Saturday, April 2, 2011

"Who Do You Think You Are?" - Gwyneth Paltrow

With this episode of Who Do You Think You Are? we returned to a celebrity who conducted no research of her own but merely went from repository to repository and looked at records that had already been found and were waiting for her.  On the positive side, the episode wasn't riddled with the number of ridiculous leaps of illogic and presumption that peppered the Steve Buscemi program.

The episode opened with Paltrow talking to the camera about her family.  She was very close to her father, Bruce Paltrow, who died in 2002.  She knew that her father was Jewish and that her mother, Blythe Danner, had a lot of German ancestry.  She commented that a lot of memories are subjective and that "you never really know what the facts are", which is oh so true with family history.  She had decided she wanted to research her maternal grandfather's side first, because the family story was that her great-grandmother, Ida Mae Danner, had been from Barbados, which she thought sounded pretty interesting.  Paltrow's mother had mailed her some photos of Ida, which she looked at in the car as she was taken to the New York Public Library.

At the library she met with librarian Maira Liriano, who had pulled several records.  The first item they looked at was Ida's obituary, which stated she had been born in Montgomery County, Pennsylvania (where I have some roots).  Paltrow's reaction was, "So she's not from Barbados?", not taking into account that obituaries often have mistakes.  The obituary gave Ida's parents' names, and Liriano showed Paltrow Ida's mother Isabel Yetter in the 1910 census, where it said she was born in the West Indies.  Liriano then produced Isabel's 1914 Pennsylvania death certificate, which stated she was born in Barbados.  So the family story was off by only one generation, which isn't bad at all.  The death certificate said her name was Rosamond Isabel, information that was needed to find her in the next record.

Liriano showed Paltrow the passenger list from 1868 listing Rosamond and Martha Stout departing Anguilla to come to New York.  There was some discussion of the fact that they were the only passengers on the list and the ship was a commercial one.  Paltrow asked what the next step was, and Liriano told her if she wanted to find out any more she would have to go to Barbados.  This is one of the quibbles I have with the episode -- most people would probably write to the Barbadian archives, not get on a plane and fly there.  But Ancestry.com has a big budget, what with all those subscribers and investors.

In Barbados Paltrow went to the Department of Archives in Bridgetown and met with genealogist Dr. Pat Stafford, who had records ready and waiting.  She had Paltrow look at the page of birth records to pick out Rosamond, whose 1851 birth entry said her father was a merchant clerk.  Paltrow then asked why Rosamond and her sister would have picked up and gone to New York in 1868, and Stafford said she had looked up burial records.  She told Paltrow to "read down the page", where an entry showed that Rosamond and Martha's mother had died in 1864 as a widow.  So the two girls were orphaned, Rosamond at 13.  Paltrow asked, "Where do you go from here?", and Stafford suggested she talk to a historian specializing in Barbadian history.

Paltrow visited Professor Pedro Walsh in what appeared to be his home.  He talked about the history of the time period when Rosamond and Martha had left Barbados.  Emancipation of slaves had come in 1834, which had increased the number of people available for employment, so there was competition for jobs.  In addition, there were more women than men on the island, so marriage prospects were not promising.  The two women apparently decided they would have better opportunities in the U.S.  They would have saved money by booking passage on a commercial vessel, which would not have many amenities.

Apparently happy with the information she had found and deciding not to pursue further research on her Barbadian roots (heaven knows why), Paltrow returned to New York to work on her father's side of the family.  She met with her Aunt Fran, Bruce Paltrow's sister.  They talked about Bruce and Fran's father, Buster, and his mother, Ida.  Buster had never had anything good to say about his mother but never explained why.  Fran talked about how Ida hadn't cooked or cleaned, and that there were piles of junk around the house.  She commented that Ida had gone to Hunter College but had never made a meal.  The two women concluded that Ida must have had mental health problems.  Fran had Ida's death certificate, which listed her father as Joseph Hyman.  There was a passing mention of Buster's father, Mike (Meyer), and that the name Paltrow had originally been Paltrovich.

Paltrow next met with Professor Deborah Dash Moore of the University of Michigan and said that Moore had researched Ida's background for her.  Moore had records from the Normal College, the earlier name for Hunter College.  She discussed how teaching school was the top career choice for women at the time and that the Normal College had admitted anyone, at a time when many schools did not admit Jews.  Ida's records showed that she had a lot of absences and that she was "discharged" and did not graduate.  Moore had found Ida in the 1890 and 1900 censuses; the 1890 census showed Ida with her parents and two brothers, but the 1900 census showed only her father and one brother.  Moore produced death certificates for Ida's mother Rebecca, who died in April 1897 of cirrhosis of the liver (which Moore correctly pointed out did not necessarily mean she was an alcoholic), and for her brother Samuel, who died in June 1897.  The deaths coincided with the time Ida had so many absences at school, giving a reason why her studies had suffered.

At the New York City Municipal Archives Paltrow met archivist Michael Lorenzini.  He had found Buster (under his given name of Arnold) in the 1920 census with his parents.  The oldest child in the household was 16, so Lorenzini said they should look for the family in the 1910 census (hooray! this is the next logical research step).  The family in 1910 included a daughter Helen who was not listed in 1920.  Lorenzini had Helen's death certificate (in a book, not from microfilm, which is not realistic), which stated she died at the age of 3 of shock, fractured ribs, and a punctured lung; she had been run over by a wagon.  He also had the file for the inquest and said it "may have more information" as he handed it to Paltrow.  (Give me a break -- if it didn't have more information, he wouldn't have bothered to bring it, would he?)  They then put this information in context to get a better picture of how this had affected Ida -- Helen died July 20, 1912, and Ida's daughter Miriam was born August 12, 1912.  This would be devastating to anyone.  It's not surprising that Ida would not care much about life after going through this.  While I understand the emphasis in this segment was on what happened in Ida's life, I wish Lorenzini had addressed the different spellings of the family name that were shown on different documents; many beginning genealogists have a lot of trouble understanding and accepting how much spelling can vary and still refer to the same person.

Paltrow talked about how she had always been told that the Paltroviches had generations of rabbis.  She knew that Meyer's father Shimon had been a rabbi.  At Eldridge Street Synagogue she talked with Professor Glenn Dynner of Sarah Lawrence College.  He told her that Shimon's father Zvi Hersh had been a famous rabbi and holy man.  Paltrow read translations of two items about Zvi Hersh, one from the yizkor (memorial) book of Nowogród, Poland, and the second from a book Shimon wrote about his father.  Paltrow was moved at the story of the miracle attributed to Zvi Hersh, and thrilled to find out that he was a master of Kabbalah, which she has studied.  The voice-over called Paltrow's last research stop the "final leg of her journey", but I hope that she pursues more research on her family.  After all, so far she has only two generations of rabbis; who knows how many more there are?

In the last segment of the episode, Paltrow visited her mother and told her about the information she had learned.  She said that she understood more things about herself and felt connected to her ancestors.  I was very happy to hear her say that people need to "take responsibility for all of [our] stories and teach our children."  If it weren't for the stories my mother and grandmother told me while I was growing up, I might never have developed my interest in family history.

13 comments:

  1. I understood that jri-poland helped her but didn't see it mentioned last night.

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  2. I noticed that the name Ida was another name for Edith. I hesitate to call it a "nickname" but that's about the only word I have for it right now. This is one of the things I would have to rely on an expert for - or at least someone more well versed in older names than I am. There are people who just KNOW that Ida and Edith (or Simon and Simcha) can be the same person - I'm not one of them... yet.

    Are there any good resources to help this sort of... well, not a problem per se, but situation?

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  3. I was told that JRIP helped with the research that we saw the results of in the synagogue, but I never heard specifics on what exactly they did. Perhaps "help" could have meant something as simple as the fact that the records were hosted online?

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  4. The episode was frustrating to me because it seemed as if they stopped just when it was really getting interested. I had some advance information in the form of Stanley Diamond's email on the JRI-Poland digest:
    "The show's researchers were able to tap into JRI-Poland's online database as the starting point in documenting Paltrow's ancestry. The JRI-Poland database has 90 record entries for Paltrow's ancestors." He added that the WDYTYA research team said that JRI Poland is a wonderful resource for anyone researching Jewish Polish ancestry and was invaluable during the research for this episode.

    Wouldn't it have been nice if they mentioned this on the show? And wouldn't it have been interesting to have heard about at least some of the other 90 documents?

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  5. Beth, thanks for posting the sentence from Stanley Diamond's e-mail message. The phrasing does make it sound as though the assistance that JRIP provided was in having the database available online. It may be that the reason there was no on-air credit is because JRIP was simply one of many resources that were used in researching Paltrow's ancestry and they don't list all sources in the credits. As for the rest of the 90 documents, we already know there's a lot that doesn't make it in an episode due to the limitation of having only 48 minutes of air time (the other 12 being eaten up by commercials). But if the records were discussed and that part was edited out for time, that's the kind of thing that would be nice to find on the WDYTYA Web site as "bonus" material after the episode has aired.

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  6. Thanks for the summary. It turns out that we could only find one more generation of rabbis, Tzvi Hirsch's father. He seems to have been the first rabbi of the paternal line, based on what I saw in certain haskamot. However, when I looked into the maternal lines, there were Margaliots and Rabinowicz lines. So there is some real yikhes if maternal lines are considered.

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  7. Thank you for the update, Prof. Dynner. It's always nice to learn more than what can fit into the on-air time. And thank you for reading my blog!

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  8. Carol,
    You're right, I should have discussed the name situation. This is another time when I have to hope that the behind-the-scenes research actually backs up what is shown on air. Jewish secular names often change from record to record because they aren't the person's "real" name at all. There are many commonly used pairs, but an individual person could call himself whatever he wanted. Ida/Edith's "Jewish" name was possibly Etta; Simon is an English name commonly paired with Simcha. It's similar to a German man named Heinrich calling himself Henry after he immigrates. My great-great-grandfather, whose name was Mendel, used both Max and Morris in the U.S. But while Jennie was often used by women named Sheindle, my great-great-aunt Jennie's Jewish name was Zlate.
    JewishGen has two online databases with some of these pairings at
    http://www.jewishgen.org/databases/GivenNames/.
    Does that help a little?
    Janice

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  9. Yes - thank you! That's a good resource. Bookmarking it now.

    There's tons of this sort of knowledge that one accumulates after a bunch of time in the genealogy trenches. So much in fact that I think I'll still feel like a newby in 10 years!

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  10. I still learn something new every day, and I've been doing this for 36 years!

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  11. Hi Glenn,

    Out of interest, there was no mention of her being descendent from the Taz in the episode. Is she descendent from the Taz or is that a myth?

    Thanks.

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  12. Re: the TaZ legend, we tried to substantiate this but in the end we just couldn't.

    Another important thing left out was that Tzvi's father was named Paltiel, a relatively rare biblical name. Thus, Tzvi ben Paltiel was polonized in the documents, becoming Paltorowicz.

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  13. Prof. Dynner, if I'm understanding you correctly, you found three generations of Paltrowiczes who were rabbis, correct? So the JRI-Poland press release that said Paltrow's "roots go back to a long line of rabbis named Paltrowicz from northeastern Poland" was perhaps a little overstated?

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