Saturday, December 26, 2015

The Guise of Failure

Icarus by Matisse

Proverbs 15:31 The ear that hearkeneth to the reproof of life abideth among the wise

I started out my career with lots of success. I didn't know I couldn't do certain things and so I did them. Naivety has its benefits. I was flying high discovering my own power, reveling in it.

Then I moved and took a new job and like Icarus, came tumbling down to earth, wings crumpled beneath me. When I explained my job upset to my father he replied, "It was about time you landed on your ass, you were getting entirely too smug." Now this was quintessentially my father, so much so that I included it in my eulogy at his funeral. I am aware that to many it might sound harsh, but in an odd way it gave me comfort. There was an acceptance in it of the role of failure, a source of learning and part of the natural rhythm of life.

I've been thinking about it lately because I am charged with co-leading a session of the Jewish Artist's Lab on our theme of wisdom. It is a broad expanse, any aspect of wisdom we choose.  It occurred to me that failure plays an important role in finding wisdom and so we've chosen it as our topic. My co-lead offered the phrase "the bankruptcy of pre-conceived notions" which I quite like. I think it captures the essence of what we hope to communicate.

The inquiry begins with the question of how we define both success and failure. The two seem interrelated with each the mirror image of the other. Both involve objectives that we either meet or fail to meet. When we meet them we get kudos and self confidence, but the more interesting question is what happens if we don't meet them, if we fail. Many of us live in fear of failure and yet anyone who creates knows that risk of failure is part of the process of creation. Even in my one-time profession of banking we used to say we weren't taking enough risk if we never had a bad loan. How do we know our limits if we don't test them? Perhaps Icarus is indeed an apt metaphor in his efforts to approach the sun.

When we do fail, we get to choose how we respond. Have you ever tripped on the street and fallen? Some of us quickly jump to our feet and move on, uneasy with perceived vulnerability. Others look for the banana peel on which to affix blame. Some look around to assess how large the audience to their embarrassing moment. There are a variety of responses to those indelible moments we'd prefer to forget. Most involve discomfort that grows with the size and significance of the audience. I know I had much less fear of failure when I had less to lose.

If failure represents an unsuccessful effort to meet an objective, we have a few factors to consider. Was it the wrong objective for us at this time? The "for us at this time" is an important part of this statement. Sometimes we're just not ready. Oops, we forgot to add the heat resistance to our wings. Sometimes it is a fine objective, for somebody else. Perhaps the objective is perfectly appropriate, but our means were not. We need to consider another approach. Maybe our pre-conceived notions are indeed bankrupt and we need to release them and start anew, acknowledge those outworn methods or objectives and take a fresh look. If we go through these considerations we often discover that failure is the Petri dish of change. We make changes out of discomfort. When we are comfortable most of us settle in for the ride. Chart your "failures" and you will likely see that they led you into new directions that shaped your future. The same is true of artistic "failures" that often prove interesting and can take us off in new and serendipitous directions.

There is yet another side to failure, one my father touched on in his statement. Humility.  If all we know is success, our compassion for others is often sadly lacking.  It is by playing out all sides of life's equations that we begin to understand that the world is not black and white, not simplistically composed of winners and losers as some politicians might have you believe. Instead it offers us challenges and opportunities that refine us as people to the extent we are willing to fully embrace them.  Sometimes those opportunities come in the guise of failure. 

Monday, December 21, 2015

Photos From the Past

I was contacted recently by Nancy Geise who has written a book Auschwitz #34207 on Joe Rubinstein. Joe is a survivor of Radom, the same Polish town as my grandfather. Word traveled across the Jewish genealogy network when a friend on the East Coast heard her speak and passed on my name to her as a resource.

When we connected she shared a hope with me. She wanted to give a gift to the subject of her book, photos of his family. Now photos are something we all wish for as we try to recreate the sense of our family. Is there a family resemblance? Do we see kindness in their eyes? Wit? Who were these people with whom we are joined by history and biology? In this case it was more than a curious researcher generations later. Joe is 95 and last saw his family in 1942. We were aware that this was something that could create joy, but also sadness.

Many researchers have photos that survived, sent across the ocean to family pre-war. I have a close friend who is a survivor whose family hid photos in their shoes and many of those photos survived the camps folded in quarters. But for many of us there are but a few ways to surface photos post-war.

One of the avenues that I discovered was through identity papers. In 1941 the Nazis began an effort to identify Jews as their first step to murder. The identity papers included a photo stapled to information about their address and parents. Now many of the photos have gotten detached from the original identity paper, but some still remain. The papers from Radom, Poland are housed in the archives which seemed somewhat incongruous as they typically only hold vital records prior to the last 100 years. These records; however, have apparently been deemed archival.

The process to order records is initially a bit intimidating as it involves an international wire and possible language challenges. Additionally these are not records that you will find on the JRI-Poland site as they have not been indexed. I first became aware that identity papers existed at the archives through another Radom researcher. As I had no pictures of my family members, I too was quite excited to explore this avenue and met with some success in my own family.

In order to assist Nancy I first tried to identify who was alive in 1941 and hence likely to have a record. Here JRI-Poland was useful as they had the Book of Residents on-line. That provided a starting point. From a number of sources, I was aware that several family members were no longer alive in 1941 so removed them from my request. Ultimately I had a list of names with some basic identifying information such as parent's names or a birth date.

My request to the archives was written in English. I explained that I was trying to obtain the identity papers from 1941 that were created by the Germans for the names on my list. Often the person at the other end does not speak English so there are times that there are miscommunications. This proved to be one of them as it was a bit more complex to explain than simply requesting indexed records by number. After two tries I met with success. They then emailed me back in Polish with the cost to secure the records in both zlotys and the dollar equivalent as well as the wire instructions. Thanks to Google Translate, it is fairly simple to decipher this information. I then took it to my financial institution and sent a wire. As this was a fairly small request they soon sent me an email with the scans attached. If it were a larger order, I would ask for a CD with the data.

Using Photoshop, I enlarged the photos and sent them on along with the identity paper. Voila, Joe had a photo of his mother and his two brothers seventy five years after he last saw them. Nancy reported that Joe said "This is the greatest, greatest gift of my life." Sometimes research is a lot more than dry records.

Friday, December 18, 2015

A Better Front-End

I started this blog about seven years ago with a focus on family history. At the time I had begun my travels to Eastern Europe where I was visiting ancestral towns. Since that time I (and the blog) have meandered a bit, around Eastern Europe, into my artwork and interview projects and most recently into my immediate family. Family history, both past and in the making, remains at the core. There is a bit of a natural ebb and flow to interests and while my interest in family history has remained constant, the energy I devoted to exploring my own has ebbed as my efforts have been engaged by others.

Over the past year, my energies have been reawakened a bit in family history as I've become drawn into a local effort to create the Minnesota Jewish Genealogical Society (MNJGS). For many years I've felt a bit like an outlier here in the Upper Midwest. I would go to international Jewish genealogy conferences and seldom find another Minnesotan. At the last conference, Walter Elias attended and brought some fresh enthusiasm to this effort. He soon contacted me and I began to work with him to engage others in the area with interest in Jewish genealogy. As a result, I've been much more involved in this arena and have done a number of talks on Jewish genealogy and related subjects throughout the year. Recently I built a website for the MNJGS that you can find at As part of that some of my blogs on family history have been posted on that site, but I am remiss in not also sharing them here.

A recent talk that I gave to the MNJGS was on the site which while a boon to Jewish genealogy is also useful for those who are researching non-Jewish genealogy. It is an immense site so I chose to focus on how I've used it successfully to crack my own genealogical puzzles.

Steve Morse has a number of claims to fame. In his career he was the architect of the 8086 Intel chip. He brought his computer expertise and inquiring mind to his exploration of genealogy and quickly saw that the search engine for many genealogical sites could be improved. He does not create databases, but rather has found better ways to mine existing databases.His site has grown over time and it now addresses the following topics:


Census (US, NY, Britain, Canada)

Soundex Codes

Vital Records (B-M-D, Naturalization)

Calendars and Maps

Transliterating in Foreign Alphabets


Genetic Genealogy

One of the early sites he addressed was Ellis Island. The early version of the Ellis Island site allowed limited inputs on which one could search. Morse observed that they had many outputs which meant that those items were associated with the record. He went to work building a better front-end search engine that allowed more complex searches on those variables. Since his initial efforts Ellis Island has increased the number of search variables, but there are still things one can do on Morse’s site that you cannot on Ellis Island.

Immigration Records: Searching the Town

Example: My family story was that my grandmother traveled with her younger brother to the US. Now family stories typically contain a grain of truth, but like a game of telephone they often garble the details. My grandmother was reportedly shot at crossing the border and ended up in a hospital in France. I finally found her immigration record coming from Boulogne sur Mer to Rotterdam and on to New York. Her brother was nowhere on the manifest. I had searched many avenues for his record to no avail.

Based on my grandmother’s data I hypothesized that I was searching for a Kishlansky who came in 1921, born in Hotin from the Rotterdam port to New York. I went into Ellis Island and input this information. I found that I had to input a surname so used all of their options for sounds like, close match and alternate spelling with no success. When I received nothing I gradually began to remove constraints with still no success.

Then I turned to and tried the same inputs on the Ellis Island Gold Form. Still no success. But there is one more trick to explore. I removed the name thinking it could be misspelled or badly transcribed. This time I got about 300 entries and as I went through them one by one I saw Elia Rishlansky with his wife Golda. When I clicked on the name there was a nicely typed manifest, not one that you would expect to be misread, but the top of the K didn’t appear leaving the transcriber to conjecture it was an R rather than a K. Had they looked further they would have seen that his nearest relative in Europe was his father Abram Kishlansky and he was going to his brother Frank Kishlansky. The date of his manifest was one week after that of my grandmother. Presumably they started out together, but in an age without easy communication perhaps they didn’t connect after her hospital stay.

Immigration Records: Missing Manifests

Ever search in vain for a manifest where you knew the ship and the date and it just doesn't exist? Well, my story was a search for the uncle of my grandmother. I knew he had lived a few years in London before coming to America. I also knew the ship he came on and the dates he left and arrived as they were noted on his naturalization record I had found at the National Archives office in New York. Even with that information, his manifest remained hidden.Finally I made use of the stevemorse site beginning with the Ship Listing Database. I input the information from the naturalization record, the name of the ship and a band around the arrival date. I then got listings on several voyages of that ship. I selected the one that most closely corresponded to those dates and recorded the roll and frame numbers that came up. Then I shifted to another site on stevemorse – Missing Manifests. These manifests exist, but for whatever reason weren’t indexed or linked such that we can access them easily. I input the roll and frame numbers and then started to move through the pages one by one. Soon I made the discovery I was searching for. There his name was on the manifest coming from London to New York. It was difficult to read the initial letter which may be the reason it was not linked. To get a copy of the manifest, I entered another name on the page and pulled it up in Ancestry.

Vital Records: Finding my Grandparents Marriage Record

Steve Morse offers a number of resources to track down vital records. Many of them make use of, a site not exclusively focused upon Italians, but rather New Yorkers. As most of us had some family that originated in New York this often proves useful. Italian Gen is constantly adding records. For many years I searched in vain for my grandparents’ marriage record contemplating if they were ever actually married. I knew their oldest child was born in 1918 and my grandfather arrived in New York in 1913 so I was focusing my search in that window. One day I decided to try just one more time. Success! I went into the Grooms’ Index and input my grandfather’s last name and first initial. I clicked through the brides until I came to my grandmother’s name. With the index number and the family history library microfilm number I was then able to locate the actual marriage record through the Family History Library.

Transliterating to and from Russian or Hebrew

Transliterating is valuable in a number of circumstances. When I travel to Eastern Europe to do research in archives I often transcribe the given names and surnames that I am looking for into cursive Russian so my eye knows what to look for. When I plan to wander around cemeteries I transcribe the names to Hebrew text. Even from the comfort of my home I often find Polish records (written in Russian) that are on-line, but in a folder with other records. Before I post them on Viewmate for translation I want to be sure that they are the correct record. To this end I type out the name that is in the JRI-Poland index. Then I use Morse’s English to Russian tool to get it into Russian text. Note that you will get many entries. I just select the first. Then I do the additional step of converting Russian Print to Cursive which often looks quite different than the typed text. I then compare the text to what shows up in the record to determine if it matches. I don’t worry about endings that may vary.

Tombstone Dates

One of the puzzles that I was interested in solving was aimed at uncovering the story within the data. I had found my great-great grandfather’s tombstone. I knew he died in 1904, the same year as my great-grandfather came to America. I assumed my great-grandfather waited until his father had passed away before boarding the ship, but wanted to confirm that. To this end I first pulled up the tombstone on the Jewish Online Worldwide Burial Registry (JOWBR). I knew it was there because I had given JOWBR the records for the town. My great-great grandfather didn’t have a last name on his tombstone so I entered his given name, Pesach Mordechai, and the town of Dunilovitchi. It brought up the Hebrew date, but written in English so I used the Jewish Calendar Conversion tool. Sure enough my great –grandfather came to the US shortly after his father passed away. Note that if the date was taken from the tombstone and was in Hebrew letters, I would have used the Tombstone Dates tool which has Hebrew inputs.In each of these cases, I was able to crack the code by using

These are just a few ways in which you can make use of his tools. Now put his site to work on your mysteries.

(If you'd like to work through the examples download the handout next to my talk on 12/13/15)


Friday, December 11, 2015

Things, Just Things

I pulled on my winter coat yesterday and reached into my pockets taking inventory by shape. Hmm, that round form must be the ear muffs I misplaced last year. Then I felt the fur of leather gloves and a shock of recognition ran through me. A month earlier I had been cleaning out the home of my late mother, filling bags with winter gear for Goodwill. In the midst of well-worn hats and scarves were the gloves from Italy. Now these were not just any gloves.  I remembered when they were new as I stroked the velvety leather in the Florence marketplace, soft white fur lined their interior. Market stalls surrounded a statue of a boar, his nose shiny from being rubbed by so many hoping to return. A rub of his nose is said to make that occur.  They were easy purchases, luxurious without taking up much room. We discovered the same size fit us both. These gloves were now well worn, bearing the imprint of my mother's hand. I slipped my hand within them seeking my mother's embrace. Hand in hand. I pulled the gloves off and slipped them into my pockets. And forgot about them until now.

Things that carry the residue of a much loved person. As if I could conjure her whole from this clasp of hand. I've been thinking a lot about things that carry my mother's imprint. Seeing the world through her eyes. When Hanukkah began this year I decided not to light our more modern menorah. I opened every cupboard searching for the one my mother had given me. A mirror image of her own. Frantically I opened cabinets, fearful I had misplaced this trace of my mother.  When I lit the candles I used a matchbook from a wedding she had attended with me. I had loaned her an eyebrow pencil in the restroom. Such odd things we remember and what an odd chain of associations.  Mom-Menorah-matchbook-wedding-eyebrow pencil-candle.  Now as I said the prayer over the candles I thought of her and sought her presence, wrapping her around me.

I've brought back little tokens of my mother's house. Many things that I had given her. Our taste was similar so she was easy to shop for, already part of me. She used to put glass plates in her window and colorful pieces of glass for the light to shine through. They now grace my kitchen window and I think of her when they glow with light. This fall the tree outside that window was a beautiful red orange. I looked at that with my mother's eyes, remembering how she would gather colorful leaves and use them in her collages. I took a picture and sent it to my sister. "Mom would have loved this."

On one of my visits in my mother's last year she drew me into her bedroom and pulled out her jewelry.  She didn't have much of value, but she wanted to make sure that I knew of two pieces in particular, one an engraved locket my father had given her when she was 17 with a photo of her on one side and him on the other, the other an engraved ID bracelet she had given him in return over seventy years ago.  I polished the tarnished silver and at Thanksgiving I gave them to my nieces, the next generation.

When I opened the locket, I inhaled deeply.  A familiar scent wafted out, that last trace deeply imbued in this cherished memento.

Things, just things, but laden with meaning.  Holding a spirit within them.