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.

Australia: Bendigo family history expo

On Sunday, we drove up to Gold Rush country for the Bendigo Family History Expo, visited the famous Hanging Rock, saw my first wallaby, and saw the view from Mt. Macedon (left).

The easy ride from Melbourne went through gently rolling green hills, populated by cows, sheep and horses. There were many wineries, historic towns and mineral springs along the way, but no time, unfortunately, to stop and smell the grapes!

At the expo, there were some 60 experts, local groups and societies filling a large hall at the Bendigo Leisure Center (community center, in the US), but there were no classes or workshops as is usual at similar US events There was a steady stream of visitors all day.

Within 15 minutes of putting up two signs (Jewish Research and, and starting a MyHeritage overview looping powerpoint presentation, several people had come over to ask questions about both.

Questions included where to find more information about the families SIMEON (Liverpool, UK) and ISRAELOWITZ (Melbourne), while others shared information about postcards from Israel (pre-state)brought back by fathers and grandfathers who had served in the British and Australian armies.

I learned about Jews who had settled in Avoca, a small area community, and met a man who carried his 13,000-name family tree on his iPhone (using Reunion software).

One young woman stopped by to ask about her great-grandparents named ENGLANDER and MOVRIN (both from Germany). I offered various websites for her to access.

Margaret Brown told me about her JASSNIGER relatives from Vienna (see separate post).

Unfortunately, there was no Internet access at the expo or I could have helped more people directly.

As people came up and asked questions, I wrote down websites for them to access at home, including JewishGen and its many components, Ancestry and others. All public libraries in Victoria carry the Ancestry Library Edition, making it easier for researchers.

Here’s my first in-person long-distance wallaby (left). A mob of them were eating grass at the Hanging Rock racecourse.

New York: Jewish Polish tavernkeepers, March 23

The YIVO Institute for Jewish Research will host a seminar on “Jewish Tavernkeepers and Liquor Traders in 19th century Poland,” at the Center of Jewish History on Tuesday, March 23.

Meet the faculty at 6pm; the program begins at 6.30pm. Advance registration is required.

Speakers are:

— Sarah Lawrence College Professor of Judaic Studies Glenn Dynner, author of “Men of Silk: The Hasidic Conquest of Polish Jewish Society (Oxford University Press, 2006). Dynner spoke on that book at the New York 2006 IAJGS conference

— Bar Ilan University Professor Jewish History Moshe Rosman, who is the Horace Goldsmith Visiting Professor of Jewish Studies at Yale University.

According to YIVO’s description of the event:

By the end of the 18th century, Jews comprised the vast majority of tavernkeepers in Poland-Lithuania, leasing taverns and distilleries from the nobility. According to most historians, Polish Jews were driven out of the liquor trade over the course of the next century.

Yet 19th-century archival sources, including an invaluable collection of personal petitions (kvitlakh) sent to R. Eliyahu Guttmacher, housed in the YIVO Archives, provide evidence of the continued existence of Polish Jewish liquor traders, both open and surreptitious.

The involvement of Jews in this sector of the Polish economy during this later period points to the fact that traces of the feudal economic system survived amidst a period of rapid industrialization and modernization.

While Jewish tavernkeeping was vigorously opposed by powerful groups in Polish society, one crucial group continued to provide them with cover: the very local Christians they were accused of victimizing. This talk analyzes the robust but technically illegal Polish Jewish liquor trade during the 19th century.

Dynner teaches Judaic Studies at Sarah Lawrence College and is author of Men of Silk: The Hasidic Conquest of Polish Jewish Society (Oxford University Press, 2006). He is the latest recipient of the YIVO Workmen’s Circle/Dr. Emanuel Patt Visiting Professorship, as well as a member of the Institute for Advanced Study, Princeton University. Currently, he is writing a monograph on the subject of Jews in the Polish liquor trade. He is also editor of a forthcoming book on Jewish and Christian mysticism in Eastern Europe. Dynner holds a BA and PhD (Brandeis University), and an MA (McGill University).

Rosman is professor in the Department of Jewish History, Bar Ilan University in Israel and currently serves as the Horace Goldsmith Visiting Professor of Jewish Studies, Yale University. He has conducted extensive research in Eastern European archives on the social and economic history of the Jews in early modern Poland and specializes in integrating Jewish, Polish, and other sources. His books include “The Lords’ Jews: Jews and Magnates in the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth” (Harvard 1990, Polish National Library 2005); “Founder of Hasidism: A Quest for the Historical Ba’al Shem Tov” (University of California 1996, Shazar Center, Jerusalem 2000); and “How Jewish Is Jewish History?” (Littman Library, Oxford 2007). His latest research project is a history of Jewish women in Poland.

The Center for Jewish History is located at 15 West 16th Street, New York, NY.

Sacramento: Making connections, March 21

Holocaust survivor Liz Igra will speak on “Connections Small and Grand,” at the next meeting of the Jewish Genealogical Society of Sacramento, California, on Sunday, March 21.

The program starts at 10am, at the Albert Einstein Residence Center, 1935 Wright St., Sacramento, California.

Born in Krakow, Liz and her mother escaped from the Czorkow ghetto in October 1942, hid on false papers, crossed the Carpathian Mountains on foot, spent time in a Budapest jail and were released, and again went into hiding when Germany took control of Hungary.

They were liberated in 1945 and returned to Poland to find only one other member of their family. After time in Poland and France, the women immigrated to Australia and then to the US in 1968.

Liz has been an elementary and high school teacher, administrator, workshop presenter and helped start Sacramento’s Shalom School.

For 20 years, she has spoken in many classrooms and at teacher conferences. Many teachers confirmed her personal observations, that even the best seminars do not equip teachers to meet the challenges of teaching about the Holocaust.

To help change that, Liz founded the Central Valley Holocaust Educators’ Network. She hopes her story will lead to a better understanding of the Holocaust and the important lessons to be learned.

Click here for more information about the Jewish Genealogical Society of Sacramento.

Faces of America: Episodes online through March 18

Tracing the Tribe has missed watching “Faces of America” with Henry Louis Gates.

I’m not sure if they will be shown in Israel or elsewhere, but all four episodes are now online at

No reason to be out of the loop or genealogically culturally deprived as others talk about this interesting series.

Just click on the link above and see all of them, but only until March 18.

Tracing the Tribe has been unsuccessful in accessing the US-version of WDYTYA on my international travels. I’ve checked several links, none of them work.

Emails to my contacts have not produced any appropriate contacts at NBC to either let the channel know the links are not available internationally (although the British version episodes are) or if a fix can be worked out so such viewers can see the series online.

Melbourne: State Library of Victoria

Tuesday was tour day for conference attendees.

While some visited the National Archives of Australia (NAA) and the Public Records Office of Victoria (PROV), others visited the State Library of Victoria (SLV).

SLV genealogy librarian Anne Burrows – who presented her institution’s holdings to conference attendees on Monday – was the guide for our group. Her colleague Grant led another group.

The SLV’s main reading room is a busy place, offering desks, computers as well as comfortable chairs for visitors. The room was full of people busily working away on their own laptops as well as the library’s computers.

Just off the main reading room is the Genealogy Library, which is located in a former outdoor courtyard, now roofed over. Once considered for a restaurant, the space features elegant marble floors and tall stained glass windows of the surrounding buildings’ exterior walls. Sunlight streams through the roof’s glass panes into the room which holds shelving units, microfilm and microfiche cabinets and readers, as well as computers.

In honor of the Australian Jewish genealogy conference, a dual-sided display of Jewish genealogy books, journals and newsletters was at the entrance to the room.

Standing by the book display (left) is an old genealogy friend – Dr. Albert Braunstein of Melbourne – whose family, like mine, has roots in Mogilev, Belarus.

Anne took us through the room describing holdings in more detail.

In addition to the display at the entrance, there are more Jewish genealogy books on shelves, including many of Avotaynu’s publications – even Jeff Malka’s “Sephardic Genealogy” – and the Avotaynu journal. Of course, there are extensive general genealogy reference works and materials.

Microfiche includes holdings of the Australian Jewish Historical Society and other resources as indicated on this drawer label.

Computers also hold reference materials for those searching Jewish genealogy, such as databases on this computer in the center. A search for Australian Jewish Historical Society pulled up hits in the manuscript collection.

Patrons and researchers have access to printers for microfilm and microfiche images; digital cameras are allowed or users may download images directly to their own flash drives or memory sticks.

There are numerous GenieGuides covering Australian states and topics, such as convict material. Each binder holds many pages of additional sources of information (including selected microfiche, microfilm, CD and online records in the Genealogy Center. Although now only in hardcopy, future plans include online accessibility to this information.

Although I’m focusing in this post on the specific Jewish resources at the SLV, its extensive holdings include immigration records, vital records and much more, including the Library Edition, available to all library visitors.

While the SLV’s Genealogy Collection focuses on sources from Australia, the UK and New Zealand, it also reflects Victoria’s ethnic diversity with an expanding range of Italian, Vietnamese, Chinese and Jewish material.

Core sources include indexes to civil registration for all Australian states and territories (as they are released), Australian cemetery and immigration records, electoral rolls and directions, and much more, including collective biographies and “how-to” guides.

The SLV’s Newspaper Reading Room holds more than 91,000 newspaper volumes in its Newspaper Collection – almost every newspaper published in the state since 1882, as well as earlier papers 1838-1880 (with some gaps).

America’s WDYTYA: Tree or shrub?

Tracing the Tribe assumes the television reviewer at the New York Times simply doesn’t understand genealogy and the passion it creates in many of us.

Neil Genzlinger’s review seemed sarcastic with twinges of jealousy toward those with what he considers “interesting” family histories.

It appeared his only contact with genealogy was a quick family tree demo that built for him. It’s easy to see that he perhaps just didn’t get it, although he did say that he could understand how people could spend hours on some gen sites, as he did, after seeing that demo.

Genzlinger called today’s mass of genealogists and family history fans “a happy cult.” We tend to be happy, of course, when we discover new information, although “cult” seems the wrong word. It carries the meaning of “brainwashed” to the extent that such individuals cannot see clearly.

I think that the millions of researchers think clearly, and can handle the expected and unexpected, the unusual and mundane, the simple everyday facts of life, warts and all.

We know there are no Indian princesses and few royals, that our names were not changed at Ellis Island, and we are not only interested in names and dates, but in the people who bore those names and lived in those historical times.

I’m not sure if he is being sarcastic when he writes about the “raised expectations” that the show might trigger among viewers. Genzlinger also writes that “other shows have also worked the gimmick, both in the United States and abroad.”

Gimmick? A show that encourages interest in our roots and our families is a gimmick? Providing resources and raising awareness of the possibilities to find information on our families is a “gimmick”?

Does he really think that only Lisa Kudrow had families exterminated by the Einzatsgruppen in Belarus, as my entire ancestral shtetl of Vorotinshtina also experienced (except for a handful of people away on business or at school that day)? Does he realize that 90% or more of Belarus’ rural Jews were murdered during the same period? And that was just one geographic area.

He does detail in a few words the focus of each episode, and writes “But all are fascinating, and that’s the problem.”

Some of us may take the genealogical plunge expecting cool family stories like the ones the celebrities get, only to find that we’ve been ordinary and uninteresting since we were living in caves.

I think the reviewer missed the point.

Genealogists and family history researchers are happy to find any information on our families. While confirming or uncovering exotic or unexpected family stories are nice achievements, I don’t think most of us go looking for these. We are merely searching and tracing our ancestors through whatever means are available. No matter what we find is valuable and we still do our “happy dances” when we find something unexpected or long sought-after.

WDYTYA helps its viewing audience by illustrating the fact that information does exist, that all is not lost, that there is assistance and expert knowledge out there – although viewers may have to dig for it.

To say that viewers will only identify with the celebs isn’t giving the viewing public enough credit.

Tracing the Tribe only wants that special permit that the celeb gets, when he or she finds a parking spot every time right in front of archives and libraries, and no lines at the desk when they enter the building.

While many people have romantic histories, the majority of us have ancestors who lived ordinary lives, and all we are doing is to try and understand them, how and where they lived, while preserving and transmitting this information to the younger generations.

So what, if – as the reviewer writes – “you may find that everyone you’re related to was nothing but a drone in the vast hive of humanity, living unremarkably and dying unexceptionally, just as you probably will.”

Tracing the Tribe doesn’t think, as the reviewer writes, we need a companion site called to supply us with cattle-rustlers, horse thieves or other black-sheep types. The mere fact that we had ancestors who were brave enough to pick themselves up and take dangerous journeys to different countries and manage to survive – or not – is enough for most of us. Could we do what our ancestors did?

I often think of my great-grandmother Riva Bank Talalay, who shlepped across several countries, carrying a 5-month-old infant and a 2-year-old toddler, a samovar, a schissel, feather beds and more, hiding in churches during pogroms hoping her baby wouldn’t cry and be smothered by other Jewish refugees also hiding in the building. She led a very ordinary life, but her courage, bravery and strength in doing what she had to do was spectacular.

Every family has a story. I don’t think we need to “swap ancestors” to liven things up.

Getzlinger interviewed Kudrow:

Genealogy, she counseled, isn’t just about looking for ancestors who were historically noteworthy; the most remarkable fact of history is simply survival, through mass migrations and economic depressions and flu epidemics and so on. Several of the stars in “Who Do You Think You Are?” seem genuinely humbled by how close they came to never existing.

“To me that’s what this show is about,” Ms. Kudrow said, “that all of us are here because the people before us endured something extraordinary.”

Tracing the Tribe’s sentiments exactly.

Read the entire review at the link above.