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.

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.

China: A visit to Kaifeng

The one thing I really wanted to do, on my recent visit to Hong Kong, was arrange a visit to Kaifeng. It was impossible this time, but will be number one on my next visit – whenever that will be.

Matthew Fishbane recently visited the city and recounted his experience in the New York Times Travel Section, “China’s Ancient Jewish Enclave.” He also provides details for making a successful trip, mentions two guides and offers an interesting look.

One guide mentioned in the story is Shi Lei, 31, who studied at Bar Ilan University in Israel. We met when he spoke to a Ra’anana branch meeting that attracted nearly 100 attendees.

Through a locked door in the coal-darkened boiler room of No. 1 Hospital of Traditional Chinese Medicine in Kaifeng, there’s a well lined with Ming Dynasty bricks. It’s just a few yards deep and still holds water. Guo Yan, 29, an eager, bespectacled native of this Chinese city on the flood plains of the Yellow River about 600 miles south of Beijing, led me to it one recent Friday afternoon, past the doormen accustomed to her visits.

A mezuza at the doorway of Guo Yan’s house in Kaifeng, where traces of a thriving Jewish community remain.

The well is all that’s left of the Temple of Purity and Truth, a synagogue that once stood on the site. The heritage it represents brings a trickle of travelers to see one of the more unusual aspects of this country: China, too, had its Jews.

Ms. Guo, who identifies herself as a Jew, says she hears it from scholars, visitors and Chinese people alike: “ ‘You Chinese Jews are very famous,’ they say. ‘But you are only in the history books.’“

That seemed a good enough reason to come looking, and I quickly found that I was hardly alone.

Ms. Guo and I were soon joined by a 36-year-old French traveler, Guillaume Audan, who called himself a “nonpracticing Jew” on a six-month world tour of “things not specifically Jewish.” Like me, he’d found Ms. Guo by recommendation, and made the detour to see what the rumored Kaifeng Jews were all about.

Earlier, Ms. Guo had brought us into a narrow courtyard at 21 Teaching Torah Lane — an alley once central to the city’s Jewish community, and still home to her 85-year-old grandmother, Zhao Cui, widow of a descendant of Chinese Jews. Her one-room house has been turned into a sort of dusty display case, with Mrs. Zhao as centerpiece. “Here are the Kaifeng Jews,” Ms. Guo said, a little defiantly. “We are they.”

Fishbane says, as does my own research over nearly two decades, that for 150 years following the death of the last rabbi, there was still a spirit:

Grandparents told their grandchildren, as Mrs. Zhao told Ms. Guo: “You are a Jew.” Without knowing why, families avoided pork. And at Passover, the old men baked unleavened cakes and dabbed rooster’s blood on their doorstep.

Read the complete story, at the link above, which tells of the visit to Mrs. Zhao, Judaica, and the 50 or so descendants of this ancient Jewish community as they are relearning their heritage. Fishbane also provides a good capsule history of Kaifeng as well. Their synagogue, damaged by floods, was never rebuilt.

And, if this story inspires you, view the details, resource books and possibilities of arranging such a visit to Kaifeng. Most visit only for a day as there are few sites to see that exist, and a visit relies on how the visitor and guide explain what once was.

If you do plan a trip, you might want to do it sooner than later. The street where Shi’s grandfather lived – where Shi keeps a one-room mini-museum of photographs, documents and donated objects – is scheduled for re-development. We all know what that means and Shi doesn’t know where the museum will move. Read the story for details on a Kaifeng visit planned for October 2010 by a group that specializes in such trips.

Vancouver, BC. Jewish Museum, April events

The Jewish Museum and Archives of British Columbia has April programs focusing on women’s history and Jewish summer camps, and has announced a new book and a new online archive for a local Jewish newspaper.

The Women’s History Fair will display more than 20 displays from museums, archives, historical societies, cultural groups, schools and more in cooperation with the Women’s History Network of British Columbia. Jewish women pioneers are part of the exhibit.

The exhibit takes place Saturday, April 10, from 1-4pm, at the Central Library, 350 West Georgia St. Admission is free. It is co-sponsored by the VPL Special Collections, Herstory Cafe and the Vancouver Courier.

Michael Schwartz will present a curator’s talk on the Home Away From Home exhibit which focuses on British Columbia’s Jewish summer camps, on Thursday, April 15, from 7-9pm. Admission is free.

The exhibit runs through October 7, and includes hundreds of photographs from Camp Miriam, Camp Hatikvah and Camp Solomon Schechter. Explore the camp histories and view interactive displays including camp alumni interviews, photographs and songs. Visit Sunday-Thursday, from 10am-5pm.

Since the 1930s, the children of the BC Jewish community have attended Jewish summer camps in BC and elsewhere. They have learned about Jewish history and ethics, the history and politics of Israel, and developed a strong sense of community. When asked about their experiences at camp, alumni often say that their dearest and longest lasting friendships began at the age of seven or eight, in their first days at camp. The exhibit explores such lasting impressions and features an array of photographs, artifacts and interactive displays. Jewish Camps featured in the exhibit include Camp Miriam, Camp Hatikvah, and Camp Solomon Schechter.

Schwartz was a Camp Miriam long-time staff member and served as executive director in 2006 and 2007, and as programming director in 2005. He earned an MA in History (University of Toronto) and worked as a researcher and coordinator at the Vancouver Holocaust Education Centre.

The Jewish Western Bulletin which changed its name to the Jewish Independent in 2005, has been the British Columbia Jewish community’s newspaper since 1930. Currently, it is published 49 weeks of the year.

Originally labeled “The Organ of the Jewish Community Centre,” the Jewish Western Bulletin was first published as a newspaper October 9, 1930. It superseded the Jewish Centre News, a publication that had existed under a series of names since 1923. Issues of the Jewish Western Bulletin and its precursor publications dating from 1923 – 2004 have been digitized using OCR technology and are made available on the Multicultural Canada website.

The project was made possible through the financial support of the Irving K. Barber BC Digitization Program, Multicultural Canada, the National Archival Development Program (NADP), Simon Fraser University and the THEN/HiER History Education Network.

A new book on sale at the Museum is the 50-year history of Camp Solomon Schechter, by David Michael Smith.

Established in 1955 by Rabbi Joshua Stampfer and his colleague Rabbi Joseph Wagner, Camp Solomon Schechter aimed to fill a gap by providing the Jewish families of the Pacific Northwest with the region’s first kosher summer camp.

Its 156 glossy pages chronicles the history and life of camp with photos, illustrations and alumni experiences. The price is $10 (softcover), $12 (hardcover) plus S&H.

For more information, send an email, or view the Museum website.

Footnote: Free census access … for awhile!

Footnote.com is making all of its US census documents accessible for free for a limited time.

No end date was announced, and the Interactive Census Collection is available to all after a simple registration.

According to Footnote.com, this collection provides a unique ability to connect people related to ancestors found on the historical documents. By clicking the “I’m Related” button for a name on the document will identify you as a descendant and also list others that have done the same.

Click here to get started, and you too may find a record bearing an ancestor’s name and your own personal connection to the past.

Interactive tools on Footnote allow viewers to enhance documents and add photos, stories, comments and other records.

Each contribution from a Footnote member means that people can find each other and connect to exchange information about their mutual ancestors.

Footnote CEO Russell Wilding says, “TV programs including ‘Who Do You Think You Are?’ on NBC and ‘Faces of America’ on PBS will surely increase the interest in family history in the United States.”

He believes that the interactive census collection is a great way to get started for newcomers to family history research.

If you haven’t checked out Footnote.com recently, there are now 63 million historical records, including military documents, historical newspapers, city directories and naturalization records.

Check out the census collection for free now – you just might find some interesting connections!