Monday, December 31, 2018

An Annual Ritual

As one year comes to a close and another begins, I consider how I’ve done this past year. It is an old habit from my career, a performance review of sorts but a little different than when I was meeting a company’s objectives. Now it is more personal as I ask myself if I am living a purposeful life, one with personal meaning and broader contribution.

I consider four key questions: What do I do? How do I nourish myself? How do I give back? What groundwork am I laying for the future?  The underlying goals may vary, but those questions are relevant at any stage of life, especially so for those of us who have “retired” and are reframing our life.  So consider your goals and follow along.

What are the primary components of my life? What do I care about? What do I do? Does what I do line up with what I care about? Do my interests have interrelationships that feed them?

This is the output part of the equation and for me it occurs through exhibitions, public speaking, genealogy consulting and writing.  It is the visible part of what I do. Each of those areas has interrelationships, forming a constellation through which each informs the others. Those interrelationships have allowed my pursuits to grow organically. This year I’ve been active in exhibiting, speaking and consulting, but writing and creating new artwork are the areas in which I need to bring renewed focus.  Both are creative pursuits which move on their own schedule. Sometimes being too focused on an endpoint can trip me up. I’ve learned that the driven part of me is not of much use here, I can only create an environment which invites creativity in. I’ll be thinking about how best to do that in the year ahead. 

Am I taking in new inputs that enrich my understanding and allow me to see the world through a variety of lens?  

 I can’t continue to offer new outputs without new inputs. Travel often forms the backbone of those inputs while study through classes, conferences, reading and museum-going complement it.

Most years I go to two conferences. One is the Council of American Jewish Museums which was in DC this year. It got me thinking about the role of museums in fostering dialogue and promoting truth in these tumultuous times. I considered that role as I went through the Presidential portraits at the National Portrait Gallery along with their very candid appraisal of their subjects. Similarly, I considered the truths of history at the new National Museum of African American History and Culture. Read more here.

In May we went to New York where I presented to the Jewish Book Council. While there we made the rounds of our favorite art museums including a stop at the Whitney in Chelsea adjacent to the High Line.

I left a family trip in Colorado a bit early to fly out to Warsaw for the IAJGS conference focused on Jewish genealogy. There I saw two remarkable museums, the Polin Museum on the history of Polish Jews and the Warsaw Rising Museum on the Warsaw Uprising. Both informed my understanding of Poland in new ways. I tagged on a trip to my Polish ancestral town where I did research in the archives on the Jewish community. As I work through the information I gleaned, I hope to add it to the website that I do for that ancestral town.

Our year concluded with a trip to the Baltics and Russia. I had been in the Baltics previously on a trip that had explored the Holocaust. This trip was a bit lighter with a focus on artwork. I am always intrigued by the excellent artwork which didn't receive international attention, particularly that which was hidden behind the Iron Curtain. The Russia trip gave us an opportunity to explore many museums and an array of Russian artwork as well as to consider the underlying history that influences Russia today.

I started the year with an enthusiastic focus on writing and took three writing classes. I also renewed my study of Russian prior to my travels. Realizing that a bit of rebalancing was called for, I gave myself a reprieve on my annual goal of 60 books. That allowed me to dive into some quite lengthy books on Russian history prior to our trip. As I look back on the year, I realize there is much that I didn’t know and I feel a bit smarter about the world around me, always a good measure of a year.

How have I volunteered my time over the past year? What organizations have I worked with? In what way?  Do they reflect my values? Am I using my skills well and in a balanced way?

I volunteer with six organizations. They support business development for minorities and immigrants, women’s health and Jewish history, genealogy and values. All are accurate reflections of what I am committed to.  I don’t just attend meetings.  I also do websites, co-edit newsletters and do presentations. There is a flip side to doing a lot of volunteer activities; learning to say no. As someone who tends to step in to do what needs doing, I’ve begun to define what I will do and what I won’t, where my skills and interests lie and where they don’t. It is hard to draw boundaries, but necessary to use my energies wisely and in a targeted way.

Have I reached outside my comfort zone? Am I building a base of experience from which to launch new endeavors?

My comfort zone is a moving target. As I master new skills, there are always new situations to test me. My priorities have largely focused on promoting my book and that involves a more public self. As an inward person, that often involves swallowing hard before I launch myself into the universe. I push through internal barriers every time I venture into a public role, but it becomes easier each time.


This has been a year of public speaking. I’ve crafted a variety of talks on subjects such as immigration, storytelling and using artwork as a visual voice. I’ve learned that writing a book is just the beginning. Talking about it is a rich experience that allows me to go deeper into issues that it raises.  Immigration has been an important and timely topic and next year I am taking it on the road to a number of other states. The public speaking I’ve done over many years has built a base that allows me to move forward into new territory with some measure of comfort. Each time I venture beyond my edges, it opens new doors.

So how did you do with your goals? 

*photo by Pippalou

Friday, December 7, 2018

In Search of Family


I sometimes wish I had a bigger family. Now that is not because I am especially family-centered, but as a genealogist I am envious of those with many genealogical branches to explore.  I satisfy that desire by doing genealogy consulting for others and temporarily adopting their family as my own. With Jewish roots we often originate from the same region and our ancestors spoke the same language and shared the same customs. Who’s to say we aren’t family. 

I am currently working on one family history from Lithuania and another from Latvia. I have to work at keeping the common Jewish names separated between the two. Often, they bump up against each other in my mind and I sternly order them back to their respective tree.

One of my clients is curious about my process. I do have one, but each search often has unique elements. I draw on hunches that I’ve learned to trust. Part of what helps me is knowing the range of possibilities. For example, double given names can be used interchangeably or be swapped for one with the same meaning, birthdates were fluid, people often gave the nearest big town as theirs even though they may come from a small nearby shtetl. All these learnings guide me. There are many assessments I make, considering possibilities, discarding some while forming hypotheses from others. My process is relatively consistent when I begin, then diverges depending upon what information is available.

1897 Russian census
One client has a family tree that was put together thirty years ago, just names without dates and lots of missing maiden names, but a good starting point to fact-check and expand. I think about how difficult it must have been for them to put it together pre-Internet.  While more recent births are usually accurate, the further back they go, the more family folklore comes into play and inaccuracies can arise. As I fact-check, I build my own tree. I’m a firm disciplinarian as to what I allow into the tree, supporting documentation is required.

I often reference my tree to clarify relationships as names will tend to repeat through different generations. I also begin to create organizational tools as the list of names becomes unwieldy.  One of my most helpful tools is a spreadsheet with names down one side and data sources across the top. I check off my sources by each person to cross-check my process. I look for several sources to validate that anyone on my tree belongs there. I look for linkages between people and cross linkages across both place and person. It is like weaving a tapestry that connects the various elements, people to place, people to people. It has to weave tightly together with no weak links that can introduce errors. To that end I also identify those with the same name and time period who are not related to assure that I keep incorrect data out. You can’t be too eager to add new names.

One of my strategies is to work back from the US to ancestral towns.  I look for links between people from the ancestral town and those who came to the US. There are many ways to find those linkages. If family members immigrated after 1906 the immigration record notes the nearest family member in their place of origin. It also notes who they were going to in the US. Census records will reveal when they immigrated so I use them to work back to immigration records. One of my key linkages with my Lithuanian search is an immigration record of an entire family. Each name and birthdate ties precisely to the Lithuanian records and later to the US records. This is a rare occurrence at a time when birthdates were rather fluid. I steam across the ocean with them, picking up the threads of this family as I disembark the ship. It is a connection woven of many threads, offering me a level of certainty that I’ve found the correct family.

I have sometimes found marriage records in the US that note parents and sometimes death records will also provide that information. Death records will also say what cemetery they are buried in. Findagrave or Jewish Online Worldwide Burial Registry often have tombstone pictures which will provide the father’s name. I have cracked many puzzles by starting with a tombstone. I read those tombstones carefully hoping for a double name. If I can make a match to two given names, a surname and a place then I have an additional level of certainty that I have the right record. In both of these projects I had the good fortune to find double names. 

From there I tap into the transcriptions of the Lithuanian or Latvian records, both of which are at least partially on-line. If I am lucky, I find birth, death or marriage records and sometimes census records. Sometimes there are links to the actual handwritten Russian records, often not properly linked so a bit of knowledge of Cyrillic Russian is helpful to find the correct record. I know enough Russian to find the record before I turn it over to someone with greater fluency for confirmation. Pattern recognition will often do when fluency is lacking.

Many hunches later, I will have solved the puzzle which had seemed so insurmountable at the start. Then I will hand over the tree to its rightful owners and bid a fond farewell to this family that has invited me in, a guest to their home and their family.