08 September 2007

Roots Travel: Ruby's wild, crazy journey

All of us have heard family stories, but can they be proven? What other information can our genealogical research uncover, and how will a return to our roots help our quest?

New York's Jewish Week offers Walter Ruby's self-described "wild-and-crazy roots journey" entitled "A Few Things Are Illuminated."

My journey into my family’s tangled roots began with the resolution of a mystery that was locked in the New York Municipal Archives for 65 years — that my grandfather, Walter Ruby, committed suicide in 1939 instead of dying of a heart attack as my father always believed.

Later, I learned that my great-great-great grandfather was none other than Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Spektor (1817-1896), the most prominent rabbi in the Russian Empire during his heyday and a symbol of a kind of unabashed fealty to Yiddishkeit that has both inspired and repelled his American Jewish descendants during the century since his death.

Somewhere between these two discoveries, genealogical research became an obsession for me as it has for many of my fellow baby boomers. My roots journey has provided me with startling insights into the psychological makeup of family members who died many decades before my birth as well as fascinating new perspectives on my own character and inner struggles.

Yet I also found my family’s back pages to be representative of the wider sweep of Jewish life in the 19th and 20th centuries, revealing classic intergenerational conflicts over Jewish observance and assimilation, as well as German Jewish/Russian Jewish animosities that have likely played out in thousands of Jewish families who made their way from the Old World to the New.

Walter Ruby, his brother Dan and sister Joanne began researching their family history soon after their parents Stanley and Helga died in 2004 and 2005.

Ruby's journey leads from dusty city archives to Yeshiva University's Gottesman Library, from the southern Russian town of Rostov-on-Don to Belarus and Lithuania's Vilnius (Vilna) and Kaunas (Kovno).

He found some answers and learned more about his ancestors:

I have to acknowledge that the whole Jewish roots thing has become a kind of narcotic for me, but as someone who has sampled less edifying substances in my lifetime, I can testify that roots research is the most uplifting addiction I’ve yet succumbed to.

There is much more. Read the complete story here; visit the Ruby family website here.

Read Ruby's companion piece, "Taking the Roots Plunge: The nuts and bolts of the journey," here. It offers tips for researchers considering a similar journey, providing contact emails for guides and researchers, websites, recommendations, details on prices and more.

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