06 March 2010

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 Ancestry.com 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 fakeancestry.com 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.


  1. Thank you for you probing and insightful commentary on Genzlinger's review. You have clearly articulated what I suspect a large number us have thought but not said. Keep up the good work.

  2. So did you write a letter to the editor?

  3. Anonymous4:29 PM

    Mr.Genzlinger does not get it. If genealogy is a treasure hunt it is not a hunt for a famous ancestor, it is a hunt for both a personal history and universal history, real treasure. A dedicated Genner cannot escape from a meaningful history education, and a deeper understanding of the world in which we live and have lived in.
    Bob R.

  4. Anonymous1:55 PM

    I think your first comment summed it up: the television reviewer simply doesn't understand the passion. Unfortunately, WDYTYA is snack food genealogy. It gives the impression that every family's history is quick and easy to open and contains a prize. Those of us who try to help newbies will be fielding "tell me where my family history is online" requests for the next few months.

  5. Jessica in NY6:42 PM

    As someone who loves genealogy for lots of reasons including the sluthing, the eureka moments, the history, and finding new and living family, I agree with Genzlinger and I think that you are missing his point.

    He believes that Americans will get the idea that there are lots of records and that you'll always find someone interesting in your tree. Americans don't give a hoot about history, they only want to find some important person as an ancestor, and that includes the Jews. Yikhes is everything.

    But, as I can attest, often you can't go back all that far back and your family may be uninteresting especially if you come from a poor, rural family.

    Of my Poylish/Litvak/Galiziana (urban) ancestors, I have so far only been able to go back to around 1840 after 10+ years, and there is nary a person of note among the lot. Doesn't mean they weren't interesting people, just that this didn't do anything important.

    You have to really love doing this to keep going, and as Genzlinger would agree, American's don't have long attention spans.

  6. Anonymous6:46 PM

    I agree with Schelly's critique of Mr. Genslinger's review. But there's another point to be made: I was turned off by Sarah Jessica Parker's excess display of wonderment (overacting?). This trivialized the genealogical experience. And indeed baited Mr. Genslinger to draw the wrong conclusions.