17 February 2007

"Roots" - 30 years later

Do you remember what you were watching on television during the last week of January 1977? A few short weeks ago was the 30th anniversary of a great television series, "Roots."

Nearly 100 million viewers, nearly half the U.S. population, watched the final episode. According to the Museum of Broadcast Communications, 85% of all homes with televisions watched all or part of the series. The seven episodes following the opener earned the top seven spots in that week's ratings.

This series was groundbreaking for the African-American community, of course, but it also pulled at the heartstrings of many other ethnic groups, and helped inspire the contemporary Jewish genealogy movement.

Dan Rottenberg's Finding Our Fathers: A Guidebook to Jewish Genealogy, published in May 1977, is often credited as the catalyst for this movement. In the preface to the book's 1995 reprint, Rottenberg tips his hat to "Roots."

"They say timing is everything in life. Finding Our Fathers enjoyed the good fortune to be published at precisely the moment when the entire country was salivating over Roots, Alex Haley's landmark exercise in black genealogy. And my book came out just months after America's Bicentennial celebration, which had fostered widespread interest in personal history."

In that preface, Rottenberg speaks of meeting Arthur Kurzweil, who was thinking of writing his own genealogy book (which would be From Generation to Generation) in those days, and how their "mutual passion for Jewish genealogy transcended the needs of our individual egos or wallets" as rivals for the same book-buying market.

The men realized that the key to searching for their ancestors was in the creation of a "Jewish genealogy community."

Today, that community is established worldwide, and many Jewish genealogical societies are under the umbrella of the International Association of Jewish Genealogical Societies. The very first was founded in New York, also in 1977!

Rottenberg will be the banquet speaker at the 27th IAJGS International Conference on Jewish Genealogy, July 15-20, 2007, in Salt Lake City, Utah. He will look back on his book and the movement it launched. In retrospect, he'll review where he was farsighted and where he was clueless, and offer predictions about future developments.

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