03 June 2008

Montreal: Shaking the family tree

When Ron Arons shook the family tree, a bad apple fell out.

The Montreal Gazette's Mike Boone, did a nice story on Ron and his appearance in Montreal this week.

Ron is a transplanted New Yorker who lives in San Francisco. He's just written "The Jews of Sing Sing."

He will be in town this week for two talks sponsored by the Jewish Genealogical Society of Montreal. The topic tonight is "Bugsy Siegel & Meyer Lansky - the hilarious story of two not-so-nice Jewish boys." Arons' talk tomorrow is "Kosher Nostra - Every Jewish family has a black sheep."

Arons is not a historian by training. He is a Princeton-educated engineer who was at his alma mater in New Jersey for a class reunion when I reached him by phone on Friday.

His virage toward research and writing on Jewish criminals began with a sequence of personal crises. Between 1989 and '91, Arons lost both his parents to cancer.

"I really wasn't ready for that," he said. "I was a young man in my 30s and I loved my parents dearly. I also lost two jobs and a significant relationship in a period of 18 months.

"So I basically shut down. I watched soap operas for six months because that's the only thing I was capable of doing."

He and his brother sold their chldhood home after their parents died, and had to go through a "a mountain of papers and memorabilia."

"Two things piqued my interest," Arons recalls.

"One was a family tree my father had shown me when I was in college, when I'd thought, 'Gee, that's boring.' The other was postcards from eastern Europe in Russian and Yiddish script.

"Everything else in the house could be replaced. But these were truly original and unique. And I ran with that."

Very early, he discovered his maternal great-grandfather, Isaac Spier, was a high-living skirt-chaser who'd done time in Sing Sing for bigamy. Ron discovered, in his ancestor's past, alias and conflicting information on the man.
In addition to the regular scenario of genealogical research - passenger lists, citizenship records, censuses, birth, marriage and death records and telephone directories, he also accessed FBI and court records, and prison documents.

Today, researchers can acquire much information online, but when Ron started, it was the old-fashioned way.

"If I were to start now," he said, "it would take me maybe 20 per cent of the time it did 12 years ago. It's gotten far easier."

Although many family historians are happy enough to list names, dates and places, Ron wanted to go beyond that to find out about his colorful ancestor, and encourages other genealogists to explore and find out more about the people in their trees.

Ron speaks at the annual international Jewish genealogy conferences and also speaks at many Jewish genealogical societies. If he is visiting your city, do try to attend; you won't be sorry.

Read more here.

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