Rashida Jones, Who Do You Think You Are?

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.

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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.

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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.

Footnotes:

* 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).

Reba McEntire, Who Do You Think You Are?

Every family has its black sheep, its scoundrels, and its horse thieves.  Sometimes they provide the most colorful stories that regale us through the generations, but more likely than not they do things that we are deeply ashamed of even if we never knew them.

In my own family, my grandmother’s grandfather Abraham was an awful human being.  His two granddaughters’ husbands referred to him as “Black Bart” because they thought of him as a villain in old Western movie.  Abraham was an abusive lout who drank too much, beat his children, and openly hated his grandchildren.  My great-great-grandmother Bessie was by accounts a sweet and much-loved woman, Abraham’s opposite in every way.  For her reward she was afflicted with multiple sclerosis while she still had a young child to care for.  As her health declined, Abraham found a mistress and had an illegitimate child with her.  I have a picture of Abraham, his mistress, and this child.  (I have not tried to track down this child; it is the one branch I have no interest in.)  About a month after Bessie died, Abraham married his mistress, scandalizing his family who thought he should have had the decency to at least wait until the mourning period ended.  Abraham eventually died alone in a nursing home in Atlantic City.  No one in his family even visited him once.  Ironically though, he is buried next to Bessie and by three of their children.

I bring up the story of Black Bart to illustrate that we all have sinners in our family, although some sins are worse than others.  As lousy a human being as Abraham was, his misdeeds were nothing compared to those who eagerly partook in America’s Original Sin: slavery.  Tonight on Who Do You Think You Are, Reba McEntire had to confront the fact that one of her ancestors was a slave owner and worse, a slave trader.  For perhaps first time, Who Do You Think You Are could not whitewash a celebrity’s ancestor.  To be fair, other celebrities had slave owner ancestors, but those celebrities were African-American; they had no feeling for or connection with their slaver-owner ancestor whom they saw (with good reason) as a rapist.  For Reba McEntire it was different because she could not dodge the connection.  Her 4th great-grandfather George Brasfield (or Brassfield, Brasfeild, or Braisfield depending on which document was used) was an eager participant in the slave trade.  Unlike Spike Lee or Lionel Ritchie (also descendants of slave owners), McEntire could not treat Brasfield as a brutal other.  We live to imagine our ancestors as virtuous people, and it is a hard blow when we learn how truly awful they were.

Because McEntire knew her father’s genealogy, she wanted to learn about the family of her maternal grandmother for whom she was named: Reba Estelle Brassfield Smith.  She also wanted to learn when her first family members came to the United States.

As a prefatory note, it is clear that the show is no longer trying to maintain the illusion of spontaneity.  The very first scene between McEntire and her mother featured the most blatant Ancestry.com plug of the season.  Then McEntire’s mother told her daughter she was going to have to go to Monroe County, Mississippi when they could not find Reba Brassfield Smith’s father in the 1900 Census.  The conceit of the show is that it is like a treasure hunt and the celebrity follows clue after clue, but usually the first journey begins with a little more subtlety.  The meeting between McEntire and her mother line was practically scripted by the show’s producers.

As per her mother’s advice, McEntire did indeed go to Monroe County (the Stars and Bars on Mississippi’s state flag were featured rather prominently).  At a local library she did the bare minimum research that she could have done by searching unsuccessfully for the obituary of her great-grandfather B.W. Brassfield.  Of course, she looked in a bound volume of obituaries that were in alphabetical order.  Then McEntire met a genealogist who gave her a seven generation family tree of the Brassfield/Brasfield family dating back to pre-Revolutionary War North Carolina.  He said it was difficult to track down information on B.W. Brassfield, and no doubt it was, but that scene illustrates the main complaint of genealogists who watch this show.  Genealogy is blood, sweat, and tears, thousands of hours of research over many years, but here the celebrity was handed a comprehensive family tree without having to do anything.  Why bother having her look for an obituary that wasn’t there if the work was already done?  (And worse of all, the show did not say a word about how the work was done.)

The earliest ancestor on McEntire’s family tree was George Brasfield, McEntire’s 4th great-grandfather who came from Wake County, North Carolina.  In Raleigh, McEntire discovered that Brasfield owned a tavern and over 1600 acres of land.  He also owned 10 slaves.  McEntire was clearly appalled by this, and looking for a bright light, she asked if Brasfield treated his slaves kindly.  Here I was afraid that Who Do You Think You Are would do its typical whitewash, but no, there was no way to make this callous man sympathetic.  Not only did he own slaves he traded slaves, included young children and babies.  McEntire looked sick and deeply ashamed.  It’s not her sin, but it is understandable (even if perhaps slightly irrational) that she feels a kind of guilt by association.

Turning her attention toward her other goal, finding out how her Brasfield ancestors came to the United States, McEntire went to Virginia where she discovered George’s grandfather, also named George.  McEntire learned that he bought 300 acres of land in exchange for a lot of tobacco.  More importantly, she discovered that he came to the Americas as nine-year-old indentured servant.  (A quick confession: I knew about indentured servants from history class, and I knew that they were treated no better than slaves although indentured servants had the hope of a better future.  What I did not know is that they started so young.  It is one of those horrifying and inconvenient truths that our history teachers don’t tell us.)  Reba, wondering how his mother could let him go so far, followed George’s path to his origin in Macclesfield, England.  Ironically, at the beginning of the show, McEntire admitted she never felt comfortable in England, unlike Scotland and Ireland where she felt at home.  In Macclesfield, she found out that George’s mother Abigail died in 1696 and his father Thomas put young George into indentured servitude two years later probably because this was the only way for him to have a better life.  Reba, rather movingly, made her peace with Thomas’s actions and ended her journey.

This episode of Who Do You Think You Are mixed the genuine and the staged rather clumsily.  On one hand, McEntire’s emotions were entirely genuine: helpless disgust she felt when she learned about her slave owner ancestor, anger that Thomas Brassfield put his son into indentured servitude, sorrow about the death of Abigail Brassfield, and finally forgiveness and understanding for why Thomas did what he did.

On the other hand, this episode seemed even more staged than the others.  The truth about Who Do You Think You Are is that the real genealogical work had been done for months if not years before the show is recorded.  The celebrity does no work whatsoever although occasionally you get scenes of some research, like Rosie O’Donnell or Susan Sarandon searching through microfilm.  The celebrities just go to the designated place where they are told about their ancestors.  Despite how unreal this is, usually this artifice is handled well. Not so this time.  Perhaps the best illustration of how the producers showed their hands was when McEntire used a database to find church records in Macclesfield and found the correct records by using a variant spelling of her family name (in this case “Brasfeild”) that had never been used before.  Lo and behold she was absolutely correct!  It’s obvious that McEntire was told what to type.  I don’t mind the artifice, and I am willing to suspend my disbelief.  I do however, mind the clumsiness.  It ruins the illusion.

Next week’s show is Jerome Bettis, whom I had never heard of before, but that is my issue not his.  Until then, happy trails to you, dear reader.

Songs To Make You Cry

I recently had the very good fortune to see the Israeli singer Yasmin Levy in concert.  Levy is a singer/songwriter of Ladino songs.  Ladino, for those who don’t know, is the Yiddish of Sephardic Jewry.  Like Yiddish, Ladino is heavily influenced by other languages, including Hebrew and Aramaic.  Yiddish, spoken by the descendants of German-Jewish exiles who settled in Eastern Europe, is a variation of High Middle German heavily influenced by Slavic languages.  Ladino, spoken by the descendants of the Spanish Jews who were expelled in 1492 and who settled to North Africa and the Ottoman Empire, is a variation of Old Spanish heavily influenced by various Mediterranean and Balkan languages.

Like Yiddish, the future of Ladino is precarious; the number of Ladino speakers may not even be 100,000, and they are old.  The loss of Ladino is heartbreaking and tragic.  There is a modern revival of sorts, although nothing on the scale of Yiddish.  I have no definitive insight on to why so few seem to care about the future of Ladino, but I do have some theories.  (1)  The descendants of Ladino-speakers are more likely to live in Israel where the ultimate mother-tongue, Hebrew, has won out over all other Jewish languages.  (2)  In contrast, many Yiddish-speakers went to the United States and their descendants (like me) see Yiddish as the mother-tongue rather than Hebrew.  Because there is not the same stigma associated with non-Hebrew Jewish languages in the United States (and in part because there was at one point such a vibrant Yiddish culture in the United States), younger Jews feel no stigma about studying Yiddish culture.  This is great for Yiddish because most American Jews are of Ashkenazic descent, but not so great for Ladino, as Sephardic Jews in the United States are much fewer in number.  (Sephardic Jews communities may be fewer, but they have also existed in the United States for far longer than Ashkenazic ones.)  (3)  Various ultra-Orthodox groups, both in and out of Israel, will only use Yiddish at home (even if they speak the local language when dealing with the outside world).  This even goes for Hebrew, which they consider too holy for daily use.  Sephardic Jews, even the fanatically religious Sephardim, have no qualms with speaking Hebrew as a daily language.  (4)  Although the Nazis did destroy Sephardic communities in the Balkans and Greece, the Holocaust predominantly affected Ashkenazic Jews and virtually annihilated an entire culture.  For that reason, perhaps there is more of a sense of urgency to protect Yiddish.  (5) The Yiddish world is much smaller than the Ladino world in terms of both physical and cultural distance.  Yiddish speakers from say Hungary and Lithuania could communicate with one another far more easily than Ladino speakers from (for example) Algeria and Turkey.  There is not one Ladino language to save per se but many different dialects that are near unintelligible.

The Ladino music tradition is quite beautiful.  The folk songs are absolutely stunning.  The language itself is also quite melodious, a far cry from the German-drenched guttural tonality of Yiddish (which, don’t get me wrong, I have deep affection for).  Ladino songs are heart-wrenching and full of pathos.  Or, at least they can be.  The songs that Yasmin Levy sings certainly are.

Yasmin Levy is making a name for herself not just by singing Ladino songs, but also for trying to modernize Ladino, mostly by fusing it with Flamenco.  Therefore, despite the sometimes overwhelming sadness of her music, there is also a Flamenco-like energy which also appears in her presentation.  At time she sings like a Flamenco singer and hold herself the way they do.  Nevertheless, that is not always the case.  There are times when she stands so still she seems more like a fadista, as though she were standing on a mountain top singing headlong into the winds of fate.  It’s a tremendous emotional effect.  I speak no Ladino, yet there were times when I felt moved almost to the point of tears.

The closest I came to crying during her concert was when she sang the song “Una Pastora” (A Shepherdess).  Here is a video of her singing the song the way she does on her album Sentir:

The translation to the song’s lyrics (found here on another version of the song) are as follows:

A shepherdess I loved
A beautiful child.
Still so young I adored her,
More than her I loved no other.
One day when we were
Sitting in the garden
I said to her: “For you, my flower
I will die of love”
In her arms she hugged me
Lovingly she kissed me
She answered me sweetly:
“You are too young for love”
I grew up and looked for her
She took another and I lost her
She has forgotten me,
But I shall always love.

Sad, right?  But on this night, the lyrics and the melody were only a part of the sadness, and not the main part.

The male voice you heard in the video is a recording of Levy’s father Yitzhak Levy, a cantor and composer.  Yitzhak Levy was also something of the Alan Lomax of the Ladino world.  He recorded and wrote down as many Ladino folk songs as he could in an attempt to preserve the heritage.  He died when his daughter Yasmin was only a year old, and she has no memory of him.  Yasmin Levy had always wanted to do a duet with her father (a la Natalie Cole and Nat King Cole), and “Una Pastora” is the song she chose.

Although it seems odd to talk about stagecraft in a concert such as this, the way that she staged the song was designed to wring the maximum amount of pathos.  The center of the stage was lit by the spotlight and she stepped back so that the illuminated area was empty.  Alone on stage (her band, which had been with her all night, left), the recording of her father singing began and she remained motionless with her head down.  Whenever she sang, she stepped into the spotlight, and when she finished, she stepped back out until the end when they sang together.  There were tears in my eyes, and the man next broke down and cried.

Yasmin Levy is a true talent.  She reminds me a bit of the late Ofra Haza, although her voice does not have the same timbre.  Just as Ofra Haza brought Yemenite Jewish music into a spotlight that it didn’t have but so richly deserved.  I hope that Yasmin Levy can do the same for Ladino music.  Ladino is so beautiful; it would be devastating for it to just fade away.

Roots

I just watched the first episode of Roots, the famous miniseries based off of Alex Haley’s book.  I was looking forward to seeing it because it is the miniseries that launched a thousand genealogists.  By all accounts, it is one of the greatest programs ever to be on television.

After one episode, I am disappointed.  As guilty as I feel for saying this, I was not particularly interested i for almost the entire episode.  Perhaps this is because Haley’s story is so far from my own.  He is the descendant of African slaves, and I am the descendant of Eastern European Jewish immigrants.  His family was forcibly brought to America before it was a country.  All my immigrant ancestors willingly arrived at varying points between 1880 and 1913.

But also, Roots just feels so fictional and forced.  There is a lot of disbelief that I am unable to suspend (and a lot of acting that was over-the-top.)  I am not sure whether I should continue watching the series.  Does it get better after the first episode?  Does it get more realistic?