Category Archives: Finding Your Roots

Finding Your Roots – 10×05 – Nitpicker’s Guide

Hello readers. I hope you remember this blog, because you’re still subscribed if you just got this email. I haven’t done a nitpicker’s guide in a long time, but I find myself sitting here shouting at my monitor while watching Finding Your Roots, so here goes.

This episode featured Bob Odenkirk and Iliza Shlesinger. I had no idea who these people were, but I knew at least one of them had a Jewish story, so I wanted to check out the episode. Fifteen minutes into the episode, they finally started with the genealogy. Well, I guess that’s better than introducing them for even longer.

Bob’s genealogy started first, as Gates likes to switch back and forth between his celebrities. “The story begins with the 1870 census…” Oh really, does it? 1870? That’s where you started the research? Not with the 1950 census and then going back every ten years and doing other research in between? What happened to the part where they check every possible record they can find? He says that in the intro too. No, you don’t start in 1870. Stop teaching genealogy this way, Skip. How hard is it to say you started in the 1950 census and worked your way back to 1870? How hard?

I also hate that they never show much of the family tree charts that are in the show, or draw them out like another show does. Or explain them when we can see them. Who is Ida Baumgartner? Why is she sitting next to the family with no visible attachments to anyone? We’ll never know.

He stated that the family auctioned off their home and possessions to pay for their passage to the US. What record did they find that suggested that? Auctioned and not sold? Nothing is shown, nothing is mentioned. Sounds more like mythology.

And in typical fashion, they skip all of his American ancestors and go back to the immigrant from France, then his father who fought in the Napoleonic Wars, and just wait until later in the episode for the jump back to royalty. The Americans don’t matter at all, it seems.

Next up, Iliza’s story got started. The intro stated that Iliza knew basically nothing about her ancestors. How many times will he ask her “did you know about that?” Too many.

First up, did she know anything about her father’s grandparents. Actually, that one she did, but not a lot. Her records start in the 1940 census. More reasonable for a beginning. But what about 1950? That one’s been out for a while now. The census said that Morris and Esther were born in Poland, “but as we dug deeper…” actually, no they were born in a place that in 1940 was considered Poland. That’s how it goes. It’s why people were born in Russia one year, Poland another, maybe Ukraine another. As the borders changed, they reported the current location.

He then produced their marriage certificate in New York City, where they both say they were born in Plock, Russia. What Skip, no comment on that saying Russia? Also, who told the city they were from on their NYC marriage certificate? Almost nobody in my experience. They might tell the region. But he believed this was the actual city. I was once hired by another genealogy company to do some research. They also looked at an NYC marriage for the place of birth. They were wrong too. The naturalization gives the actual location. If the marriage says more than the country, it’s the region, the county, the oblast, etc.

“Many records were lost or willfully destroyed. Indeed, it’s often impossible for us to learn about the Jewish people who lived here.” Where did you look, Skip? According to the Polish State Archive, Jewish records for Plock, for births, marriages, and deaths, exist for 1808-1825 inclusive, and 1826-1863 inclusive, and then the record books get a little crazy, they skip around the years, some are just one type of record, but they go clear up to 1914 and the majority of them are online and free to view. Not only that but they also appear to be already indexed on JRI-Poland. Why would you lie and say there are no records? Just because you couldn’t find that family in the wrong town? These TV shows lying about missing records make me so mad. This particular one is the one that keeps repeating that lie.

And finally, they found one birth record in Raciaz. Guess what? That’s a different town than Plock. Maybe they should learn to do better research before claiming there are no records. Are they trying to make themselves into miracle workers because “there are no records… but then we found one”?

Of course, Iliza never thought anything like this existed. Because she’s never heard of genealogy before, nor ever watched a genealogy show before appearing on one, just assuming that because her family didn’t know — or didn’t tell her about it — that it didn’t exist to be found. That sounds disingenuous.

Then we get the book of residents page on the family. Did Iliza know any of those names or from such a large family? Of course she didn’t, she already said so. Did he really ask her what their life was like? Again, why do you ask questions you know she doesn’t know?

Then we get Esther’s ship list. No, that’s not the moment she stepped foot into the US. The ship list was written at the port in Europe. I like how Iliza saw that she paid for her ticket herself and then they both made a big deal out of that. But more likely, the family probably saved up and sent her first, hoping she would do well and send back money for more of them to leave. But since the person she joined didn’t pay, the ship list says she paid for her “self”. Also, what about that uncle she joined? We never hear about him again. That is more of her family that she doesn’t know anything about and they skip right over it.

Back to Bob, but I was already shouting and starting the blog post, so I didn’t pay much attention the first time through. This is where we jumped back another five generations. So they look at a marriage certificate that does not list the parents, they then tell us who the parents are but not how they know, then look up more about the mother. Where did they get the parents’ names from? Upon finding the mother’s death certificate, they tie her to a Duke and back to the royal families of Europe. Because that seems to be the goal of all TV genealogists, to find the royal connection.

Back to Iliza, it’s a Jewish story, so we have to get the Holocaust part of the story. When Esther immigrated, she left five siblings behind. How do they know? First, how do they know all five were still alive? How do they know some didn’t leave? How do they know there weren’t any more born after the book of residents?

“This was never talked about in your family…?” Didn’t we already establish she didn’t know anything? She never thought she had any connection to the Holocaust because she didn’t know the history. They got lucky and found an Auschwitz record for one brother. I have survivors and victims in my family who went to Auschwitz and there isn’t a record there for any of them.

Another brother went to France, had a family, and then they found him coming to America in 1955. But none of his family? How about what happened to him in America? Did he have another family? Are there relatives in his line? Can she image his reunion to his sister? How do they know they had a reunion? A lot of families couldn’t find each other after the Holocaust. Those 1955 lists didn’t say who they were joining. “According to one of his daughters…” and who was that daughter? Was she from the French family or a later one? Who was she? Did they tell Iliza where to find her cousin?

Then she was asked if she thought her grandfather knew he had family still in Poland. And then she went on to think that he didn’t know about his family because he never said anything. And Gates goes along with this too. This is one of the major failings of this show, that they have no Jewish perspective. A lot of people didn’t talk about it. How many times do you want to rehash something as painful as most of your extended family was killed by the Nazis? How about her grandfather’s service? Did she even know about that? It seemed like maybe she didn’t, like he omitted that entire part of his life from any stories that she heard. Like a lot of families did. Like my family did.

She “thought I had a very small family that almost came out of nowhere.” Someone never paid attention to genealogy shows, Holocaust education, etc., just assuming that because she didn’t know, it didn’t exist. Did she ever ask? My family only told me about family when I asked. And because I did that when I was so young, I still got no information about who we lost in the Holocaust. I never doubted that we did, I just didn’t know it.

And then the paper trail ran out. But we have no idea what they looked at. Bob’s paper trail only began in 1870. Iliza’s had one Polish birth and a book of residents page. We don’t get a glimpse of their big family tree posters in this episode at all. What was on it? Did they research Esther’s brother who came to America and have all his branch on the chart? Did they figure out who the uncle was that Esther joined on her ship list and all his family?

And lest we forget, the DNA part. Is the only thing they do with the DNA is to compare to previous guests? Here, Skip finally admitted that the cousins usually only share small bits on one chromosome and they never say how much. But this time, there’s shared bits on multiple chromosomes to another guest. Skip did the research for both. If they share so much DNA, how are they related? Or are they sharing teensy tiny bits on all those chromosomes and it’s more likely just endogamous noise?

Yes, I still like watching these shows no matter how much I need to vent about terrible takes on how to do genealogy gets into them. If I didn’t like them, I wouldn’t go through the trouble to nitpick them, right?

Edit: Oops, I had the show title wrong. Fixed it.

Nitpicker’s Guide to Finding Your Roots – Sanders/David

I’ve never nitpicked Finding Your Roots before, the TV show hosted by Dr. Henry Louis Gates, but watching the episode about Bernie Sanders and Larry David, I have to make some comments. And they’re longer than Twitter can hold.

Because the show goes back and forth between the two, I’m going to not do that since it gets confusing without the full episode and the video.

Larry David

Beginning with Larry David, when looking for the origins of the family beyond Brooklyn, Gates said “We were completely stumped… We didn’t even know where to start looking… One of our researchers noticed a tiny little thing.”

Hey Skip, that tiny little thing is a big flag in Jewish genealogy. Every good Jewish genealogist knows to look for the place of origin for a US immigrant on the naturalization. Other good sources include the ship list and the SS-5.

Larry didn’t even know his mother was born in Europe? Interesting.

Also, Blume is not pronounced the way it was on the show, nor was Regina or Leib. Skip, do you want a Jewish genealogist to consult with you? I’m available. ;-)

They believed that Larry’s grandfather, of the ten siblings, was the only one who immigrated to the US. I assume they looked? They didn’t say why they believed that.

They found a lot of records at Yad Vashem for the surnames in his family. Did they try to track down the survivors and find living relatives? I remember asking that for a UK episode of WDYTYA many years ago. I love when they do distant cousins reunions on the show.

Gates really needs some help in pronouncing Jewish names. The synagogue name in Alabama was said completely wrong.

Only about 3000 Jewish men fought for the confederacy. That statement needed qualifying. How many fought for the union? How many lived in the US at the time? Without additional information, that number alone doesn’t say much.

Larry’s reaction to learning his ancestor was a slave owner was outrageous to watch. Well, he did fight for the confederacy, Larry.

Bernie Sanders

And now for Bernie Sanders. They spent some time finding things on his father’s side that are not easily available, so some of it was interesting in that it added to what I was able to find.

They stated that Elias Sanders arrived in the US at the age of 16. The ship list clearly showed he was 17. They covered that part of the page with his photo in the video. They did have the right ship list, but didn’t highlight him on the page showing that he arrived as Eliasz Gutman, or why that was his name.

Actually, there were two ship lists that listed Eliasz Gutman and I found both. One was the year before, showing him as 16, but that wasn’t Elias on the ship. It was his brother Henry. They showed the correct one for Elias. Did they not get that part and thought he travelled himself on both ships? Then why did they show the page for the second one? Was it because he was at the top of the page on that one so it looked better? I don’t know what to make of that now.

Henry was still talking about the Sanders side of the family, but showed a photo labeled Radzyn. That was his mother’s side. I wonder where they found the picture that Bernie had never seen before of his Sanders family, including his uncle.

After learning his uncle was killed by the Nazis, why would the book include a picture of the man who had him killed? I wouldn’t want that in my fancy family book.

I was impressed that they were able to trace all the way back to Hersz and Kayla Mlynarz, as well as the Apeloig family that they didn’t feature on the show but I saw it on the tree. No online trees went beyond Frejda Mindla Mlynarz, even though at least one had that name on it. And that was also why I wanted my blog post to go out before this aired; I didn’t want to seem like I got any of the research from the show. They did find some things I didn’t for the Sanders side, and they obviously researched the history whereas I just did the genealogy.


Then they looked at the percentage of Ashkenazi Jewish DNA each man had. How did they calculate that? When I first tested, I was told I was 85% Jewish. Now, I’m 96%. My DNA didn’t change. The DNA isn’t labelled. Having Jewish DNA is self-reported. My DNA matches 96% that the specific company has deduced matches other Jews. It doesn’t mean I have 4% that is not Jewish. It just means that 4% hasn’t been determined to be Jewish yet. I was not impressed by this part of the show.

And exactly how much did Bernie and Larry match their DNA? Does Gates know that almost all Ashkenazi Jews appear to be distant cousins via their DNA? Since they don’t go into details, I can only guess it was the same kind of insignificant amounts that I match almost every other Jewish genealogist I know. But yes, I’d believe that two Ashkenazi Jewish men were distant cousins. I’d also believe that I may match both of them just as distantly.


Both men’s family trees extended back to 18th century Europe and “then disappear”. No, they don’t actually disappear. The Jewish records run out. Did they search the Catholic records to go back further? Did they even know that earlier Jewish Polish records can often be found in the Catholic records? Radzyn has Catholic records. I just didn’t have the time to go through them. I may have been able to go back a little bit farther if I had. I do less German research, so I couldn’t say more about that.

I loved all the bits of history that were told during the course of the episode. This is also the reason why I like Who Do You Think You Are? And I like that this history applied to my family in this episode. Somehow the Jewish episodes of WDYTYA, at least lately, don’t cover the European Jewish history even when they have someone Jewish on the show. As much as I like learning about the Civil War, the American Revolution, and the royal families of Europe, I prefer the history that applies to my own family.

I don’t know why I haven’t watched every episode of Finding Your Roots over the years. No wait, maybe I do. I think the DNA analysis often bothers me. I remember, I believe it was the first season, when they specifically compared a Jew and an Arab and then decided the bible was true somehow from that. OK, I need to put that aside and watch this show more often because I definitely enjoyed this episode.

And to finish up, I will again share the photo taken at the IAJGS Conference this summer in Orlando. Henry Gates was the keynote speaker at the banquet and his presentation was terrific. This picture was taken at a private reception just before the banquet.

Blurry me and Henry Gates
Blurry me and Henry Gates

And Skip, I was serious earlier. I’m available for consulting when you need a Jewish genealogist to help. :-)