Last month, Dustin Hoffman was featured on Finding Your Roots, a PBS show that gives celebrities incredible insight into their family’s history. Hoffman is Jewish, however, his parents attempted to keep his Judaism a secret from him. While the actor learned about his Jewish identity when he was 10, he had virtually no Jewish upbringing. Influenced by his parents and deeply affected by the anti-Semitism that he experienced as a kid in Los Angeles, Hoffman denied his Jewishness for a long time. It was his second and current wife, Lisa, who encouraged him to explore his Jewish identity and to build a Jewish family.
During last month’s episode of Finding Your Roots, Hoffman was introduced to a powerful part of his Jewish story that he knew nothing about. He learned about his great-grandmother, Libba, for the very first time. When she was 53, Libba was imprisoned in a Russian camp that targeted Jews. Nine years later, now suffering from senility, poor vision and the fact that her left arm had been amputated, Libba managed – somehow, someway – to make it to the United States. As Hoffman discovered the incredible strength of his great-grandmother, her determination to stay alive, her ability to travel to America despite her many challenges, he began to cry and said, “she was a hero.” He was deeply moved as he realized his great-grandmother “survived for me to be here.” Through tears, the 78-year-old actor who grew up hiding his Judaism proclaims: “I am a Jew.” Before he does so, he asks, “Why did they want to erase all this?” Why did they, presumably his parents, want to hide the fact that his great-grandmother went through so much to make it to America, to do whatever it took to ensure that the Jewish story did not end?
It is powerful to watch Hoffman come to the realization that he is the beneficiary of his grandmother’s gift – her Judaism which has become his Judaism. His experience is a powerful reminder, particularly for those of us who take our Judaism for granted, that our ability to say openly and proudly “I am a Jew” is a gift from the generations that came before us. It is a gift that they preserved and cherished and now, this gift is in our hands.
Judaism is changing dramatically. This evolution of our tradition is, despite the handwringing of many in our community, normal. It is also good for us. It will lead to wonderful, new ways to define who we are as a people – that is assuming we continue to appreciate the gift we have been given and we do everything in our power to give the gift to the next generation. We do this not just by remembering our heroic ancestors who kept Judaism alive despite tremendous odds. We must also make Judaism relevant today, accessible and meaningful to the next generation. This means that we can’t just appreciate the inspirational stories of our past – we must live our own Jewish story in a way that ensures another chapter will be written by those who have yet to be born.
At the age of 78, Dustin Hoffman truly appreciates how lucky he is to be a Jew. We should all feel so lucky. We should all believe that future generations deserve to feel just as lucky and do whatever we can to ensure that they get to experience the gift.