This Week in History


Maggie Gyllenhaal connected to the most ancient Jewish women by PBS' "Finding Your Roots"

April 22, 2012
Maggie Gyllenhaal
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Maggie Gyllenhaal at the 82nd Academy Awards. Photo by Sgt. Michael Connors. Public domain.

The lineage of actress Maggie Gyllenhaal, Oscar-nominated star of Crazy Heart, The Dark Knight, and Secretary, goes back on her father’s side to Henry I of England and Swedish nobility (Gyllenhaal literally means “golden hall” in Swedish).  But her mother’s line of descendants traces back over 3,500 years to ancient Judea and the most ancient female progenitors of Jewish history. 

In an episode of the PBS series Finding Your Roots shared with actor Robert Downey Jr., host Henry Louis Gates Jr. revealed to the actress the results of DNA testing.  Gyllenhaal’s DNA is similar to that of 3.5 million Jews descended from four Jewish women who lived in the ancient Near East.  As the geneticist who did the research says, with Gyllenhaal’s DNA, they “hit the jackpot” with a direct connection to the oldest genetic line in Jewish history.  Gates comments that Gyllenhaal is “as Jewish as Jewish can be.”

On her father’s side, she is also related to John Lothrop, an English preacher who rebelled against the Church of England and in 1634 journeyed to Cape Cod, pursuing religious freedom.  Later descendants from Sweden were resident in Pennsylvania and were Swedenborgian, a Christian mystic sect.

Following forebears who passed through Ellis Island and worked in the garment trade on the Lower East Side of New York, Gyllenhaal’s grandmother was a respected doctor and working mother in Brooklyn who developed an early test for birth defects in children.  Award nominations seem to be genetic too:  they include Emmys (for her father, director Stephen Gyllenhaal) and Oscars (for her mother, screenwriter Naomi Foner and brother, actor Jake Gyllenhaal).

For the wife of actor Peter Sarsgaard and mother of two, making waves and history seems to be part of her makeup, whether because of genetics or environment, nature or nurture.  As she has said, “I find myself more and more interested only in roles which move the world forward.”

Source: Finding Your Roots,

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