UK: Genealogists are ‘creepy, boring’

Remember a few weeks ago when the New York Times television reviewer made disparaging remarks about genealogy and genealogists?

Today, the UK’s Times Online writer and author Sathnam Sanghera says, “I can’t think of a single revelation produced by a single genealogist that hasn’t made me think: meh.

[As a non-Brit, I’m assuming “meh” is either the sound a baby goat makes (having seen them up close and personal with many making “meh” noises as they nibble at your clothing) or an uninspired remark indicating “so what?” Yesterday at the supermarket cheese counter, looking for sheep feta (the closest we get to real Bulgarian panir here in Tel Aviv), I forgot the word for sheep and said “b-a-a-a.” A helpful woman on line informed me that Israeli sheep say “meh” not “b-a-a-a.” In any case, I pointed to the correct cheese! But I digress.]

A little later in the story, Sanghera pronounces:

Show me a genealogist and I’ll show you someone who is basically obsessed with proving that they come from royal, aristocratic or celebrity lineage. Creepy and boring.

His other gems included:

And before anyone points out the hypocrisy of a memoirist [see his website above]slagging off genealogy, life writing and genealogy are completely different. One being the equivalent of an interest in music, the other the equivalent of an interest in hi-fi equipment.

Though perhaps a better way of putting it is that genealogy is the academic equivalent of endlessly googling yourself. Aficionados like to say their pastime is a good way of learning about history, but it strikes me as a highly solipsistic and narcissistic way of doing so.

Don’t know what “solipsistic” means? Solipsism, a philosophical term, means (1) The theory that the self is the only thing that can be known and verified or (2) The theory or view that the self is the only reality.

[Tracing the Tribe prefers the opposite view. Each of us are made up of pieces of all our ancestors, recombined genetically, throughout time. Our ancestors and their lives are who we are today. As genealogists, we want to know who our ancestors are, regardless of where they came from, how they lived and in what ways their experiences and history have contributed to who we are today. But I digress again.]

Sanghera’s article came out of a point made by Ricky Gervais in a Times magazine interview over the weekend:

Namely: “I don’t see the point really.” In reference to Who Do You Think You Are?, the genealogy TV show, he continued: “Who cares who the **** you are? I love it when they cry when they find out their great-great-grandmother was a prostitute. Really? It’s all come flooding back now, hasn’t it? Oh, the terrible memories of 150 years ago.”

Sanghera said this was his reaction more or less when reading about the Arts and Humanities Research Council funding a major new research project to create the largest database of the UK’s family surnames which will apparently be “of enormous interest to home genealogists and family historians.”

Although Sanghera states that genealogy is one of the most popular hobbies on the planet, he just doesn’t get it. His own research on his Punjabi-origin family indicates that the males were all farmers.

You may want to read his opinion on the Ancestry announcement that Madonna and Ellen DeGeneres are distant cousins, and his linking of Rolling Stones’ Keith Richards with the librarian profession.

Read the complete story at the link above. There were only two comments there when I checked it, and readers may wish to add their own opinions.

Chris Dunham – The Genealogue – provided his own take on Sanghera here.

Megan Smolenyak Smolenyak wrote more about Ricky Gervais’ comments in her latest Huffington Post piece, and provided a link to Tracing the Tribe’s recent “Doing the Happy Dance” post.

Shanghai: Saving the stones

As is too often the case, Jewish gravestones are used for other purposes by people who live where Jewish populations no longer care for and maintain cemeteries.

Israeli journalist Dvir Bar-Gal, who arrived in Shanghai nine years ago, is the Jewish tombstone collector of the city, according to a story.

Scattered in cauliflower patches, or sunken, mud-covered, in riverbanks, or sometimes used as washing slabs by villagers around the city, are the gravestones of old Jewish settlers of Shanghai. During the Cultural Revolution, the gravestones were uprooted, smashed and scattered throughout the region. The cemeteries have long been paved over, with no recognition of the bodies buried underneath. The stones that remain are like historical islands, isolated and disconnected from their past.

For Israeli photo-journalist and documentary maker Dvir Bar-Gal, a first encounter with a headstone in a Shanghai antique store has become a decade-long quest to discover their origins. And what started as a journalistic project quickly turned into a personal mission. “I got more connected emotionally,” he says. “There’s a lot of energy involved every time we flip over the stones and read the mud-covered inscriptions.”

Bar-Gal’s quest, now called the Shanghai Jewish Memorial Project, has seen him journey to numerous rural villages around Shanghai. There, he’d find old tombstones in fields, along rivers, or used as construction blocks for pathways and walls. His plan is to discover and restore as many stones he can and then display them, as a shrine to this nearly lost aspect of Shanghai’s Jewish history.

Stones have been recovered by the Shanghai Jewish Memorial Project from bike path bridges, fields and riverbeds. Bar-Gal interviews local residents and tries to put the puzzle pieces together.

Bar-Gal says there may have been some 3,700 Jews buried in the city, but couldn’t find gravestones or cemeteries other than the pieces he discovers. He’s found some 85 stones over the past 10 years. He’s contacted families of the deceased and asked architects to design a permanent home.

A few years ago, American Lily Klebanoff Blake joined Bar-Gal and they went to the rural location where he found her grandmother’s stone in a riverbed.

“It was still covered in mud but I felt compelled to show my respect for my grandmother by washing the mud off the gravestone,” she says. “Touching the gravestone, I felt an uncanny connection to my grandmother, who died when I was four years old.”

The recovered stones remain in a few places: a storage space, a Buddhist cemetery and the journalist’s own gallery.

He has a network of people who let him know when stones are found. In March, a neighbor told him some stones were found in a western suburb and he found two new ones.

His inspiration comes from days like that, and he’s working on various projects: a documentary (not yet funded), a book about Shanghai’s Jewish history, and as a tour guide and photographer.

Yanhua Zhang, research director for a non-profit heritage conservation group, believes that a permanent home for the stones can help people trace their family history, and would raise awareness of the former Jewish ghetto.

Read the complete story at the link above.

Sephardim: The Portuguese story

Here is a new and fascinating book of great interest to Sephardim around the world. Unfortunately, it is currently available only in Hebrew.

Thanks to Ruth Almog for her Haaretz review of “Portuguese Jewry at the Stake: Studies on Jews and Crypto-Jews,” (Hebrew) edited by Yom Tov Assis and Moises Orfali (Magnes Press and the Dinur Center for Research in Jewish History, 259 pages, NIS 89).

In the preface to “Portuguese Jewry at the Stake,” Yom Tov Assis writes: “This is the first book in Hebrew that is dedicated exclusively to Portuguese Jewry, a subject that has been rather neglected by scholars in Israel. This book is designed to partly remedy the situation.”

This extremely interesting compilation of scholarly articles does indeed reveal new facets of an extinct Jewish community. That said, it is not by chance that the study of Portuguese Jewry has been neglected, but because Portugal’s Jews have in large part been lumped together with those of Spain, since the two countries, whose borders fluctuated throughout the Middle Ages, were both part of medieval Iberia.

There’s a short description of how Portuguese came to be. It developed in the 11th-12th centuries following encounters between Galician and Lusitanian languages, and influenced by Arabic. Historically, Moslems conquered much of Portugal in 713. It was reconquered at the end of the 9th century and only a century later did Portugal separate from Galicia. In the second half of the 12th century, Lisbon was conquered when Portuguese were assisted by troops on their way to the Second Crusade. The Moslems left, the Jews stayed. At the time, estimates are of only 35,000 people in the whole country.

The Jewish history of Portugal is short, some five centuries:

The first Portuguese king, Alfonso Henriques (1109-1185 ), encouraged Jews to settle in the areas he had conquered. By appointing a Jew, Yahya Ibn Yaish (also known as Yahia Ben Rabbi), as state treasurer, Alfonso paved the way for his successors to employ Jews in financial and administrative positions. Ibn Yaish was not only “chief rabbi,” but also the “chief cavalier.” The king’s heirs expanded the employment of Jews as administrators in the kingdom. So it was that during the reign of Portugal’s first five kings, the situation of the Jews was good and they lived in security. The problems began later, but even during the period surrounding the 1391 pogrom against the Jews of Spain, Portugal served as a haven for the Jews of Castile.

According to Assis, the well-organized community (alfama) lived in its own neighborhoods was headed by a chief rabbi, was recognized by the crown and protected by the king. Persecution came from the church. The Jewish population increased and after the 1492 Expulsion from Spain, some 120,000 of them went to Portugal.

The Jews were never expelled from Portugal in 1496. Manuel I wanted to marry the daughter of Ferdinand and Isabella, who demanded he first get rid of his Jews. He didn’t want to lose them, but announced a plan for their departure. When the Jews arrived to board the ships, priests demanded they convert, and no one was allowed to leave. Thus baptised, the king could claim there were no Jews in his country and he could marry the princess.

Says Assis, most of the Jews became Conversos – converted under force – and the Jewish percentage there was the highest in Europe. Many of them succeeded in leaving and reaching other safe geographic destinations. There are the Conversos of Belmonte, whose matriarchal society has kept Judaism alive since the Inquisition.

Articles include:

— Historian Elvira Azevedo Mea’s “New Christian Women and the Inquisition” is based on her study of Inquisition files, which suggest that almost until the 20th century, it was the women in New Christian families who were responsible for passing on Jewish traditions.

— Eric Lawee writes about philosopher and financier Isaac Abarbanel (1437-1508 ), during his Portuguese years.

— Late historian Elias Lipiner deals with Jewish religious law problems that concerned the Conversos.

— co-editor Moises Orfali’s “Jews and Judaism in Christian Polemics in Portugal,” shows how, even after Jews had “disappeared,” accusatory writing against them did not stop. This article also relates the long reach of the Inquisition – into Goa, India (then a Portuguese colony) – where many Sephardim lived. In 1560, the Goa Inquisition center was founded and persecuted Jews, Hindus and Moslems.

— Edgar Samuel writes about the Curiel Sephardic family over a century (16th-17th centuries) as some branches remained in Portugal, others went around the world, some were burned alive at the stake, others acquitted, some became devout Catholics and others became public Jews again in South America.

— Historian Jose Nunes Carreira’s “Portuguese Diaspora in the Near East (in the 16th and 17th Centuries ) in the Light of Travel Reports,” covers the travelogues of Portuguese missionaries. He describes travelers who reported on meetings with Portuguese Jews in Aleppo, Tripoli, Basra, Cairo, Persia and Palestine. He includes clergyman Gaspar de Bernadino who says most Jews he met in Aleppo were Spanish speakers; he met Portuguese Jews in the Galilee, where there were more than 400 “Portuguese origin” households. The reports reveal that Sephardim were on the Persian Gulf island of Hormuz and Syria’s community longed for Portugal. And he includes Frey Pantaleao de Aveiro, who discovered many Portuguese Jews in the Middle East (in Jerusalem, Galilee, Damascus and Tripoli). Aveiro wrote about Dona Gracia Mendes Nasi who leased Tiberias from the Turkish sultan in 1558. In Damascus, he met a man from Braga, Portugal, who had fled after his father was burned.

— Claude (Dov) Stuczynski’s article deals with religious identity and economic activities of the “New Christians.”

Now we need the English version to make these articles accessible to the worldwide community.

Footnote: Interactive Census free through April

Our friends at Footnote have announced that their Interactive Census Collection will be free to the public through the end of April.

To view images in this collection, readers only need to register (for free). Footnote currently has available the 1860 and 1930 US censuses, as well as parts of 1900, 1910 and 1920. They are planning to add the balance of the censuses, 1790-1930, by the end of the year.

For more information, click here.

Did you know that Footnote also holds newspaper archives, great historical comic strips, weird news and vintage ads (some of which are not exactly politically correct by today’s standards).

Click here to learn more about those interesting collections.