What do radio host Terry Gross, actor Jeff Goldblum and actor/podcaster Marc Maron have in common?
Not much, but a linking thread was unveiled in the latest episode of the PBS documentary series “Finding Your Roots,” which airs on WHYY-TV at 8 p.m. on Jan. 21.
An advanced screening was shown to a crowd at the National Museum of American Jewish History on Jan. 9. Audience members got to view the first half of the episode, which was followed by a live Q&A with Gross and show producer Sabin Streeter. Acting as moderator was NMAJH founding historian Beth Wenger.
The show has host Henry Louis Gates Jr. present each guest with a “book of life,” featuring documents, photos, newspaper clippings and others sources of information compiled by professional genealogists detailing notable family histories. One of its latest subjects was Gross.
Born and raised in Brooklyn, New York, Gross came to WHYY-FM in 1975 as a producer and host of “Fresh Air,” a Philadelphia-based daily interview and music program. Today, the show is distributed across the country via NPR and aired by more than 500 stations.
“Finding Your Roots” was able to trace Gross’ family tree to a region in Eastern Europe known as the Pale of Settlement, a place where Jewish permanent residence was allowed. Life there was hard, but for many Jews it was harder. Gross told the audience at the screening how surprised she was by the history uncovered.
Much of the research focused on Gross’ grandparents; all four were born in Eastern Europe and immigrated to the United States. However, Gross was only ever close with her mother’s parents. Their first language was Yiddish, and Gross recalled how shy and uncomfortable her maternal grandmother seemed in the new world.
Gross never knew much about her in life, but the show informed her of her journey to the U.S. She came alone with an infant, traveling to meet her husband. Years later, when her mother got sick, she returned to Eastern Europe to take care of her until her death, after which she made the grueling journey again.
“Knowing how horrible it was going to be might have been even worse than signing up for this ship,” Gross said. “So she must have had great stamina, great courage, great will, be generous enough to want to do all of this, to go through this ordeal to be back with her mother. So I have this incredible admiration for her and curiosity about how she did that. I wish I had known.”
But other information was not as unexpected, such as the results of a DNA test.
“And I thought, ‘OK, I bet I’m 99.99% Ashkenazi Jew,” Gross said. “And I was wrong, I was 99.8%. So that was my big surprise.”
Streeter told the screening’s audience that all three of the episode’s guests had stories that gelled nicely. Each subject was raised in Jewish culture without having any knowledge of their great-grandparents or their families’ origins. He mentioned how “Finding Your Roots” shows the challenges of life as an immigrant, such as leaving home and never seeing loved ones again. On the other hand, many of Gross’s relatives who stayed were killed in the Holocaust.
“These immigration decisions are such hard decisions, but they have such tremendous consequences,” Streeter said. “We want to celebrate that these things are transformative within lives, transformative within families, but that they’re at real cost, that it’s challenging. Our heritage as an immigrant nation is very nuanced and challenging, and that’s very important to us.”
The show employs teams of genealogists in Utah and New York to spend a couple months to a year working to uncover a celebrity’s family history. About 30 guests are invited onto the show each year, with two to three appearing in each episode. Streeter said the goal is to tell stories people haven’t heard before.
Streeter said it can be difficult to research families originating from places like Ireland or Eastern Europe. Oftentimes, the only information about life before the U.S. lies in a person’s immigration document. Other times, nothing is found. That happens to about two guests each season. And when they do find documents, they can only tell so much. The show makes an effort to tell guests not only what is found, but what is guessed at or is unknown.
“Many of the most important things we’ll never know, but it’s worth trying,” Streeter said.
[email protected]; 215-832-0751