18 May 2009

Waxing nostalgic about inspiration

Today we wax nostalgic about the event or person who inspired us to start our genealogy research, as challenged by Genea-Musings' Randy Seaver.

Like everyone else of thinking age back in the late 1970s, I had seen "Roots" and thought it was a fascinating story, but I didn't know anything about genealogy. I had not yet caught the bug as did the early pioneers, such as Dan Rottenberg and Arthur Kurzweil, whose books later proved inspiring.

I had always heard the story about our Talalay name - "This was our name when we left Spain." One sentence. One idea. Everyone laughed about it, no one believed this could be the origin of our strange and rare name. How could Yiddish-speaking Ashkenazim from Eastern Europe be Sephardim from Spain?

This despite the fact that in New York, my mother with her dark hair and eyes, olive skin, was always being spoken to by strangers in Italian, Spanish, Greek. The story was told that when my father brought the Brooklyn girl home to meet his Orthodox parents in the Bronx, they asked him (in Yiddish) why he was bringing this non-Jewish girl to them.

I filed all of this away in a small corner of my mind, much more interested in needlework, cooking, reading, etc. Until 1989.

Until our daughter was a year away from her bat mitzvah ceremony. She came home from a Hebrew school class with a fateful homework assignment that would change my life forever - a sheet of paper with a few questions. Write your name and Hebrew name, your parents' names and Hebrew names, your grandparents' names and Hebrew names, your great-grandparents' names and Hebrew names (if you know them).

That weekend we attended a big Dardashti family event in Los Angeles for a multitude of relatives - hundreds of them. We worked the room and came home with stacks of cocktail napkins scribbled with information. She wrote blue and pink labels, organized family branches, and everything was glued on four large poster boards. We had hundreds of family names and branches going back to about 1820 - as a result of talking to our family's "walking encyclopedias." Needless to say, she got an A!

Our daughter then said to me, "Now we have to do your family!"

Easier said than done. Whereas Los Angeles was crawling with Dardashti relatives eager to share their knowledge, I wasn't even sure where in White Russia (as my grandmother said) we came from. I remembered "Molyah," and it took a long time to discover that was Mogilev. Some tried to tell me I was looking for Mogilev Podulsk, but my grandmother talked about the Dnieper River her mother had described. Mogilev Podulsk is nowhere near that river which does, however, run right through through "our" Mogilev.

We spent time together at the Santa Monica Family History Library and saw my great-grandmother's New York passenger arrival manifest, evidencing for the first time the family name and a location. A Happy Dance moment, if there ever was one.

I knew Newark, New Jersey was where they settled, but who else from the family was there? Digging around among the few relatives, we heard "well, there was Uncle David, but I don't know if he was really an uncle," (he was my great-grandfather Aron Peretz' brother) or "There was Mariyasha who had several husbands," (she was their sister) or "Ask about the Jassen cousins" (I did - cousin Charlie's father, William Zev, was the brother of Aron Peretz and David Aryeh's mother, Kreine Mushe). Little by little, information accumulated.

As her bat mitzvah approached, our daughter had to begin working on her talk. Her parasha was Chukat, detailing rules and regulations about the red heifer. She wasn't thrilled with that topic and received the go-ahead to speak about family history and her project. And so she did to a congregation of more than 1,000 on Shabbat morning. I don't know if anyone else was inspired to start a project after that, but it was interesting and a departure from the norm.

My obsession with family history has continued until now, expanding to archival records in Minsk, Belarus and Lerida, Spain; finding lost Talalay and misplaced Dardashti; a fascination with Sephardic genealogy and resources; a connection with DNA and genetics; and locating other Eastern European Ashkenazim who are really Sephardim.

Above all, there continues an abiding fascination with Jewish history and how my ancestors - all of our ancestors, including yours - were impacted by historical events throughout history. For us, it meant the Babylonian Exile which resettled my husband's ancestors in Isfahan, Iran. The 1391 riots across Spain and the Inquisition. A trek into Eastern Europe. Major waves of New World immigration followed by the Holocaust. Our own contemporary expeditions from New York to Iran, back to the US and to Israel. Talk about the wandering Jews!

So, the person that truly inspired me was our daughter who said so long ago, "Now we have to do your family!" and the event was her bat mitzvah.

Most of my professional life since then has hinged on family history. Writing "It's All Relative" for the Jerusalem Post. Continuing research on both sides of the family since 1990. Being asked by JTA.org to start "Tracing the Tribe - The Jewish Genealogy Blog." Teaching genealogy online and co-founding GenClass.com. Speaking at conferences and to groups to encourage each person to get started in recording his or her unique family history.

Amazing what one sentence can do!


  1. Wonderful story Schelly! I wish more people would talk about/explore their inspiration and reasons for tracing family history.

  2. Thanks, Ellen. It has been an interesting road!

  3. My own interest in genealogy began in a similar way. My daughter's high school history teacher assigned a report on her family's origins, and, concurrently, my middle-school son was assigned to construct a family tree. We turned to their grandmas for information, and ... the rest is Family History!

  4. Thanks for this extremely interesting story!