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Dustin Hoffman's Jewish Moment

March 10, 2016 | by Rabbi Shraga Simmons

Watch a moving clip of the actor declaring, “I am a Jew."

Dustin Hoffman's parents chose to make a clean break with their Jewish heritage, raising him without knowledge of either Judaism or his ancestors. When Hoffman found out he was Jewish at age 10, he "went to the delicatessen and ordered bagels, and draped them around the holiday tree.”

Hoffman's Jewish identity came to the fore this month, when the PBS genealogy series, “Finding Your Roots,” unearthed some incredible history about Hoffman's Jewish ancestors that brought the 78-year-old Oscar-winning actor to tears.

The background:

In 1917, Hoffman's grandfather, Frank Hoffman, was killed during the Soviet Civil War, when he risked a trip into Ukraine to rescue his parents from anti-Semitic pogroms. Though Frank's father was also killed, the mother – Liba Hoffman – was arrested and sent to a hard-labor camp.

As People magazine reported:

Liba Hoffman, who was already middle aged by 1921, managed to survive the hard labor and harsh conditions of the Soviet concentration camp. Almost a decade later, she arranged to leave the USSR for Argentina. After some time in South America, she managed to obtain an immigration visa for the US, where she arrived in the early 1930s at the age of 64.

Liba Hoffman went to live with relatives in Chicago and presumably never met her great-grandson who was by then living with his parents in Los Angeles.

Dustin Hoffman broke down upon seeing the photograph of his great-grandmother on her Argentinian visa application and reading the medical report of US immigration authorities stating that she had dementia, extremely poor vision, and a prosthetic arm due to an amputation.

The actor called his great-grandmother a “hero” for her resilience in the face of the anti-Semitic violence perpetrated against her and her family. He also expressed regret that it is only now, as he nears 80, that he is finally learning about the brave and persistent people who have passed their genes on to him. His tears were clearly coming from not only sadness, but also deep disappointment for having been robbed of this heritage for his entire life.

When asked how this genealogical journey had changed him, Hoffman answered:

“I am a Jew. Wear that on your sleeve."

Watch the very moving moment in the video below:

“What are you? I’m a Jew.”

Like Dustin Hoffman, we are all here today because of family heroes who fought to preserve our Jewish identity, as the next link in this remarkable chain stretching back thousands of years.

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