15 September 2006

At the IIJG: Genealogy and the humanities

“Every Jew is a historian and every Jew is a professional genealogist,” said Professor Israel Bartal of Hebrew University, in an often humorous session on genealogy’s relation to the humanities.

Every Jew, he said, is concerned with yichus (pedigree): “My mother used to say we are descendants of the Baal Shem Tov, and it took me 30 years to convince myself that we have no connection to the BESHT.” Bartal's research turned up a man in the same town who was called the second BESHT, and Bartal realized the latter was the ancestor his mother had meant.

For historians, he says, family histories can lead to problems with accuracy, since these family stories are often presented as history, but are actually meises (stories), not like historians’ “real” history.

Bartal’s Galician-born father boasted that he was Austrian, Polish, Ukrainian, Soviet and Israeli. Because borders shift throughout history, these contradictory-sounding claims could all be true. Family histories include rumors, legends and stories, and they often contain wrong dates, chronology and geography.

Bartal also said:

* All family genealogies are suspect and to be doubted until proven, such as claiming a family is related to the Vilna Gaon.

* History deals with change – not how things were but how things move from point to point with shift and movement. “Without change, there is no history.”

* When comparing phenomenons, historians look for patterns and try to compare those events. “A shtetl, cemtery, city, group, town is needed for comparison.”

* Most of the world's Jews today live in 10 cities; seven centuries ago, they lived in small or mid-sized locations. In 1897, Odessa was the largest Jewish town and most families there were the second and third generations in that city, and many had Belarus origins.

* Eastern European mass migration was preceded by a large internal migration within the Russian Empire. Genealogical sources indicate information on Jewish soldiers, plagues and epidemics. In 1831 and 1865, cholera killed thousands of Jews. Relevant resources might be Jewish hospital archives and name lists, while one research question might be how the epidemics influenced Jewish demography, while comparing this to non-Jewish demography.

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