigrant stories are explored in the segments featuring Facebook executive and author Sheryl Sandberg and comedian Sarah Silverman, who appear in the third episode (Jan. 29) and sixth episode (Feb. 19), respectively. Sandberg learns about the hardship and tragedy her maternal forebears faced after fleeing anti-Semitism in Russia. 

Silverman’s great-grandparents on both sides were from Russia and Poland, entrepreneurial immigrants who came to the United States and started businesses. Her maternal great-grandfather became a jeweler and her paternal great-grandfather was a peddler and his wife was a dressmaker. 

DNA analysis and comparisons to a database of previous “Finding Your Roots” guests provided Silverman with a match and an unexpected revelation. She learned she’s a distant cousin of actress Maggie Gyllenhaal, who is also descended from Russian- and Polish-Jewish immigrants on her mother’s side. Gyllenhaal appeared in the show’s first season in 2012. 

“Finding Your Roots” was a spinoff of Gates’ 2006 project “African American Lives,” which probed the backgrounds of black celebrities including Whoopi Goldberg, Quincy Jones, Oprah Winfrey and Chris Tucker. “We could not predict or foresee how it would mutate into the marvelous thing that it’s become,” Gates said.

“Our series demonstrates each week, in vivid detail and with moving storytelling, that a continuing source of strength for our country is the fact that we are a nation of immigrants,” he said. “I find it inspiring that our fellow Americans are so determined to explore their own ancestral heritage, precisely at a time when immigration has become such a deeply controversial and sensitive matter. I believe that the more each of us understands about where we came from, about what our ancestors experienced, and how those experiences have shaped us, whether we knew about them or not, the more richly we can live our lives.”


“Finding Your Roots” airs at 8 p.m. Tuesdays on PBS.