A few years ago, Dustin Hoffman, now 78, was interviewed by The Forward in the run-up to the release of his directorial debut, Quartet. The Academy Award-winning actor talked about his “non-religious” upbringing, his father, who was an atheist, and how neither he nor his brother were bar mitzvahed. “Luckily,” he said, “we got circumcised, but that was about it.”
Joking aside, Hoffman said that he was subjected to anti-Semitism growing up in the Los Angeles area. It made him “deny” his Jewishness.
During a long stretch of my formative, pre-teen years I lived in what I would call an anti-Semitic neighborhood. I got a few “dirty Jews” and got beat up a couple of times. It was substantial enough for me to always deny my being Jewish as I was growing up. If someone asked me what religion I was, I would pretend I didn’t understand the question. I’d say “I’m American.”
Despite his lack of Jewish upbringing, later in the interview Hoffman talks about his love for Isaac Bashevis Singer, borscht, and vodka (influenced by his mother’s background, he says), and his Jewish sense of humor. Hoffman’s two sons and two daughters have all become a bar or bat mitzvah.
Apparently, Hoffman’s father hid details of his family’s roots, namely that of his great-grandmother Libba. The actor recently learned about his family’s past—and undeniably Jewish roots—on the Season 3 finale of Finding Your Roots on PBS Tuesday night, and the clip below is a beautiful scene to watch. “She was a hero,” said Hoffman.
Reported People magazine:
During the episode, Hoffman learns that Libba survived in a Russian concentration camp for five years after both her husband and son were killed by the Cheka, a secret police force run by the Soviets after civil war broke out in 1917, and both sides targeted Jews. (Hoffman’s family lived in an area that is now the Ukraine.)
Many people did not survive the harsh conditions at the Russian concentration camp, but Libba, already 53 when she entered, somehow did.
She eventually escaped to Argentina, a popular alternative destination for Jews fleeing Eastern Europe, and eventually made it to America, settling with family in Chicago until she died in 1944 at age 76.
“People ask me today: ‘What are you?’ ” said Hoffman. “I say, ‘I’m a Jew.’ ”
“They all survived for me to be here.”
Jonathan Zalman is a writer and teacher based in Brooklyn.