Jewish Journal

‘Finding Ourselves’ Through Genealogy

by Tom Tugend

Posted on Feb. 6, 2003 at 7:00 pm

"In this fast-food, fast-fame world, we are like single blades of grass," says Dr. Maya Angelou, the poet, author and historian. "But when we know our roots, we are like trees and we stand a little more erect."

The pithy remark can serve as both introduction and summation of "Finding Our Families, Finding Ourselves," an exhibit of remarkable scope and imagination, opening Tuesday, Feb. 11, at the Museum of Tolerance of the Simon Wiesenthal Center.

In exploring the roots and genealogy of nine famous Americans of diverse accomplishments and ethnicities, the exhibit illustrates both the singularity and the common strands of our experiences in this nation, whether our ancestors arrived as immigrants, as slaves or were among the original natives.

Even for the Wiesenthal Center leadership, which likes to think big, the statistics for the project are impressive. As the largest multimedia exhibit in the decade since the museum's opening, "Finding Our Families" took seven years from concept to completion, cost $7 million and extends over 10,000 square feet of the museum's third floor.

Its centerpiece is the reconstruction of the childhood milieu of four of the nine diverse Americans.

For Angelou, it is the general story of the early 1930s in Stamps, Ark., where her African American grandmother raised Angelou and her brother after they had been abandoned by their mother.

For actor-comedian-director Billy Crystal, whose father died when he was 15, it is a Brooklyn apartment on Fulton Street, re-imagined from watercolors painted by his uncle.

Another Brooklyn setting is the dinner table of the Italian American family of Joe Torre, National League Most Valuable Player and manager of the four-time World Series champion New York Yankees.

A simulated recording studio reflects the life of Carlos Santana, multiple Grammy winner and Rock 'n' Roll Hall of Famer, as he recalls his Mexican heritage.

Complementing the in-depth excursions into the past, some extending four centuries back, are video encounters with five other literary and sports figures. They are basketball great Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Native American author and poet Sherman Alexie, figure skating champion Michelle Kwan, journalist and talk show host Cristina Saralegui and quarterback Steve Young of the San Francisco 49ers and National Football League Player of the Year.

A visitor mounting the stairs to the exhibit floor hears first the voices of past immigrants arriving in America and then faces a jumbled attic with mementos hinting at the lives of the nine featured men and women.

Crystal, in appropriate immigrant garb, welcomes visitors with a tongue-in-cheek video spiel, as he struggles with a heavy trunk ("Did they have to bring the stove along?") and salutes the huddled masses who "dreamed of a land with indoor plumbing."

Passing a strategically placed camera, visitors become instant new immigrants, passing through Ellis Island and its dreaded examination and detention rooms, as well as a display of historic artifacts.

Next, a large, abstract "quilt," featuring video segments of the nine participants, leads into the four rooms recreating the childhood settings of Angelou, Crystal, Santana and Torre.

At the end of the approximately 80-minute tour, a bank of computers guides visitors in the initial steps toward discovering their own family histories.

The seeds of the exhibit were planted in early 1996, when New York-based genealogist Rafael (Rafi) Guber met with Rabbi Marvin Hier, founder and dean of the Wiesenthal Center, to broach the idea of an innovative project on family histories.

"Two minutes into my pitch, Hier said, 'Let's make it happen,'"Guber recalled (see page 15).

Shortly afterward, and quite separately, Guber was contacted by Janice Crystal, Billy' wife, who commissioned Guber to explore the histories of her parents' Polish Jewish and Irish Catholic forebears as a 50th wedding anniversary present. Happy with the results, she next asked Guber to do the same for her husband's family, as a surprise for his 50th birthday.

It wasn't long before the Crystals and Hier, linked by Guber, decided to merge their efforts and the actor and his wife assumed the responsibilities as executive producers for the future "Finding Our Families" exhibit.

"We wanted the project to be unique and fun, unlike any other museum experience, with a sense of humor, immediacy and atmosphere," recalled Billy Crystal. "Ultimately, we wanted to inspire people to go out and search for their own stories and find their own mentors and heroes."

For the Wiesenthal Center, there was the added incentive of creating a child-friendly exhibit in a place devoted largely to more mature Holocaust and racial prejudice themes, said Liebe Geft, director of the Museum of Tolerance. School tours of "Finding Our Families" are planned for third-graders on up, while families visiting on their own are encouraged to bring children of any age.

All of the nine participants in the project made discoveries about their ancestors to reinforce Angelou's dictum that "it is impossible to know where you're going, unless you know where you've been."

Poet Alexie found out that his grandfather, killed in action in the Pacific, was a World War II hero, and he learned something more.

"I'm realizing that every family has Shakespeare in it," Alexie says. "Every family has a King Lear and a Hamlet and a Romeo and Juliet, regardless of skin color or income level."

Santana, remembering a father who played at baptisms and bar mitzvahs, traced his lineage back to 1715. Marveling at the hosts of newly found ancestors, Santana exclaims, "I am a walking world, a walking universe."

Torre discovered his mother's home in the Italian village where she was born and in a visit, found that a third of its residents were related to him. As in many other immigrant families, Torre credits much of his success to an indomitable mother, who, in his case, shielded the children from their abusive father.

Angelou, with whom The Jewish Journal connected in Kansas City during a break in her one-month trek by private bus from Winston-Salem, N.C., to Los Angeles, said she got to know for the first time the names and existence of enslaved ancestors.

Crystal was startled to find out that one of his great-grandfathers was an apparent bigamist, who maintained two separate households -- one in Brooklyn, the other in Queens -- and gave the same first names to his children in both family arrangements.

Even Hier learned that when his father, Jacob Hier, a lamp polisher by trade, arrived at Ellis Island in 1921, he came within a hairbreadth of being deported back to Poland because a relative, who was supposed to meet him, didn't show up for 28 days.

As in Hier's and Torre's cases, Guber said he finds that ships' manifests, listing the names of passengers, are often the first clues to an immigrant ancestor's arrival and life in the United States. Such a manifest, now accessible via the Internet, often "leads to 24 other documents," Guber noted.

However, he warned amateur researchers to be careful about the quality and proliferation of genealogy Web sites, which are now second in number only to pornographic sites.

Among the exhibit's creative talent are producer-designers Doris and Geoff Woodward of Taft Design, who worked off initial concepts by Walt Disney Imagineering.

On Monday evening, Feb. 10, the opening of the exhibit will be celebrated during a tribute dinner at the Beverly Hilton Hotel. Among the honorees will be Billy and Janice Crystal, Angelou and Torre, with Santana doubling as honoree and entertainer.

"Finding Our Families, Finding Ourselves" will open to the general public on Tuesday, Feb. 11, and will remain at the museum for at least three years. Tickets may be purchased for the exhibit alone or in combination with an extended visit to the entire museum. For information, phone (310) 553-8403; or visit www.museumoftolerance.com.

The exhibit will require a large number of docents and volunteers. For information, call Dr. Carolyn Brucken at (310) 772-2508.  

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