'All Jews are related, it’s just a question of figuring out how'

Genealogy has grown into a huge online business that generates billions of dollars, and Jews are not immune.

By SHULA KOPF
August 15, 2015 06:35
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A medallion in the shape of the Star of David. (photo credit: REUTERS)

 
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E. Randol Schoenberg,, a California attorney, was bitten by the genealogy bug in third grade when he was assigned to do a family tree ‒ a piece of cake given that both his grandfathers were famous Austrian-Jewish composers. His paternal grandfather was Arnold Schoenberg and his maternal, Eric Zeisl.

“In every family there is always one person who becomes the torchbearer and keeper of the records, and I got it early,” says Schoenberg, famous for forcing the Austrian government to repatriate valuable paintings looted during the Holocaust. One of the works, the Gustav Klimt portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer I, is the subject of a major motion picture, “Woman in Gold”, starring Helen Mirren and Ryan Reynolds.

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“I have been crazy about genealogy since I was a kid,” says Schoenberg who doesn’t try to hide his almost childlike enthusiasm for the subject. “Once bitten, this can become a lifelong passion.”

Schoenberg was one of more than 1,000 Jewish genealogy enthusiasts from all over the world who converged in Jerusalem for a week in July for the 35th annual conference of the International Association of Jewish Genealogical Societies.

Mostly an older crowd, they attended lectures with intriguing titles such as “Is a rabbi hiding in your family tree,” and “Who were the European Jewish refugees in Casablanca during WWII and how did they get there?”
They met experts, searched rare databases and collaborated in some 30 special interest groups focusing on specific towns. Mostly, they schmoozed in the Ramada Hotel lobby about that day’s prize ‒ a third cousin once removed they discovered, or an ancestor’s name found on a ship manifest.


E. Randol Schoenberg (Photo: LARRY BUSACCA / AFP)

Schoenberg is intrigued by the idea that all Jews are related; it’s just a question of figuring out how.



“People in these conferences are interested in themselves and their particular family history, but if you take a step back we are all connected to everyone,” he tells The Jerusalem Report . “For Jews it’s automatic. Everyone is related by marriage, cousin to cousin to cousin. This turns out to be true regardless of where you are from – Sephardi, Ashkenazi, Persian, Mizrahi, Yemeni, Italian ‒ it doesn’t matter. By now, all Jews in the world are very closely related or connected to one another.”

A handful of genealogical websites take a collaborative crowdsourced approach where a family tree merges with other trees that have cousins in common. After several such mergers, one can have hundreds if not thousands of cousins by blood or marriage. Schoenberg is a curator for one such site ‒ the California-based Geni.com, which has what it calls the World Family Tree, with about 75 million relatives in more than 160 countries and all seven continents, including Antarctica.

Schoenberg pulls out his laptop and tries to link a reporter to this huge family tree, but after one attempt, and for lack of time, he comes up short. Not to worry. Schoenberg proved his point last year when he mapped out the family trees of all 52 children in his son’s 5th grade class at the Sinai Akiba Academy in Los Angeles. About half the class was of Iranian heritage, and the rest, a mixture of Ashkenazi and Mizrahi roots. He was able to connect all of them into one large family tree.

“Every jewish family is connected to every other Jewish family,” he contends.

Genealogy has become one of the most popular hobbies in the US, second only to gardening. There is even a word for ob - session with ancestry, progonoplexia, and Jews are not immune. They seek to mend the holes in the family tapestry caused by the willful amnesia of their immigrant forebears and to search for branches of the family tree broken off and destroyed during the Holocaust.

“There is a fascination to rescue what was lost during the war and to make connections,” Daniel Horowitz tells The Report. He is chief genealogist at MyHeritage.Com, an Israeli genealogy website founded in 2003 that has since grown exponentially to 1.6 billion profiles uploaded by 80 million users via the company’s cutting-edge tech tools.

Today, there is no need to leaf through musty record books and trudge through cemeteries. Digital technology has revolutionized the way large amounts of information are retrieved, so genealogy can be done from home.

Historically the preserve of the aristocracy, genealogy has been democratized and has grown into a huge online business that generates billions of dollars. Genealogy websites are the second most visited after pornography. Several websites cater specifically to Jews, the most popular being the non-profit JewishGen.org, which began in 1987 as an online bulletin board and has grown to more than 20 million records collected by more than 700 volunteers. A recent innovation is the appearance of several commercial genetic testing companies that can measure with just a spit of saliva a person’s ethnic makeup and genetic proximity to distant relatives.

Several TV shows with segments featuring Jewish celebrities have also popularized it among Jews. In PBS’s “Finding Your Roots,” US singer-songwriter Carole King discovered that her Russian grandmother barely escaped a pogrom that killed 32 neighbors. Renowned American defense attorney Alan Dershowitz learned that his grandfather managed to get 28 relatives out of Czechoslovakia in 1939 by guaranteeing them employment in the basement synagogue he ran in Brooklyn.

In another TV program, “Who Do You Think You Are?” US actress Gwyneth Paltrow heard for the first time that her paternal ancestor, Simcha Paltrovich, was a Polish rabbi and author of a religious work “Keter Tzvi” and that his father, Tzvi Hirsh, was also a prominent rabbi and kabbalist.

Despite a traditional interest in genealogy ‒ witness all the “begets” in Genesis and the importance of yichus (lineage) in match - making ‒ Jews were relatively late into the game in modern times, according to Lea Haber Gedalia, a professional genealogist in Israel and co-chair of programming for the conference.

“We believed until about 20 years ago that nothing survived in the Holocaust,” she tells The Report. “We started late compared to other groups whose records were not disturbed. It wasn’t until we discovered the Mormon databases that Jewish genealogy started to take off.”

Jewish genealogy poses a unique set of challenges, especially in Eastern Europe where shifting borders, countless wars and the cataclysmic effects of the Holocaust make written records difficult to track. 

French people, for example, can easily go back 17 generations and Norwegians even 30 generations, according to Horowitz.

“The hardest is the surname situation,” says W. Todd Knowles, one of several Mormons who attended the conference. “Most Eastern European Ashkenazi Jews didn’t have a surname before the 1820s and it makes it more difficult to trace back further,” he points out to The Report.

Nobody takes genealogy more seriously than the Mormons. Knowles is the head of the Jewish division in the largest single ar - chive of the human race. With birth, marriage and death records of some four billion people, the archive is secured in a vault excavated 600 feet through solid granite into a mountain southeast of Salt Lake City, Utah, protected by doors built to withstand a nuclear blast.

Since 1999, the Mormon Church has been digitizing the 2.5 million rolls of microfilms with data from 190 countries making the records available online. The Church’s reason for collecting the data is to retroactively baptize persons as Mormons in the afterlife. This practice has been controversial, especially when the church “baptized” Jewish Holocaust victims, including Anne Frank. The Church has pledged to stop this practice.

Knowles was appointed to head the Jewish records division because of his experience researching his own Jewish ancestor who left Poland in 1851. “The family had sent him out to see the world and the trip took him to New York, San Francisco and eventually he ended up in Utah, which is where I ended up,” he says. Despite the most prodigious resources in the world at his disposal, it took Knowles 40 years to find his Jewish ancestor’s birth records, including records for six younger sisters.

“It’s sheer joy,” he says. “That’s how it starts with everyone. People try to find their family. How can you truly know yourself unless you find out who your people were, what they accomplished and what they went through?”

Another problem unique to Jewish genealogy is the constant movement of both Jews and borders. “Last month, I had a gentleman who came to do research in the library who had his grandfather’s birth, marriage and death records. All three showed the same address, but each was in a different country due to border changes,” he says. Illustrating the same point, Mark Halpern, who has been researching his Polish roots since 1996, notes: “My zeide was born in Austria, lived in Poland, was buried in Ukraine but had never left Tarnopol.”

Genealogy is something you do for life, says Gilad Japhet, CEO and founder of MyHeritage.com. “You can always research further back in time, and as you discover more ancestors, you can go forward in time to find their descendants. It is a never ending quest,” he informs The Report.

In a computer room at the Ramada Hotel set up for the conference, dozens of people are sleuthing online in rare databases. Chana Gordon is looking at a 1939 Columbus, Ohio, phonebook for a record of her grandfather. Earlier, she found the exact date her family arrived in the US from Vilna, a major breakthrough given that she began her adventure in genealogy only three days ago. “I feel connected to my family in a way I never knew before,” she says.

Daniel Friedman, a retired oral surgeon from Seattle, quips that he collects antique toys and dead relatives, but on a more serious side he notes with visible emotion that he had just found a record of his grandmother’s relatives in a database of World War II Romanian slave labor camps. “I’m reading it now for the first time,” he says.

Sydney Corcos of Jerusalem happened upon a family tree of an Italian family with the same surname. His family hails from Morocco but he hopes to find a connection to the Italian family, perhaps going back to the time of the expulsion from Spain.

“Being a genealogist is like being a detective except that you are working backwards in time,” notes Haber Gedalia. “It’s a puzzle and you have to be resourceful and use imagination. Names and towns have changed, information from relatives is not always correct and sometimes there are family secrets.”

Is there a typical profile of people who pursue genealogy?

It is usually a person with a healthy dose of curiosity, someone whose children have already left home and, therefore, has time to pursue the hobby, say the experts. Sometimes the quest is to find illustrious ancestors, and sometimes it begins when an older relative dies and it’s then too late to ask questions. In an increasingly fragmented world of families losing touch across time zones, knowing one’s roots, the long line of people that preceded you, can provide an anchor.

“There is a stage in life where you need a framework for your identity,” says Haber Gedalia. “To feel that I am part of this heritage, gives me the satisfaction of knowing that I am part of something bigger than myself.”

If Leo Tolstoy said that all happy families are alike and that each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way, it could be said that the story of each Jewish family is an epic tale of migrations, deprivation and survival against the odds.

“I see all these people here at the conference and if I could speak with each one, I could fill an encyclopedia of amazing stories,” says Haber Gedalia. “Even the most prosaic story is part of a chain extending back in time and tells a fragment of the story of the Jewish people.”


A Mitzva Mentality

Myheritage.com is a global company with a distinctly Jewish twist.
G ilad Japhet, an Israeli hi-tech entrepreneur, took six months off after a successful stint in Silicon Valley to work on his family tree, a hobby that had intrigued him since age 13. “I singled it out as the most important and interesting thing I would like to explore,” he says during an interview with The Jerusaelm Report following his lecture at the recent 35th annual Jewish genealogy conference in Jerusalem.

Frustrated by the lack of quality software tools available on the existing genealogy websites, Japhet, a software developer, decided to create his own. The result is MyHeritage.com, an Israeli company founded in 2003 in Japhet’s living room that he says generates tens of millions of dollars a year. The company has grown exponentially with 1.6 billion profiles, supported in 42 languages, that have been uploaded by 80 million users. The veteran Utah-based competitor, Ancestry.com, around for more than 30 years with a market cap of over $1 billion, supports only five languages.

Raising funds for a genealogy website when web applications were far trendier, was difficult, says Japhet who invested his own money and had to mortgage his home. A true genealogist, he attributes his risk-taking personality to his four grandparents ‒ Zionist pioneers who came to Israel from Eastern Europe between 1902 and 1925.

“I am 100 percent these grandparents, who were all idealistic dreamers and risk takers,” he says. MyHeritage.com is a global company with a distinctly Jewish twist. “We have a mitzva mentality,” says Japhet.

Israel will be the first country in the world to have all its gravestones photographed and indexed with GPS coordinates, including the smaller cemeteries in kibbutzim and moshavim, says Japhet who personally photographed 5,000 headstones to inspire his employees. The project will be finished by 2017 and the plan is to expand to Jewish cemeteries around the world.

There are lots of opportunities to use family history data to fix old wrongs, says Japhet. Three years ago he put together a team of five employees with the mission to locate heirs of Holocaust victims whose names were listed as owners of property confiscated by the Nazis.

He had seen a newspaper article about it and decided to act. There was a deadline of December 2014 ‒ any unclaimed property after that date would be forfeit. It was a longshot since experts had been trying to locate heirs for years. Japhet took the list, and using the company’s database, managed to locate 150 heirs. In an email he sent them, Japhet wrote that the company was doing this as a mitzva.

Just recently the company received an email from a Greek woman whose grandmother was from the small island of Erikoussa, just north of Corfu, population about 500. While growing up, the woman had heard the story of how the islanders had risked their lives during World War II to save a Jewish man, his three daughters and another little girl, all from Corfu. She had been curious to know if the story was true and spent nine years trying to track down the descendants of this family. The island elders knew only the Jewish family’s first names.

“I thought it would be a major mitzva because the people of Erikoussa never got any recognition for their bravery,” says Japhet. “Since I had only first names, I thought the chance of finding them was one in a thousand. Luckily, one of the girls was named Speranza, which in Ladino means “hope,” and I thought that perhaps she changed it to Hebrew ‒ Tikva. There were 500 females with the name Tikva who had come to Israel from Greece.”

One of the sisters was named Nina. Japhet searched through phone books on his database and found a Tikva and a Nina who had lived on the same street in Tel Aviv. In June, Japhet and some 200 people arrived in Erikoussa for a ceremony to honor the islanders. Descendants of the girls whose lives were saved came from Israel and the US. Also attending were members of the Corfu Jewish community and American Greek Jews who heard about the story.

“We called all the old people of Erikoussa ‒ fragile, in their 80s, 90s ‒ to stand up and everybody applauded,” he says. Visibly moved, Japhet pulls out his cell phone and shows photos of the ceremony and a video of a tearful speech by one of the granddaughters.

“Nobody remembered this story. It was lost and we brought it back from oblivion,” says Japhet. “Yes, MyHeritage is a very good business and our investors are going to be happy, but we are doing good things, especially for Jewish people, and the story of Erikoussa is a remarkable example of that.”

This story first appeared in the Jerusalem Report. 

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