29 November 2006

Preserving Europe's Jewish graves

The London-based Committee for the Preservation of Jewish Cemeteries in Europe is determined to enforce Jewish law - halachah - which requires that the dead not be disturbed.

Local Jewish communities and governments are now turning to the committee to avoid being labeled as violators of Jewish heritage.

The group made its name six years ago in a fight to save a medieval Prague cemetery from the plans of a Czech insurance company which had sought to build its offices on top of the Jewish graves. The two-year battle resulted in the Czech Republic spending $1.2 million for a sarcophagus for the remaining graves and made the site a national monument.

“We get Jews and non-Jews from all over asking what’s the right way to build a fence or protect a grave,” said Rabbi Abraham Ginsberg, the committee’s executive director. “We tell them we are here to offer solutions, not to cause problems.”

The committee was back in Prague this month thanks to the discovery of a 15th-century Jewish cemetery in Pilsen, some 60 miles west of the Czech capital. Construction of a 450-car parking lot is set to begin on the site in the spring.

When a Pilsen researcher told the Czech press he thought a cemetery was located on the site, the Pilsen Jewish community, Sidon, archaeologists and the Israeli-owned construction company consulted the committee.

After a few weeks it was determined that the 50 or so graves in the corner of the site would probably best be protected by building the parking lot on stilts. Preparations for excavation began Monday ...

To read the rest, click here.

Rome: Europe's oldest Jewish community

The Boston Globe has an interesting story on the Jews of Rome, whose presence (since the 2nd century BCE) is considered the oldest in Europe.

In the Middle Ages, they were victims of violence and humiliation (wearing of yellow patches), even though they were bankers, craftsmen, merchants, physicians and served the papal court.

There is also a gastronomic connection to Roman life in the community's famous fried artichokes.

For more than 300 years, Jews were locked behind the ghetto's gates. Today, the community leaders say they have a different problem: the remaining Jewish residents are being forced out due to gentrification of the suddenly fashionable area.

To read the article, click here

Ancestry extends free immigration access


You can relax now if you've been working feverishly to search through the new Ancestry.com passenger records before free access ends in a few days.

The company just announced that the free access I wrote about has been extended through December 31 as a result of "overwhelming response" from researchers around the world.

So, take a deep breath and continue with your searching.

27 November 2006

Families of the Yiddish Theatre

If you're researching Yiddish theatre families - including the Adlers, Thomashefskys, Bertha Kalish, Maurice Schwartz, Abraham Goldfaden, Molly Picon, Jacob Gordin, Paul Muni and more - here's a book you might enjoy.

The New York Times, in its "Reading New York" column, reports on Stefan Kanfer's book, Stardust Lost: The Triumph, Tragedy and Mishugas of the Yiddish Theater in America (Alfred A. Knopf, $26.95).

Their outsize personalities, coupled with excerpts of the skits and scripts they performed and adapted, provide some of the most memorable passages in his book.

Readers gratefully tag along as Jacob Gordin escorts Henry James on a tour of the Lower East Side, and listen in as Paul Muni theatrically transforms himself during his interrogation by an immigration judge from a crippled, heavily accented greenhorn into a proud and polished young man who speaks English eloquently. “Your honor, it’s remarkable,” Muni announces. “Now that you’ve made me a citizen, I can speak perfectly!”

Shoah survivor's NY reunion with family that saved her

The Washington Times reported on the recent reunion of Holocaust survivor Lea (Port) Ingel, 84, and Giedrute Ramanauskiene, 74, a daughter of the Lithuanian Catholic family that saved her.

The Jewish Foundation for the Righteous facilitated the reunion at New York's JFK Airport.

Only some 9,000 Lithuanian Jews survived from a prewar population of 235,000. The women had remained in contact over the years through letters. Ingel left the country in 1945; her friend still lives on the farm where Ingel hid.

In 1943, Lea Port and her future husband Samuel Ingel, fled the Kovno ghetto and joined a Jewish partisan group. After 10 days in a forest near Simnas, they were the only group members alive. A Communist also in hiding took them to his sister Elena Ivanauskai and her husband Petras. Ingel grew close to the family's daughter, Giedrute.

Ingel and Port stayed at the farm until August 1944, when the Russians arrived and the couple no longer had to hide. They got married and moved to America.

Researching Israeli archives from the U.S. - UPDATE

Jerusalem-based genealogist Michael Goldstein is a specialist in helping North Americans locate and connect with their Israeli families.

On Dec. 11, he will present “Not for Israel Only: Using Israeli Archives and Resources for Worldwide Jewish Records,” at a Seattle meeting of the Jewish Genealogical Society of Washington State.

He will discuss the use of local Israeli records as well as a range of lesser-known resources which can be used to track down Israeli relatives and/or their descendants. His expertise lies in tracing Israelis whose testimonies are found in Yad Vashem records.

Prior to his program, he will translate documents, photos of tombstones, and other inscriptions written in Yiddish, French or Hebrew. The JGSWS library materials will also be available.

The event is free for JGSWS members; $5 for non-members. Photo ID is required for admission to the venue, check the website for location.

26 November 2006

A historic fight: dueling columnists on the merits of genealogy

The Guardian (U.K.) newspaper provides two recent, opposing takes on whether genealogy is an interesting pursuit. I think it's safe to say Tracing the Tribe's readers agree with the "pro-genealogy" camp.

The first, by Zoe Williams, provides such "charming" quotes as:

"In all probability, it lacks context - sure, you might find a tinker uncle who went to a Putney debate or was a Chartist, but generally speaking they all just get born, marry and die."

"If therapy is for people with more money than sense, genealogy is for those with more time than either."

"By definition, it lacks high drama - if anyone in your family had ever done anything remotely interesting, nobody else in the family would have stopped talking about it."

If you read the article, make sure you also read the comments by her readers.

The rebuttal is written by Dave Waddell, author of Who Do You Think You Are?, the books accompanying the BBC-TV series of the same name.

So, researching your ancestry is an impediment to understanding the past? That's absurd. It encourages people to engage with history and immerse themselves in the events that shaped our society. The vast majority of us are descended from ordinary working-class folk. These were the people who fought and were killed in wars; who were forced by circumstance into the workhouse; who worked in the mills or were sent down the mines aged 10. And who exactly does Williams believe comprised the "radicals, grassroots movements, that sort of thing"?

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25 November 2006

Where will you be in July? IAJGS conference

Jewish genealogists from around the world will be heading out west for the 27th IAJGS International Conference on Jewish Genealogy, set for July 15-20, 2007, in Salt Lake City.

IAJGS is the International Association of Jewish Genealogical Societies, the umbrella group for the many JGS's around the world.

The IAJGS Web site can also help readers locate a nearby JGS, where they can participate in interesting programs, receive research help and access relevent publication libraries.

The conference Web site has user-friendly online registration and frequent updates of event details, so check it out.

I will be reporting on details of the event as they are confirmed by the Conference Committee, so stay tuned for many announcements, such as one about a very special photo exhibit which deserves its own special blog posting (on the way).

Readers in the Western United States should take advantage of this year's location; 2008 will see the annual event move further east -- it will be in Chicago for the first time.

The other side of the camera

Marcy Brown of Roots Television interviewed me on a variety of topics when I was in Salt Lake City.

We covered the most exciting developments at the recent Family Tree DNA-sponsored third international conference on genetic genealogy.

The first segment of this interview is up now and others will soon be added.

The segment, along other interesting videos on various genealogy topics, also can be accessed from Roots Television, where you should click on the DNA tab.

More and more about Horowitzes

Are you Horowitz, Horovitz, Ish-Horovitz, Hurwitz, Gurwitz, Gurovich, Gurevich or another name variant?

If so, you should be interested in the Horowitz Families Association's upcoming convention and seminar in Tel Aviv on Dec. 20, which will focus this year on "Women from the House of Horowitz."

Shlomo Gurevich, who maintains the association's Web site, also announced that after five years of work, his CD on the Horowitz family history and genealogy is available.

He has also released an English-language book on the family: Gurevich, Gurovich, Gurvich, Gorvich, Gurvitz, Horowitz and others. The History of a Great Family, published previously in Russian.

It contains the history and genealogy of this famous Jewish family, from Girona in medieval Spain through Bohemia, Poland, Germany and Austria to Russia, Israel and the Americas. Association members live around the world.

Additionally, the book offers 147 biographies of family members, including rabbis, scholars, artists, scientists, engineers, musicians, soldiers, writers, revolutionaries, secret service agents, Zionists and Heroes of the Soviet Union.

Among them: Rabbi Zerachyah Ha-Levi from Girona, the Holy SheLaH, M. Gurevich (aircraft designer), V. Horowitz, Karl Marx, F. Dan, N. Zarkhi and Rabbi Israel Meir Lau.

Judaica on eBay and Polish auction site

Here's a way to search for Jewish roots that might not have occurred to you: Researchers have found genealogically relevant Judaica on eBay. A Polish-based auction site, Allegro, has also been a source of interesting items for researchers.

According to one such researcher, you don't need to be able to read Polish to use Allegro. Just type "judaica" in the search window "Szukaj."

Participants in various JewishGen discussion groups are reporting their finds about both auction sites, so do check the discussions out.

Voice of America spotlights genetic genealogy

The Voice of America recently covered Family Tree DNA in Houston.

"DNA is nothing more than a tool in the toolkit for the genealogist who has run into a paper trail roadblock," says Bennett Greenspan, President and Chief Executive Officer of Family Tree DNA, the Houston-based company that is considered the world leader in genetic testing for genealogical research. "With DNA testing we are able to unravel that history book that is contained within the cells of all of us."

One of those interviewed by VOA, Adrian Williams, had also presented a fascinating session at the recent Third International Conference on Genetic Genealogy in Houston. In his talk, Williams presented ways to get people involved in a surname project – his Williams project has some 350 participants, so he must be doing something right!

24 November 2006

Is genealogy coming to prime time TV?

Gen TV may be on its way to the United States.

I’ve mentioned genealogy shows in the U.K. (“Who do you think you are?") and Canada (“Ancestors in the Attic”), and wondered why they aren’t shown worldwide.

Well, worldwide viewers may be in for a treat after all.

Earlier in November, UPI announced that major US television networks are bidding for the popular British show focusing on tracing celebrity genealogies. The raw reactions of the celebrities as they find out about their ancestors are presented on camera.

The Times of London reported that NBC, ABC, CBS and Fox are competing for U.S. rights, and that Discovery, National Geographic and the History Channel are also interested. According to the article, CBS says Julia Roberts may appear in a U.S. prime-time special to launch the show.

The BBC rejected the show’s idea 15 years ago – it now attracts some 6 million viewers.

DNA proves the English aren't so English

The English are not so English!

The Sunday Telegraph (UK) had an interesting story on using DNA testing to provide some 100% English citizens – or so they thought – information on their individual ancestry.

Some results were not what they expected:

Another of our participants has since discovered a family connection in Turkey which partially confirms her DNA test results. For others, it was not such a welcome revelation. Four days after hearing that her DNA suggested Romany origins, the 'ethnic English' campaigner was threatening legal action.

However, these tests could be a powerful tool in the fight against racism. It is not just that they prove, once and for all, that any notions of race or racial purity are patently absurd and scientifically wrong. Their power lies in that they prove it by showing people what is in their own blood. When the truths of science become personal truths, they get taken more seriously.

And as for the idea of being '100 per cent English', well - to put my art critic hat back on - no one has put their finger on the truth better than the great painter Walter Richard Sickert. 'No one could be more English than I am,' he once said archly. 'Born in Munich in 1860, of pure Danish descent!'

23 November 2006

New American Jewish year books at Ancestry.com

Ancestry.com has recently added the American Jewish Year Book for 5663 (October 2, 1902-September 21, 1903); the book for 1931-2 (5692) is also available online if you have a subscription. Search under "Family and Local Histories."

Among the highlights: biographical sketches of Commodore Uriah P. Levy and Jews in the 57th Congress, gifts and bequests ($500 and more) by Jews or to Jewish institutions, and awards given to Jews in America and abroad.

Ancestry erroneously lists the 1902-03 book as being for the year 5692 (which is actually the 1931-2 book), even though the scanned title page says "The American Jewish Year Book 5663." I will send them a correction comment.

Another Thanksgiving Day present

The National Genealogical Society has opened the "Members-Only Data Section" of its Web site for the Thanksgiving Holiday, through November 26.

The NGS has many resources to assist family history research:

-Members' Ancestry Charts - more than 800,000 names, all online.

-The Bible Collection - more than 3,000 Bibles with more than 50,000 names online.

-A bookstore offering popular genealogical publications

-Quarterly news magazine with articles about record sources and methodology

-Online learning: "Introduction to Genealogy" or the "Home Study Course."

To access the Web site's promotion, click here. Enter username: member; password: ngspromo.

Millions of names on Hamburg lists are moving

The Hamburg Passenger Lists 1850-1934, which were available at Linktoyourroots.com, have moved to BallinStadt.com. The fully digitized lists will be available in December on both BallinStadt and Ancestry.com.

As of 1850, Hamburg shipping companies were obligated to maintain passenger lists for all outbound vessels carrying immigrants. These lists provide passenger names, as well as their occupations, marital status, age, arrival port, final destination and place of origin.

The lists are valuable to researchers because many of our Eastern European ancestors passed through Hamburg on their journeys to their new homes. Additionally, while some passengers took direct ships to their final destinations, others stopped at intermediary ports in the UK and elsewhere to change ships. Tracing these indirect routes may provide more clues as to where "missing" family branches might have been living.

There are some 5 million names on the passenger lists, which are complete for 1850-1934, except for the first half of 1853.

In July 2007, BallinStadt will open a family research center in Germany in addition to its online center. Online access to BallinStadt's copy of the database is free; Ancestry.com charges access fees.

Starting in December 2006, Ancestry.com will provide a complete name index of passengers who left Hamburg from 1890-1912. All remaining passenger lists (1850-1890 and 1912-1934) may be browsed by entering a date of departure as a keyword, and/or using a ship’s name.

Beginning this month, BallinStadt has also launched a new online family research service, with specially-trained genealogists. For more information on this, e-mail familyresearch@ballinstadt.com. The service includes:

--Information on a particular emigrant in the Hamburg passenger lists and other sources. Reproductions will be available.

--They will provide assistance about how to access various records, archives, etc., and will also recommend other genealogists beyond Hamburg for further research.

--Genealogical information pertaining to families who resided in Hamburg, based on the resources of the Hamburg State Archives (Hamburger Staatsarchiv).

--They will transliterate original documents (such as those written in old German handwriting) and provide English translations.

International Tracing Service will at last open records

The archives of the International Tracing Service hold millions of records about Germany's actions in WWII. They total some 16 miles of files in six buildings in the central German spa town of Bad Arolsen.

But, for 50 years, the ITS has kept the files closed to the public, allowing only a trickle of information to survivors and their descendants. Some inquirers have waited years to receive a response.

Their long-criticized policy is about to change.

In May, after years of pressure from the United States and survivors' groups, the 11 countries overseeing the archive agreed to unseal the files.

The files were moved to Bad Arolsen in 1946 and administration was handed over to the Red Cross in 1955. In a former Waffen-SS barracks, index cards fill three rooms, and files are kept in long cabint-filled corridors with binders on floor-to-ceiling shelves.

Although it is supposed to trace missing persons and help families reunite, ITS has allowed only very few people inside, and has historically responded to requests for information with minimal data, even when its files held much more information as well as personal effects of victims.

Critics accuse the archive of being unhelpful, but the Red Cross and ITS retort they must abide by German privacy laws and protect the reputations of victims alive or dead.

The Associated Press, which has recently been given substantial access to the files, has written about what is coming to light.

Another take on the kinds of details in the archive, also reported by the AP,
is the moving story of an Ohio man who has been searching for information from the ITS for 16 years
. Sol Factor, born Meier Pollak/Polak on July 9, 1946, was separated from his mother Rosa Pollak/Polak as an infant and adopted by a Massachusetts family in 1950.

New Russian resources: Yekaterinburg, Kharkov, Birobidjan

A new genealogy project has just been announced by the Federation of Jewish Communities in the FSU.

The Jewish community of Yekaterinburg has opened a new program aimed at assisting local Jews discover their genealogical roots and the history of their families.

Many Jewish families came to the Urals and Siberia during World War II amid the chaos of war, and this project will help families research how their ancestors came to Yekaterinburg and perhaps find long-lost relatives.

There are also projects for Kharkov and for Birobidzhan. All these projects will ultimately provide resources for worldwide Jewish genealogists looking for connections.

Jewish history researchers are compiling an electronic archive - The History of Jews of Kharkov in Documents - which involves transferring relevant records from the Kharkov State Regional Historical Archive into an electronic format.

The first group of records are Jewish births from 1854-1917. The researchers have recreated the first register of birth record books from the Kharkov Rabbinate. Other registers include marriages, divorces and deaths for the same period.

The project plans to include police and other historical records such as those on synagogues and prayer houses, permission for Jews to reside in the Kharkov Region and more.

Worldwide researchers of Kharkov and environs are asked to assist in the project.

The Jewish community of Birobidjan is launching the Birobidjan Jewry Research Center. The project - Family Book - is aimed at research into the Jewish population of Birobidjan, based on archival documentation and other data.

Coordinator Yosef Brener says participation is open to Jewish residents of Birobidjan and from anywhere in the Jewish Autonomous Republic, who will actively gather family photographs, research archival documents, trace and map family trees and create a database to allow easy searching for relatives.

A comprehensive inventory and map of all Jewish graves will be created, in addition to a regional guidebook incorporating the information gathered.

Free access: Ancestry immigration records

Ancestry.com is offering free access to its entire Immigration Collection through the end of November. This collection is normally available only through paid subscriptions, so this is a great opportunity.

Previously, records were only available through 1924 and for only certain ports. The new list includes many new ports (more than 100 ports in total) and into more modern times.

Among the new and updated databases are Baltimore 1820–1948, Boston 1820–1943, California 1893–1957, Galveston 1896–1948, New Orleans 1820–1945, New York 1820–1957 and Philadelphia 1883–1945.

Other records include Detroit, San Francisco and Seattle, and the total number of records is nearly 67 million. Here's a complete list.

To provide access to databases representing more than 100 million passengers, Ancestry's team (including some 1,500 paleographers -- historical handwriting specialists) spent 1.8 million hours to create their index. For the first time, says the company, researchers can look at a single online source to find all available passenger list records.

I will add a caveat that should be followed using any online source. Do not rely on the transcribed text screen, and ALWAYS view the original manifest image if it is available. You know your family's names, while the transcribers, no matter how professional, do not. While the text screen is convenient, it does not replace your own eyes reading the original manifest, which holds additional information and possibly familiar names.

There are still some errors on Ancestry.com (although far fewer than in the Ellis Island Database) but it seems to have gotten better. Our cousin Max, who settled in Springfield, MA, was labeled Menchel Tallesly in the EIDB. At Ancestry, he is Mendel, although still Tallesly instead of Talalay, which is clear (at least to me!) on the scanned manifest.

I submitted a correction for this record and several others I noticed.

During my November meeting with MyFamily.com's Michael Sherrod and Suzanne Russo Adams in Provo, Utah, I was told that all corrections are welcomed. When you click on a passenger's name, the first screen will be a transcribed version of the manifest information. If you discover an error after viewing the original manifest, click on the Comments icon and submit the correction.

I asked Suzanne when corrections are made, and she told me that they are made according to a cycle that spans several months. Your correction may appear soon after you provided it, if you've submitted the correction just prior to a scheduled update, but do be prepared to wait a few months.

19 November 2006

Back to blogging again!

I'm sitting in the airport, waiting for my flight back home, and working on an extensive list of postings. I hope you'll check back in the next few days to read them.

My exhausting trip took me to Houston, Salt Lake City, Seattle, Eugene and Portland.

You've already seen some of my DNA conference postings; Coming up are postings from my interesting visit to MyFamily.com in Provo, Utah, and an interview with Roots Television on the Third Conference on Genetic Genealogy (for surname group administrators) by Family Tree DNA.

In Salt Lake City, the conference committee gathered to go over exciting plans for the 27th IAJGS International Conference on Jewish Genealogy, which will take place there from July 15-20, 2007. For online registration and all information, click here.

In Seattle, there were numerous representatives of the Sephardic community, including my cousins.

It was a delightful experience to be hosted in Seattle by Lyn Blyden and in Eugene by Reeva Kimble. The Stroum JCC on Mercer Island is a great venue.

I was especially impressed by the Eugene audience, which hung in there even though my train was nearly three hours late! It was interesting to meet Eleazar Frohlich of Corvallis, whose family was one of Oregon's pioneer Jewish families. There is a strong book on the Jews of Oregon by Steven Lowenstein.

And in Portland, there was a nice turnout at Ahavath Achim despite a terrible rainstorm.

Congratulations to these three societies for forming a consortium to bring genealogy speakers to the Northwest. While not every speaker will be speaking at all three venues plus Vancouver, there are some great upcoming talks. Michael Goldstein of Jerusalem will be the guest in December. Bennett Greenspan of Family Tree DNA will be visiting in February and, in March, a session on forensic genealogy is planned.

08 November 2006

DNA: Who owns your DNA data, and other ethical issues

Josephine Johnston, from The Hastings Center, a bio-ethics think tank in New York, certainly made us think.

At the DNA conference, she raised many compelling bio-ethics issues confronted by DNA testers and researchers: how to handle an NPE (non-paternity event); who owns DNA samples; what can someone publish; what can they share; and how does a researcher tell a person he is not the biological son of his father?

If someone dies and their DNA sample is still in FTDNA's lab, can someone else ask FTDNA to upgrade the sample to look for more markers?

Genetic information can impact how a person is seen, and may undermine relationships. In cases such as an inheritance, or in determining whether someone is Native American and can make claims to a stake in a tribe, the financial consequences can be steep.

Johnstone discussed both the Sally Hemmings/President Jefferson case and that of the Lemba of Africa.

In the first example, there were both black and white relatives, and there has been major discussion about which Jefferson the black branches descended from.

In the other example, the African Lemba tribe carries the Cohen signature; 130 members were tested. The tribe's priestly clan had the highest numbers of the signature. In this case, participants may hope the test results could enable a "return" to Israel.

DNA: Genghis Khan gives DNA tests a black eye

Bennett Greenspan’s talk included information on a New York Times article about Genghis Khan’s descendant being a mild-mannered guy named Tim Robinson in Miami.

Luckily, a production company that had planned to fly Robinson to Mongolia to meet his “cousins,” called Family Tree DNA for a second opinion before they purchased plane tickets.

Robinson tested at Family Tree DNA in 2003, and told them to call Greenspan for verification. Checking results, it was determined that if he were a Genghis descendant, his haplogroup would be C3, at one end of the tree of mankind. However, Robinson was an R1a, at the other end of the tree.

Bennett called Robinson to see if he could run a deeper test of ancestry called a SNP test. Robinson asked how fast the test could be run, since he was supposed to have lunch with the Mongolian ambassador.

The test was run quickly, confirming that Robinson was not Mongolian. “Fifteen minutes of fame went up in smoke,” says Greenspan, and the lunch was cancelled.

The New York Times printed a retraction.

Greenspan delights in asking audiences how many people read the original story: hands go up throughout the room. He then asks who read the retraction. Fewer hands, even in this DNA-smart audience.

The entire Mongolia incident makes Greenspan uneasy because an inaccurate story received huge coverage, with much less coverage for the retraction after the proper ancestry was confirmed.

“If the industry is going to predict such things, there must be accuracy.” He felt the incident was bad for the company that made the error, but also for the field as a whole. DNA test-takers need to have confidence in the results.

In another story, journalist Howard Wolinsky of the Chicago Sun-Times submitted samples to two genetic genealogy companies. He had already tested at Family Tree DNA. Amazingly, each of the two other companies made a different haplogroup prediction. Wolinsky was confused.

After retesting and reconfirmation, it was evident that Family Tree DNA’s results were accurate and the others were not. One company retested Wolinsky’s sample and confirmed Family Tree DNA’s original prediction. As of the conference date there was no news on the other company’s actions.

How many people test with multiple companies? It’s not known, but an error in labeling a customer can send him on a wild goose chase over several years looking for genealogical connections that don’t exist, such as a possible Native American ancestry prediction.

Although his company's 2003 prediction for Wolinsky was correct, Greenspan feels it is now time to raise the bar for haplogroup testing for genetic genealogy. His company is now providing a SNP assurance program. “If our system doesn’t provide a clear and unambiguous result for any Y-DNA sample, we will upgrade the sample to a confirmed haplogroup for free.”

“We don’t know what other companies will do when presented with the information that Howard has shared with all the principal DNA testing companies, but we feel the time has come to raise the bar for the benefit of all test takers,” he added.

The moral: Tell it correctly, or don’t tell it.

DNA Conference: using DNA to track family

It was a long trip, and I arrived in Houston very late on a rainy night, followed by a gloriously sunny day in the “cradle of genetic genealogy,” as Family Tree DNA president and founder Bennett Greenspan calls the city.

FTDNA was the first company in the world to offer DNA testing to the genealogical community, and its research is at the cutting edge of technology.

The annual conference is aimed at those who administrate DNA projects that use FTDNA -- for single surnames, or for regional or geographic groupings. While some of the nearly 4,000 projects have only a few participants, others have hundreds.

Among the statistics presented by FTDNA that show the surge in this field:

* Some 220,000 DNA swab kits have been processed (including Family Tree DNA and the National Geographic-IBM Project aka Genographic).

* In 2000, the company sent out about 10 kits a month; today they send from 6,000-12,000 kits per month.

* The combined databases for Y-DNA (male) and mtDNA (female) is 116,000; some 4,000 new records are added each month.

* There are 3,642 surname and project groups and the average number of members in each group has increased from 15 to 20 per group, and some have hundreds of participants.

* Y-Search, a public database to which individuals can upload their results, has 34,000 records.

Greenspan's comments began "Like you, I'm a genealogist," adding that participants last year wanted more genealogy and less science, and that's what they've tried to do this year.

Greenspan says that he often discovers matches between people with different surnames. Some of these people then researched where and how the names changed. In one example, a woman took in her sister's child, and the name change was forgotten over history. "We are now finding the ability to unravel historical mysteries.”

As hundreds of people arrived for the intensive two-day Third International Conference on Genetic Genealogy, it was good to see people I knew as well as those whose names I recognized from various discussion groups.

Among the attendees were Elise Friedman, president of the Jewish Genealogical Society of Maryland. She’s the administrator of three DNA projects: the Palevsky and Lifshitz families and the Belarussian Jewish Polesie DNA Study.

Herb Huebscher of New York was at the conference for a study - Wirth-NiGloss - he’s been running which indicates that a group of Eastern European Ashkenazi Jews have Sephardic roots. Huebscher presented his fascinating study at last August’s International Conference on Jewish Genealogy in New York.

It was also nice to meet Marcia and Howard Kaplan of San Francisco’s South Bay area.

History nearly tossed in garbage

History disappears by accident every day.

The Educational Alliance, one of the oldest Jewish settlement houses in New York City, nearly lost some of its heritage that had been stored in a paper bag, forgotten on an auditorium balcony.

Help is on the way, however, according to the New York Times.

It is to rescue records like these, scattered among five agencies that helped Jews settle and adapt in New York City throughout the 20th century, that the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research, a partner of the Center for Jewish History in Manhattan, is undertaking a three-year archival project. The effort, granted $225,000 from the Milstein family and the Howard P. Milstein Foundation, was scheduled to be announced today.

The work, called the Milstein Jewish Communal Archive Project, is planned as a model for preserving the archives of such Jewish agencies nationwide and making the records available to scholars, students and genealogists. It will eventually include a Web site, digitized documents, conferences and fellowships.

Baking matza in Portugal

A new story in the Jerusalem Post touches on Porto and Belmonte, Portugal, on Taini in Italy and on records in London archives.

Over the years, Ari Greenspan and Ari Z. Zivotofsky have taken journeys they call "halachic adventures," as they "combine travels to exotic locations with digging up Jewish history and artifacts as well as uncovering local Jewish law and custom."

Our destination this time was Portugal via Italy in an attempt to trace the roots of the ancient marrano community that has managed to cling tenaciously to some small semblance of Jewish custom, despite close to 500 years of isolation and persecution by the Catholic Church.

Our primary goal on this trip was to see if we could track down any hidden crypto-Jews in Portugal and find out how they had secretly baked their matza for the hundreds of years they practiced their rites clandestinely.

And when they searched London archives, they discovered a 1927 letter referring to anousim communities in Portugal: "700-800 in Bragance, 500 in Vilarinho, over 500 in Moncorvo, a village full in Lagoaca, etc."

Click here for the whole article.

06 November 2006

A look at books

While visiting Houston, friends told me that the biggest Jewish book fair in North America was in session. The 34th Jewish book and arts fair runs for two weeks here, and it was standing room only when we took a look on Sunday.

Throughout the event, more than 30 important authors were scheduled, including Daniel Mendelsohn (The Lost: A Search for Six of Six Million), Rabbi Joseph Telulshkin (A Code of Jewish Ethics), Gary Shteyngart (Absurdistan) and Tom Reiss (The Orientalist).

There were films, children's events, performing groups and an amazing room full of hundreds of titles, along with book signings.

We hit the jackpot on our visit: Dr. Stanley Hordes (To the End of the Earth), Ellen Frankel (Folktales of the Jews, Volume I, Tales from the Sephardic Dispersion) and Alan Dershowitz (What Israel Means to Me by 80 Prominent Writers, Performers, Scholars, Politicians and Journalists).

Due to scheduling conflicts, alas, we could only hear my friend Stanley Hordes, who discussed his new book on the history of Crypto-Jews in New Mexico.

A former New Mexico State historian, Hordes began to hear whispered stories from visitors to his office when he took that job. Stories of people lighting candles on Friday nights, of families "allergic" to pork. Finally, he says, "the lightbulb went on."

This wasn't just dead history he was studying, he realized. Five hundred years later there were still remnants of Jewish traditions surviving all over the American Southwest, with credible stories and preservation of customs.

As Hordes puts it, these Crypto-Jews run the gamut from those who know something about their Jewish roots but don't act on them, to those who have maintained customs throughout the centuries while still living in isolation from those who have made full returns to mainstream Judaism.

The book represents masterful scholarship on Hordes' part, digging through historical records, and conducting painstaking genealogical research in America, in Mexico and in Spain. He covers conversos among the colonial settlers in Mexico and the Southwest, even though "officially" there were no such people.

Among the traditions he discussed were candlelighting, aversion to pork and circumcision. "While candles can be explained away - everyone lights candles - or not eating pork, it is very difficult to explain the continuation of circumcision in a very Catholic-dominated culture," he says.

When asked why more people don't come forward today, Hordes said, "After 500 years of secrecy, that secrecy becomes part of the religion." There are many individuals who will never talk to Hordes or other researchers.

Hordes' next book will be on the Crypto-Jewish presence in Cuba, Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic, and another will be on the Philipines.

The line for his book signing was so long that the book sold out.

"Trendy" to be Jewish in Spain

According to a New York Times article, it has become trendy in Spain to be Jewish or have Jewish roots.

While communities across the country are investigating their Jewish history, some scholars say that local governments, eager to attract affluent Isreali and American tourists, are making claims about Jewish heritage not supported by evidence.

Some cities are promoting Jewish quarters that have no remaining original buildings, or "medieval synagogues that are hardly medieval if they ever functioned as synagogues at all," according to a scholar cited in the article.

Along with this comes an outpouring of new books on Jewish themes, as well as museums, cultural centers and other public expressions of Sephardic tradition.

“It’s the opposite of 300 years ago when people changed their last names to Spanish names and looked for ancestors of pure Spanish blood,” said Javier Casta×Ħo, an expert in Spain’s Jewish history at the Higher Council for Scientific Research in Madrid. “Now it’s trendy to say you have Jewish roots.”

According to the president of the Federation of Jewish Communities in Spain, however, there is a contradictory element: anti-Semitism is also developing, springing from the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

05 November 2006

One man's televised search for his roots

Well worth a read is a genealogy story that begins with a search for Jewish roots by David Baddiel and branches out to the popularity of genealogy sleuthing in the UK, and provides numerous experiences of people searching for their roots.

Baddiel researched his Jewish family history for the BBC genealogy series Who Do You Think You Are? and his experiences are reprised as part of the Times DVD today. The original show aired two years ago this week, but Baddiel is still being contacted by fans.

He says: “Loads and loads of people want to tell me about their family histories now. Complete strangers send me letters containing pages and pages of their family history. It’s sometimes fascinating (he laughs); though sometimes not.”

His family’s own history is markedly short on laughs. His grandparents were among the last Jews to flee Nazi Germany, his grandfather was interned on the Isle of Man and the family lived in poverty in England until the 1960s, when reparation money started trickling through.

02 November 2006

Soon ... in the Northwest

My upcoming trip also takes me from Houston to Salt Lake City for a conference committee meeting for the 27th IAJGS International Conference on Jewish Genealogy(July 15-19, 2007; website will open later this month), and visits to Roots Television and MyFamily.com. Let me know if you have questions you want me to ask while I'm there.

From there, I travel to the Northwest and will speak in Seattle, Eugene and Portland:

Check the society websites for information on time and location.

This will also be a welcome opportunity to meet Tracing the Tribe readers and visit with friends and family.

A busy trip and back in time to start cooking for Thanksgiving