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Interfaith Celebrities: Famous Family Trees

April 3, 2012

More and More Celebrity Roots Break to the Surface

Finding Your Roots on PBS: Barbara Walters, Kyra Sedgwick, Rabbi Angela Buchdahl, Maggie Gyllenhaal and Robert Downey, Jr.

Mike Nichols

In 2010, the (terrific) PBS program Faces of America explored the ancestry of twelve famous Americans. I wrote a long column item about the show back then. My column item was mostly about famous director Mike Nichols, the only Jewish celebrity of the twelve.

Here, I'll reveal the "spoilers" I knew when I wrote about Faces in advance of its air date. Maybe it will whet your appetite to rent or buy this series or view it (for free) online. It was confirmed that Nichols was not so distantly related to Albert Einstein. Nichols had heard a family story about this relationship, but didn't think it was true. It's a treat to see his reaction when his Einstein "cousinhood" is confirmed.

Meryl Streep was also profiled in 2010. She found that she was not Dutch on her father's side, as someone told her, but German. She also found out that she had more than a friendship and a professional relationship with Nichols, who had directed her in four movies. Their DNA revealed that they shared a common ancestor within the last 250 years. Nichols' mother's Jewish family had lived in Germany for centuries, so some connection between them is not shocking. Still, they both got a kick out of being "family." (It isn't clear if Streep has remote Jewish ancestry or if Nichols has remote non-Jewish ancestry.)

The host of Faces, African-American Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates, Jr., has just returned to PBS as the host of Finding Your Roots, a new, 10-part, famous person ancestry series. New series episodes first air on Sundays at 8 p.m.

Finding premiered on Sunday, March 25. The premiere featured two episodes back-to-back. Starting April 1, only one episode will air each week.

Unlike Faces, where the ancestry story of a particular celebrity was sometimes told over more than one episode, the profiles on Finding begin and end in one episode.

Meryl Streep

One of the March 25 Finding episodes featured singer and actor Harry Connick, Jr., 44. Connick's father is of Irish Catholic background. His late mother was Jewish. Connick was only 14 when his mother died. Not long after, he decided to follow his father's Catholic faith and, today, is a devout Catholic. The program, featuring Connick, only explored his father's ancestry and his mother's side wasn't mentioned.

On Sunday, April 1, Jewish journalist Barbara Walters, 82, will be one of two famous people profiled.

On Sunday, April 8, actress Kyra Sedgwick, 46, and her husband, actor Kevin Bacon, 53, will be profiled. As I have written before, Sedgwick's mother is Jewish and she identifies as Jewish.

The April 15 episode features three clergy: famous evangelical minister Rick Warren, 58, Muslim Imam Yasir Qadhi, 37, and Rabbi Angela Warnick Buchdahl, 40.

Buchdahl was born in Korea, the daughter of a Jewish American father and a Korean Buddhist mother. Currently, she is the Senior Cantor for the 6500-member Central Synagogue in New York City. She was ordained a rabbi in 2001 and she's the first Asian-American to be ordained a rabbi or cantor in North America. Recently, InterfaithFamily.com re-posted an article written by Buchdahl about her interfaith heritage.

The April 22 episode features interfaith actress Maggie Gyllenhaal, 34, and actor Robert Downey, Jr., 46. As I have written before, Gyllenhaal is the daughter of a Jewish mother and a non-Jewish father. Downey's paternal grandfather was Jewish, and he married his Jewish wife in a Jewish ceremony.

Other people already profiled in the series, or about to be profiled, include: African-American Congressman and civil rights movement "legend" John Lewis; Newark, New Jersey Mayor Cory Booker; jazz musician Branford Marsalis; actor Samuel L. Jackson; former Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice; singer-songwriter and actor John Legend; actress Michelle Rodriguez; neurosurgeon and CNN host Sanjay Gupta; stand-up comedian and actress Wanda Sykes; Brown University president Ruth Simmons; and Geoffrey Canada, the head of the Harlem Children's Zone, a project that provides multiple services to Harlem's children.

There are detailed biographies of all the people mentioned above on the official website.

Another "Roots" Show

Who Do You Think You Are: Helen Hunt and Rashida Jones

Helen Hunt on Who Do You Think You Are?

The March 23 episode of the NBC series, Who Do You Think You Are?, explored the ancestry of Oscar-winning actress Helen Hunt, 48. In some ways, this episode was the best in the whole series so far. Not only were the two highlighted ancestral lines interesting, but the historical context in which Hunt's ancestors lived was much better handled than most other episodes I've seen.

The first half of the program covered Hunt's paternal grandmother's family. Hunt already knew that her paternal grandmother was Jewish and that she was "one quarter" Jewish, herself. However, because her paternal grandmother died in a car accident (caused by a drunk driver) when her father was very young, her father (who is still living) really didn't know much about his Jewish family roots.

He did know that his mother and her three siblings grew up in a very fancy hotel in Pasadena, California with their mother, Florence Rothenburg, who was widowed at a young age. Hunt's father didn't know the source of his Jewish grandmother's wealth or why she decided to move to California after being widowed in New York City.

Hunt learned that her great-great grandfather was William Scholle, a Bavarian Jew who came to San Francisco during the 1849 Gold Rush and became a very successful clothing merchant.

During her filmed trip to San Francisco, Hunt met with Frances Dinkelspiel, who is the author of a scholarly biography of her great-great-grandfather, Isaias Hellman, another very successful Gold Rush Jew. Dinkelspiel showed Hunt an 1890 newspaper article which described how Scholle, Hellman, and Levi Strauss joined together to buy a big Nevada bank which later merged with Wells Fargo Bank.

Helen Hunt learning about her family's history from Professor Marc Dollinger.

Hunt also learned that Rothenburg was born in San Francisco, so moving to Pasadena was just a return to her native State. Obviously, the fortune that William Scholle earned was, at the very least, part of the source of Florence Rothenburg's wealth.

Hunt then went to Portland, Maine, where she learned that her Protestant great-great-grandmother was Augusta Hunt, a local leader in the Women's Christian Temperance Union (WCTU). Hunt was clearly reticent to find out more. She said that her sense of the WCTU was that of a group of teetotalers who wanted to impose their narrow morality on others.

But an historian explained, to Hunt, the incredible extent of alcohol abuse during the 19th century and the suffering it caused, particularly for women and children. It then occurred to Hunt that alcohol had brought great sorrow to her own family — that her father's mother's death was caused by a drunk driver.

Hunt also learned that Augusta supported a wide variety of charities and political causes, including women's suffrage. She lived long enough to see the 19th Amendment (women's suffrage) be ratified in 1920. As a matter of fact, records showed that Augusta Hunt was the very first woman to cast a ballot in Portland.

By coincidence, Hunt has been prominently mentioned in two articles on Interfaithfamily.com. In 2007, the film, Then She Found Me, opened. Directed by and starring Hunt, it was based upon a novel by Jewish author Elinor Lipman and featured an interfaith romance. While the film only hinted at the interfaith nature of the romantic relationship between Hunt's Jewish schoolteacher character and a single father played by Colin Firth, it was realistic enough for InterfaithFamily.com author Rachel Mauro to entitle her article, "A Real Movie About Complicated Families".

In 2008, InterfaithFamily.com author Laurie Heifetz interviewed Helen Hunt's ex-husband, Jewish actor Hank Azaria, now 47, and asked him about the Jewish wedding that he and Hunt had back in 1999. Sadly, even though the couple had been involved for many years, their marriage lasted only a year. In 2001, Hunt began a romantic relationship with her present partner, Matthew Carnahan, 51, a producer and writer, and they have one child together, a daughter.

Interfaith and inter-racial actress Rashida Jones, 36, will the subject of an upcoming episode this season. Check local listings each week or view her episode online, after it airs.

A member of the Jewish clergy who leads a congregation in songful prayer. ("Hazzan" in Hebrew.) Hebrew for "my master," the term refers to a spiritual leader and teacher of Torah. Often, but not always, a rabbi is the leader of a synagogue congregation.

Nate Bloom writes a weekly column on Jewish celebrities, broadly defined, that appears in the Cleveland Jewish News, the American Israelite of Cincinnati, the Detroit Jewish News, and the New Jersey Jewish Standard. It also appears bi-weekly in j., the Jewish news weekly of northern California. Starting April 2012, a monthly version of his column (featuring relevant "oldies but goodies") will appear in the following Florida newspapers: the Jewish News (Sarasota and Manatee County), the Federation Star (Collier County) and L'Chayim (Lee and Charlotte counties).

The author welcomes questions and celebrity "tips," especially about people you personally know. Write him at middleoftheroad1@aol.com. And feel free to comment below.

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