“I’m a Jew!” Dustin Hoffman’s Family History Shocker Is A Lesson For Us All

Who you are is defined in large part by your family mythology. You heard it from your parents and you’re retelling it to your kids, whether you realize it or not. Who immigrated when? Which ancestors were revered and which reviled? Who made us proud, and who shamed us? What do we believe?

Family mythology is such a powerful force that when it is busted by newly unearthed facts, life can get intense. Sometimes it gives life new meaning. That’s what happened to actor Dustin Hoffman when he agreed to let Henry Louis Gates, Jr., host of PBS’s “Finding Your Roots,” trace his ancestry. His parents had rarely spoken of it. All he had were hints and vague references. Hoffman had grown up in a family of middle-class, secular, assimilated Jews in the movie business in Los Angeles. They were atheists and so assimilated that he didn’t realize he was a Jew until he was ten.

Seven decades later when Hoffman sat down to learn what Gates had uncovered, he was indifferent as he flipped through the documents and old photos. “I don’t feel connected to all this.”

Dustin Hoffman, 1965, in“Death of a Salesman” with Lee J. Cobb

As Gates peeled away the layers, however, a moving story that Hoffman had never heard began to tell itself. His grandparents, Ashkenazi Jews, had fled the Ukraine to escape the Soviet version of the Holocaust—a decade before the rise of Hitler’s Germany. His great-grandfather stayed behind, was arrested and then sentenced to be executed. His grandfather heard about it and went back to rescue him. Both were killed.

When his grandfather didn’t return, his grandmother went back to find him. She was arrested, languished in a concentration camp for five years, and finally arrived at Ellis Island, New York by way of Argentina—missing an arm and labeled “senile” by a doctor.

By that point Hoffman was sobbing. His ancestors had fought to live “for me to be here.” For those who survived, Hoffman said through tears of grief and pride, “Now when people ask me, ‘What are you?’ I’ll say, ‘I’m a Jew!’”

[Watch a clip of the interview on YouTube.com]

In my thirty years as a ghostwriter, researching and telling family histories of one sort or another, I sometimes dig up a new fact or discover an alternate narrative that puts a fresh coat of paint on a client’s personal story. Almost always people will tell me things that “I’ve never told my family.” Why not? Sometimes it’s a painful episode. Often it’s just because, “They never asked,” or, “It never came up.”

In Hoffman’s case, the family history must have been too painful to relive and too scary for a child’s ears. Perhaps it didn’t support the mythology of a family of assimilated Jews working in a business that had a history of anti-Semitism. Either way, Hoffman’s loss was a lifetime of culture, traditions, and an inspiring narrative arc.

Thanks to the technology of research (DNA, the Internet, etc.) revelations like Hoffman’s are becoming more common, spawning what you might call New Age Genealogy. We have more dots to connect, to interpret, and to fold into the family mythology. It’s about more than names and dates. It’s about how we define ourselves in the context of our families and our cultures.

Few cultures understand the power of family mythology more than African Americans. The African part of their history was lost when their ancestors boarded slave ships in Ghana. So the typical black American family history begins on a plantation somewhere in the South with gaps and vague details that make it hard to find a narrative arc to be inspired by.

Elfreda W. Massie, Ph.D, a career educator who grew up in Pittsburg in the 1960s and is working on her memoir, recalls a poignant observation she made during her early years as an elementary school classroom teacher. When she was leading students in the study of different cultures, “The white kids always spotted connections to their families. ‘My father’s German.’ ‘I’m part Italian and part Irish.’ ‘My grandparents came here from Lebanon.’”

She says many children knew few details about their heritage but most could come up with the basics and it clearly mattered to them that there was something unique they could talk about, something that set them apart and made them feel special.

“The black children, however, would shrug and say, ‘I’m black, I guess. I’m African American,’ or maybe, ‘I think my mom came from Mississippi.’”

She says, “Some of those children, depending on what stereotype may have lodged in their minds, were ashamed to say that their heritage was African. In some families, one or more ancestors may have been the offspring of liaisons with slave owners who typically disowned their mixed-race babies, or with native Americans. Succeeding generations typically withheld that knowledge from children and grandchildren. Without a written record, such secrets become gaps in our links to the past.”

This concept of family narrative and how it defines us was explored in the mid-1990s by Marshall Duke, a psychologist at Emory University who investigated the role played by myth and ritual. “There was a lot of research at the time into the dissipation of the family,” he told The New York Times in 2013. “We were more interested in what families could do to counteract those forces.”

Dr. Duke’s wife, Sara, a psychologist who works with children with learning disabilities, noticed that children who know a lot about their families tended to do better when they faced challenges. Dr. Duke and a colleague developed a measure called the “Do You Know?” scale that asked children to answer questions such as: Do you know where your grandparents grew up? Do you know where your mom and dad went to high school? Do you know where your parents met? Do you know an illness or something really terrible that happened in your family? Do you know the story of your birth?

They compared the results with psychological tests and concluded that the more children knew about their family’s history, the stronger their sense of control over their lives, the greater their self-esteem, and the more successfully they believed their families functioned.

“The most healthful narrative,” Dr. Duke told The Times, “is the oscillating family narrative that describes the daily ups and downs, the disasters, and the lost jobs, the relatives who went to jail, and so on.” It ends, he said, with the message, “But we always stuck together as a family.”

The lesson in all this seems clear. If you’re a parent, your kids will have a better shot at a purposeful life if you share your family history and, even better, help shape it into a narrative that they feel connected to and can articulate to others. If you’re a child of any age—like Dustin Hoffman—a little digging into your family’s history could just change your life.