This episode of Who Do You Think You Are? with Gwyneth Paltrow was advertised (at least online) as the Jewish research episode. While she researched her Jewish side for about half the episode, only the last ten minutes really got into anything specifically Jewish.
No Family Visit to Start
Gwyneth started with her mother’s side of the family, recalling a family story about someone being from Barbados, probably her mother’s grandmother, Ida May Danner. Instead of visiting any family to ask questions, her mother sent a couple photos of Ida May. Gwyneth set out to find the Barbados connection.
Starting in New York, for Pennsylvania Research
Beginning at the New York Public Library, she met with librarian Maira Liriano. Gwyneth did the voiceover leading into the scene, stating that she was meeting a librarian “who’s already pulled some records for me.” At least there was no implication that she was going to do the research herself. I didn’t understand the point of what seemed to be a voiceover of Maira welcoming her to the building. Did they have to mention the name of the building in order to put it on the show? That was just weird.
It started much as other episodes where Gwyneth shared the photos with Maira and asked if there was a connection to Barbados. An obituary for Ida May revealed her parents’ names. Right to Ancestry, they searched the 1910 census. Since she died in 1967, why didn’t they start at 1930 and go back? Why didn’t they start in 1900? They skipped over tracing Ida May’s life back and went right to her mother. Rosamund Isabel Yetter’s death certificate, Ida May’s mother, revealed her birth place in Barbados.
Gwyneth asked if there was more they could find and Maira had her search Ancestry to find the ship list. Finding the ship list, Gwyneth assumed that the 18 year old Rosamund travelling with the 27 year old Martha, “she’s got an older sister”. While this may be the most obvious conclusion to make, that doesn’t mean it’s correct. They never did show or mention any evidence to verify the two were sisters.
It was also interesting that there were four different spelling corrections in the index. I can only wonder if they added at least one of those to make the search easier for Gwyneth; the original index spelling is what it looked like on the ship list and may not have been so easily found otherwise.
It was also a bit odd that Maira pointed out that the ship was a bark, highlighting the abbreviation, when later in the episode, they highlighted where it actually said the word “bark”.
When told that she’d have to go to Barbados to learn more, you could tell that Gwyneth was hoping that was coming, apparently having watched the show before.
To the Island
At the Barbados Department of Archives, genealogist Dr. Pat Stafford had some books ready to share. Gwyneth looked down the page opened for her of baptisms and found Rosamund listed. In the burial records, she found that Rosamund’s mother, Sarah Frances Stout, died in 1864 at age 42 and was already a widow. What was also visible in the book listed under Sarah Frances Stout was a 20 year old Samuelina Stout, and two more columns to the right of both listings showed the name Roebuck Stout. Who were these mysterious people? There were clearly some other members of the family, even if they were cousins, but the two sisters were not entirely alone.
When Gwyneth wanted to know more, Pat said that she could only “tell [her] what the records say… and they don’t really reveal anything else to me”, suggesting that Gwyneth needed to speak to an historian. That is one problem with genealogy. The records only tell so much, but there is so much more going on in between the vital records — the stories of the people and how they lived — that we don’t know, and that is often harder to find. Gwyneth joked that she wanted to find that historian on the island and didn’t want to go back to New York.
Between two daughters aged 27 and 18 when they went to America, I also wondered if there were more children. That seems like a large gap in time between kids. We can only assume that Martha was also found in the baptism book to verify that she was the sister, but did they look for any more kids? Was Samuelina another child in the family born between the two?
Historian Pedro Welch was questioned next. Gwyneth again presented part of the previous research but had trouble asking questions. She had the ship list to show him, but she was shown arriving without it. She wanted to know anything at all, like we all do, but sometimes specific questions have to be asked in order to get answers.
Learning more about the history, Gwyneth and Pedro decided that Rosamund was fiesty with great spirit to take the journey to America. But they didn’t consider her older sister. Maybe it was Martha’s decision to go and Rosamund just went along for the ride. Maybe Martha wanted to see her younger sister get married and still single at 27 realized they had a better chance in America. Did they do any more research on Martha in America?
We All Have More Than One Ancestral Line
Switching to her father’s side of the family, Gwyneth wanted to know more about her grandfather Buster. She visited her aunt Fran Paltrow to learn more. Along with a bit of the story, Fran had a death certificate for Ida, Buster’s mother. To me, it looked like it was brand new and had just been ordered for the episode.
An expert in New York Jewish history, historian Deborah Dash Moore had more information for her. It appears they met at a restaurant, which we haven’t seen since the first season. Deborah had a book from the Normal College, which was the previous name of Hunter College, which Fran had mentioned that Ida attended.
The 1900 census showed a family of three, but they failed to highlight the fourth person listed in the household, Esther, Ida’s grandmother.
Another mysterious document was produced showing the family ten years earlier. The type of document was not revealed. Joseph, Ida’s father, was listed about ten years younger, but given the ages shown for Ida and her brother Isaac, it appeared to be about seven years earlier. Was this the 1892 New York census? I recall someone online mentioning that it did not appear to be, but it was from about that time.
Even in the voiceover showing the family chart, Gwyneth gave the document a date of 1890. Was it ever revealed since the episode what the document was? I sure would like to know where to find New York families around 1890.
With two family members missing in 1900, Deborah next revealed the death certificate for Rebecca Hyman, Ida’s mother, in 1897. Again jumping to conclusions, Gwyneth assumed that dying from cirrhosis of the liver that Rebecca was an alcoholic, but Deborah jumped in to correct her because that was not necessarily true. Gwyneth realized that Rebecca died the year before Ida was discharged from college. Next up was Samuel’s death certificate, Ida’s brother, dated two months later.
This also brings up the question of why Joseph’s mother was living with his family by 1900. Did she move in to help with the children specifically? Probably, but this was not addressed in the episode.
Some Logical Searching
At the NYC Municipal Archives next, Gwyneth met archivist Michael Lorenzini. He suggested checking the 1920 census, the first census after Arnold’s (aka Buster’s) birth. She mentioned the name was originally Paltrowicz, first saying it the way Fran had, then Americanizing it while looking at the records. There seemed to be a lot of trouble with this surname as the episode continued.
Seeing the oldest child was 16 in 1920, Michael suggested checking the 1910 census. Finally a bit of research shown logically; find a reasonable starting place and work your way back without skipping decades. Interestingly enough, when they ran the search, there were no results found, but though that web page was briefly shown, the episode was edited to skip any mention of it, going right to the family in 1910. Again, they found a child in the family who disappeared between the censuses.
Asking if that daughter died, Michael said, “That’s probably what happened. And we can pull the death certificate.” Well, if they’ve already found the death certificate, why say that it probably happened? Handing Gwyneth the book of death certificates, he told her the certificate number to turn to. The coroner’s inquest told a bit more information about the death. Pulling an SS-5 out of a folder, he showed that the next daughter was born three weeks after the first daughter died. Could they not find a birth certificate for 1912?
Going Back Further
Switching to Buster’s father’s family, there was a story in her family that they came from generations of rabbis. The only rabbi she knew of was Simcha “Simon” Paltrovitch. I can only question why, on the family chart, they spelled his surname that way and his son’s name as Paltrowitz.
At the Eldridge Street Synagogue, Jewish historian Glenn Dynner had more documents for her. The Polish marriage record between Szymon Paltrowicz and Cypa Lewitanska in Nowogrod in 1862 was shown to her. If they were going to change the spelling of the surname for each generation, why not use the spelling in the record? The rabbi conducting the marriage was Hersz Paltrowicz, Szymon’s father. Also, this was not a typical Polish marriage record like any of the ones I have seen.
Jumping back to the chart, they introduced another spelling, Pelterowicz, which I found in JRI-Poland, but again, they were just changing it every generation with no explanation why. On the marriage record, the surname was spelled the same for father and son, the Polish spelling. They also listed Hersz on the chart as Tzvi Hirsch. While that’s a typical Jewish name combination, there was again no indication of why they were changing his given name.
Glenn next showed a memorial book from Nowogrod. He explained exactly what the book was, saying that, “they would write was is called a memorial book.” Why did he not say it was called a Yizkor book? I’ve never heard a Jewish genealogist refer to those books as memorial books, so they would be called Yizkor books.
Gwyneth read a translation of a section of the book about Tzvi Hersz, but even in that, he was referred to as Reb Herszela and not Tzvi Hersz. Next up was a book called Ketzer Tzvi that Szymon wrote, naming it after his father. That was the first time we saw the name Tzvi used. Again, another translation was read by Gwyneth, something Szymon wrote about his father.
Gwyneth finally visited her mother at the end of the show to share what she had learned.
While I was able to follow the changing names when the episode got into the Polish family, someone else would not know that Tzvi Hirsch is also Hersz, or that Simon, Simcha, and Szymon are the same person. They did not explain it, though an earlier part of the episode explained that Edith and Ida were the same name. It is not unusual to find name variations in older Jewish records, or even Americanized names for those who never immigrated to this country, but I really didn’t understand why every generation of Paltrowicz was spelled differently when they showed the family tree chart, especially since I didn’t see those spellings used anywhere in the records. They did not explain that some were the Polish spellings and some were transliterations of those spellings.
While I think they tried to show Gwyneth more involved in the research, this episode felt a bit more like the first season where the celebrities were just passed from one genealogist or historian to the next with records waiting for them. Others have searched through records, or at least flipped through a few pages of the record books, but the most Gwyneth did was search for a name down a single page of records.
I know another genealogist who likes to check on the Ancestry searches shown in the episodes. I decided to check on the JRI-Poland research. Interviewed about the episode, Stanley Diamond said that JRI-Poland was used for the episode (and their home page has changed to feature the story), but searching the database, that marriage is not found. It seems that his contacts in Poland were probably called in to help, which also might explain why they found the unusual marriage record; it was probably a synagogue record and not the usual metrical records that ordinary researchers usually have access to.
However, there are some listings in Nowogrod for the family of Abram Herszowicz Pelterowicz (Herszowicz is the patronymic, so this was the son of Hersz), a death for Hersz in 1877 listing his father as Paltyl, a birth of Peltyn son of Abram in 1873, and a birth of Peltyel in 1864 son of Symcho Pelterowicz and Cypa Lewitanska, a brother to Szymon Meyer. [Thanks Glenn for correcting me.] This was not a common surname according to the database, and with the repeated given names, for those who understand Jewish naming patterns, clearly this was all the same family. If I was researching the family myself, I would naturally get copies of the documents to verify the index information, verify the familial connections, and look for more details in the records, but the JRI-Poland database is usually correct. The name spelling variations can sometimes be accounted for by variations in the records, messy handwriting, transliterations from other languages (often Russian to Polish), or because the indexes were indexed and they may have alternate spellings.
This article continues the Nitpicker’s Series, Season 2.