A Show That’s Like a Surprise Party

Filming an interview for “Finding Your Roots” feels like throwing a surprise party. You spend months finding a venue, ordering food, planning the “dinner conversation”, calling up people to make the setting beautiful and scheduling those who will document it. You stay up all night with beer and Pad Thai making a gift (the Book of Life, a scrapbook of their family’s history) and party favors (scrolls of family trees).

Henry Louis Gates, Jr. and Rabbi Angela Buchdahl

Henry Louis Gates, Jr. and Rabbi Angela Buchdahl

Angela Buchdahl is the first Asian American Rabbi or Cantor in the United States. Born to a Korean mother and a Jewish father, she grew up in Tacoma, Washington. I also grew up Jewish in the Pacific Northwest, in Portland, Oregon with a Jewish father and a worldly mother. My mother, just like Angela’s, is not Jewish but enjoyed weaving together the ancient traditions of my father’s side with those of her family. Hearing my colleagues as they pieced together Angela’s father’s family history, unearthing the stories of the amazing endurance and adaptability of her European Jewish family, felt a lot like piecing together my own history.

In the week leading up to the shoot we were still receiving information about Angela’s mother’s lineage. One of our Associate Producers asked her friend’s father to translate some Korean documents for us. He was so dedicated to this task that he stayed up for two days detailing every word. These documents contained some truly amazing information about Angela’s family. We printed the impressive family trees and headed to her Manhattan home for the big reveal.

Henry Louis Gates, Jr.

Henry Louis Gates, Jr. gets ready for his interview with Angela Buchdahl

We only have one major prop on this show: a heavy round oak table that we cart around to every shoot. We situated Angela and Dr. Gates at this table in her living room, surrounded by lights and three cameras. After all of this preparation, I took a seat on her living room floor and delighted in watching her learn about her father’s family’s history, the people to whom she has devoted her life’s work. However, it was Angela’s mother’s history which astounded her though. I found myself grinning at her reaction. Aha! What fun! Surprise!

Watch the full Finding Your Roots episode: Rick Warren, Angela Buchdahl, and Yasir Qadhi.

Author: Emily Chapman