While having family at a celebration, get some genealogy work done
By Schelly Talalay Dardashti
What do you take when you set off for a wedding?
Many guests will bring a camera along with the gift or envelope, but family history researchers are increasingly known to tuck under their arms a manila envelope filled with blank genealogy charts and photocopied sections of family trees.
My most recent manila envelope experience was at a Haifa wedding, where the bride was the grandchild of double Dardashti cousins. My quest that evening was the grandmother’s eight sibling cousins; the only thing I had was their first names. That’s it.
While some people might feel targeting unknown relatives at a wedding or bar mitzvah might not be quite appropriate, we genealogists know that these events may be the only chance we have to learn about an elusive family member.
The grandmother pointed me in the direction of the cousins’ four tables and introduced me to one of them. In a few minutes, the envelope was open, family tree sections passed around for them to add their full names, name changes, address, phone number, e-mail, spouse name, children and grandchildren.
Not wanting to put a damper on this family’s dancing abilities, I pointed out the stamped envelopes: “Just mail them back.” Two of the younger generation, high-tech guys, took me aside and whispered: “They’ll never remember to mail them back. We’ll sit with each of them to fill out the forms and bring them to you in about 15 minutes.”
The young men quickly retrieved the required data and brought me the forms, which provided essential information on eight cousins, eight spouses, 35 children, many married and with their own young children — more than 60 individuals in all.
The rest of the evening was spent on the dance floor with the bride and groom. After updating the family tree at home, I e-mailed copies to each.
An Israeli friend recently went to London for a bar mitzvah and got more than she’d bargained for.
As keeper of her family records, she brought some forms and stamped envelopes for relatives to complete and mail back. As she told her tablemates about the project, however, they ripped open the envelopes, scrounged for pens and immediately began completing the forms. Guests at adjacent tables wanted in and the caterer ran off more forms!
How can you work family history into a lifecycle event? Besides the manila envelope routine for guests, here are some very useful suggestions that can be adapted for major social events or holiday dinners at home.
When it comes to welcoming a new baby, send along a family tree with the traditional gift. These might last longer than the cute clothes. Baby won’t get to it for awhile, but the parents and grandparents will!
Honor a bar/bat mitzvah, just entering Jewish adulthood, with a tangible gift illustrating his or her place on the family tree to reinforce Jewish identity, continuity and history. A check is nice, but what happens after it is spent?
Gifting a newly married couple with a family history establishes their link in the generation chain. An attractive chart may be framed and displayed and is always a conversation piece.
Increasing numbers of families are incorporating family history into lifecycle events:
Displays include enlarged mounted copies of detailed family trees. These can even be signed by guests.
Ancestral photos — the older the better — inspire conversation. Remember to use copies and keep originals safe at home. Label them with names, dates and places. Add relationships, e.g. the groom’s great-grandfather.
Family collections of colorful inscribed kippot can be displayed creatively. An often overlooked source of family data — with names and dates inscribed — these may span several generations. Useful to family historians, they are also functional.
A new trend on the West Coast is kippot printed for family holiday dinners — and many also photograph and videotape annual events. In Los Angeles, I’ve even seen elegant black suede kippot designed for funerals of family patriarchs, including English and Hebrew names and dates.
One California bat mitzvah displayed a large laminated circular chart, signed by guests, along with a display of old photographs, while a recent New York wedding featured an extensive display of the couple’s family photographs and family trees.
Another family with many international branches prepared maps to show the immigration routes of branches from Eastern Europe, and also marked where guests had come from to attend the event.
I try to include an updated family tree with the traditional gift for all lifecycle events. While CDs are an option, the “Wow!” factor is much larger with large printed charts. Even if the recipient never frames or displays the chart — you could give it already framed — someone may eventually discover and learn from it.
These gifts inspire young family members to utilize the information when their classes study history and immigration. Cousins say these charts have encouraged children to ask questions and interact more with grandparents.
Family history software is readily available, making the process relatively painless except for the actual research. Digital cameras and scanners are useful. Extensive information to jumpstart a project is available on JewishGen (www.jewishgen.org). There are online Jewish genealogy classes at GenClass (www.genclass.com). Many Jewish genealogical societies exist and are great resources, useful for networking, learning, informative programs and expert assistance.
The most important step is to begin gathering information. Once you start down discovery road, you’ll be amazed at what you can find, what is available and how important your project will become to future generations.
Journalist/genealogist Schelly Talalay Dardashti writes the only Jewish genealogy blog — Tracing the Tribe: The Jewish Genealogy blog — under the JTA umbrella (http://tracingthetribe.blogspot.com). She also writes for the Jerusalem Post, JTA, World Jewish Digest and other publications.
Rachofsky family reunion
37 Dallasites, including TJP’s own Rays, gather with relatives from across the country
By Rita Faye Smith
During the recent winter solstice, 61 Rachofsky family members from Texas and eight other states attended the bi-annual family reunion held at the Marriott Quorum. Attending were 37 from Dallas, as well as family from Houston, the Texas Hill Country, Arkansas, Oklahoma, Florida, California, Colorado, Wyoming, Maryland and New Jersey. They ranged in age from 2 years old to our 90-year-old family matriarch, Norma Ray Gremm. The central focus was a genealogical chart stretching almost 90 feet and mounted in double rows across two long walls of the Marriott’s Mesquite Ballroom. This was accompanied by photos of the three Rachofsky brothers who founded the family dynasty in the United States in the mid-1850s, which now encompasses almost 2,000 descendants.
Our first event was an authentic Texas dinner and entertainment at the Trail Dust Steak House, which proved to be a great hit with the rug-rat set. In fact post-reunion feedback reported on behalf of 2-year-old Andrew Wagger of Bethesda, Md. rated the two-story slide there as the highlight of the entire reunion, a sentiment echoed by his 5-year-old brother, Marc, as well as 7-year-old Sam Ray and his 3-year-old brother, Jimmy from Dallas. Mom Sharon Ray remarked how great it was that they could be as active and noisy as they wanted and nobody would even notice.
We had a free day for out-of-towners to shop, sightsee and spend time perusing the genealogical charts while meeting new family members and reconnecting with long-lost cousins. On Dec. 25 we all convened for an expansive (both in its scope of offerings and its after-effects on our waistlines) brunch at Furr’s Cafeteria, after which many of us returned to the hotel to spend the afternoon visiting, studying the genealogical charts and sorting out relationships.
The Rachofsky family reunion required two-and-a-half years of communication via e-mail with our family researchers, our family genealogist who vetted the research and our e-mail coordinator, all residing in California. The latter received and sent many hundreds of e-mails to family throughout the United States, England and Israel. He is an expert and veteran of many reunions, including his attendance at the first family reunion in 1922 at age 4. Our family researcher printed the name tags on his computer, color-coded to show at a glance from which of the three Rachofsky brothers the wearer was descended. In addition, these name tags reflected not only the wearer’s name but his/her entire genealogy. Some younger family members sported name tags going back nine generations. Our indefatigable family genealogist spent much of his time at the reunion scurrying about among the cousins to record and update the newest family additions.
The family history project includes: researching the family tree, documenting family stories and oral histories, digitally archiving photographs and memorabilia, locating and photographing tombstones and putting on family reunions. It is a joint effort made possible through generous contributions of time and resources of many cousins.
Our current family researchers have been working on the family tree for nearly 30 years. Today the “big database” of Rachofsky, Kobeisky, Shwayder, Rittmaster, Vitovsky and extended families includes nearly 7,000 people. Nearly 2,000 of those are Rachofsky direct descendants (including spouses).
10 steps to family history
By Schelly Talalay Dardashti
1. Begin with what you know. For each person, record as much or as little as you know: given name, middle name, surname, nicknames, Hebrew/Yiddish name, dates and places of birth, marriage, immigration, occupation, education. Include spouses of children and grandchildren. Enter contact details for living relatives. For deceased, enter a last address, death and burial information. Write dates clearly (20 Dec 1860 or Dec. 20, 1860) to avoid confusion about whether it is 20/12/60, 12/20/60, 1860 or 1960.
2. Preserve family stories. Family stories have been embellished over the years, but there is generally a kernel of truth. If you cannot find the truth, perhaps someone else can. Record stories no matter how fanciful or impossible they seem. Was anyone married more than once? Any scandals?
3. Interview senior family members. Do this before everyone is gone and you become the oldest generation. Seniors are keepers of facts, stories, traditions, names and places. If you have seniors to ask, run — do not walk — to interview them. For many families, this may be the last source of information. Ask questions before it’s too late, record answers (write or tape). A passionate genealogist can rival any journalist in extracting information. Remember the African proverb: “When an old person dies, it’s as if a library has burned down.”
4. Organize photos and documents. Document births, marriages, school graduation and military service. Locate photographs, documents, old letters, diaries, newspaper clippings or old religious books (check for handwritten notes). Ask relatives what they have. Make working copies of originals; store originals carefully.
Do you have boxes of unlabeled photos in a closet or basement or in albums? Work on labeling; store photos in archival materials. The images may jog your memory or that of family elders — a picture is really worth 1,000 words! Do you have old letters, passports, documents, in any language? Have you inherited a box of “stuff” and never opened it? Bring ancestors’ pictures when interviewing seniors, and ask to see their photos.
5. Contact family. Write, call or e-mail to see if relatives can contribute information. Ask if they have photos of older relatives; if so, ask for labeled copies. Ask if anyone else in the family has started a genealogy project — someone may have already gathered details and records. Work together, share the work and information!
6. Food, phones, libraries. Ancestors’ travels add family favorites to the kitchen repertoire. A preference for sweet or sour may point to origins, as will unusual foods or variant names. Check phone directories locally and internationally for uncommon names. Visit library map departments and Yizkor book collections.
7. Talk about family history. Talk to children, extended family, seniors at holiday gatherings. Pass on traditions and stories. Ask questions; speak about origins, travels, names. Videotape holiday dinners.
8. A journal. Consider keeping a journal when you begin a project. Record your experiences and feelings on discovery road. It may become part of someone’s future genealogical records.
9. Join a society, attend a conference. The International Association of Jewish Genealogical Societies (IAJGS) includes nearly 80 groups, which offer networking, interesting programs, expert help, reference libraries, beginners’ workshops. Annual summer conferences, organized by host societies, offer a full range of more than 100 programs, workshops and events by international experts on a wide variety of topics and geography. The 28th IAJGS International Conference on Jewish Genealogy will take place Aug. 17–22 in Chicago. For more details: www.chicago2008.org.
10. Share information. Draw charts from information; copy and share them, ask for corrections. Give them for gifts: new babies, bar/bat mitzvah, wedding. When you discover new details, share them with relatives around the world. Some may become involved. If they put it on a shelf, their children may find it and contact you. Inspire children and grandchildren to help with a family tree project.