“Finding Your Roots” Focuses on Jewish Genealogy

By Diane Haddad

Finding Your Roots With Henry Louis Gates Jr.” this week focused on Jewish ancestry, and the family trees of attorney and author Alan Dershowitz, singer/songwriter Carole King and writer Tony Kushner. All the guests have Eastern European roots and relative who were affected by antisemitism and the Holocaust—they either fled to the United States or were killed.

  • Alan Dershowitz: Dershowitz already knew quite a bit about his family and the Orthodox Jewish neighborhood where he grew up inNew York City . His grandparents came from Galicia, in an area now in Poland but then in the Austro-Hungarian Empire, after years of crop failures led to antisemitic violence. His grandfather Naftali arrived first, in 1907; his grandmother Blema came two years later. The research team uncovered Naftali’s naturalization record, which under laws at the time also made his wife a citizen.

Dershowitz’s paternal relatives established a synagogue in their basement after immigrating in 1931. US immigration laws and quotas made it hard for many Jews to enter the country, but the family managed to save 28 cousins from the Holocaust by issuing affidavits that the synagogue had hired them.

  • Carole King: Born Carol Joan Klein in Brooklyn, Carole King spoke of her stoic grandmother. This grandmother, Sarah Besmogin, immigrated to the United States in 1905 from a town in the Pale of Settlement, a part of the Russian Empire where Jews were permitted to settle. Pogroms there in 1905, which the shows researchers found documented in local newspaper articles prompted many, including Sarah, to leave. She immigrated under the name Scheine Besmogin.

King’s Klein grandparents were originally surnamed Gleiman. Ellis Island records showed they were detained after arriving here in 1904, possessing only $2 between them. A mysterious Sam Klein—possibly the source of the Gleimans’ new name—finally secured their entry into the United States. Gates took the opportunity to dispel the popular myth that Ellis Island officials changed immigrants’ names (he didn’t offer much explanation, so in case you’re wondering, here’s more on how historians know Ellis Island officials didn’t change immigrants’ names).

Gates’ team also found marriage records in a Russian archive that helped document King’s family to her third-great-grandparents.

  • Tony Kushner: Kushner grew up in a large family and a tight-knit Jewish community in Louisiana. Gates explained that many Jews moved South after the Civil War to open up businesses. City directories showed that Kushner’s great-grandfather Ezrael Kushner had opened a lumber store in Lake Charles, La., by 1927.

A New York newspaper article reported when Kushner’s great-uncle arrived to join his brothers in the United States, just before Germany invaded Poland in 1939. Another newspaper published an account of a massacre of Jews in the family’s hometown. A Yizkor book—one of many written to memorialize towns destroyed in the Holocaust—named Kushner’s relatives among those killed in that massacre. Kushner shared some poignant thoughts on the Holocaust, slavery and other human atrocities—I’d quote, but watching this segment would be more impactful.

You’ll find a list of websites and resources for tracing Jewish roots on, and several Jewish genealogy guides in Family Tree Shop.

Watch the full episode of Finding Your Roots online here.