21 July 2007

IAJGS: Finding Our Fathers 30 years later

Author Dan Rottenberg ("Finding Our Fathers," May 1977) was the banquet speaker, and focused on what has happened in Jewish genealogy over the past three decades.

As a young teen, Rottenberg realized he was the fourth generation of his family in America. He spoke about how helpful both Rabbi Malcom Stern and Arthur Kurzwell were to him. However, his relationships with other institutions were sometimes negative.

When speaking with an elder researcher, the man said "I should be writing that book." A YIVO visit elicited such remarks from an archivist as "it's too complicated, go home." Rottenberg stayed; the man came over later and said "I thought I told you to go home."

"I was too stupid to know it couldn't be done," said Rottenberg about writing his book, "so I did it."

He made two major assumptions in the book:

1. All Jews can trace their family for longer than they thought, and

2. Jews have special advantages for genealogy, such as patterns of Hebrew and fathers' names.

He admitted that he missed two major trends, the internet and DNA genetic genealogy: "There is enough canvas filled with enough Jews to exchange information and find family," said Rottenberg. "Today, we can cross-reference and find the interlocking pieces, and there is much more out there than we think."

Sometimes, he says, he feels like Rip Van Winkle facing a whole new world of esoteric research. He never anticipated the SIGs, Avotaynu, Jewish Records Indexing-Poland or Steve Morse's One-Step Pages in technical developments, Neil Rosenstein in rabbinic research, nor the International Institute of Jewish Genealogy which is attempting to obtain scholarly and academic status for genealogy.

"When I was a kid, I wanted to be a pro footballer and sing baritone at the Met," he said, but he didn't have those talents. He also wanted to trace his family, and that has come to pass.

His theory is that his Rottenberg and other similar-sounding names descend from martyr Meyer of Rothenberg. When held for ransom in the castle of the Holy Roman Emperor, the Emperor thought the Jewish community would ransom him. The rabbi would not permit this as it would set a bad precedent; he was killed. Rottenberg tracked down the castle in Alsace, stood on the remnant of remaining wall and proclaimed his family was still around.

He related an anecdote concerning Yiddish author Isaac Bashevis Singer, who was asked how he felt about writing in a dead language. Singer replied that he wasn't worried: Someday there would be 150 billion people on earth and some would specialize in Yiddish. Rottenberg feels that some of those 150 billion will specialize in Jewish genealogy; already there are several thousand.

Rottenberg posed some questions: What about when millions are doing academic genealogy, when the audience is big enough to make a lot of money, and what about when some billionaire thinks Jewish genealogy is a terrific way to maintain Jewish identity and continuity?

Rottenberg believes we are just at the beginning of this movement, and our descendents will certainly reap the benefits.


  1. Anonymous1:31 PM

    This is absolutely true! Many are coming to this understanding across the Americas. Expecially in New Mexico. I'm here in Arizona and have been seeking out my hebrew roots. I have found out much on both sides of my parents, that my great grandparents were Saphardic Jews from Spain. I will be buying your books! I'm so excited and filled with peace about this new found understanding of my ancestry.
    Shalom, Hanna

  2. Hi, Hanna

    Nice to hear from you. Yes, people are coming out of the woodwork. Do read Dr. Stan Hordes' To The End of the Earth, concerning the Converso roots of early NM and other southwest settlers.