Story: What I Learned from My Famous Relative

Lieba Rudolph, a well-known writer and longtime member of the Chabad community in Pittsburgh, wrote the following inspiring story of Hashgacha Protis on her personal blog, Pondering Jew, describing a chance encounter she had with a relative of hers, celebrity actress Maya Rudolph, at a car wash in Los Angeles:

The woman was sitting on the curb outside the car wash, talking on her cell phone. Elkie was sure we had the right person.

“Maya?” I asked.

“One second,” she said to the person on the phone. She looked up at me, slightly annoyed by the interruption.

“I’m Lieba Rudolph, Billy’s wife,” I announced with a smile.

“I gotta go. I just met someone from my family.” I was happy she was so excited.

With her identity confirmed, our daughter Elkie appeared, trailed by her daughter Leah and our daughter Rivky. The woman indeed was our famous relative, the actress Maya Rudolph. Maya’s father is first cousins with my husband. Their fathers were brothers who both grew up in Pittsburgh.

Of course, none of us could believe the amazing “coincidence” of  our meeting. I mean, what’s the likelihood that Rivky and I would arrive in LA on that day, then go with Elkie to that car wash to get her car cleaned for Pesach, at exactly the time when Maya was there? (To my knowledge, Maya wasn’t cleaning her car for Pesach which makes it even more unlikely she would be there at that moment.) And what is the likelihood we would all be at the car wash exactly when, back in Pittsburgh, much of the extended Rudolph family was gathered for the funeral of one of the two original Rudolph sisters?

As a Chassidic Jew, I strive for a life where G-d is “present” through hashgacha pratis, divine providence, where I recognize His involvement in everything. Not every encounter is meant to be life-changing, but none is accidental either. And some, like this one, are unusual enough to be seen as a sign of His clear presence, which, ideally, strengthens my ability to recognize Him even more.

Thanks to Maya, we had another hashgacha pratis moment last week.

Because Maya’s a successful actress and because Maya also had an African-American mother, (the late singer Minnie Riperton),  she was recently selected to be profiled on the PBS series, “Finding Your Roots.” I had never heard of the show before Maya’s involvement, but I understand that it’s meant to fascinate audiences with the discoveries found through researching the diverse ancestries of famous people.

One thing I know for sure: “Finding Your Roots” doesn’t skimp on its efforts. A few months ago, Zev and I spoke on the phone with a researcher named Hannah. I couldn’t relate to her excitement in learning where and when some great aunt we never heard of graduated from high school. And that’s just one small discovery made on Maya’s father’s side; they were expending the exact same effort to trace every detail of her mother’s ancestry. (“That’s Hollywood,” Zev shrugged when I expressed my disbelief.)

We saw the fruits of their labor last Friday, when Zev received a stream of emails from the show’s researchers. After months of exploring the Rudolph family, they sent copies of immigration records, wedding announcements, death certificates–whatever they found.

They topped it off with an extensive Rudolph family tree.

Up until last Friday’s emails, the Rudolph family tree went up only to Julius Rudashevsky, the patriarch, who came to America as a stowaway at age eleven. Julius never spoke about the family he left behind in Vilna, to the extent that nobody even knew his parents’ names. That is, up until last Friday.

When my husband and I first saw Julius’s father’s name, we were stunned. We knew that parents have ruach hakodesh, divine inspiration, when naming their children, but it looks like G-d wanted to show us proof.

When our second son was born, we were still giving our children English and Hebrew names. We liked the name Julius for his English name and appreciated that we were also naming him for his great-grandfather. But we couldn’t use Julius’s corresponding Hebrew name, Yehuda Avraham, because our older son was already Mordechai Yehuda and my father, who was still living at the time, was Avraham. We liked “Dovid” as a middle name–it was my husband’s mother’s father’s name–and needed a good Hebrew first name to go with it, something close to “Julius.” We asked our rabbi, Rabbi Yisroel Rosenfeld, for his suggestions. Wait, we thought, “Yisroel” is close to “Julius”–could that work? Absolutely, we all agreed. That’s how our second son (now known as Izzy) was named Yisroel Dovid.

We would have continued thinking Yisroel Dovid was an original name if not for Maya’s profile on “Finding Your Roots” and the researcher’s email showing the updated Rudolph family tree. Because the researchers apparently discovered that the name of Julius Rudolph’s father was Yisroel Dovid Rudashevsky.

Unbeknownst to us, Yisroel Dovid was already a Rudolph family name, a name that continues through our son, Julius Rudolph.

There’s always much more going on than I know, but I’m grateful when I get a peek behind the scenes. If a family tree falls in my email forest, I’m meant to hear it. And to recognize where it really came from.

18 Comments

  • 1. Maya is the Best! wrote:

    Thanks for accepting our sister! She is a role model for all people…and a very funny comedian. Her mother was a wonderful entertainer as well! Baruch Ha Shem!

  • 2. TZIVIA PEKKAR [C.H]. wrote:

    B.H. LIEBA,
    I enjoyed your article, and keep them coming.
    I remember the name Maya Rudolph, and I am
    amazed at the Hashgogah Protis, of how you
    found each other.
    Regards, Tzivia Pekkar.

  • 3. Lieba Rudolph wrote:

    Thank you for sharing this story. But, I do want to clarify that this picture is of me and my husband and grandchildren, not children.

  • 5. wow so interesting! wrote:

    I grew up hearing funny stories about Maya, her high school drama teacher is a family friend. Who knew there was a jewish connection.

  • 6. Rabbi Dr. Gershom Taub wrote:

    My esteemed son, Rabbi Dr. Shais Taub, related this story at our Shabbos tish as he is the gaon of Pittsburgh and deeply presides over the Randolphs. It reminds me of the yichus we share with other Taub chassidm, many of whom trace their historic and esoteric lineage through Chabad. When the rabbonim invited my rebbetzin and I to move to Chicago in reish ayin gimmel hey it was by no accident of fate that I would soon meet other Taubs who were most helpful in establishing patterns of yichus throughout the ages and dynasties. What an indigeonous and fastidious adventure this has been and I wish the young bubbe nothing but much nachos!

  • 8. I don't get it... wrote:

    If I understand correctly, her mother was not Jewish… so Maya isn’t either…

    • 9. Roots wrote:

      Her mother “not Jewish”? WHY? Just because she has “an African-American mother, (the late singer Minnie Riperton)”, is THAT the only reason you sayin that???

    • 10. Yichus wrote:

      Maya’s paternal grandparents were Sidney J. Rudolph (the son of Julius A. Rudashevsky/Rudolph and Nellie Elishof) and Muriel Neufeld (the daughter of Ralph Neufeld and Blanche Edith Toffler). Julius was a Jewish immigrant from Vilna, Lithuania, the son of Yisroel Dovid Rudashevsky. Nellie was born in Pennsylvania, to Russian Jewish parents. Ralph’s father, Nathan Neufeld, was a Jewish immigrant from Germany. Ralph’s mother, Rebecca W. Wolf, was born in Louisiana, to Jewish parents from Germany. Blanche was born in Leavenworth, Kansas, to Hungarian Jewish parents, Alex Toffler and Meriam.

      Maya’s maternal grandparents were Daniel Webster Riperton (the son of Wesley Riperton and Pauline Morton) and Thelma Inez Matthews (the daughter of Chester/Ed A. Matthews and Elizabeth/Minnie “Bettie” Grundy). Daniel was an African-American from Kentucky and Thelma was an African-American from Mississippi.

  • 11. use you head wrote:

    “I don’t get it… wrote:

    If I understand correctly, her mother was not Jewish… so Maya isn’t either…”

    the ashgacha Protis goes on Great Great Grand father’name
    “Yisroel Dovid” Rudashevsky. (son’s name”)

  • 12. I don't get it... wrote:

    I haven’t seen any where that Minnie Riperton was Jewish…

  • 13. To #9 wrote:

    what is up?
    Her mother isn’t Jewish
    Please don’t be touchy…it’s got nothing to do with anything else than the fact that her mom was not Jewish

    • 14. Roots wrote:

      I am touchy when I see ignorance.

      Jewish is a religion. African-American is a race. Anyone from any race can be Jewish.

      A Jew can be from any race.

      A Jew can have any skin color.

      Don’t judge a person’s Jewishness by the color of their skin.

    • 15. Milhouse wrote:

      Jews are a nation, not a religion. Being Jewish is based on birth or naturalization, not on belief. The overwhelming majority of Jews are not of African origin, and the overwhelming majority of African descendants are not Jews. The fact that there are a few exceptions doesn’t change this, and the modern PC expectation that we should ignore this fact, and pretend that all people are equally likely to be anything, is literally insane. It is perfectly reasonable to assume that a randomly selected black person is not Jewish, unless there is evidence indicating otherwise.

    • 16. Roots wrote:

      Do you think Avraham was lilly white? Do you think Moshe was Caucasian? How presumptuous! Indeed, being Jewish is a religion, but the origins are Semitic. Dark skin is “natual” to the Jew of origin. The white skinned Jew is a modern addition to the tribe. But whites, whether Jew or not, need to feel superior over the darker skinned human. In fact, it is likely that Adam and his children were all dark skinned.

  • 17. Mikhael wrote:

    @# 16 “Roots”
    Someone pointed out that Minnie Riperton, the late mother of Maya Rudolph, a talented actress and commedienne, was an African-American non-Jewish woman. This seemed to upset you and you launced into a diatribe about the fact that there are many black Jews (of course there are, but Minnie Riperton wasn’t one of them) and that whites shouldn’t feel superior over darker-skinned humans. Who said they should?

  • 18. Mikhael wrote:

    @#16 re “Do you think Avraham was lilly white? Do you think Moshe was Caucasian?”

    We don’t know what skin hue Avraham Avinu had. Moshe was not “Caucasian,” because Caucasians come from the Caucausus (the Kavkaz) and he was born in Egypt. But people from the “Caucasus” (Iincluding its Jewish population) such as the Mountain Jews and Georgian Jews, often are dark-skinned; is that what you meant to say?

    “The white skinned Jew is a modern addition to the tribe.”

    We don’t know what skin tone our ancestors had… it seems likely that as they were a Mediterranean, Levantine people, most of them had an olive complexion, some of them were fair, and there may have been some may have mixing with darker-skinned peoples from Africa and elsewhere. So they probably ranged in skin tone from very light to very dark, with most being someowhat tan. But why is this important to you?

    “But whites, whether Jew or not, need to feel superior over the darker skinned human”

    Certainly not, I donlt see where anyone here suggested that to be the case.

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