A Report From the Jewish Genealogists’ Summer Camp

The Author of ‘The Family’ Heads to Utah

They Are Family: Researching his genealogy for his book, ‘The Family,’ David Laskin learned of his Vilna ancestors, seen here circa 1933.
Courtesy of david laskin
They Are Family: Researching his genealogy for his book, ‘The Family,’ David Laskin learned of his Vilna ancestors, seen here circa 1933.

By David Laskin

Published August 25, 2014.

As a latecomer and a relative newbie in Jewish genealogy, I have to admit I was a little apprehensive this July as I walked into the lobby of the Hilton Salt Lake City Center where the International Association of Jewish Genealogical Societies was holding its 34th annual conference. This was the tribe’s gathering of the tribes, the big powwow for the umbrella organization that oversees 74 Jewish genealogical groups around the world.

Though I had devoted a good part of the last three years to researching and telling my own family’s story, I really had no idea what to expect from a Jewish genealogical conference. Banks of computers occupied round the clock by googly-eyed family seekers? Tips on deciphering Hebrew headstones? A road map for navigating the labyrinth of JewishGen? Lively discussion and debate on Jewish history, the crisis in Gaza, the Ashkenazi-Sephardi divide? Passion, obsession, frustration, jubilation?

I found all of the above at the IAJGS conference — along with a hearty welcome. “Generosity is at the heart of this enterprise,” Warren Blatt, managing director of JewishGen, told me. “Sharing is essential to JewishGen and the whole Jewish genealogical community.” Based on four and a half action-packed days in Salt Lake City, I can add my heartfelt “amen.” What really motivates Jewish genealogists, like all genealogists, is the burning desire to discover as much as they can about as many ancestors as possible. But the IAJGS conference made it abundantly clear that in the pursuit of their ancestors, Jewish genealogists train their laser-like research skills on every aspect of our people’s culture and history.

Jewish genealogy starts with great-grandmother Chana from Chelm and ends with a sense of radiant awe at the diversity, tenacity, global dispersion and ingenuity of the people of the book (though these days the book is more likely to be a tablet, laptop, cell phone or, when all else fails, roll of microfilm).

My conference got off to an auspicious start. At the airport in Salt Lake City (chosen as the conference location because of the huge Family History Library run by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, located just a couple of blocks from the hotel), I ran into an acquaintance from Seattle’s Yiddish Group and we shared a van to the hotel. In the lobby, I bumped into my second cousin’s wife’s first cousin (we genealogists have these things sorted out). Connecting and networking with near and distant kin and friends old and new, I discovered, was a big part of the attraction of the conference for many participants.

“These conferences are like summer camp for genealogists — or like going to one of those Jewish summer resorts where the same families return year after year,” Pamela Weisberger, a Los Angeles-based professional genealogist and president of Gesher Galicia and program chair of the Jewish Genealogical Society of Los Angeles, told me later. By the end of my four days at the weeklong conference, I definitely felt like a member of this extended family — a kind of doddering uncle on whom the rest of the mishpokhe smiled with benevolent toleration.

Though this was one of the smaller recent conferences — co-chair Ken Bravo estimated attendance at 500 to 600 (with an additional 250 streaming the conference through their home computers), about half of the attendance at last year’s Boston conference — it was more focused thematically than past gatherings. To mark the centennial of the start of World War I, several presenters examined the Jewish experience of the war. (Full disclosure: I delivered the conference keynote address, drawing on research I did for my two recent books, “The Family: A Journey into the Heart of the 20th Century” and “The Long Way Home: An American Journey From Ellis Island to the Great War,” to explore how the war marked the great divide between Jewish families in Europe and the United States).

In the meeting area outside the lecture halls there was a display of posters and photos of Jews who fought on all sides of the Great War, and scores of other stories were gathered in a spiral-bound book that I paged through between sessions. Particularly moving was an account written by Robert Wagner of family member Matthew Eichwald who fought with the 32nd Division of the American Expeditionary Forces, and of Matthew’s first cousins Wilhelm and Julius Eichwald who fought for the Germany Army. Wilhelm was killed at Verdun in 1917; 20 years later Julius fled Nazi persecution and found refuge in the U.S. Despite their family’s loyal service to Germany in the Great War, relatives who remained in Berlin were murdered at Chelmno.

So far as I know I have no Sephardic blood (another disclosure: I have never had my DNA tested despite the fact that this is the cutting edge of genealogy today), but I’ve recently become fascinated by Sephardic culture and history, particularly the expulsion of Sephardic Jews from Spain and Portugal during the Inquisition. Some of the most fascinating, and heated, talks at the conference dealt with the subject of crypto-Jews and conversos who had kept their Jewish heritage alive but hidden for hundreds of years.

I found the panel discussion on crypto-Judaic studies with Schelly Talalay Dardashti, Genie Milgrom, Bennett Greenspan and Art Benveniste absolutely riveting. Dardashti, a journalist and genealogist (she has traced her family to Spain, Iran and Belarus), and host of the popular Facebook group Tracing the Tribe, talked about how crypto-Jews lit candles every night of the week so that Shabbat candles would not look suspicious. She advises Sephardic Jews who want to trace their ancestors to skip JewishGen (“It is really Ashkenazi-centric,” she says) and instead click into sites like www.sephardim.com and www.sephardicgen.com run by renowned Sephardic researcher Jeffrey S. Malka.

Genie Milgrom, born in Cuba and raised strictly Catholic in Miami, became something of a genealogical rock star after she traced back 22 generations of crypto-Jewish grandmothers to prove before a beit din (rabbinical court) in Jerusalem that she was in fact a Jew. Milgrom described her long and expensive genealogical saga as “laden with fear”: “What if I found out in the end that I wasn’t Jewish? Even after my discoveries, I knew I’d have to stand in front of the beards and hats. What if I couldn’t justify my evidence?” After 10 years of research, countless brick walls (genealogical speak for dead ends and cold trails), and many journeys to her family’s village in Spain, Milgrom made the critical breakthrough and established an unbroken line going back to 1480. “I found the synagogue where my ancestors prayed for 500 years,” said Milgrom, who has published two books about her quest. “I was able to come back from the ashes.”

Milgrom was lucky not only in tracing her Jewish roots but also in winning acceptance from the rabbinical court. As her co-panelist Bennett Greenspan, a pioneer in genetic genealogy and founder of Family Tree DNA, pointed out, many crypto-Jews are being turned away by Ashkenazi rabbis and congregations. “As Ashkenazis, we are doing a terrible job at failing to welcome these crypto-Jews back into our communities,” Greenspan said. “I am ashamed of the way Hispanic Jews, after enduring 500 years of misery, are treated when they come to our synagogues.”

Milgrom told me after the panel that she receives heart-wrenching emails every night from converso descendants who know they are Jewish but can’t find acceptance in Jewish congregations. “We need to reach out to these people. I am here to tell the stories of many who have come back after 500 years.”

On the second afternoon I sat with Binyamin Lewis, a student at Yeshiva University in New York and, at 22, the youngest person (by far) in attendance. Lewis told me that what sparked his interest in genealogy was a claim that his grandfather made at every family gathering of direct descent from the famous hasidic sage known as the Berdichever Rebbe. “My grandfather challenged me to prove or disprove this,” said Lewis, “and I started researching and from there it went out of control and took over my life.”

Earlier this year, Lewis found a public outlet for his genealogical passion when he and a friend started Y.U.’s Family Discovery Club. “We spread the word that there might be free pizza at the first meeting, and 90 students showed up,” Lewis told me. “Ninety percent of them had no prior experience with genealogy. The challenge is to make genealogy accessible to my generation where everyone’s attention span is about 5 minutes.”

Lewis spoke for many of us when he pointed to two different but linked goals at the heart of his genealogical passion: “One aspect is the puzzle — the excitement of finding all the pieces of your family tree. The other is to tie my family into Jewish history. We talk about the Jewish experience — but my family and all of our families created that experience. At Yeshiva’s Family Discovery Club, we hook them with the excitement of the puzzle, but then they start to see the brilliance of Jewish history.”

By chance, Lewis and I discovered that we share a fascination with the renowned Volozhin Yeshiva (still standing in present-day Belarus). For me, the fascination has its roots in genealogy since my mother’s family originated in Volozhin and my male ancestors were bokherim at the school. For Lewis, the draw was both genealogical and academic: While he was in Israel recently, he traced the genealogy of some of the rabbinic dynasties, including that of the late Rabbi Joseph Ber Soloveitchik, a long-time scholar at Y.U. (and the mentor of Lewis’s grandfather, Rabbi Herbert W. Bomzer, himself a professor at Y.U.) who traced his ancestry back to Chaim Volozhiner, the founder of the Volozhin Yeshiva and a prize student of the Gaon of Vilna. Having Volozhin in common with a bright, personable Y.U. student gave me a sense of the deep spreading tentacles of Jewish history.

Volozhin also came up in a brief conversation I had with Michael Tobias, an affable Scot from Glasgow who is in charge of all the searchable databases on JewishGen. Back in 2007, Tobias and a couple of genealogical colleagues succeeded in reuniting two descendants of Chaim Volozhiner — first cousins Moniek Garber and Moshe Porat-Perelman — who had last seen each other in 1940 and believed the other had perished in the Shoah. Tobias says proudly, “A series of remarkable coincidences — the kind that we see happening so often on JewishGen! — led to the two cousins finding each other. It took me just 12 hours to re-unite them, and several months later, they had a joyous reunion in Israel.”

I was glad to see that JewishGen had a considerable presence at the conference. As anyone who has dipped a toe into Jewish genealogy is well aware, JewishGen is an incredibly deep and wide clearinghouse on all matters relating to Jewish family history. What few researchers, myself included, realize is that this vast resource has a grand total of three paid staffers: Tobias from Glasgow, who is vice president of programming; managing director Warren Blatt, who lives and works in Simi Valley, California; and the 31-year-old Avraham Groll, who mans the New York office as business manager.

“We are proof that offices really can operate remotely,” Blatt told me over lunch halfway through the conference. “The three of us very rarely see each other. Our volunteers are also far-flung. The Yizkor [memory] Book project is run by a volunteer who lives in a kibbutz near the Lebanese border, our discussion group moderator lives in Australia, and the person who manages KehilaLinks [a part of the site where anyone can post a web page commemorating their Jewish community] lives in Winnipeg.”

Author and lecturer Gary Mokotoff, the founder and publisher of the Jewish genealogical quarterly Avotaynu, a member of the JewishGen board of governors, and an all-around makher in the Jewish genealogical world, joined us at lunch. Together he and Blatt mused about how and why Jewish genealogy is exploding today. “People at archives like Yad Vashem used to consider genealogists old ladies in tennis shoes,” said Mokotoff. “But they have been impressed with our work on indexing documents. Now they are lining up to work with us.” Blatt adds that JewishGen really began to take off in 1996. “We have seen a straight up-graph since then. Of course the Internet has made genealogical research much easier — it used to cost a lot and travel to Eastern Europe was either prohibitive or impossible. Now records are increasingly available online.”

Beyond the mechanics of doing research, Blatt points to a generational factor that has spurred the field’s explosive growth: “The children of our Eastern European immigrant ancestors were not into genealogy — they were not interested in their parents with funny accents, they were looking forward, they wanted to Americanize. The ones who are searching for their roots today are the grandchildren of immigrants and the second generation of Holocaust survivors.” This certainly rings true in my own family: My mother, the daughter of immigrants and a generation removed from cousins who perished in the Shoah, has never had the slightest interest in genealogy. It has fallen to me and my cousins in Israel to find the stories that I tell in my book “The Family” about the three branches of my mother’s family — American, Israeli and European, the last destroyed by the Nazis.

I was amused by Gary Mokotoff’s mention of the stereotype of the genealogist as a little old lady in tennis shoes because the people at the conference, though many were older women and most wore some sort of tennis shoes, struck me as the most focused, curious, incisive and technologically adept people I had ever met. These folks are research wizards! If you’ve got something to hide, you probably don’t want a genealogist poking around your past.

Medical writer and professional genealogist Jane Neff Rollins gave a spellbinding talk about how to deal with sensitive and scandalous discoveries. In the course of researching her family history, Rollins has ferreted out a raft of secrets and transgressions that relatives have hidden over the years including instances of bigamy, theft, spousal abuse, suicide, homosexuality and conversion. As more and more family dirt surfaced, Rollins found herself facing the fraught ethical question of what to reveal.

Her bottom line is that she feels she has a responsibility to reveal heritable physical and mental traits, and has no qualms about telling embarrassing secrets when all the people involved are dead. “We genealogists can cause embarrassment,” says Rollins, “but keeping secrets is not good for you. Yes, I have gotten flak from family members — but ultimately I feel I am serving the greater truth.”

I was beginning to think that there was nothing that a dogged genealogical researcher could not uncover, and my final encounter of the conference only reinforced that conclusion. E. Randol Schoenberg — Randy to his friends — is yet another sterling example of how the genealogy bug can lead a person down strange and unexpected paths. Schoenberg, a Los Angeles lawyer and a grandson of the celebrated Viennese composer Arnold Schoenberg, grew up hearing his mother’s dear friend Maria Altmann tell of the masterpieces by the Austrian artist Gustav Klimt that the Nazis stole from her. In 2004, after a protracted legal battle, Schoenberg succeeded in restoring these paintings, valued at $330 million, to Altmann. His compensation for winning the case was reportedly $120 million, a portion of which he donated to the Los Angeles Museum of the Holocaust.

Schoenberg, whom the Los Angeles Times described as “kinetic, restless and intense, with the boundless snap of a Spencer Tracy character,” grew animated as he told me the story. He grew even more animated when he described the soon-to-be-released major motion picture based on the case called “The Woman in Gold,” in which he is portrayed by heartthrob Ryan Reynolds.

But Schoenberg lit up to an even higher wattage when he segued from looted art to his passion, indeed obsession with Geni, the social networking genealogy site owned by the Israeli-based company MyHeritage. “I got addicted to genealogy really early,” he told me, “and by the age of 10, I had a 12-foot-long family tree going back to the 18th century.” Schoenberg heard about Geni when he was lecturing about the Klimt case a few years ago, and it was love at first click. “On Geni the drops of rain that each of us represents merge into an ocean,” he told me excitedly. “The site connects 78 million profiles, with 7 million more added each year.”

Schoenberg assured me that Geni would tell us exactly how the two of us were related — that we were related was in his opinion foregone — and he clicked into the site in the hotel lobby. Sure enough, there I was, a single drop of rain with no surrounding droplets, let alone a puddle of kin. But Schoenberg quickly fixed that and now I have a sprouting and budding family tree that any minute now will connect with his tree and those of Gary Mokotoff and Warren Blatt and Chaim the Volozhiner and Natalie Portman and Albert Einstein and Moses Maimonides and you as well, dear reader. Because if there’s one thing I took away from the 34th annual IAJGS conference, it is the simple but extraordinary fact that as Jews, indeed as humans, we truly are all related.

David Laskin is the author of “The Family: A Journey into the Heart of the 20th Century,” due out in paperback this September.



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