Washington DC: Following false trails, May 16

False trails are common in genealogy, and many of us have followed them as we delve into documents and family stories.

Sallyann Amdur Sack-Pikus, PhD will discuss this topic at the next meeting of the Jewish Genealogical Society of Greater Washington, on Sunday, May 16.

The program begins at 1.30pm, at B’nai Israel, 6301 Montrose Road, Rockville, Maryland.

Attendees are invited to share similar “false trail” experiences – email them to the JGSGW – and they will be discussed at the meeting.

Sallyann was instrumental in founding the International Institute for Jewish Genealogy, Jewish Genealogical Society of Greater Washington, International Association of Jewish Genealogical Societies, and Avotaynu. She has chaired or co-chaired six of the annual international Jewish genealogy conferences, authored or co-authored seven books for genealogists and has consulted on numerous projects. Click here for more.

Fee: JGSGW members, no charge; others, $5.

For more information and directions, click here.

Food: Seasoning family history

Take a look at what our families eat at special occasions, holidays or lifecycle events.

We tend to recreate the “warm fuzzies” of our childhood customs and traditions which, in turn, were part of the everyday life of our immigrant ancestors.

In my grandmother’s Brooklyn kitchen was a knife that always looked primitive to my American eyes, its large blade needed constant sharpening and it had a worn wooden handle. There were cast-iron frying pans, a dual chopper (today called a mezzaluna), a scarred wooden bowl (used with the chopper).

The knife, frying pans, chopper and wooden bowl found their way to my mother’s kitchen and some of them wound up in my kitchen. The knife was made by my great-grandfather, and I heard other family stories about the provenance of other items. Lots of chopped liver was made in that wooden bowl with that mezzaluna. Blintzes came out of those blackened frying pans.

The Philadelphia Inquirer’s “Food tells a family story” demonstrates how traditions keep family history alive through the generations.

It details the 1891 trip of the author’s great-great-grandmother who arrived from Sweden with a suitcase and two children to join her husband in Missouri. In the suitcase were a knive and rolling pin.

The story quotes Dawn Orsak, a Texas food expert, on the importance of food history.

Almost 120 years later, the sturdy black-handled knife with razorlike teeth and the long, smooth rolling pin are still in use in my grandmother’s kitchen, less than 40 miles from where her grandmother first unpacked them after the long journey.

“You don’t see anything like it this day and age,” my grandmother said of the knife. “It’s never been sharpened. Doesn’t need it. Only thing I ever use it for is to cut angel food cake and bread, of course.” She went on to explain that her mother used the knife to cut coffeecake during Scandinavian club meetings she hosted in the 1930s.

My sister and I have old cookbooks with recipes and notes in our mother’s handwriting. Just reading them brings back the memories. Some recipes were successes and family favorites, while others not so successful. One recipe not recorded – thank heaven for small miracles – was developed when my mother got a new kitchen gadget (a blender) and decided to make tuna fish salad in it. Not a good idea.

I do remember Mom adding lots of matzo meal and making tuna patties instead. They were pretty good. But the “tuna fish salad soup” was never attempted again.

“Some people are after recipes, but I’m after stories,” says Orsak, who specializes in recording history through food traditions. From generation to generation, we pass down food traditions, habits, recipes, cookbooks, and even utensils that carry with them historical details as unique as our genetic code, but many of us don’t think to record that history.

Food is a great starting point for preserving family history because it’s so visceral, Orsak says. “Everybody likes talking about food, and it brings up memories you wouldn’t think of otherwise.”

My grandmother would visit us in the Bronx after a long subway ride from Brooklyn, laden with jars, boxes and shopping bags. I guess she thought we didn’t have food in the wilds of the Bronx. Knaidlach, soup, chopped liver, stuffed cabbage and more came out of those bundles.

Of course, Tracing the Tribe is also guilty of the same thing.

When our daughter went off to Brown University, I visited her one weekend during her first year. My cross-country suitcases contained 10 pounds of frozen saffron-lemon-onion marinated broiled Persian jujeh kabob (breast meat chunks), a large container of frozen mosama bademjan (beef in an eggplant-tomato-cinnamon sauce), along with a large first-cut kosher brisket that I would cook that weekend in the Brown Hillel kitchen.

The airport porter asked if I had rocks in the suitcases. Well, yes, sort of.

What’s that, you’re saying? Providence, Rhode Island had food rationing? Well, there certainly wasn’t a Persian restaurant and home-style kosher brisket wasn’t anywhere I could see. She began eating the frozen kabob pieces from the bag and used a plastic spoon to scrape the tomato eggplant sauce, all while we were still in the taxi from the airport.

As a Jewish mother, I knew I had done the correct thing – my grandmother would have been proud.

Orsak says that if you are interested in your ethnic heritage, start with food as it is the longest-lasting cultural tradition. The favorite foods stay around long after a language or other traditions are lost.

She suggests that people prepare family cookbooks to distribute to relatives, including a favorite recipe and who used to prepare it. Bring family heritage to life by sharing important traditional dishes.

Who knows what will trigger an interest in genealogy and family history?

The link also provides a recipe for a nice coffeecake – so try it out.

San Francisco: New Mexico’s Sephardic Legacy, April 29

Along our journey of discovery, we meet many people who inspire us, who teach us, who enlighten us as to topics that others consider esoteric.

One of Tracing the Tribe’s most interesting encounters years ago was with Dr. Stanley M. Hordes of New Mexico, who specializes in Crypto-Jews of that state. He treats those involved in his research with great dignity and understanding, and his skill in genealogical research and history has enabled many links to be made.

San Francisco residents will have an opportunity to hear Stan present “The Sephardic Legacy in New Mexico: A History of the Crypto-Jews,” on Thursday, April 29, at 7.30pm, at the Jewish Community Library.

During his tenure as New Mexico State Historian in the 1980s, Stanley Hordes began to hear stories of Hispanics who lit candles on Friday night and abstained from eating pork.

Hordes is adjunct research professor at the Latin American and Iberian Institute of the University of New Mexico and a Society for Crypto-Judaic Studies board member.

Puzzling over this phenomenon, Hordes realized that these practices might well have been passed down through the centuries from early crypto-Jewish settlers in New Spain. His theory was corroborated after hundreds of interviews and extensive research and led to his award-winning book on the history of the crypto-Jews in New Mexico.

Dr. Hordes will talk about the conversos from their Jewish roots and forced conversions in Spain and Portugal to their migration to central Mexico in the 16th and 17th centuries and their part in the colonization of New Mexico.

Using slides, he will describe customs and consciousness that have survived to this day, the recent reclamation of Jewish ancestry within the Hispano community, and the challenges of reconstructing the history of a people who tried to leave no traces.

His book (above left) – “To the End of the Earth: A History of the Crypto-Jews of New Mexico” – received the Gaspar Perez de Villagra Prize in 2006 by the Historical Society of New Mexico for outstanding historical publication of the year.
If you have not yet read this book, do get a copy. It is a truly fascinating read. He is also working on another book, documenting the same culture in other New World communities.
The event is co-sponsored by the San Francisco Bay Area Jewish Genealogical Society, Be’chol Lashon (In Every Tongue) and Lehrhaus Judaica.
For more information, click here.

Hong Kong: ‘Asian Jewish Life,’ spring issue online

On my recent Hong Kong visit, I met with editor-in-chief Erica Lyons of “Asian Jewish Life: A Journal of Spirit, Society and Culture.”

The new AJL spring 2010 issue is now online with stories covering India, Shanghai, Cambodia, foodies, book reviews, film and more.

“Asian Jewish Life is a contemporary journal of Jewish diaspora life throughout Asia. As Jews in Asia we are but a tiny minority unified by tradition, a love for Israel, common contemporary concerns and shared values. While Asian Jewish Life is a common media forum designed to share regional Jewish thoughts, ideas and culture and promote unity, it also celebrates our individuality and our diverse backgrounds and customs.”

Here’s the table of contents (read each online or download the PDF at the link above):

— Inbox: Your letters
— Letter from the Editor
— India Journal- Life with the Bene Ephraim (Bonita Nathan Sussman and Gerald Sussman)
— Eating Kosher Dog Meat: Jewish in Guiyang (Susan Blumberg-Kason)
— Through the Eyes of ZAKA (Jana Daniels)
— Interview: Ambassador Yaron Mayer

— Replanting Roots in Shanghai: Architect Haim Dotan’s journey (Erica Lyons)
— A Palate Grows in Brooklyn: Birth of a foodie (Sandi Butchkiss)
— Poetry by Rachel DeWoskin
— The Death Penalty: What Asia can learn from Judaism (Michael H. Fox)
— Learning to Speak: A cross-cultural love story (Tracy Slater)
— Book Reviews (Susan Blumberg-Kason)
— Places I Love
— Expat Diary: Raising a Jewish Child in Cambodia (Craig Gerard)
— Film in Focus

Each article provides a diverse look into life in Asia, with a Jewish “hook.” Tracing the Tribe will always remember the line “tenderloin of my heart,” from Tracy Slater’s “Learning to Speak.”

Readers and writers with Jewish Asian experiences are invited to submit articles; click here for more information.

If you enjoyed this issue (the winter issue is also online), let Erica know, and tell her you learned about AJL at Tracing the Tribe. Feedback is always welcome.

A great issue, Erica!

San Francisco: Hidden Jewish Heritage, April 26

How would you react if you realized an important family secret had been kept from you?

What happens when adults discover their hidden Jewish heritage?

Find out on Monday, April 26, at 7.30pm, at a program co-sponsored by the Jewish Community Library (JCL) and the San Francisco Bay Area Jewish Genealogical Society (SFBAJGS), at the JCL, 1835 Ellis St., San Francisco.
Four people from very different backgrounds discuss the discovery of their Jewish heritage, the circumstances surrounding the revelation, and how it affected their lives, their relationships, and their identities.

“Sudden Jews: When Adults Discover Their Hidden Jewish Heritage” brings together Marny Hall, Irene Reti, Jim Van Buskirk and Cecilia Wambach to discuss this topic, at the Jewish Community Library, 1835 Ellis Street, San Francisco.

Irene Reti is the daughter of two Holocaust refugees who hid their Jewish identities. She is the author of “Keeper of Memory: A Memoir and Kabbalah of Stone,” a novel about hidden Jews (conversos) in 15th century Spain. Reti is the director of the oral history research office at UC Santa Cruz.

Jim Van Buskirk, book group coordinator at the Jewish Community Library, is the co-editor of “Identity Envy: Wanting to Be Who We’re Not.” He is currently working on an intergenerational family memoir about discovering his Jewish heritage at age 54, “My Grandmother’s Suitcase.”

Marny Hall discovered she was Jewish at age 30. She is a sex therapist and author whose books include The Lavender Couch, Sexualities, and The Lesbian Love Companion. Hall is also the co-author of Queer Blues.

Cecelia Wambach is professor emeritus of mathematics education at San Francisco State University. For almost eight years, she has been involved in a project to research her father’s ancestry, which has taken her to the Czech Republic, Israel and Uruguay and is the subject of her forthcoming book, “Hide and Go Seek: The Search for My Father’s Family.”

The discussion is free and open to the public.

For more information, visit the JGS San Francisco website.