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Finding our roots


The cover story about JewishGen has led me to think about genealogy (as we hope it will lead our readers to think about it).

I had a friend, an American historian with a doctorate from Stanford, who grew up in Butte, Montana.

Peggy knew where her family came from — they were mostly Welsh and German — but she said that most Westerners did not care at all about anyone’s family background. The farther west you go in the United States, she said, the less people care; by the time they hit the Rockies, they had given up any curiosity.

She said that when she moved east for a few years, she was astonished to find people asking her about her ethnic background, and it took her some time to get used to it. She didn’t actually snarl “What’s it to you?” to them — she was far too well-brought-up for that — but clearly she wanted to.

People went west to shed their pasts, Peggy said. Not only their own, but their parents’ and grandparents’. New world, new country, new start. As a historian, she found that frustrating; as a person, she thoroughly approved.

Peggy was not Jewish, and I wondered if that had anything to do with her blithe — and extraordinarily smart and well-educated — disregard of family history. But my friend Susan, who is Jewish and grew up in Denver, agreed. The farther west you go, she said, the less likely anyone is to ask you about your odd family name, or anything else about your family. Susan, though, was thoroughly comfortable in the east, where people did ask. She’s Jewish!

We Jews, in general, care enormously about where our ancestors came from, although, as JewishGen makes clear, many of us have only the sketchiest bits of information about those places. (I know that I am not the only one among my friends not to have realized that most Jews who thought that our families came from Russia learned that they actually were from Ukraine until the Russians invaded Ukraine on February 24. Ukraine was within the Pale of Settlement, and Russia proper was not, I now know; we just ever-so-vaguely called all of the Soviet Union “Russia.”)

Many of us have done 23 and Me and the other DNA testing services. (We understand that doing so puts our privacy at risk, but we also know that our privacy is embattled in just about every direction anyway. We also know that it might mean that a murderer to whom we are distantly related and whom we do not know might be caught more quickly. Everyone I know is fine with that.) It yields us lists of names. Some of them we already know — our children, our siblings, our parents — and others remain unknown. (It’s great to know that Sindy Lou is my fourth cousin.) It’s a godsend for people who are adopted, it can uncover family secrets, with glorious or devastating results. For those of us whose families harbor no secrets, while it’s a fascinating idea in theory, it’s often eye-glazingly dull in practice.

JewishGen won’t show us as many relatives as 23 and Me, or at least not as quickly, but as its representatives tell us, it lets us know more about how our ancestors lived. You can build out a family tree, and you can flesh out people’s stories. The more you work at it — and the more you combine it with 23 and Me — the more you learn. (That’s a general lesson that applies to more than genealogy…) I think that I will try JewishGen, and I hope that some of our readers do too.

—JP





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