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August 31. 2005
So you would like to research your family's Jewish roots
by - Ralph Bloch
Genealogy in general and Jewish genealogy in particular is a stimulating pursuit. It can bring you both pleasures and frustrations. It will likely cost you much time and possibly money. And, in the end, you may learn facts and meet people you rather wished you hadn't.
So why do it at all? Part of the human need to know about one's origins is probably related to ancestral worship. We can better cope with our own mortality if we understand ourselves as part of a continuous heritage chain, flowing from the past into the future. In contrast to the stationary extended families of old, we exist in highly mobile nuclear families with a very limited sense of geographical and historical continuity. In the case of North American Jewish families, this sense of disconnectedness has been further exacerbated by at least two major historical fractures: immigration and the Holocaust. Genealogical research is a tool to bridge these gaps to some extent.
As a Jewish genealogist in North-America you have to address a number of historical and practical hurdles:
So let us deal with one obstacle at a time. But first, let us get organised. What we need is a place, a bookshelf, a filing box or a drawer where we collect all the materials that could possibly be of use. At this stage, there is total chaos. You may have partial family trees sketched by uncle Moishe on the back of some greasy paper napkins. There is a collection of sepia photographs - some with little inscriptions on the back, some without. There might be bundles of old, faded letters tied with ribbons in various colours. And then there's this stack of old telegrams. You might have old photo albums, memorial books of communities long extinct.
- The immigration from Europe;
- The Holocaust;
- The aftermath of the Thirty-Year War;
- The many languages spoken in Europe (or other countries of origin);
- The unfamiliar historical handwriting (scripts) used by clerks in various countries and family members long dead;
- The confusing multitude of archives, databases, repositories and bureaucracies.
Now before we go any further, remember: time flies. There are opportunities today which may be lost tomorrow. Maybe your parents, or even better, some of your grandparents are still alive. Maybe you have a maiden great-aunt wasting away in some nursing home. What a wonderful opportunity to do oral history! Oral history is defined as the systematic collection of living people's testimony about their own experiences. This rich source of genealogical data is often overlooked in genealogical research.
You can find an excellent collection of sources on oral history in genealogical research at "Oral Histories - Interviewing Relatives and Collecting Oral History" on the "About Genealogy" web site.
In the next installment we will discuss how to document your research results.