Monthly Archives: November 2011

1st Blogiversary: The Year in Review

One year ago today I started this blog. It seems like a lot longer. So much has happened in the past year, that I thought I would share a bit of my experiences from the past year, and point to some of the articles and features I’ve added to this site that I’m most proud.

My first post one year ago asked the question of whether I should switch from the genealogy program Reunion, which I’ve used for more than 15 years, to the then recently introduced Mac version of Family Tree Maker (FTM). At the time, I didn’t feel it made sense. Since then I’ve actually taken part in beta testing the next version of FTM for the Mac (due out any day now, currently in pre-sale for 20% off). They’ve added the incredible feature of syncing your tree with an online tree on Ancestry.com. There are still some issues that may prevent me from switching, but they are definitely moving in the right direction. The one missing feature that may seem minor, but which just means a lot of work for me to switch (and heck, I’m lazy), is the ability to virtually crop photos when displaying them on a specific user’s profile. For example, you can use one family photo that has ten people, and crop a headshot for each family member from the single photo (without having to actually crop the photo in another program). I’ll hold judgement until the final version is released soon, however.

The first article that I posted of real genealogical content was the next day, when I published the article Researching Jewish Relatives Who Passed Through Belgium.That article, now very much out of date, formed the basis of the lecture ‘Utilizing Belgian Archives for Jewish Research’ I would later give at the IAJGS International Conference on Jewish Genealogy in Washington, DC this past August.

Website Features

In preparation for that lecture, I also created an index browser for the one of the record sets I discuss, located at the Felix Archives in Antwerp. This was quite a lot of work, linking over 5,000 index page images (showing over 10,000 pages) to the images on the Felix Archives website (which is in Flemish only).

The updated information provided in that lecture then formed the basis of a forthcoming article in the journal AVOTAYNU: The International Review of Jewish Genealogy. One thing I’ve learned in publishing in the print format, compared to publishing online, is that there’s a limit on space. Maybe I’d be a better writer if I was always limited in how much I could write, but I like being able to use as many illustrations as I want online. While I will probably post a more detailed and updated version of my original second-day article to this blog, for the moment I have a page (tab also above) with all the links and resources mentioned in the lecture and article kept up to date.

In addition to the index browser I put together for my lecture, I also created several other unique resources on my site over the past year.

Click for info on Forms

Some of my most popular resources are the PDF Forms I created. These genealogy forms include an Ancestor Form (Pedigree Chart), Family Form, Sibling Form, Ancestor Location Form, and the very unique US Immigrant Census Form. What is unique about all of these forms, is that they are fillable on the computer, can be printed in Letter or A4 sizes, text entered into a field that is too long for the field will shrink to fit, and the forms can be linked to each other. Forms are linked, for example, when you fill out an Ancestor Form and want to add the siblings of the source person’s parent, you just fill out a Sibling Form and write the number of the sibling form next to the name of the parent on the Ancestor Form. These forms are intended for those new to genealogy, but also for experienced genealogists who want to use them to collect information from other relatives. The US Immigrant Census Form is useful to anyone doing research on immigrants who arrived in the US between 1860 and 1930. For more information on all of these forms, go to the Forms page (also a tab on the top of all pages of my blog).

Another popular resource is my page on US Naturalizations. Besides discussing different options for retrieving US naturalization papers, I also provide the list of records available from the National Archive through their electronic ordering system. Normally you need to log into their system and start filling out the form to order before you can see what is available. My page tells you what years records exist for through the various locations around the US.

One of the features that doesn’t get a lot of notice, but which I spent a considerable amount of time developing, is my B&F Enhanced Search Engine. Inspired by the Mocavo genealogy search engine, I created my very own search engine using Google tools, and it is very good at finding genealogy records connected to names you enter into it. It also has an additional benefit for people searching for information from towns in the former Austrian province of Galicia, in that it will automatically expand town names so variants of the town names are also searched. The reason it is only for Galicia is that Google restricts how many of these substitutions you can use, so I picked a small region to test it out. If you have family from Galicia (like all of my father’s family) you’re in luck.

Most Popular Articles

The five most popular articles on this blog in the past year were:

  1. Finding and getting copies of Jewish records in Poland
  2. Jewish Genealogy Basics: Mailing Lists
  3. Jewish Gravestone Symbols
  4. Finding Information on US Immigrants
  5. Genealogy Folder Organization: The B&F System

The most interesting thing about that list is each article is very different.

The first article, explaining how to retrieve copies of Jewish vital records from Poland, was a surprisingly popular article. It is very long, and perhaps no one had gone into that much detail on the notoriously different process of ordering records from Poland before. That article has also been published in print, over two issues of the Pineles Genealogist (actually more accurately half has been published, the other half coming in the next issue). I was also asked to publish a modified form of this article in another genealogy journal, but unfortunately did not have to the time to make the changes necessary.

The second article is a guide to Jewish genealogy mailing lists, on JewishGen, Rootsweb, Yahoo, etc. It is an attempt to be a comprehensive list of mailing lists of interest to Jewish genealogists. This article is one of several ‘Basics’ articles I’ve published in the past year, trying to help people get started in genealogy. Other ‘Basics’ articles include an article on the JewishGen Family Finder (critical for Jewish genealogy), Ancestral Towns (Shtetls), and the more general Historical Newspapers and Up, Down and Sideways (a look at researching through collateral relatives). In addition, I have guest-published a series of articles on the JewishGen Blog, called JewishGen Basics, which take a detailed look at some of the more important features of the JewishGen website. Some of these articles are expansions of articles that originally appeared on my own blog.

Jewish Gravestone Symbols

A very popular article, and something that seems to get consistent traffic, is my article on Jewish Gravestone Symbols. It is a very visual look at many of the symbols used on Jewish gravestones, based on a set of photographs I shot almost twenty years ago while in Poland. I was going through my old negatives and when I found my pictures from Poland, I decided I had to scan the gravestone images and turn them into an article. There are a few books on the subject of Jewish gravestone symbols, but not a whole lot online, which I suppose is why the article gets a lot of traffic.

Naturalization Petition

Finding Information on US Immigrants is one of my favorite articles, and one I almost set up as a dedicated page like the page on naturalization records. In helping others with their genealogy, one of the big brick-walls people tend to run into, especially among American Jewish genealogists, is figuring out where their ancestors were from before coming to the United States. This article attempts to help people figure out where their family is from by looking at various resources that can provide clues, such as census records, passenger manifests, military draft cards, naturalization papers and historical newspapers. I think it’s the only article that I added a Table of Contents to, to make it easier to navigate quickly (as people can use it as a reference). The information in this article, combined with the US Immigrant Census Form I created, can really help people whose families came to the US in the several decades before and after the turn of the century to figure out where they originated.

Folder Organization

The last article among my top five is one about folder organization. It describes how I organize my genealogy files – what I call the B&F System. Everyone organizes their information differently, but this article describes how I try to keep track of images and documents connected to thousands of individuals. The key is being able to find exactly what you’re looking for quickly, and to be able to know what you have for every individual at a glance. No system is perfect, but my system is an attempt to minimize the many compromises that emerge when organizing so many files and folders.

Lectures

As mentioned earlier, I spoke in DC this past summer at the IAJGS International Conference on Jewish Genealogy, on the topic of Utilizing Belgian Archives for Jewish Research. In addition to that lecture, I’ve made a few other lectures here in Israel since starting this blog.

My first lecture was actually on the topic of genetic genealogy (The ABCs of DNA), which I gave in Ra’anana back in May. This lecture was based in part on my article Using DNA for Genealogy: Y-DNA and mtDNA, although the lecture also included a discussion of using Autosomal DNA for genealogy, but I still haven’t written an article on that topic. I gave a version of that same lecture in Modi’in (where I live) the next month with Richard Gussow, whose personal genetic genealogy success story added a very important personal touch to the lecture. Like the nice color diagram of DNA inheritance?

Perceptions of Relationship

Speaking of diagrams (I think visually, so I like making diagrams) I recently published my own version of the famous cousin calculator table in my somewhat philosophical discussion of Perceptions of Relationship, where I try to see if how we perceive our relationship to our cousins match with an objective measure (percentage of shared DNA).

Another topic I recently lectured on twice is Preserving Family Photographs: Physical and Digital. That lecture is based in part on my article from back in January, Preserving Photographic Prints, Slides and Negatives, but also adds information on scanning photos and options for backing up your digital files. I gave this lecture last week in Jerusalem, and this week in Modi’in. A good overview of how to start with drawers full of photos and slides and organize them, place them in archival sheets and binders, and then digitize everything and back everything up. Perhaps this will make it into a screencast one day if I get around to doing screencasts – it’s on my list. 

Social Networks

One of the more interesting aspects of blogging isn’t the blogging at all, but connecting to others through social media. Before I started blogging, I used Twitter passively as a way to follow news I was interested in, not to send anything. When I started blogging I quickly moved to using Twitter more actively, both to follow other genealogy bloggers, but also to promote my blog articles. Over the past year I’ve added 265 followers on Twitter (twitter.com/bloodandfrogs). Over 150 people subscribe to the blog via e-mail. Facebook, however, is where I have the most followers, with over 2500 fans (facebook.com/jewishgenealogy). Facebook is also where I am able to interact more directly with my readers, answering questions and helping people with their research if I can.

Another kind of social network is geneabloggers. A social network is, after all, just new-fangled name for a community. Geneabloggers, with Thomas MacEntee at the helm, has really helped create a community between the many people out there that blog about genealogy. Many thanks (and complete awe at how he does everything in a 24-hour day) to Thomas for working so hard to build and old-school social network among genealogy bloggers.

What’s Next?

It’s been a busy year, and I really have no idea what will be coming up in the next year.

Many genealogy blogs are about the person’s personal genealogy. I have specifically tried to avoid discussing my own genealogy in the blog, however, as my goal was always to provide information that others would find useful in their own genealogy. I think maybe this year I will include more of my family research as a way to explain how I found certain pieces of information, on the hope that others will be able to replicate the techniques I used. In the end, however, tomorrow is promised to no one, and we’ll have to wait and see…

Why We Do Genealogy

This is a touchy topic I think, mainly because there are so many reasons individuals do genealogy, and moreover people have very different connections to their families, and in some related fashion connections to their genealogical work.

This article is a more general view, but if you’re interesting in finding out why I, specifically, do genealogy, my recent guest-post on The Scrappy Genealogist’s blog titled Philip Trauring – How He Does It – Secrets from a Geneadaddyblogger is probably the best exposition on that topic (as well as why I blog about genealogy).

This article is partly a book review, or rather it is a book review intertwined with my view as to why people do genealogy. I’m not sent books to review by genealogy or Jewish publishers, and in any event this book was published by the University of Nebraska Press, so yes I bought this book to enjoy it. The book is What They Saved: Pieces of a Jewish Past by Nancy K. Miller. I wasn’t familiar with Ms. Miller’s work before, and perhaps if I had read some of her other books, including an earlier book on the death of her father, I might have had a different perspective, but I’ll write my impression based on the book as it stands on its own.

Of course, nothing stands on its own. I came to be interested in the book because it related to genealogy, and specifically Jewish genealogy. That background colors my view of the book, to be certain, as does my own history.

The book’s title, What They Saved, is as good as any place to start. Maybe I’m crazy, but the title strongly reminded me of Tim O’Brien’s collection of Vietnam-based fictional stories, The Things They Carried. Miller is a professor of English and Comparative Literature, as well as a literary critic, so I would guess she has read the book or is at least aware of it. I am not a literary critic, so perhaps the convention used in naming both books is some know method (The Third-Person Perspective Descriptive Method – I’m kidding), but it still struck me for some reason as connected. As Ms. Miller is a literary critic, I hope she doesn’t take offense at me pointing this out (or anything else I’m about to write).

So why do we do genealogy? It’s a question many people reading this have probably asked themselves, but even more likely it’s a question the people reading this article have been asked by others repeatedly. Why do you do genealogy? Why do you care about people who have been dead for a hundred years? What are you going to do with all this information you’re collecting? The questions come in many forms, but most people who spend a lot of time doing genealogy get asked the same thing again and again.

Before answering the question, I think it’s worth taking a look at why Ms. Miller decided to pursue her own family history. Her grandfather was a religious Jewish immigrant to the United States, coming with his wife and son. Her father was born in the US after her grandparents and uncle immigrated. Her father and uncle took very different paths in their lives, her father the upstanding lawyer, her uncle a gangster-hanger-on before moving out west and going through more life-role-changes than a Rockette goes through costume-changes. Ms. Miller doesn’t spend much time in the book on her relationship with her father – perhaps that was covered in her earlier book. She instead spends a lot of time trying to track down what happened to the uncle she never knew who moved out west and was everything from a bar owner, to military man, to small town mayor, to seeming vagabond.

It’s interesting to note that Ms. Miller’s original surname, that of her father and uncle, was actually Kipnis. In her evolution to feminist activist in the 1970s she took on her mother’s maiden name, Miller, and kept it after getting married. She interestingly points out a correspondence she discovers between her father and uncle on preserving the Kipnis name (her father had only daughters and her uncle’s only son also only had a daughter), while also remembering that her father, the lawyer, helped her fill out the name-change form when she made that decision.

There is almost a melancholy overtone to the whole book, as Ms. Miller doggedly pursues the clues to her family’s past, yet openly recognizes that since neither she nor her sister had any children, there will be no one to inherit the information she gathers. Perhaps, as she points out her uncle donating personal items to a museum to be stored, alongside items belongs to Wyatt Earp and others from his region in Arizona, as a way to perpetuating the Kipnis name, she too is seeking to perpetuate the name and her family through her book.

Ms. Miller’s book did not go into a lot of detail on the genealogical side, and indeed from a genealogical point-of-view it is a bit unsatisfying. The idea of taking a few found-objects left behind by your family and using those objects to reconstruct one’s family tree is a nice idea, but the amount of work needed to do that is not really described, but somewhat assumed in the book. As a family memoir it is interesting, but as a genealogy book it leaves out a few too many details. Indeed one of the simpler things I found was that whenever she would describe a truly significant item she would almost never show a photograph of that item. There are very few photographs in the book, and usually they are not particularly significant. In one instance, she shows the outside of an album which has no genealogical value (but has symbolic value) instead of showing the items she describes as being inside the album. Ms. Miller is of course a writer first, so she probably feels that it is more important to write about the objects than to show them. Perhaps that is the fault of my visual nature, a bias of mine, but it was still somewhat disappointing. Ms. Miller does add some photographs to her book’s website, although not that you would know anything about the website when reading the book – I googled the book when writing this article and only came across the site by chance.

So why do people do genealogy?

Some do it out of a strong desire to know where they originated. We are the product of our parents, grandparents and great-grandparents’ life decisions. If my gg-grandfather had moved to Israel like his in-laws (my ggg-grandparents), his world, and indeed the world of everyone that came after him would be very different. If my gg-grandfather had decided to stay in New York like his brother, rather than returning to Europe, things would also be very different. Learning about ones ancestors, and seeing how the decisions they made affected their lives can put ones’ own life choices into perspective.

Some people do genealogy as a way to connect their children or grandchildren to their past – a way of grounding them. Teenagers have a way of thinking they know better than their parents, and think everything they do is unique and their parents can’t possibly understand the decisions they have to make. While your great-grandparents didn’t have to worry about which cell phone would run the apps they need to communicate with their friends, or deal with injuries like Texting Teen Tendonitis, they made very real decisions on where to live, where to work, how they wanted to educate their children, etc. that can help your children realize that many decisions you made for them are not so different then the decisions that were made by their parents, or their grandparents, and one day the decisions that they themselves will need to make. The details may change, but the overall decisions stay the same.

Other people do genealogy as a way to connect them to people in the past, either famous people, royalty, or in the case of Jewish genealogists, frequently famous rabbis. Saying a descendant of the Vilna Gaon is kind of like the Jewish version of my ancestor was an indian princess (with apologies to those who are actually descendants of the Vilna Gaon).

For some, genealogy is about the detective story where you and your family are at the center. Some people read detective fiction for fun, others enjoy the detective work required to piece together one’s family tree. Figuring out where to find the records you need to prove (or at least mostly prove) where and when you ancestors were born is a challenge, even under the best of situations. The challenge is a major motivator for people, and successes in finding obscure records and proving theories on where different ancestors came from can be very satisfying. Breaking through a genealogical brick wall is akin to playing golf and getting a hole in one. It doesn’t happen often, and usually only happens with very experienced players (although some people get lucky), but even for the most experienced players, getting a hole in one is a reason to celebrate. So too, some genealogy is easy and some requires a lot of experience to achieve (and sometimes you get lucky), and when you find that one record that sends you back another generation, links different branches of a family that you had not previously been able to link, or directs you to an ancestral town you were not aware of, it is a time to celebrate.

I admit to not understanding every kind of genealogist. There are those who seem to have a compulsive need to add names to their family tree, but are not interested enough in the individuals they are adding to actually verify their information. If they find an online tree with some of the same people they are researching, they are likely to just download that tree and integrate it into their own, without knowing the quality of the tree they are downloading. That’s one kind of genealogist I just don’t understand. Sure, it’s easy to copy trees from the Internet, certainly easier than adding source citations to every piece of information you add to your tree. Genealogy is one of those things where I think quality definitely beats out quantity. Partly by virtue of Ms. Miller’s relatively small family, she commendably seems to have spent time trying to find as much as possible about each individual in her tree – at least on her father’s side which is the focus of the book.

Ms. Miller’s motivations seem to fall primarily in the first category described. This is brought forth by the sub-title of the book: Pieces of a Jewish Past. To whose past is she referring? Her past? The ‘They’ in ‘What They Saved’ presumably excludes it being her past. Her parents past? or that of her grandparents? maybe she is collectively referring to all her ancestors? She explains that her father had little to do with Judaism, and she herself left almost all vestiges of Judaism behind (including, as she feels the need to point out, that she and her sister married non-Jews). Yet, with all of this, she keeps the tefillin (phylactery) boxes she finds among her father’s possession as a kind of desk ornament along with photos of her family. Did her father have a stronger connection to his Jewish faith than his daughter knew, or was this pair of tefillin kept for the same reason his daughter decided to keep them, as a kind of bridge to the past. Indeed, it’s even possible the author was wrong in ascribing the pair of tefillin to her father, for he could have been keeping his own father’s tefillin in the same way his daughter kept what she thought was his.

I think this motivation, of wanting to know where one came from, is ironically prevalent among many people who start looking into their family history as they reach their retirement years. I can’t say for sure, but perhaps this genealogy is a form of introspection. You’ve lived your life and made the major decisions that put you, and possibly your children and grandchildren, in the places they are now. You start to wonder, did I make the right decisions? There’s a lot to learn by looking at how each branch your family differs. If you start out a hundred years ago and look at the different choices two brothers made, and how those simple decisions determined in large part the different lives their descendants lived, you can in some fashion extrapolate those differences to the decisions you made in your family, and how those decisions will have an effect on future generations of your family.

Why do you do genealogy?

My motivation for doing genealogy is some combination of understanding how the choices we make have a profound effect on future generations, as well as enjoying the detective work. When my children are older, I suspect I will also want to use the work I’ve done to connect my children to their past, but my children are too young right now.

So let’s continue the conversation. Why do you do genealogy? Do you fall into one or more of the categories I’ve described above, or do you have totally different motivations? Post a comment below and share your motivations for doing genealogy.

Paris 2012

The next IAJGS International Conference on Jewish Genealogy will take place next year, July 15-18, 2012 in Paris, France. Hopefully the fact that it starts the day after Bastille Day will not be a problem. If you are planning to attend, I suggest booking your flight and hotel as early as possible.

The conference has officially opened up registration, and has set up a website to get further information, to register, and to find out information about the hotel (the Hotel Marriott Paris Rive Gauche).

The conference is being hosted by the IAJGS and the Cercle de Généalogie Juive, in partnership with the Jewish genealogical societies of Belgium, Luxembourg and Switzerland.

There is also a call for lecture proposals. Proposals can be submitted until April 30, and should include a 10-20 line abstract and short bio. Decisions on lectures will be made before May 30.