30 October 2007

London: JGSGB conference, Part I

I enjoyed my quick trip to London and spent time with family and friends, although the main reason was to speak at the Jewish Genealogical Society of Great Britain's annual conference.

The Sunday event was sold out at 150 people. The five-person lineup included geneticist Dr. Ian Ellis, author/editor Andrew Miller, Who Do You Think You Are's Jenny Thomas, JGSGB's Polish research guide author Sue Fifer. My contribution was "Creating Hope," how writing for a broad global audience helps people become involved in family history by presenting success stories, resources and other facets.

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Geneticist Dr. Ian Ellis
Jewish Genes - What Makes Us Jewish?


Dr. Ian Ellis - senior lecturer in clinical genetics at the University of Liperpool, clinical director for the Medical Genetics Directorate and several other groups - developed a national screening programme to identify Tay-Sachs carriers in the UK Jewish community. He is part of NoWGEN, the North West Genetics Knowledge Park , which concerns ethical and legal issues of DNA storage, testing and ownership within an e-bio community. Additionally, in 2002, he organized the first Genetics and Law Conference in London in 2002.

His talk centered on the common bond among Jews around the world. What is it that makes us Jewish, he asked, as he provided clues to detailed culture, shared religious practice, or something older, something handed down, that has kept us together for thousands of years. What are the markers that make us a race or people? What about blood group B?

Ellis presented many aspects of genetics, such as founder effects, bottlenecks, genetic drift, selective advantage and other influences - and made it sound so simple.

Topics included the Kohanim Project, which discovered the Cohen Modal Haplotype (CMH), the Levite Project and Jon Entine's new book on Abraham's Children. Djerba, Tunisia was discussed; all Djerba men, said Ellis, exhibit CMH which fits their oral tradition: The first settlers of Djerba were priests in the Temple, who escaped carrying one of the doors with them.

The Levites were part of the program as well, along with the fact that only some 50% of Levites have the CMH. The bottom line: Jews are more heterogenous and there is no single marker, but it is not random. Documented history is reflected in our genes and there are genetic links.

As he was summing up, Ellis offered his personal tribute to genealogists and provided a quote from the UK Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks: "History tells us what happened; memory tells who we are. History is his story - happened some time to someone else; memory is my story. Memory is personal."

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Author Andrew Miller
Writing Family History: The Earl of Petticoat Lane


Andrew Miller of London is the political editor of The Economist magazine. Until recently he lived and worked in Moscow, and has also written about contemporary immigration to Britain. He studied literature at Cambridge and Princeton.

His talk on "Writing Family History" centered on his 2006 book, "The Earl of Petticoat Lane." It is a family history about Jewish immigration, London's East End, love, friendship, class, the Blitz and the underwear industry.

Based on original 19th-20th century family correspondence in various languages, he reconstructs the Jewish East End in the interwar years and his family's Galicianer shtetls, which he visited.

The New Statesman review said the book "a fantastically interesting and well-written story."

Although I have no UK connection and my family did not experience East End life, Miller's anecdotes made those times come alive and can easily be transferred to those whose families settled in New York's Lower East Side or other large immigrant cities. His East End anecdotes and issues relating to the family saga were topical to all genealogists:

A man in the East End died, and his angry creditors gathered to discuss what could be done. One said they shouldn't be too hard on him, as the deceased had given lots of money to Israel, whereupon another creditor said, "Yes, to Morrie Israel, the bookie."

Or about his family's underwear business: Underwear was cut on the kitchen table. It couldn't be any other article of clothing as the table wasn't big enough.

The Yiddish playbill for a Shakespeare play stressed "Expanded & Improved."

Along with the humor were the problems: What to disclose? What to do about secrets? He spoke of the axiom of genealogy: The information we find raises as many questions as it answers.

But, along the way, we learn about people, where they lived, how they lived - not just names and dates. Miller stressed that if he learned one thing, it is that "everybody's life is fascinating."

I read through some of Miller's book last night and can confirm the fascinating detail which Miller offers. I'm looking forward to thoroughly reading the "Earl of Petticoat Lane."

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