PBS’s pop genealogy series Finding your Roots, hosted by Henry Louis Gates Jr., is a reliable emotional whirlwind for both participants and viewers. For Jewish observers, though, this week’s episode may have been especially powerful. Gates and his team of researchers explored the familial histories of singer-songwriter Carole King, lawyer Alan Dershowitz, and playwright and screenwriter Tony Kushner.
All three of their family stories contain some similarities, and likely reflect those of many Jewish Americans as well. Their ancestors fled persecution in Eastern Europe, started over in America, and encouraged their children to channel their heritage in whatever they chose to do.
King, born Carol Joan Klein in a Jewish neighborhood of Brooklyn, said it was her grandmother’s love of music that inspired her to pursue a career in the industry. Dershowitz, also raised in Brooklyn, credited the “underdog” status of the Jew throughout history with his commitment to the protection of individual rights. Kushner’s upbringing was a little different. He was raised in the largely Christian neighborhood of Lake Charles, Louisiana, whose residents were wary of their Jewish neighbors. When his mother was losing her hair due to cancer treatments, a woman asked her “where the horns are.” Yet Kushner says that he and other children were raised “unapologetic about being Jews.” And when Kushner came out as gay, he says that “being Jewish in anti-Semitic world” prepared him for what he would also face in a “homophobic world.”
What the episode did best, beyond showing Jewish American dreams realized, was humanize its subjects. King grew teary learning about the pogroms her grandmother likely faced in Russia. She was moved to discover how close her grandparents were to being turned away at Ellis Island and sent back to Europe until a mysterious “Sam Kline” intervened and saved them. Though she joked about what her songs would sound like in Polish, she was clearly appreciative of her family’s good fortune.
Dershowitz, meanwhile, could hardly contain his childlike excitement walking through the streets of Brooklyn, showing Gates where he and his friends would play “punchball.” He boasted of how tough he was as a child and even took off his belt at one point to demonstrate how properly to use it in a fight.
At one point, Dershowitz recounted how when he would return home from a Brooklyn Dodger game he would excitedly tell his grandmother: “The Dodgers won!” She would, invariably, reply: “Ah, but is it good for the Jews?”