Three decades ago, the groundbreaking television series "Roots" was aired. During the last week of January 1977, some 100 million US viewers, nearly half the population, watched the final episode and 85 percent of American homes with televisions watched all or part of the eight episodes, according to the Museum of Broadcast Communications. The seven episodes following the opener earned the top seven spots for the week's ratings. It was shown worldwide - even in Teheran, Iran, where I saw it.
The series, based on the best-selling book by Alex Haley, was an important breakthrough for the African-American community, naturally, but it also sparked major interest among many other ethnic groups who began to imagine the possibilities of recording their own family histories. Most importantly, it was the impetus for the contemporary Jewish genealogy movement.
While many of us sat and watched spellbound and wondered about our own histories, Dan Rottenberg of Philadelphia had been thinking about it for much longer. His book Finding Our Fathers: A Guidebook to Jewish Genealogy was published in May 1977, and is often credited as the catalyst for the modern Jewish genealogy craze. It was the first guidebook to the subject in English, or "in any other language," according to Rottenberg.
Reprinted in 1995, Rottenberg pointed to Roots in a new preface: "They say timing is everything in life. Finding Our Fathers enjoyed the good fortune to be published at precisely the moment when the entire country was salivating over Roots, Alex Haley's landmark exercise in black genealogy. And my book came out just months after America's Bicentennial celebration, which had fostered widespread interest in personal history."
He also writes of meeting Arthur Kurzweil, who was thinking of writing his own genealogy book in those days, and how their "mutual passion for Jewish genealogy transcended the needs of our individual egos or wallets," as rivals for the same book-buying market. Kurzweil's 1980 book, From Generation to Generation, was the next major volume on the subject.
They realized that the key to ancestor rooting was in the creation of a Jewish genealogy community, which would provide opportunities for networking, researching and support.
That community is now well established, and thousands of our brethren are tracing their families and networking internationally. As new award-winning books appear, the subject is becoming more scholarly. The advent of computers and e-mail has made networking around the world nearly instantaneous, while continuing technological advances help researchers.
For example, the JewishGen Family Finder (updated daily) today features more than 400,000 entries (100,000 surnames and 18,000 town names, indexed and cross-referenced by both). In 1995, it was a for-sale microfiche with only 222,000 entries. The website has registered nearly 8.6 million visits since November 5, 1996.
JewishGen (www.jewishgen.org) is celebrating its 20th anniversary this year. In 1997, the Family Finder listed fewer than 5,300 individual researchers; today, there are more than 80,000 researchers. For example, there were only 42 researchers of Mogilev (today Mahilyow), Belarus. Today, there are 431 Mahilyow researchers investigating 724 families there.
Many Jewish genealogical societies are under the umbrella of the International Association of Jewish Genealogical Societies. The very first was founded in New York, also in 1977. In Israel, there are three societies: Israel Genealogical Society (IGS, with five branches), Jewish Family Research Association Israel (JFRA Israel, with five branches) and the Galil Society (Tivon). IGS provides primarily Hebrew programming, while JFRA Israel is primarily English. There is a Hebrew genealogy forum as well as JFRA Israel's English-language discussion list, with many international members.
Each year, Jewish Genealogy Month is celebrated worldwide during Nissan, this year March 20-April 18. Societies plan special meetings and beginners' workshops are organized.
Online Jewish genealogy classes (and many other specialized and general subjects) are available at GenClass, which provides practical short-term low-cost classes including detailed curricula, online interactive class chats and bulletin boards.
International researchers, experts and archivists gather annually for a week of networking, intensive learning and a morning-to-night schedule of lectures, workshops, computer classes, major announcements on new resources and databases, a film festival, photographic exhibits and more. Last year's New York City event drew about 1,400 participants and offered 280 sessions covering 23 subject areas.
This year's edition, the 27th IAJGS International Conference on Jewish Genealogy, is set for July 15-20, 2007, in Salt Lake City, Utah. Some 170 sessions will cover a gamut of topics, and the location provides access to the world's largest genealogical library, the Family History Library with millions of rolls of microfilm and significant Jewish content. Participants will attend from around the world, including seven speakers from Israel. For all event details, go to www.slc2007.org.
Rottenberg will be this year's banquet keynote speaker. He'll look back on his book and the movement it launched, review where he was ahead of the game and where he was clueless, and offer predictions about the future of Jewish genealogy.
Happy hunting tips
Here are some simple steps to getting started:
How to begin
Write down whatever details you know (full name, nickname, Hebrew or Yiddish name); approximate dates of birth, marriage, death, immigration, occupation, education. Record partial names, if that's all you have. Include spouses of children and grandchildren. Add contact info for living relatives. For the deceased, enter burial information. Write dates clearly (20 Dec 1860) to avoid confusion about whether it is 20/12/60, 12/20/60, 1760 or 1960.
Although family stories have been embellished through the centuries, the kernel of truth may be discovered. If you can't find it, perhaps someone else can. Record stories regardless of how fanciful or impossible they seem; those clues may eventually prove important.
Do this before everyone is gone. Seniors are keepers of facts, traditions, names and places. If you have someone to ask, run, do not walk to interview him or her. For many families, this may be their only resource. Ask questions and record answers before it's too late. Remember the African proverb: "Whenever an old person dies, it is as if a library has burned down."
Locate photographs, documents, old letters, diaries, newspaper clippings or religious books (check for handwritten notes in the covers). Ask relatives what they may have. Make working copies of originals, and store originals safely.
Do you have boxes of unlabeled photos? Work on labeling them.
Do you have old documents in any language? Have you inherited a box of "stuff?"
Bring old pictures when interviewing seniors, to jog their memories, and ask to see their old photos. A picture is really worth 1,000 words.
Write, call or e-mail relatives to see if they can contribute information. Ask if they have photos of older relatives; ask for labeled copies. Ask if anyone else in the family has begun a genealogy project - someone may have already gathered information. Cooperate; share the work and the success!
Foods & phones
Ancestors' travels add favorites to the family culinary repertoire. Knowing your family prefers sweet or sour may indicate possible origins, as will unusual dishes. Check phone directories online, locally and internationally for uncommon names.
Talk about it
Speak to children, extended family, seniors at holiday gatherings. Share traditions and stories. Ask questions; discuss origins, travels, names. Videotape holiday dinners.
Consider keeping a journal when you start your project. Record your experiences and feelings on the discovery road. It may become part of someone's future genealogical records.
The International Association of Jewish Genealogical Societies (IAJGS, www.iajgs.org ) represents some 80 societies providing networking, interesting programs, expert help, reference libraries and beginners' workshops. Annual summer conferences offer intensive programs of all kinds by international experts on many topics. Each is an opportunity to learn and share. The 27th IAJGS International Conference on Jewish Genealogy www.slc2007.org is July 15-20, 2007, in Salt Lake City, Utah.
Compile charts from your discovered data; copy and share information, ask for corrections. Give charts as gifts (for a new baby, bnai mitzvah, wedding, etc.). When you discover new facts, share them with relatives around the world, so others may become involved. Even if relatives put it on a shelf, their children may find it and contact you. Inspire your children and grandchildren to help with a project, especially if you need help with today's technology.
Never give up!
New resources appear online almost every day. If you can't find information today, check again next week. Utilize JewishGen's databases and the various geographical and topical special interest groups (SIGs), become a member of for-fee sites such as www.ancestry.com, which often promotes "special offers" such as free trial periods or price reductions.
â€¢ JewishGen http://www.jewishgen.org
â€¢ 27th IAJGS International Conference on Jewish Genealogy, http://www.slc2007.org
â€¢ JFRA Israel, http://www.genealogy.org.il , or contact president Ingrid Rockberger [email protected] To join the discussion group, email Micha Reisel, [email protected].
â€¢ Israel Genealogical Society, http://www.isragen.org.il
â€¢ Tracing The Tribe - The Jewish Genealogy Blog, http://tracingthetribe.blogspot.com
â€¢ GenClass - Online Genealogy Classes: http://www.genclass.com
Dardashti wrote the "It's All Relative" column for Metro from 1999-2005. Past president of JFRA Israel, she writes Tracing the Tribe - The Jewish Genealogy Blog for JTA, teaches online Jewish genealogy and speaks in Israel and abroad. Do you have research questions or a success story to share? E-mail her at [email protected]