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Last night on PBS’ “Finding Your Roots With Henry Louis Gates Jr.” actors Maggie Gyllenhaal
and Robert Downey Jr. learned about their families’ histories.
Though not related, the two had a lot in common: Both were expectig baby No. 2 at
the time of filming, both have parents in the film industry, both have Eastern European
Jewish roots on one side of the family, and both also have ancestors in America before
the Revolutionary War.
Gates’ team could trace the Jewish roots only to the third-great-grandparent generation,
but for each actor’s other branches, Gates unrolled an enviably long family tree with
many generations. (See
closeups on the Genea-Musings blog.)
Gyllenhaal learned how her family really got its last name. The story was that a Swedish
ancestor created a beautiful book about butterflies and the king rewarded him with
a wonderful home known as “Golden Hall.” What really happened was that an ancestor
took the name after being knighted during the Thirty
But like many family stories, there was a grain of truth. Another relative had amassed
a collection of beetles that later became world-renowned.
Each star also took a DNA test, and Gates prompted them to compare the roles of nature
versus nurture in making up their being. My favorite question of the night was when
he asked Downey “Do you think that what happened in your family tree between 1300
and 1965 [the year of Downey's birth] has shaped who you are?”
I do believe that our ancestors’ successes and struggles affect the next generation,
that each of us can’t help but carry these experiences inside us. Genealogy is partly
a way of figuring out what’s in there.
BTW, in the July/August 2012 Family Tree Magazine, we’ll have Gates’ answers
to five of our burning questions about his genealogy work.
Related resources from Family Tree Magazine: