Continuing on the Parks & Recreation theme from last week, this week’s Who Do You Think You Are celebrity is Rashida Jones.
First, a full disclosure: Even before this week’s episode, I had a soft spot in my heart for Rashida Jones, because she is the only celebrity that I have ever personally met (Rufus Wainwright gave me a hug once, but that was after a concert, so it’s not like we actually met). Now when I say I met her, I mean that for a couple of hours our paths crossed, and we were in the same room at the same time although we did not actually interact with each other after being introduced. This was post-Boston Public, but pre-The Office, so Jones wasn’t quite a celebrity yet. Not being a fan of Boston Public, I did not actually know who she was, although of course I knew about Quincy Jones. (Quite honestly, I couldn’t remember what she looked like after she left.)
Having said all that, in the brief time we interacted, Rashida Jones was a thoroughly decent human being. Now that I have actually seen her on television, I am a fan. And I very much enjoyed this week’s episode of Who Do You Think You Are.
Rashida Jones’s father is Quincy, but her mother, Peggy Lipton, is an Ashkenazic Jew. Rashida grew up very much a part of both African-American and American-Jewish cultures. According to Jones, her father avidly pursued his genealogy years ago, and already shared it with her. Therefore, it was her mother’s side of the family that required exploring. And this gets to the heart of why I liked this episode so much; the story she traced is very much like my own.
The initial focus of the Rashida Jones episode was her maternal grandmother Rita Hettie Rosenberg, who was born in Ireland but came to the United States when she was 12 or 13. Rita was something of a free-spirit, and when she was old enough she left her family in Nyack, New York for Manhattan where, prior to her marriage to Rashida’s grandfather, she worked as a taxi dancer. (I was disappointed that despite the constant references to taxi dancing, no one mentioned Sweet Charity.) Rita ditched the surname Rosenberg and went by the name Benson, which Jones and Lipton ascribed to avoiding anti-Semitism.
Jones began her search at the New York Public Library where the show got its contractual Apple and Ancestry plugs out of the way at five minutes in. At the library, Jones found her grandmother’s passenger list from 1926 when she arrived with her elder sister Pearl. The ship’s manifest recorded that the girls were going to join their mother Jeanie Rosenberg in New York where she was already living. Another relative was listed on the manifest, an uncle Elliott Benson, and that surname piqued Jones’s curiosity given that she thought her grandmother made it up.
In 1939 Rita became an American citizen and officially changed her surname to Benson (again, the show hammered home the theme of anti-Semitism by showing one employment ad after another in which only Christians were acceptable.) In 1941 Rita married Jones’s grandfather. Prior to her marriage however, there was a 15 year period of Rita’s life which Jones knew nothing about except that she was a taxi dancer. At the remains of Billy Rose’s Diamond Horseshoe nightclub, Jones was showed an old tabloid from 1933 with a column about a taxi dancer that very likely could have been her grandmother. It appeared that for Rita, taxi dancing represented her attempts to break into show business, which although failed for her, succeeded for her daughter and granddaughter.
Jones left New York for Dublin to see if she could find out about the origin of Rita and her family. Prior to this episode, I had no idea there was a Jewish community in Dublin worth speaking of. Apparently there was one and there is even an Irish-Jewish museum. In Dublin, Jones was given her grandmother’s birth certificate. Rita was the daughter of Hyman Rosenberg and Jeanie Benson, which meant that Benson was definitively a family name for at least another generation before Rita. Wanting to follow how far back the Benson name went, Jones discovered that her great-grandmother Jeanie was born in Manchester as Ginny (or Jennie) Benson in 1882. From her great-grandparents’ marriage certificate, Jones discovered the names of Jeanie’s parents: Benjamin and Sophie (Winestein) Benson. She was also given photos of Benjamin, a Hebrew teacher, who made quite a striking figure with his long white beard and Shabbos clothes.
In the 1911 census, Jones found Benjamin and Sophie, and she learned two very important facts: (1) Benjamin was born in the late 1830’s or so; and (2) he was from Russia. “Russia” in this context is a very nebulous term that the show only partially explained. When a Jewish person says that his ancestors came from (pre-Soviet) Russia, what he means is that those ancestors came from the former Russian Empire. This is an important distinction because the chances are that those ancestors were not from Russia proper–certainly not Moscow or St. Petersburg–but rather the Pale of Settlement, an area which encompassed all or parts of modern-day Ukraine, Poland, Lithuania, Latvia, Belarus, and Moldova, with a little bit of western Russia thrown in. With few exceptions, this was the only part of “Russia” that Jews were allowed to live in, and largely because this had been the old Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, where they already had been living. 15 of my 16 great-great-grandparents were from the Pale of Settlement; on my mother’s side this meant modern-day Ukraine, and on my father’s side it meant northern Poland, Lithuania, and Latvia.*
While most of the Irish-Jewish community came from a specific area of Lithuania, the Bensons did not. Using information gleaned from the documents of Benjamin Benson’s sister Pescha, Jones learned that her family actually came from Latvia. Therefore, she set off for Riga. One of the major questions on Jones’s mind was why her family left Latvia, and the answer to that is, of course, anti-Semitism. The Russian Empire was bent on physically and spiritually destroying the Jewish community through measures such as conscripting young Jewish into the Russian army, where they would stay for two-and-a-half decades. (Escaping this fate gave rise to the gruesome crippler phenomenon, of which I previously mentioned.)
Because of the conscription, meticulous records were kept for men, and from those Jones learned (1) the name of Benjamin’s father, her 3rd great-grandfather Schlaume (Solomon); (2) the town in Latvia Benjamin and his family were from, Hazenpoth (now Aizpute) which was in the Courland Gubernia of the Russian Empire;** and (3) the names of Benjamin’s brothers Abraham and Yankel. She also learns the name of Schlaume’s father, Benjamin Marcus Benson (Jones’s 4th great-grandfather) who was born in 1786 and was possibly the originator of the Benson name. Surnames for Russian Jews came late, around the early 19th century, and only following an official decree by the Russian Empire. Prior to that, the surname was the patronymic. Schlaume would have been known as “Schlaume, the son of Benjamin.” It’s not much of stretch to see how “son of Benjamin” becomes “Ben(‘s) son,” particularly in the Courland Gubernia which was unique among the gubernias in that the region had strong Prussian/Germanic cultural ties.
In Aizpute, Jones came face to face with a very hard truth, the once-large Jewish community was entirely wiped out during the Holocaust in brutal, executioner fashion in a nearby forest on October 27, 1941. (I wondered who was responsible for that massacre, the Nazis or the Latvians, who were no innocents during the Holocaust.) Jones, for the first time, also understood exactly how close the Holocaust actually was to her. That sudden realization is one that I am deeply familiar with. As is the belated survivor’s guilt that she began to feel throughout the latter half of the episode. It’s a remarkably upsetting and humbling feeling to realize that you live while your cousins were killed or prevented from being born.
In Aizpute, there was no evidence that the Bensons were killed, but back in Riga, Jones got the bad news. Her family had left Aizpute for Riga and, as required by Latvian law, they got passports. Using those passports Jones saw for the first time, photos of Jette Benson and Abram David Benson, desendants of Schlaume Benson’s brothers. But those passports also told a sad story; these cousins were also killed on 27 Oct 1941 in the forest of Rumbula. In Rumbula there is a memorial to these Jews. At the end of the episode Jones and her mother made a pilgrimage to the monument in Rumbula to memorialize their lost family. Jones says that it is important to remember them, a sentiment that I wholeheartedly agree with. If we do not remember, no one will remember for us.
This episode touched something very personal in me. In a way Rashida Jones was telling my story, although I think there is more documentation in Latvia than in Ukraine where my known relatives who perished in the Holocaust lived. It was a very moving episode, and a hard one to sit through. But it is also one I will watch again.
Next week: Jason Sudeikis.
* The remaining great-great-grandmother came from Galicia, which means either present-day southern Poland or western Ukraine. Galicia was at that time a part of the Austrian Empire.
** Gubernias were the largest administrative districts of the Russian Empire, sort of akin to the states of the United States. Often we genealogists are told by relatives that our family came from (for example) “Grodno Gubernia” when we ask about our town of origin. This is about as helpful as being told “California” when the answer we want to know is San Diego (or Bakersfield).