For Immediate Release-April 21, 2016
Seattle – Featured in the new season of TLC’s Emmy-nominated television series, Who Do You Think You Are?, actress and singer Lea Michele embarks on a journey to uncover the fate of her paternal grandmother’s family. As part of the episode, University of Washington’s Sephardic Studies Chair, Professor Devin E. Naar, guides Lea Michele through an exploration of old archives that provide the star with an unprecedented glimpse into the world of her ancestors, whom she discovers were Sephardic Jews from the port city of Salonica (Thessaloniki), in today’s northern Greece.
Housed within the Stroum Center for Jewish Studies in the Jackson School of International Studies, the Sephardic Studies Program at the University of Washington has emerged as one of the country’s foremost university programs dedicated to the study of Sephardic Jewish history and culture. Naar explained that this episode of Who Do You Think You Are? has the potential to introduce his field of study–and the city of Salonica, once home to the largest Sephardic Jewish community in the world that was decimated by the Holocaust–to the American public for the first time.
“Most Americans probably have never heard of Sephardic Jews,” noted Naar, who is also a professor in the Department of History. “So for such a prominent celebrity to speak so publicly and intimately about her connection to this often invisible history and culture will be a turning point. It’s really exciting: the episode will familiarize Americans with the very existence of Sephardic Jews and hopefully pique their curiosity and inspire them to learn more.”
Born in the Bronx as Lea Michele Sarfati to a Sephardic Jewish father and Italian Catholic mother, the star first made a name for herself originating the lead role in the acclaimed rock musical, Spring Awakening; its soundtrack won a Grammy. She then took television by storm as Rachel Berry, the lead and star singer of the smash hit, Glee (2009-2015), for which she received numerous accolades. She now stars in Fox’s horror-comedy series, Scream Queens. She has also made a successful entrée into the music world as her debut album, Louder, reached number 4 on the Billboard 200; and her first book, Brunette Ambition, debuted on the New York Times’ Best Seller List.
While Wikipedia indicates that Lea Michele identifies as Catholic, she also at one time worked at a Bat Mizvah shop. Taunted for her last name, Sarfati—which classmates mocked as “so fatty”—Lea Michele dropped this overt reference to her Sephardic and Jewish roots. While public sources refer to Lea Michele’s father as a Sephardic Jew whose family came from “Spain and Turkey,” this episode of Who Do You Think You Are? will reveal that part of her family also came from what is today’s Greece.
Delighted and honored to have been tapped by the producers to conduct research for the episode and appear, however briefly, on camera, Professor Devin Naar explained that he was thrilled to locate specific documents regarding Lea Michele’s ancestors. This was an especially challenging task considering the devastation experienced by the Jewish communities of Greece during World War II during which the Nazis confiscated the Jewish community’s records. Naar indicated that he located references to Lea Michele’s family in surviving fragments of the archives now housed at repositories in New York and Moscow. Naar relied on these same archival materials as the source base for his forthcoming book, Jewish Salonica: Between the Ottoman Empire and Modern Greece, to be published later this year by Stanford University Press.
For Naar, it was an extra treat to discover that he and the celebrity share a similar family trajectory. Both their ancestors came from Salonica, migrated to New York, joined an organization called the Sephardic Brotherhood of America, and then settled in New Jersey.
The episode, scheduled to air in TLC on May 1st at 9 pm EST, will air as the season finale for the current season of Who Do You Think You Are?. This season has also profiled celebrities Scott Foley, Molly Ringwald, Chris Noth, Aisha Tyler, and Katey Sagal.