11 September 2006

At the IIJG: A forest of family trees

Genealogy leaders from several countries gathered Sunday night in the intimate atmosphere of Hebrew University’s Beit Belgia. Although many had recently attended the recent New York conference, this event was ground-breaking.

Some 80 guests attended the opening of the International Institute for Jewish Genealogy's symposium on "Jewish Genealogy: Research and Teaching Priorities." The conference would, as Gary Mokotoff of Avotaynu commented, be remembered as the day genealogy emerged from a hobby to an academic pursuit.

Israel’s President Moshe Katsav sent a message commenting that despite exiles, deportations and persecutions, the Jewish people had preserved their heritage. He wrote that research into family roots emphasizes and supports Jewish continuity.

Douglas E. Goldman of San Francisco spoke about his initial connection to genealogy, at the age of 12 or 13, when he interviewed his three living grandparents. “I felt that this was an important thing to do,” he said.

Institute director Neville Lamdan said that, beyond the immediate horizon of deciding how to teach genealogy, the greater challenge is gaining recognition of Jewish genealogy as a distinct field in Jewish studies, and as an equal academic partner rather than as a mere hobby popular with the masses.

Although there are more than 60 universities with strong Jewish studies programs, not one teaches genealogy. Lamdan said it must be made a field of inquiry that contributes to Jewish learning in general and to the continuity of the Jewish people.

While Jewish history is the focus of Jewish studies, it is not the only discipline, added Lamdan. “We look at Jewish history through the prism of genealogy at the human and intimate level, extend Jewish family history to communities, then to the realm of Jewish social history.”

Contemporary historians study ordinary men and women who lived through history and survived, developing a subculture while preserving personal lineages and family histories.

Genealogy links to oral history, economic history, intellectual history, even to military history. Its connections are not only to social disciplines or humanities, but also to exact and medical sciences. Multi-disciplinary, inter-disciplinary and cross-cultural, it provides, for example, comparisons between Ashkenazi and Sephardic research, Jewish and non-Jewish communities in the same geographical area.

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