Jewish Journal


September 15, 2013

Exploring My Heritage: Discovering Some Surprising and Wonderful Interconnection


“Walking, I am listening to a deeper way. Suddenly all my ancestors are behind me. Be still, they say. Watch and listen. You are the result of the love of thousands.”
― Linda Hogan, Native American Writer


In 2012, during the ReGeneration Concert for Peace held at Temple Emanuel in Beverly Hills, I happened to sit next to a wonderful woman named Freda Sideroff.  Through talking, we discovered how we’re on a similar spiritual path, to discover our roots and reconnect with ancestors.  I had mentioned how I wished I had gotten to spend more time with my grandfather before he had passed away, and that I was trying to figure out how to still cultivate a relationship with him.  She smiled at me and told me that it was still possible to have a relationship with him even though he is no longer physically present.  Freda and I immediately connected over our love of our grandfathers, and made plans to meet sometime to get coffee and share stories. 

Freda’s husband, Dr. Stephen Sideroff, is the Executive Director of the Raoul Wallenberg Institute of Ethics.  Raoul Wallenberg was a Swedish architect, businessman, diplomat and humanitarian. He is widely celebrated for his successful efforts to rescue tens of thousands to about one hundred thousand Jews in Nazi-occupied Hungary during the Holocaust.  I found this meeting to be serendipitous, not only because my grandfather’s parents came to this country from Hungary, but because like Wallenberg, he was also an architect, businessman, diplomat and humanitarian.  My grandfather had designed the synagogue and schools I grew up in.  I realized that I could connect with my grandfather by connecting with my Hungarian heritage.  I also came to find out that Wallenberg helped to save my aunt’s mother during the holocaust. 

Only two weeks after I had met Freda, a woman contacted my mom with the same first and maiden name as my mother, saying that they’re related through my grandfather, and even provided a very thorough family tree.  Apparently my grandfather loved looking into his family’s heritage.  This all felt very meant to be. 

The Garifuna People

Freda was connecting with her grandfather through filming a documentary in his memory about her culture, which was to be shown at the annual Garifuna Film Festival.  Freda has been the creator and organizer of what has become an incredibly successful festival, and has nationally received many honors from politicians. 

Freda is incredibly proud of her Garifuna heritage, which was born in 1635 out of the wreckage of two Spanish slave ships, when the African captives were able to escape to St. Vincent Island in the Lesser Antilles.  Through the act of God and fate, they never knew the harshness of slavery, and have always been a free people.

The Garifuna people are direct descendants of the “Island Caribs” and the group of Africans who had escaped the shipwreck.  The Island Caribs were descendants of South American Indians known as Arawaks and another group, the Caribs, who migrated from South America to the Caribbean at a later date. 

When the British took control of St. Vincent from the French in 1763, they forcibly relocated the Garifuna to Honduras. From there, the people have spread along the Caribbean coast to Belize, Guatemala and some of the nearer islands, and many have migrated to the United States.  Freda is originally from Belize, and looks forward to bringing the film festival there. 

Portraits from 2012 Garifuna Film Festival.  Taken by Laurel Johnson

Importance of Connecting with Roots

I continue to be inspired by Freda’s strong conviction about the importance of discovering her roots and deepening her connection.  She is very passionate about helping to keep her culture alive and thriving, and bringing awareness to the world about her people.   She feels that by embracing her Garifuna roots, she has become more alive and present, and it continues to fuel her desire to know more. 

She mentioned the profound experience she had while in Belize, when she got to witness and participate in the art of baking Cassava bread (also known as Ereba).   Cassava bread is one of the staples of the Garifuna diet, and is served with most meals.  The process of making the bread is very labor intensive and takes several days.  It meant the world to Freda to get to sift through the grains and get her hands dirty. 

What Freda ultimately hopes for with her film festival is not only to celebrate the culture and bring awareness about her people, but to also break down the invisible fences between different communities.  Through our willingness to hear and learn each other’s stories, we can find the beauty in what makes us different, but also discover how much common ground we share through our humanity.

To see video of Freda Sideroff interviewed during 2012 film festival click {HERE} 

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