TV: A Noah’s Ark of immigrants – more

A nation of immigrants looks at its ancestors – and its genealogy.

Ancestry and genealogy cut across all ethnic/religious lines. The process of discovery has meaning for all of us no matter our origins.

In for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, Rob Owen reports on a press conference for the new PBS’ Faces of America, hosted by Harvard University Professor Henry Louis Gates Jr. It premieres tonight (Wednesday, February 10) at 8pm ET. on PBS channels.


“I call it the Noah’s Ark approach,” Dr. Gates said of his new program during the PBS press conference. ” ‘African-American Lives’ was so popular, I got thousands of letters from people who weren’t black, saying, ‘What about me?’ Particularly Jewish people from Russia, with Russian roots, saying, ‘Why don’t you try to trace us?’… Russian, Jewish lineages are very, very hard to trace. People in Japan –very, very hard to trace. So I wanted to take that on.

“So, like Noah, I wanted two Muslims, two Jews, two Asians,” he said. “Yo-Yo Ma is a friend of mine, so I thought it would be intriguing to do him. I had always admired [Yamaguchi], and I thought it would be a great way to do it, to meet her. … We had one person, Tony Shalhoub had said yes. He was my other Arab person, and then his shooting schedule [conflicted]. He had to cancel it. So then, I asked Mehmet Oz, and he agreed right away.”

In the story on the show in the Los Angeles Times, Gates shares more of his concept:

When Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates Jr. started his latest genealogical project for PBS, which used historical archives and cutting-edge genetic research to trace the ancestry of a dozen famous Americans, he already had one hoped-for outcome in mind.

“I wanted to pick someone who is Jewish and someone who is Muslim and pray we get the same result in their DNA,” he said.

Sure enough, genetic testing revealed that director Mike Nichols, of Eastern European Jewish heritage, and surgeon and television host Mehmet Oz, the son of Turkish Muslim immigrants, had a common paternal ancestor thousands of years ago.”That is like affirming the story of Abraham,” Gates said delightedly.

Also, the New York Times reviewed the series, which looks at celebs Meryl Streep, Mike Nichols, Queen Noor of Jordan, Mario Batali, Malcolm Gladwell, Elizabeth Alexander, Louise Erdrich, Dr. Mehmet Oz, Yo-Yo Ma, Stephen Colbert, Eva Longoria and Kristi Yamaguchi.


But that is perhaps fitting for the subject: watching this solemn, painstaking examination of immigrants’ roots is a little like trying to pry juicy family stories from an elderly aunt at Thanksgiving dinner: There are some tedious detours and false starts, but the unexpected details and touching sidebars are worth the effort.

Among the surprises: Gladwell learns that a Jamaican ancestor was a free colored woman who also owned slaves. Nichols learns he is indeed related to Albert Einstein. Yamaguchi learns about her nisei grandfather, a WWII war hero., the only Japanese-American in his unit. Alexander is a descendant of King John of England.


Ms. Longoria, who is Mexican-American, is not afraid to look at her pie chart and discover that while she is 70 percent European, she is also 27 percent Asian (and 3 percent African). When told that she has a genetic tie to Yo-Yo Ma, she jokes, “He’s Mexican?”

Queen Noor learns about her first-generation grandfather Najeeb, buried in Brooklyn, and she visits the grave for the first time.


Her ignorance about her own roots is as telling about the willful amnesia that clouds many immigrants’ assimilation process as anything else she reveals. But Mr. Gates doesn’t ask questions, he answers them.

I’m hoping the series will be shown in Israel. The site for the show indicates that the first full-length episode will be available online on Thursday, February 11, so see the show’s website for more.

One very good section is for educators, and includes detailed lesson and learning activity plans, optional activities, additional websites and relevant episode clips for specific lessons from the Video Segments Page.

Here’s some info on the lesson plans and links:

Grades 2-4: Exploring the Past: Lesson Overview
Hands-on, media-enhanced lesson challenges students to gather clues about the past through photographs, drawings and other primary source materials.

Grades 5-7: They’re Coming to America: Immigrants Past and Present: Lesson Overview
Students explore the history of America

Grades 7-9: A Cold Reception: Anti-Immigrant Sentiment in the United States: Lesson Overview
Students explore the hostile reception immigrants have often received from anti-immigrant “nativists.”

Grades 9-12: I Dream of Genome: Lesson Overview
Exploring types of genetic information in the human genome.

Read the newspaper articles at the link above.

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