Focusing on family history at the holiday table

The holiday season is an ideal time to share roots and traditions.

The holiday season is an ideal time to share roots and traditions, and to begin a family history project, adding lasting links to the chain of Jewish identity and continuity. At a family gathering in Israel, Ingrid Rockberger heard a relative say that an American cousin had visited family in Sweden. Something clicked, as she vaguely recalled meeting some Swedish cousins in London, as a young child, some 50 years ago. This was the catalyst for a family reunion reuniting the Israeli, British and Swedish branches. Decades ago, my aunt in Florida said, quite offhandedly, that her grandfather repeatedly claimed that "Talalay was our name when we left Spain." She added that no one believed it, and most laughed at the idea of our Ashkenazi, Yiddish-speaking family having such origins. Decades went by before I began to search, but I never forgot her comment. Mogilev, Belarus, has been the focus of my search — from there we immigrated to America and elsewhere. I've located far-flung branches in several countries. My quest for a Sephardi connection continued, and I discovered a number of Sephardi-named families in the city, adding to the possibility. In 2004, a Spanish researcher discovered a 1353 archival document, signed by a kosher winemaker with our rare name. In October, I'll return to Barcelona to continue the search in several archives. While memories fade and older generations pass, writings and images survive, preserving family lore. Make sure to share these with extended family, and include copies as gifts for new babies, bar/bat mitzvah and weddings. In June 2005, genealogy sites received 11 million hits, and that marketing survey didn't even include JewishGen. According to, the world's largest genealogy Web site, a recent poll indicated that 73 percent of Americans are interested in their roots. Susan King, head of, the largest Jewish genealogical Web site, recently announced the Web site, which receives millions of hits, counts some 160,000 subscribers from around the world, joined by some 5,000 new people monthly. A proliferation of specialized books, online Jewish genealogy classes and special projects have inspired and assisted researchers in preserving family history. Even without spending a lot of time on the Web, there's a lot you can do during the holiday season to pique interest among genealogy during the High Holidays: Share your family's history at holiday gatherings this year, transmit family stories to the younger generations. Discuss when, why and how immigrant ancestors left the Old Country, whether that was Eastern Europe, North Africa or elsewhere. Who stayed behind and why? Did they choose to settle in certain cities because cousins were already there? Was the family name changed in America? Do you know the original name, and the town they came from? Holiday gatherings provide opportunities to transmit the past and preserve it for future generations. Here are some suggestions: Record family elders as they sing traditional melodies, discuss their life experiences or relate stories told by their own grandparents. Encourage youngsters to interview grandparents about their lives; record those sessions. Order kipot for holiday get-togethers, suitably inscribed, to commemorate the event. Discuss your family's naming patterns. Did a famous scholar ancestor account for a name appearing frequently in each generation? For a fascinating intergenerational activity, look at old family photos and ask guests to bring their own photos to share. Pull out those dusty old shoeboxes of unlabeled pictures stuck on the top shelf of a closet. Do guests recognize anyone in those images, know their names or the relationship? Protect old photos by placing them in archival poly protectors (sold by the box at most large office supply stores), or use copies, storing the originals safely away from sticky fingers of overenthusiastic guests. Make each holiday a memorable family event with a group photo. Label each with the date, place and guests' names; send a copy to each guest. A video of the festivities adds an additional dimension. Keep a holiday record book, list guests' names, the menu, and add each event's labeled group photo. Many families have done this for years, and it is delightful to see toddlers grow into adults with their own babies. All Jewish holidays revolve around food — or the lack of it — so talk about family culinary traditions that may provide hints of family origins. Peppery or sweet kugel, gefilte fish with whitefish only or other varieties provide Ashkenazi hints, while many Sephardi dishes offer community-specific variations. Preserve family favorites by sharing copies of holiday delights. When you invite your holiday guests, send them simple family sheets to complete and return. Prepare a family tree chart from this information and distribute it at your gathering. Download simple charts from Perhaps someone will catch the genealogy bug and begin to work seriously on gathering family information. For information on all aspects of Jewish genealogy, go to, the award-winning site for the field, for information and record databases that grow daily. For books on Jewish genealogy, go to Avotaynu publishes many of the essential reference books used by enthusiasts, as well as Avotaynu: The International Journal of Jewish Genealogy. Join a local Jewish genealogical society for assistance. There are some 80 international societies. For locations and contact information, go to, the Web site of the International Association of Jewish Genealogy Societies. Plan to attend the 26th IAJGS International Conference on Jewish Genealogy, or, set for Aug. 13-18, 2006, in New York City, hosted by the New York Jewish Genealogy Society, which anticipates some 2,000 researchers and international experts from around the world.