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What programs like “Finding Your Roots” miss — and how I tracked down my own family’s history

Downtime from COVID, with no real end in sight, has led to all manner of new hobbies — and obsessions — including digging deeper into one’s family history.

This had been a passion of mine even prior to the rising interest in ancestry that now is practically its own pandemic among my baby boomer peers. Many of us are fueled by a fear that if we don’t get that knowledge down for the record — be it as scraps of information or hours of taped oral history, or in my case, a memoir — whatever we know may be lost forever. The PBS series “Finding Your Roots” with Henry Louis Gates, Jr., is a reflection of this growing desire to know and preserve our personal histories. The show’s audience has surged from 2.5 million in its first season in 2012, to 16.6 million viewers last year; the eighth season began in January.

Gates does a good job tracing and highlighting nuggets hiding in the archives about his subjects’ ancestors (Larry David had a great-great grandfather who was a Confederate soldier, for example) and adding historical context about the political, social and economic conditions surrounding the information he unearths. But when stonewalled by holes in the narrative, “Finding Your Roots” often leaves the enigmas unexplored.

And the human dynamics — why Larry’s grandfather Leib Brandes, for example, never told his family that he had nine siblings who likely perished in the Holocaust — often remain unaddressed. Those are the types of questions I tried to answer in my recently published family-saga-turned-social-history, “Playing Detective with Family Lore.”

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The story traces the four branches of my family, which emerged from such totally different places and circumstances in Eastern Europe that together they provide a good overall picture of Jewish life there. It then explores the dynamics of the quantum leap made by my parents’ generation, as offspring of immigrant parents and children of the Depression, into the American mainstream.

As I dug in, I found myself facing a slew of unanswered questions:

What was really behind the breakdown in communication between the family of my mother, Pearl, which was plunged into poverty after her father’s untimely death in the flu epidemic of 1918, and their far wealthier relatives? Who was “David,” a friend of my parents’ killed in the Spanish Civil War, after whom I was named? Did my great-grandfather Jacob Reiter really forget about his four young kids still in Europe, as family lore held, when he married the widow Rosa Rabfogel to start a new family in New York?

One of only two existing pictures of Jacob Reiter (who considered photographs to be “graven images”) — taken at age 81, on the occasion of the birth of his first great-grandchild, in June 1941. Courtesy of Daniella Weiss Ashkenazy

To tackle these questions, I had to switch hats — from a daughter and granddaughter taking a nostalgic and often amusing trip down memory lane, to a journalist seeking a more complex truth.

I was born and raised in Washington, D.C., and made aliyah in 1968 at age 22. Nearly two decades later, as an unemployed mother of three living on a moshav, I started writing for Israeli newspapers including the Jerusalem Post and Davar.

I published my first book, about the Israeli army, in 1994. It took nearly three more decades to finish my second.

I mobilized my journalistic skills for my memoir project, sharing with readers the secrets (and the pitfalls) of Internet sleuthing and investigative reporting. How to secure multiple sources to confirm key facts. How to stitch seemingly unconnected snippets of information together to forge a more coherent whole that may contest or complicate a narrative. How to see significance in the subtext.

The author’s mother, Pearl Weiss, at 24. She had just returned from the beach when a friend asked if she wanted to “go up for a spin.” Courtesy of Daniella Weiss Ashkenazy

I used online sources such as community birth and death registries, census data, marriage licenses and World War I draft cards to do far more than construct a family tree. Those documents contained a cornucopia of alternative paths to pursue beyond the tools generally relied upon in popular genealogy literature.

Take, for instance, Jacob Reiter. His naturalization papers show he arrived in New York on Oct. 10, 1896. This turned out to be eight months before his brother-in-law Morris Sahn (whose existence I uncovered only because he was cited as a witness on his older brother’s marriage certificate) named the seventh of his nine children Rosey, in memory of Morris’s sister, Rosa Reiter.

Suddenly, I envisioned the window of time shortly after Rosa Reiter’s young children lost their mother: between October 1896 and May 1897. I had already known that Rosa, my great-grandmother, died in her sleep and was discovered in the morning by my grandmother, who was at the time a small child. Now I understood this tragedy happened very soon after Jacob set off for or arrived in America.

I had conducted a series of audiotaped interviews with my mother, Pearl Weiss, between 2000 and 2009. In one of those conversations, in 2004, she had described her mother and siblings as “four kids wandering around with no one to really take care of them,” although “there was an elderly grandfather in the shtetl who ran a saloon.” Pearl estimated the children’s plight lasted two years, but it turned out it was a full five until Jacob sent tickets to bring them to New York.

Dave Lipton, left —  in whose memory the author was named, with a close friend, Ben Katine, in Spain, July 4, 1938.

Dave Lipton, left — in whose memory the author was named, with a close friend, Ben Katine, in Spain, July 4, 1938. Courtesy of Daniella Weiss Ashkenazy

But Jacob Reiter had not “married and forgotten his children,” as family lore asserted. Those children boarded a boat for Ellis Island on July 9, 1902, four months after Jacob married Rosa Rabfogel on March 10, 1902. He had spent the previous years working dawn to dusk, barely eking out a living selling tomatoes from a pushcart on Pitt Street on the Lower East Side.

Family lore had it that Rosa Rabfogel treated Jacob’s children badly because she did not expect to be saddled with them.

My grandmother used to say: “You know Cinderella’s stepmother? She was good compared to mine.” But while family lore blamed this maltreatment on the idea that the second Rosa Reiter had been surprised to be saddled with the first’s offspring, the timeline created by the documents belies that. A widow with two children of her own, Rabfogel likely walked clear-eyed into this marriage of convenience, and her treatment of her stepchildren can only be chalked up to her own character.

In piecing the puzzle together, I found myself having plenty of Sherlock Holmes moments, including my discovery of what was really behind the breakdown in communication between my grandmother and her rich relatives.

I hope that makes our family story a worthy read, regardless of whether you are interested in investigating your own. Its portrayal of life in the Old Country — with quirky side excursions in the footnotes for those so inclined — is relevant for anyone among the majority of American Jews who trace their roots back to Eastern Europe.

Daniella Weiss Ashkenazy is a journalist living in Israel and the author of “Playing Detective with Family Lore,” a memoir she self-published in 2020.

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