28 August 2006

At the Catskills conference: Going back

My return to the Catskills, after more than three decades, began on a Shortline bus from New York City. A stormy sky provoked a flashback to a similar trip when I was 5 or 6, as we set out from the Bronx on our annual trek to my grandparents’ bungalow colony in Kauneonga Lake.

The terrifying trip had been punctuated by thunder and lightning ended when we finally reached the refuge of my grandparents’ Catskills Tudor house, with its brightly-lit country kitchen, large black cast-iron stove, pine-panelled living room and big fireplace.

On this trip, I tried to spot Wurtsboro Hill, where cars used to overheat and where we stopped for ice cream at the Red Apple, but the rain was so heavy that I couldn’t see a thing.

The drive made me think of friends from long ago, of far-away places, of travelling somewhere in my grandfather’s car, filled with people and grey with cigar smoke.

Among the pleasant memories were picking blueberries and the Great Cow Roundup, when an adjacent farm’s bovines broke through the baseball field’s fence and wandered among the bungalows. Urban mothers tried to protect their kids from these wild dairy cows, but it was hard to tell who was more frightened. I think it was the cows.

My grandmother’s tall tales of thunder being caused by Henry Hudson’s men bowling in the mountains used to calm me during the spectacular electrical storms of my childhood.

The signs flashed by: 5 miles to Wurtsboro, 17 to Monticello, Town of Thompson. A billboard for the new Bethel Woods Arts Center, built where Max Yasgur’s farm once hosted Woodstock. Who from the old days would have believed that the Boston Pops would be in the Catskills, playing a program of Broadway music as they are this weekend at the new center?

At the Catskills conference: A tour of faded glory

We went on a three-hour tour of the Catskills on a wet Saturday afternoon, driving past the remains of hotels and bungalow colonies of all sizes that had catered to Jewish vacationers in the golden days.

Today we saw land where only memories remain, the boarded-up windows and empty shells. In other cases, formerly famous resorts have been transformed into Orthodox and Hasidic yeshivot, schools, camps and homes.

Every seat on the bus was filled by those who had spent a large part of their lives here, mostly during summer holidays.

Said one visitor, “It was like seeing Indian ruins.”

We stopped for a tour of the small family-owned Mayflower Hotel, built in the 1920s. It had become the Pentecostal Bethel Sunshine Camp, but was abandoned about a decade ago. It's in surprisingly good exterior shape, but many interiors were not as well-preserved.

“It was a genuinely depressing sight,” said a New Jersey resident who spent many summers in Kauneonga Lake, adding that the county should require that the abandoned empty shells be torn down.

A high point was seeing Hurleyville, whose main street was lined with large, beautifully restored Victorian homes and antique shops.

Other towns, like Woodbourne, are lined with shops catering to the religious communities, with branches of businesses from Brooklyn, Queens and Long Island, as well as kosher food suppliers.

At the Catskills conference: Places to stay, places to pray

Preserving the Jewish legacy of the Catskills is a "holy" task for Phil Brown and others who spent many of their formative years there.

Brown showed images of the gateposts of the Catskills’ defunct, demolished hotels and bungalow colonies, comparing them to the Jewish admonition to write words of remembrance on the doorposts of our homes. In a reference to Dvarim, he added that it was only after 40 years of wandering in the desert that we were once again to have doorposts and gates.

But despite the years of decline, l’dor v’dor (from generation to generation), Jews are still in the Catskills.

In the old days in little towns across Sullivan County, synagogues took root – some simple, some truly elegant.

Jewish farmers arrived in the 1890s, but synagogues were few and far between, so groups of farmers jointly hired teachers for their children. The teacher lived with each family for a month in turn. Families traveled long distances for kosher food, and could barely gather a minyan for the Holidays. HIAS also sent teachers.

Some families kept Torah scrolls in their homes for as long as 10 years, and welcomed tiny congregations into their houses until permanent structures could be built, and itinerant rabbis led services.

Mountaindale’s shul was built in 1919, South Fallsburg in 1920 and the elegant Livingston Manor congregation in 1924. Brown showed slides of the Ellenville congregation, of the Liberty Street shul in Monticello, and of Beth El in Kauneonga Lake. Few knew that the last was named Beth El because Kauneonga is in the town of Bethel.

Some 11 of these synagogues are on the National Register of Historic Sites, and details include large stained-glass windows, fan windows, and so-called Mission-style architectural elements which, says Brown, were really taken from details of Polish wooden synagogues.

Into the 1950s, some congregations kept their minutes in Yiddish, while larger hotels published their own prayerbooks and had their own wine labels on Shabbat bottles. Some had dedicated rooms for synagogues, while others held services in card rooms.

Commenting on the increasing trend of ultra-Orthodox and Hasidim coming to the Catskills, Brown said that because these groups have large families, long-distance travel is often impractical. They also require organized communities for ritual observance and learning, as well as large housing units.

In some ways, says Brown, these new groups resemble the original Jewish settlers in 1890 and later vacationers in the 1940s-1950. They are observant and are building communities. The downside is that these major religious communities are exempt from taxes and, according to conference attendees, Sullivan County residents now have increasing taxes to pay for county services.

A new development drawing people to the Catskills is the magnificent new Bethel Arts Center on the Yasgur Farm/Woodstock site. On Saturday night, the Boston Pops performed to an audience of 12,000.

At the Catskills conference: What killed the Catskills?

Phil Brown of the Catskills Institute says that he’s been able to identify some 800 bungalow colonies and more than 1,000 hotels that operated in the area.

Among the attendees this weekend were a group of guys who have been friends since 1955 when they began spending summers in White Lake and Kauneonga Lake and have kept in close touch. Other conference-goers remarked on the way they keep renewing connections they made so long ago.

What killed the Catskills, as we knew it?

Novelist Eileen Pollack, whose parents ran Pollack’s Hotel in Liberty (where she was born), says she has spent 50 years trying to get away, but she is continually drawn to the area and her writing is born of that experience.

Pollack refers to the three A's that did in the Catskills: air conditioning, air travel and assimilation.

You didn’t have to leave the steaming city for the countryside once it became bearable to stay home.

Upward mobility meant more families could afford air travel, even to their ancestral homes in Europe.

Assimilation meant that modern Jewish families didn’t feel the need to spend an entire summer with those of the same background. They could go anywhere for vacations, and they did.

But we were back there this weekend, reminiscing with old friends and new, hearing from pioneers, authors and scholars.

26 August 2006

At the Catskills conference: Back to the Borsht Belt

And so they came to Kutsher’s for the 12th Catskills Institute Conference.

From Honolulu, Bob and Harriet Hoffman; from Jacksonville, Florida, Ron and Susan Elinoff; Hal Bookbinder, who lives near Los Angeles, and a crowd of others, all with a Catskills connection.

Hal, past president of the International Association of Jewish Genealogical Societies, grew up in Ellenville, not far from Monticello, and was here showing the area to his daughter.

The Hoffmans had just attended the International Conference on Jewish Genealogy and after hearing Phil Brown’s talk, immediately decided to come for at least a portion of the conference. Earlier in the day, they had successfully tracked down Bob’s great-grandfather in a local well-preserved Jewish cemetery. His family was among early Jewish families in the area.

Although Harriet is from the West Coast, on her first Borsht Belt visit, Bob had spent summers here. At dinner, the couple across the table heard that the Hoffmans lived in from Honolulu, and began a game of Jewish geography. Did she know the wife’s first cousin, an optician? Yes, said Harriet, who is in the eyewear business, very well. The Long Island couple wrote out contact information and Harriet promised to call their cousin.

Ron and I seem to know a lot of the same people from the old days. While saving money for dental school, Ron used to work for Mendelson’s butcher in Kauneonga Lake, where my grandmother bought her kosher meat. Several familiar names will be spending Saturday at the conference and I’m looking forward to seeing them again.
"By the way," said Ron at dinner, "my first cousin is an avid genealogist in New York." His cousin is Mike Levine of the Jewish Genealogical Society (NY), which hosted the recent conference, and whom I’ve known for several years.

Catskills Institute founder Phil Brown offered a slide show of the Borsht Belt in its heyday, including postcards of area resorts by artist Alfred Landes.

A talk by Joan Micklin Silver on the making of her film Hester Street was followed by a screening. The production’s bottom line can be viewed as “be careful what you wish for.”

It portrays an Americanized Russian immigrant in 1896 on the Lower East Side, and the arrival of his old-country wife and son. Jake wants a modern New World wife, not one from the shtetl. But Gitl eventually becomes much more acculturated than Jake really wants.

At the ICJG: Power of the Net

At ICJG, JewishGen, www.jewishgen.org, the world’s largest Jewish genealogy website, presented some impressive statistics about their growth, and by extension the growth of online Jewish genealogical research.

* Some 205,000 registered users from 179 countries are joined by 5,000 new people every month, with 50% from outside the United States. Many subscribe to the general discussion group or one of 30 specialized groups, such as Belarus, Sephardic or rabbinical research.

* In 2005, more than 78,000 researchers performed 8.3 million searches in JewishGen’s databases. The JewishGen Family Finder holds about 400,000 entries.

* The site's Family Tree of the Jewish People has 3.5 million records submitted by 3,000 researchers.

* The Jewish Online Worldwide Burial Registry has 600,000 records from 1,450 cemeteries, including more than 36,000 images of gravestones.

A new feature, unveiled at the conference, provides satellite images and maps. I accessed Mogilev, Belarus and by using the arrows, was able to locate my ancestral shtetl of Vorotinschtina, southwest of the city.

Volunteers are always needed in areas of data entry, quality control, project coordination and technical support. If you’d like to help, check www.jewishgen.org/JewishGen/Volunteer.html.

Was Zayde a Mormon? The controversy over posthumous baptisms

In 1995, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, whose members are known as LDS or Mormons, signed an agreement with the heads of many Jewish organizations, in which the church agreed to stop posthumous baptism of Jews, particularly of Holocaust victims, and remove the names of “inappropriately entered” individuals.

Since then, ongoing meetings have done little to address the practice except to provide a way to remove the names of those “inappropriately” entered into their International Genealogical Index. The IGI has a public section, available to all, and a private section, which holds the details of church rites performed on an individual. The private section is only accessible with a church-supplied password for its members.

To see if your Jewish ancestors have been entered in the IGI, go to www.familysearch.org, and do a search for results in the IGI, not the Social Security Death Index database.

This volatile issue and its continued practice, despite the signed agreement, is taken very seriously by many Jewish family history researchers. While some say they don’t care what non-Jewish rites are performed on Jews after death because it won’t change anything, many others feel that subjecting those who lived and died as Jews (and were murdered because they were) to baptism is a repugnant, insulting act.

A third group believes the process creates fraudulent records. They fear the possibility of future generations researching their families and seeing grandparents, parents, aunts and uncles and ancestors of long ago listed in the IGI. Descendants will think that Zayde (grandfather in Yiddish) was a Mormon, when nothing could be further from the truth.

Researcher Helen Radkey has proven over the years that thousands of Holocaust victims and others who were buried in Jewish cemeteries or listed in Jewish organization records have been similarly baptized after the signing of the 1995 agreement which was to have ended the practice.

Additionally, Radkey discovered that the lack of quality control on data entry by church members has resulted in the strange phenomena of cartoon character Mickey Mouse and even the Easter Island stone statues being accorded church rites.

Genealogist Gary Mokotoff has attended all the Salt Lake City meetings between Mormon and Jewish representatives. He provided a brief report of the most recent meeting to the Jewish genealogical society delegates at the recently concluded International Conference on Jewish Genealogy, which offered some hope that an entry pre-screening process would be instituted.

A detailed report of the latest meeting appears in Mokotoff's Nu? What's New bi-weekly newsletter.

To read about the London Beth Din and how those Jewish records ended up in the IGI, go to www.avotaynu.com/nu/V07N12.htm. For the detailed report of the latest meeting, see www.avotaynu.com/nuwhatsnew.htm. For more on the controversy and the 1995 agreement, www.jewishgen.org/InfoFiles/ldsagree.html

22 August 2006

At the ICJG: It's all Greek

For 2,000 years, Greek-speaking Romaniote Jews have lived in Ioannina in the Pindos Mountains foothills of northwest Greece.

At the ICJG, Marcia Haddad-Ikonomopoulos shared her years of research into naming patterns in this community (also spelled Yannina or Janina). As museum director of Kehila Kedosha Janina (Holy Congregation of Ioannina) on New York City’s Lower East Side, and president of the Association of Friends of Greek Jewry, she is well-versed in its history and traditions.

When young Yanniote men began immigrating to New York, they founded the still-active congregation in 1927, and maintained a relationship with their ancestral town.

The museum has a large collection of the Yanniote tradition of Alephs, unique hand-painted birth certificates hung over each baby boy’s crib for 40 days. Importantly for researchers, each includes the names of baby, father and grandfather.

In a common Romaniote pattern, the father's name is passed down to the next generation. For example, if Solomon has children, each son’s first son and each daughter’s second son would be named Solomon. Many surnames are of Hebrew or Biblical origin with Greek suffixes, such as Bechoropolous (the son of a first-born son).

During the Holocaust, 1,960 Yanniotes were deported, of which 1,850 perished.

In 2003, the New York synagogue obtained Greek archival material, including a list of those who died; their names are inscribed in stone on Ioannina’s synagogue walls. The book In Memory of the Jewish Community of Ioannina, which is available at the museum, lists surnames, family nicknames, given names, ages, occupations and maiden names, if known. A survivors’ list is included.

For information about the synagogue and museum, call 212-431-1619, or go to www.kkjsm.org. Click on “Archives” for Haddad-Ikonomopoulos’ detailed conference presentation.

20 August 2006

At the ICJG: Polish Records

A high point of each ICJG is founder Stanley Diamond's session on what's new with Jewish Record Indexing-Poland (JRI-P).

From a small personal project to locate related families sharing a rare genetic mutation (beta-thalassamia), the Montreal-based researcher's organization has grown to millions of online records, assisting thousands of worldwide researchers.

To date, the records of 450 towns have been indexed. Funding is needed to index some 125 additional towns.

In three years, the JRI-P ordering center has filled orders for 1,400 researchers in 25 countries. Diamond announced that a new digital order system is being implemented.

In addition to birth, marriage and death records, the database now includes Warsaw Ghetto death cards, court announcements from the Monitor Polski, army draft-dodgers from the Bialystok region, and the 1897 census of Lomza district, with 25,000 individuals.

The database now includes books of residents, including the Suwalki temporary residents books. These give the hometowns of individuals and provide clues to deeper researching.

Some surprising discoveries were made, such as the 1866-1892 records for Jaslo. They were believed to have been destroyed, but were found in the Skalyszyn archives inventory. In January, the vital records for Radzyn Podlaski were found.

Records may be misfiled, mislabeled, accidentally hidden or sit in undocumented collections. They may not be discovered until a researcher looks for something else and happens to stumble across them.

JRI-P is working with the Institute of International Genealogy in Jerusalem to reconstruct the town of Ostrow Mazowieska, developing family trees with data from archives, Yad Vashem's Pages of Testimony and the town's yizkor book.

JRI-P is working with Gift of Life (the Jewish Bone Marrow Registry) to help save lives. In one case, with the cooperation of the Lublin Archives, 50,000 records were indexed to find possible donors.

Diamond says he "looks forward to each day," and this project is truly a collective mission, which include verifying Holocaust testimony and related research, honoring the memory of victims, connecting generations, identifying gravestones, and saving lives. Volunteers and donors are needed.

At the ICJG: Browsing Budapest

In his debut appearance this year at the ICJG, Andras Koltai of Budapest offered a spotlight on that city's resources in his "Hidden Treasures in the Libraries of Budapest." If your roots are in Hungary, there may be interesting information for you in these archives.

The Theological Seminary Library (University of Jewish Studies), located in Pest, holds a vast collection of Jewish and Hebrew material. It is regional in scope, and also includes some Slovak and Romanian items.

In 1926, local clerk Samu Salamon (in the Hungarian custom, the family name is always listed first) was responsible for preserving various important items, such as the census, as well as donors to the building of the synagogue. There is even a complete list of those who worked at the Jewish school from 1852-1926.

Dr. Bela Vajda compiled a list of residents in 1896, listing several generations of families from 1750-1876. An 1850 volume lists Jewish leaders of Levochka, while other lists show Jewish soldiers in the War of Independence (1848-9) published in Kosice (Kassa).

Other holdings include special announcements, association events, school reports (1848-1944) including students and teachers. An 1894 voume by Izrael Conegliano lists students by grade, residence and birthdate.

The Central Szabo Ervin Library has branches in all districts, with old tenant register books (1881-1928), recordings, phone books (1918-2004), maps -- even train tickets.

The phone books can help you find the proper registry office to track down records. For many a long time, it took up to 15 years for Hungarians to obtain a phone number, so if a person is missing from a phone book, it may only mean there was no phone.

On Castle Hill is the Szechenyi Library, the largest in Hungary. A copy of every publication was to be deposited there. Founded two centuries ago, its archives hold 8 million items, including the earliest known Hungarian text from the early 1100s.

According to Koltai, its large collection of unique Jewish papers and journals, includes the Hungarian Jewish Woman, the newspaper of the Jewish soldiers, the Hungarian Jewish Review, as well as Jewish calendars, school bulletins and others, with the earliest from the 1880s.

For more information, www.jewishroots.hu, or email mail@jewishroots.hu.

At the ICJG: Talking Turkey

Among numerous Sephardic topics at the ICJG was Leon Taranto's session on genealogical resources for Jews of the Ottoman Empire and modern Turkey.

The community's growth was directly linked to the 1492 expulsion from Spain, and an invitation for the refugees to settle in Turkey. This led to a large Sephardic influx, joining the small Ashkenazic community that had settled in Istanbul in the 14th century following Eastern European expulsions.

The online Istanbul Jewish genealogy project has been spearheaded by Daniel Kazez, a cellist and music professor at Wittenberg University in Ohio. He has been assisted by volunteers in Turkey and elsewhere and seeks additional helpers for the ongoing project.

Currently searchable online are 35,000 marriage records and 30,000 burial records, issued by the Turkish Chief Rabbinate since 1886, the Ashkenazic community since 1923 and the Italian congregation since 1870. The Ashkenazic records (1923-2003) add the mother’s name. More than 30,000 different surnames are represented.

Work has also been done on Izmir, which was home to 35,000 Jews. Online records include 6,000 burials from 1934.

Taranto noted that archival records are often written in solitreo, a particularly difficult form of handwriting that only a few experts can read. Saul Biton of the Atlanta Sephardic Congregation has created a transcription chart that seems somewhat helpful.

More resources worth a look

Sources for Izmir data include Avraham Galante’s nine-volume work, now being indexed by Matilde Tagger of Jerusalem. The Central Archives for the History of the Jewish People (CAHJP) in Jerusalem holds Izmir records from 1760-1970, including wedding dowry registers. Professor Dov Cohen has extracted a list of 7,300 names of brides and grooms.

ETSI, a Sephardic genealogical journal printed in France, provides English summaries of its articles, which include coverage of consulate and notarial records, dowry records and diaspora colonies. Click for more about ETSI.

The newly published Guidebook to Sephardic and Oriental Sources in Israel, by Tagger and Yitzhak Kerem (Avotaynu, 2006) offers a wealth of information, www.avotaynu.com, and for more, see Dr. Jeffrey Malka’s website, www.orthohelp.com/geneal/sefardim.htm

At the ICJG: Jews in Italy

Nardo Bonomi lives in the beautiful Tuscan village of Greve, near Chianti and Firenze (Florence). He is a dedicated genealogical researcher attempting to build a database of the Jewish archives of Italy.

In real life, he is an architectural historian, documenting histories of Tuscan buildings and estates.

I’ve known Nardo for several years and his focus on these little-known records has been remarkable. For more information, take a look at Italian-family-history.com, as well as his Guide for research on Jewish genealogy in Italy.

There has been evidence of Jewish life in Italy since the Roman Empire, when some 8,000 Jews were documented during the reign of Emperor Augustus, and tens of thousands lived there under Emperors Tiberius and Claudius. In the late first century, there were 10 synagogues in Rome, which grew to 15. Around the same time, there were at least 43 Jewish settlements on the mainland and the islands of Sicily and Sardinia. In addition to Rome, the largest Jewish communities were in Genova, Milano, Bologna, Ravenna, Napoli, Pompei, Siracusa and Messina.

Later additions came from Germany after the plague, and from France. A major influx shifted from Sicily to the mainland. Many of these Sicilian Jews had been expelled from Spain in 1492, then were expelled from Sicily in 1493.

According to Nardo, Italian Jewish population statistics were: in 1170 c.e., 15,000; in 1300, 50,000; in 1500, 120,000 (following the Spanish and Sicilian expulsions); in 1600, 20,702; in 1700, 26,760; in 1800, 34,275; and in 1920, 43,730.

There's a list of 1,970 family names of conversos in Sicily; half indicate a place name. That group is split evenly between Sicilian and Spanish Jews. It is believed that the place names are ancestral towns; the same indicators are found in North Africa and the Middle East.

Old names, from Roman Empire times, include de Rossi (min ha-adomim), del Vecchio (min ha-zakanim). Some are personal names (Bondi=Yom Tov); occupation (Roffe=doctor); Hebrew words (Zaddic=pious, Haggeri=Ha-geri=stranger); as well as Italian words (Tartaglia=stammerer, Gioioso=joyful).

In 1540, most had family names; only 15% didn’t.

Language origin of names range from Spanish/Portuguese (19%), Hebrew (19%), Italian (18%), Arabic (16%), Berber (5%), French (2%), others (German, Turkish) (1%), with family origins from Italy (36%), Central Europe (26%), Middle East/North Africa(19%), Hebrew (9%), Unknown (4%)and Converso (4%).

The most frequently named families were Levi/y, 101 families, 21 places; Coen/Cohen, 58 in 18 places; Sonnino, 42 in 5 places; di Segni, 38 in six places; di Veroli, 35 in six places; and di Porto, 34 in four places.

There are existing lists of 390 deaths in the Venice ghetto (1630). In 1645, the largest families (10-16 individuals) in Pisa included Salema, Leuchia, Navarro and Coronello. The Siena ghetto, established in 1658, included Italian and Spanish Jews. In 1685, the name of Agnolo Cicilia (from Sicily) in house 39 can be seen.

The Livorno (Leghorn) census shows many Spanish names among the 2,413 Jews. In fact, says Nardo, this community used Spanish until 70-80 years ago. There are surnames for 510 heads of family (1740-1802).

Given name lists indicating Italian translations replacing Hebrew: Izhak (Gaio), Eleazar (Lazzario), Rebekka (Rica), Ruben (Rubino), Mordekhai (Marco), Gershon (Grassino) and Baruch (Benedetto).

At the ICJG: Sephardim in Eastern Europe

Does your Yiddish-speaking, seemingly Ashkenazi family have an oral tradition of a Sephardic origin?

My research into the Talalay family has turned up indications of some 20 families of Sephardic origin in Mogilev, Belarus, among them Abravanel, Don Yakhia, Pines, Abugof/Aboaf and Talalay. Spelling variations are many.

"This was our name when we left Spain" was my family's longtime explanation for the unusual name. While people may have thought we were kidding, research on our family name has produced a document dated 1353 from Lerida, Spain, mentioning Mosse (Moshe) Talalaya, a kosher winemaker. There are six additional family mentions and we’re attempting to track down supporting documents.

Dr. Dan Laby (de Cavalleria), a Harvard pediatric opthamalogist and avid genealogist, recently came across his earliest document yet, dated 1204, also from Lerida. We share the same researcher and I was there when his document was found.

So how did Sephardim end up in Eastern Europe?

Dr. Rose Lerer Cohen, formerly of South Africa and now Jerusalem, offered a fascinating ICJG talk on this. Her interest began when she met a man who called himself a “litvishe frank,” a Litvak Sephardi.

In 1388, says Cohen, area Jews received permission to live in Brest, joined by others from Italy, Crimea, Germany. In 1391, anti-Jewish riots in Spanish cities encouraged migration north and east.

Jews from Spain went to Holland and Germany and continued east (Russian Jewish Encyclopedia), while Sephardim settled Zamosc, Poland, with King Casimir’s permission in 1588 (Encyclopedia Judaica).

Cohen presented maps, subscription lists and books, including a Sephardic community list naming places in Belarus, Lithuania, Hungary and others. Sephardim be eretz lita (Sephardim in Lithuania) by Shlomo Katzav, lists Sephardic synagogues and minyans across the region.

Her search of “Where Once We Walked” (www.avotaynu.com) by Alexander Beider, produced Sephardic names as Maimon, Frank, Shub, Di Leon and others. Krakow Sephardim, says Cohen, included Hispanus, Kalhora (Calahorra), Wolchowicz Szafardi, Fortis di Lima and Rosanes.

Bottom line: Never discount family oral tradition, but do the research to support it.

18 August 2006

At the ICJG: House Hunting

If you live or work in a Manhattan building built after 1866, you can often find very detailed information on the structure, including building applications, architect, owner and even tenant lists, according to Tony Robins, who offered an Urban Genealogy session.

The author, historian and tour leader has spent 25 years digging through dusty archives to unearth building histories.

Many traditional genealogists are beginning to investigate the buildings where their ancestors lived, and research the people who lived there.

Just a few years ago, all work had to be done in person, but today's technology provides increasing online resources, the focus of his session.

For 20 years, he has taught the subject at the Municipal Art Society, www.mas.org. He's working on an urban genealogy guidebook, and provides many useful links for online information on his Web site, www.urbangenealogy.com; click on the 2006 Jewish Genealogy Conference link.

Session attendee Jonina Duker of Maryland, who has limited mobility, took his class seven years ago, and is delighted with the new online resources. The class, she says, offers ideas about sources and helps students think "out of the box."

Sources include archives, libraries and municipal resources. City land records date to the 1700s; a little known resource is tax assessment records from as far back as the late 1700s. For one house with tax records dated 1822, Robins retrieved the name of the master builder, the buyer’s name and tenants’ names.

"You’ll never know what you’ll find," Robins adds.

At the ICJG: Summertime Memories

Phil Brown is professor of sociology and environmental studies, but his love is the Catskills.

He’s the founder of the Catskills Institute, http://catskills.brown.edu, (Brown University, Providence, RI) archiving everything about the region known as the Borscht Belt where millions of New York’s Jews spent their summers.

His parents had a hotel, Brown’s Royal, at one end of White Lake, while my grandparents (Sidney and Bertha Fink) owned Fink’s Kauneonga Park, a large bungalow colony down the road a bit in Kauneonga Lake.

The audience was visibly moved by Brown's nostalgic presentation of slides of then and now, ruins and rebuilding -- emotional memories that brought tears to many, including me.

Brown collects everything about the personalities, the large and small hotels and colonies across the area, and asks for material from everyone he meets.

The Institute also holds an annual conference in the Catskills – where else? It takes place next weekend, August 25-27, at Kutsher’s in Monticello. Those attending Brown’s session made a run for the event flyers, and quite a few said they would be attending. More information is on his website.

Programs include "From Hester Street to Route 17: Feature filmmakers document the Catskills," with Joan Micklin Silver and Raphael Silver; "Simon Sez and a half-hour of hilarious laughter," Lou Goldstein; "Borscht Belt Bungalows, Chapter XVI: Leaving the Catskills," with author Irwin Richman, and many others. A bus tour, an annual feature, takes participants throughout the area, this year focus on the living archeology of the resorts.

If you have fond memories of the Catskills and enjoy history, culture, music, literary, and cultural presentations of the Jewish experience, do consider attending the event. If you can't attend, check out the remarkable material Brown has amassed on the Institute Web site.

14 August 2006

At the ICJG: Music to our ears

Monday night at the conference was very special. For the first time in my experience at the event, we had a great concert. Professor Joel E. Rubin and Pete Rushefsky, a klezmer duo on clarinet and tzymbal, performed rare pieces of klezmer and Hasidic music gathered in Russia.

From prayerful tunes to freilach or happy dances, the sea of concert-goers were tapping their collective toes. Many pieces were gathered by a research trip in the early 1900s in shtetls and cities at the time our ancestors were still there. Among klezmer musicians, many pieces were known by the cities in which they originated, and we heard "Vinnitsa," "Breslov" and more.

A few years ago, at the Feher Music Center at Tel Aviv's Museum of the Diaspora, I was delighted to discover that the Ukraine Archives has recorded a set of CDs with this music, including the names of the pieces, the performers and the places they were recorded by an enthnographic expedition.

When we thought it couldn't get better, there was a quick scenery change, and the piano took centerstage, with Zalman Mlotek, Folksbiene Yiddish theater executive director. An internationally acclaimed authority on Yiddish folk and theater music, a conductor and pianist, Mlotek provided a panoramic view of this genre.

From Yiddish theatre and films, from comedies to dramas, Yiddish music that became pop music, to lullabies and songs of immigration, Yiddish summer camp songs and more, we sang along and clapped. I sat next to Jewish genealogy's guru, Steve Morse, whose Yiddish was surprisingly good. Who knew?

Even those who didn't know a word of mamaloshen caught on. A standing ovation brought an encore and a mass of people went up to thank Mlotek personally for his performance.

Before he performed, Peter Nash of Australia and Valery Bazarov, head of the HIAS Location and Family History Service, presented Mlotek with records pertaining to his father and uncle's journeys to safety with Sugihara visas to Shanghai and then to America. The records were found in Jerusalem, and the Jewish Genealogical Society of New York (conference hosts) contributed to the microfilming and preservation of these records.

At the ICJG: Six of the six million

Today’s Gesher Galicia Special Interest Group’s luncheon featured author Daniel Mendelsohn in his first public event connected to his new book, "The Lost: A search for six of six million."

"I may just have been a strange child," he says, explaining that he was interested in family history from an early age and created family trees when he was 12.

As a young boy, he grew up hearing stories about his grandfather’s brother Shmil, who disappeared, killed by the Nazis.

Mendelsohn's search for Shmil and his family led to a visit to Belakhov and to the help of researcher Alexander Dunai, whom he met through JewishGen, and who found more than 100 family archival records dating to 1724.

Six years ago Mendelsohn decided to return and see what he could find. In summer 2001, three of four siblings got on the plane and went there on a mission to see if anyone remembered Shmil.
His research took him to three continents. Along the way, he found former neighbors and employees, all intertwined with stories of hiding.

"The most extraordinary coincidences kept fueling the story," he related, and each time he thought the story was over, he received another phone call with more leads.

Eventually, he matched the stories, discovering exactly what happened. The story is in the book. For more information, www.harpercollins.com/thelost

At the ICJG: Soap star tells how to teach kids via genealogy

Bill Hayes, star of the soap Days of Our Lives, and recorded the "Ballad of Davy Crockett," also has a PhD in education with a very personal interest in teaching genealogy to kids.

He brought his star power to the panel, "Teaching Genealogy to Children," and began with "Hello, my name is Bill and I’m a genealogist."

He made the distinction between names, dates and places – documented genealogy – and family history, which he maintains is all transmitted family memories, stories, traits, documented or not – the things that make our ancestors human beings.

In his experience, Bill has found that family histories are the answer to reaching bored students. Family history leads to real history and leads to a new understanding.

A five-page assignment to interview a relative older than 70, produces "amazing results."

Before he knows it, the student is writing, scanning maps and photos, writing history, geography and making timelines.

Other panelists were Daniel Horowitz, who has been teaching Jewish genealogy in Caracas, Venezuela; author Ira Wolfman, who has written two books on teaching genealogy to children, and Linda Volin, who has successfully used family history in ESL classes in America and China.

At the ICJG: The eyes have it

Four years ago, optometrist Steve Lasky got into genealogy when he found his grandparents’ old photos at his mother’s home.

Lasky conducted interviews with relatives and collected photographs with an eye to creating a Web site, which ended up as www.museumoffamilyhistory.com.

You have to appreciate your roots, he says. "Anything I can do to remind people of where they come from, is a mitzvah, a wonderful thing."

He is also doing extensive photographing of cemeteries: He’s photographed every plot associated with his grandparents’ shtetls, some 18,000 stones, and has more than 80,000 digital pictures in his database. He will look up names – he doesn’t ask for money for the service, but won’t refuse contributions either.

He’s currently working on Holocaust and Yiddish sections and Postcards from Home, with more than 1,200 photographs of pre-WWII vintage sent to him. He’s added names, indexed names and towns, added photographs of 150 New York-New Jersey Holocaust memorials, as well as some Eastern European countries. Additionally, he accepts copies of photographs from all over, thereby preserving Jewish heritage, restorations and images.

Contact him through his website for more information.

At the ICJG: An army of volunteers

The Italian Genealogical Group’s John Martino received a well-deserved award at the opening event of the international Jewish genealogy conference.

His 500-700 volunteers, many of whom were present at the ceremonies, have produced a most astonishing project, indexing records of many different kinds, all online, accessible for free at www.italiangen.org.

Martino, a former marine, and his army of volunteers have indexed some eight million records, convincing archives to allow the indexing, and creating databases that will continue to make an impact for generations to come.

Looking and sounding like TV’s Tony Soprano doing genealogy, Martino says nine million records will be available by the end of this year.

A great sense of humor helps. When Martino finds some volunteers are not finishing their work for the project, he says he tells them he’ll visit their homes and bring some of his cousins. "It isn’t easy, but I get the records."

Requesting help on Romanian roots

The Tracing the Tribe mailbag just got this interesting reader query about Romanian family ties. I'll offer some advice soon, but I also welcome suggestions from other experts out there.

I have a real problem. For some few months I've been trying to find some records of the family Iliescu from Romania. I wrote first name, day of death etc.

But nothing. I know that the "escu" is a romanian suffix. Can it be that the original surname was Ilie, Eli, Eliyahu or Elias? How can I know where else to search? Can it be sephardic? it's seems like this family was not alive at all. I'm desperate.

Can you give me an advice please?


13 August 2006

Set in stone

Cemeteries, in the American experience, are generally green and well-maintained.

In Eastern Europe, however, this may not be the case. Jewish cemeteries are desecrated, stones have sunk into the ground or looted for building materials. Others are in disrepair. In some places, non-Jews are being buried in Jewish cemeteries by municipal order because of space problems. (here's a JTA article about this alarming development: Burying Jewish dead in Belarus a problem after cemetery dispute)

Our ancestors are not resting as they deserve.

An important ICJG conference session will address the distressing conditions as well as some successes that have been achieved. The experts will discuss Jewish law issues; methods and procedures; and specific community projects. Panelists are:
  • Chief Rabbi of Poland Michael Schudrich: Executive coordinator, Poland Jewish Cemeteries Restoration Project; executive director, Rabbinic Commission on Cemeteries.
  • Calman Lieberman, Jacob Gutman and Toby Mendlowitz Grunhut: Heritage Foundation for Preservation of Jewish Cemeteries.
  • Rabbi Shlomo Besser: Director, International Committee for the Preservation of Jewish Memorial Sites.
  • Herbert Block: Assistant executive vice president, Joint Distribution Committee.

  • Research director Samuel D. Gruber and volunteer Lee Seeman: U.S. Commission for the Preservation of America’s Heritage Abroad.
  • Norman Weisberg: Executive coordinator, Poland Jewish Cemeteries Restoration Project; and
  • Thomas Weiss, Professor Emeritus, MIT.

09 August 2006

Got a Chochka?

Although some think of chochka as just the Yiddish word for a dust collector on a shelf, such items can provide clues to our families.

Is yours a set of silver spoons engraved with a strange Cyrillic letter, or a ruby-colored glass with white dots? Family lore says both were brought over by a great-grandmother.

Do you have an old ketubah (Jewish marriage contract) and can’t read it? Old religious books? Shabbat candlesticks or tefillin may provide hints and clues. Prayerbooks can indicate if ancestors were Sephardi or Ashkenazi.

Have an old picture of ancestors and don’t know where or when it was taken?

If you have family items you’ve been wondering about, here’s your chance to get help at the International Conference on Jewish Genealogy in New York.

Styled on the popular television program, Antiques Road Show, noted genealogist Rafael Guber will present a panel of experts for the "The Jewish Chochka and Ephemera Road Show" on Friday, August 18, from 9 a.m.-noon. Even better, while conference events are only open to registrants, this session is open to others, for a nominal charge at the door.

Guber invites researchers to bring items, documents, photographs and more for experts to analyze, translate and uncover secrets, helping owners understand what each says about their ancestors. The panel won't tell you what each is worth, however, "because we know it's priceless."

For more information, click www.jgsny2006.com/conference_program.cfm, and scroll down to Friday, August 18.

08 August 2006

Images of the past and present

If a picture is worth a thousand words, what's the value of a film? This year's International Conference on Jewish Genealogy is focusing on images.

As part of the 24-film program; many filmmakers will personally introduce their films, and there will be a panel of eight filmmakers, "Visual Storytelling: The Genealogical Documentary," on Wednesday evening, August 16.

Filmmakers will discuss how to unearth memories and discover a family's history. Their own film clips will illustrate the creative process and what it takes to produce the final product.

Panelists are Eileen Douglas and Ron Steinman ("My Grandfather's House," "Luboml"), Pearl Gluck ("Divan"), Menachem Daum ("Hiding and Seeking"), Yaron Zilberman ("Watermarks"), Elaine Kalman Naves ("Paradise Lost: Journey to Vaja"), Jay Heyman ("Bernie") and Marcia Rock ("Dancing With My Father").

On Monday, August 14 and Tuesday, August 15, these films will be introduced by their makers and screened, so attendees can view them before the panel presentation.

Festival films will be screened (some several times) Sunday through Thursday. Included are Academy Award-winning Best Documentary features: "The Last Days," produced by Steven Spielberg and the Shoah Foundation, and "Into the Arms of Strangers: Stories of the Kinderstransport," and an Emmy Award winner, "The Attic: The Hiding of Anne Frank," with Mary Steenburgen and Paul Scofield.

International Jewish films cover Austria, Lithuania, Poland, Latvia, Hungary, Slovakia, Transcarpathia, Galicia, France, Russia/Siberia, Israel and other Middle Eastern countries and the U.S.

Subjects include the Holocaust, concentration camp experiences, Jews in the resistance movement, journeys "home" to ancestral shtetls and memorials to vanished Eastern European communities. American topics focus on growing up in New York, Boro Park, Brooklyn; Cleveland, Ohio; Portland, Oregon; and the 25-year history of the Jewish Genealogical Society of Los Angeles.

For more information, click www.jgsny2006.org/film_program.cfm, scroll to a film title and click. Many films will be available for sale by mail order.

See you at the movies!

Your host

A native New Yorker, Schelly Talalay Dardashti was the Jewish genealogy columnist for the Jerusalem Post’s City Lights/Metro weekly from 1999-2005 and writes on genealogy for www.ynetnews.com. She has written for JTA, Reform Judaism, Outlook (Women’s League of Conservative Judaism), and many Jewish papers. She has taught online Jewish genealogy courses for www.ancestry.com and www.myfamily.com, hands-on workshops in Barcelona and is president of the five-branch JFRA Israel genealogy society. She is a member of the Association of Professional Genealogists, JewishGen’s Belarus SIG and Sefard Forum, American Jewish Press Association. Since 1989, she has been researching and keeping the family records for her TALALAY family (Spain, Belarus) and her husband’s DARDASHTI family (Iran).

What to expect from Tracing the Tribe

In 1989, when I began researching my family, there was nothing on the Internet to help me – there was barely an Internet. All I had was the hint of a place name on a river, an unusual family name, and nothing much else … and few people to ask.

Family history researchers know that this is the curse of Jewish genealogy. When we finally catch the passion of finding out who and what we really are, there are few people to ask.

I hope this blog becomes the place where you can ask, and get real answers, when you have genealogy questions so you can find out more about your heritage.

This is an exciting time of year for genealogy: The 26th IAJGS International Conference on Jewish Genealogy is starting on August 13 in New York (www.jgsny2006.org). This major event brings together about 1,500 international researchers (from beginners through professionals) and experts who will participate in 280 programs.

I’ll be blogging from the conference, which has interesting events from expert panels to a film festival to concerts, tours of Jewish sites and cemetery visits.

What are your interests? Sephardi families in Greece or families from Spain who migrated into Poland? Ashkenazi families in Russia or Israel? Connecting families separated by the Holocaust? Tracking ancestors in rural German Jewish communities, small UK towns, medieval Italian Jewish communities or Jewish cemeteries in America’s deep South? How DNA testing can track and match families, or reveal our roots? Set up a Web site for your family research?

Tracing the Tribe will provide information to help you connect. We will explore new resources, materials and methods, provide information on communities, investigate high-tech innovations to make research easy, and talk to the people who make it all possible.