Saturday, July 31, 2010

New Tools from the Conference - Creating Your Own One-Step Searches

Since returning from the International Jewish Genealogy conference, I have been hard at work applying what I learned.  I always try to attend a mix of topics that spans history, language, new tools and resources as well as technical skills.

Some of those technical skills and tools have already proven helpful in the Shtetlink sites I provide on Radom and Dunilovichi.  If you’ve explored those sites you know I am a fan of spreadsheets, often organizing research in spreadsheets and providing them for download.  During my time at the conference I attended Dr. Stephen Morse’s workshop on using his “One-Step” tools to create one's own search tools.  Basically he has written the HTML code to create a do-it-yourself Soundex search engine to search a database.  Steve is a talented computer engineer and entertaining presenter and his tools have become a critical resource for most genealogists.  For those of you who did not have the benefit of his session, you can find instructions on how to create a search engine at under Creating Your Own Search Application.  Click on Frequently Asked Questions for a basic tutorial.

You can find some of the ones that I’ve built on the home page of the Radom Shtetlink (see link at side).  There you will find one that I built for the 1823 Patronymic Database that I found on my recent trip to Radom.   If you click on the Names tab and then the 1823 Patronymic link you will see the original data as I found it in the archives.  There are two columns, one listing patronymics (father’s name plus an ending such as Herszkowicz) that Jews went by prior to being required to take last names in 1823.  The second column is the last name that they took. In the database I built, I've added a separate column for given name followed by patronymic and surname.

 While it was exciting to read my great-great-great grandfather’s entry, trying to do research on a hard copy handwritten listing is not an easy task.  Previously I input that information into a spreadsheet that I made available to download and search via filters.  Now I provide another way to search via the “One-Step” method. 

My 3rd great-grandfather was Berek Herszkowicz prior to taking the last name of Rubinsztajn.  That means that his father was Herszk.  If he had brothers they should also be listed as Herszkowicz.  But Herszkowicz can be spelled a number of different ways.  By entering Herszkowicz into the patronymic field and clicking sounds like, it will pull up the various spellings and the last names that those individuals took.  It is quite possible at this point in time that adult siblings took different last names.  Seven names come up with a father named Herszk, all possible siblings with different names that I may wish to remain aware of in my Radom research.

And a few tips for those who wish to build a search tool...

As a novice, I have found javascript (js-2) to be the easiest starting point to build search tools. You will also want to make use of Notepad to save files in order to remove code that may be input from various programs such as Excel.  And finally make sure the names match between the search engine name that you input into the tool and the name you ultimately save the file under.  Same goes for the database.  Use the "test-drive" button as you build the search to see how it appears to the user. Good luck!

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

The Global Meets the Personal

For the past few days I’ve been attending the International Jewish Genealogy Conference in Los Angeles.  This very comprehensive conference gathers Jewish genealogists from all over the world for more offerings than one can realistically attend. 

I began the conference by attending Schelley Dardashti’s session on genealogy blogging, hoping to pick up some tips on how to make this blog more effective.  Schelley publishes the blog “Tracing the Tribe”, focused on Jewish genealogy.  Her overview was quite helpful and you may see some modifications in the coming weeks as I explore some of her recommendations.  I certainly related to her comments about blogging taking over one’s life.

Warren Blatt spoke about Jewish given names reviewing the naming patterns of Ashkenazic Jews that can assist one in genealogy research.  He reviewed the derivation of names and the Hebrew, Yiddish and American equivalents.  This very useful seminar helped to explain the many seemingly unrelated monikers that one person could go by and their relationships to each other.  He began the seminar with a confounding example of one name on a tombstone, a very different one on a marriage registration and yet another in the census, all for the same person.  By the end of the seminar it actually made sense.  You can find his Powerpoint at

As I create Shtetlinks, I was interested in Susana Bloch’s session on that topic.  I liked her description of a  Shtetlink  as a cyberspace landsmanschaft, an organization of people from the same shtetl.  At one time a landsmanschaft was an actual organization that provided support to others from the same shtetl.  With the ability to create this in cyberspace we can greatly expand our reach beyond any given geographical area.  I’ve found creating Shtetlinks to be especially rewarding when I have the opportunity to connect people who share common family as well as personally beneficial by enabling me to be aware of new information as it becomes available.

One of the topic that I found most interesting was presented by Ben Nathans, a history professor at the University of Pennsylvania.  Nathans discussed the Jews of the Russian Empire and their life within the Pale(the area where they were required to live).  His thesis was that Jews became a modern people as a part of the Russian Empire.  He spoke of the period around the late 1800s when there were over 5 million Jews within the Russian Empire.  Faced with poverty, pogroms and restrictions on their place of residence (eg. The Pale), they had a difficult existence.  In independent Ukraine approximately 100,000 Jews died in pogroms with the most severe wave occurring in 1919 as an outgrowth of the Russian Revolution.  He talked about the years of emancipation of the Jews in each of the European countries, emphasizing that they invariably tied to revolutions and wars in those countries.

 In Russia, Jews were selectively emancipated through an “incentive plan”.  Certain categories of Jews were permitted to live outside of the Pale with full rights.  These included merchants who paid significant taxes, graduates of Russian universities, artisans who were in demand outside of the Pale and Jewish veterans who had completed their 25 years of military service.  The result of this plan was that by 1880 15% of the students in Russian universities were Jewish although they represented only 5% of the population.  Of course quotas soon emerged as a backlash to this development. Jews became urbanized and moved in from the shtetls assuming more commercial occupations. His conclusion was that the modern Jew evolved in Russia long before he came to the US.

This topic was of particular interest to me as I had the opportunity to make use of some of the available databases while at the conference that underscored much of what he related.  The Jewish Chronicle, a British paper that dates back to 1840, is a wealth of information on the towns from which my ancestors came.  When I input their names I came up with articles that talked of the expulsion of Jews from towns, anti-Semitism frequently fanned by the church with talk of blood libels and deadly pogroms.  I have always hypothesized that my grandmother was brought over to the United States by her brothers in response to a pogrom.  Family folklore is that her child died in a pogrom and in fact pogroms murdered 300 Jews in her community just a year prior to her arrival in the United States.  A wave of pogroms had spread across Russia for the preceding two year period.

History becomes so much more meaningful when the global intersects the personal.  I particularly find history interesting when viewed from a system’s perspective.  Each action has subsequent consequences creating a repetition of pattern if one pays attention.  Genealogy itself is very much about pattern recognition as is any puzzle.  Nathan’s lecture reminded me that history shares that characteristic and is a puzzle itself to be deciphered and understood.

When I come to a conference such as this I am struck by the many topics that genealogy links into, all topics of great interest to me.  I frequently attend lectures on history, travel, language, technical skills such as web design and writing.  Let’s not forget that genealogy also links one into a social network of others who are equally excited about these subjects.  It doesn’t get much better than that.

Saturday, July 3, 2010

Paintings: Version Two

It has been a busy couple of weeks since our return from Eastern Europe.  Much of my time has been spent adding my genealogy research to the Radom Shtetlink site.  If you are interested in the genealogy side of things you can find a summary of what has been added on the home page of the Radom Shtetlink (see link on right).

Currently I am working with a film from 1937 of the Jewish community of Radom.  As the film quality is poor (picture lots of people waving and the camera jumping around), I’ve decided to place stills on the website.  It must have been a big event to have the community filmed as everyone turned out to be captured on film.  There is a general spirit of gaiety that comes through despite having no sound. People bow, wave, shake hands, dance and hold their children up to the camera. And yet it is a sad film.  I can’t help thinking that most of the people in it were murdered just a few years later.  I watch for people who resemble my father, wondering if I might spot one of my great-uncles by happenstance.

 I’ve also begun to spend time at the studio working on pieces for a show in London in January.  I will be exhibiting my series of work that is based on my experiences in Lithuania.  The work will be at the Woolfson and Tay gallery.  Its founders produced a wonderful film of the survivors of Vilnius called Surviving History so our directions link up nicely.  I had contacted them originally hoping to show the film in conjunction with my artwork and ended up planning a show for their gallery.

 In order to simplify shipping, I am taking paintings that I have done on board and redoing them on canvas which is lighter-weight and doesn’t require framing. It is an interesting exercise on many levels.  There is part of me that hates to sell a painting because each one feels unique, something that I could never capture again.  Many paintings evolve in a serendipitous way through happy accidents and lots of experimentation.  There is no formula to easily reproduce it.  Occasionally I think I should be recording my steps in creating a painting, but I think too much analysis would get in the way of its evolution.  My compromise with the analytic side of my brain is to keep photos as a record of the process. If I flip through them in a slide show I can see how the painting evolved.  Because my focus is on showing a series of works, selling a core piece too soon interferes with that objective.  By doing multiple works, I am more free to let go, realizing that while I may not recreate the same piece, I may well create one I like better.

 I am giving myself permission to change a painting the second time, it needn’t be an exact replica.  Sometimes I like version 2 better.  Because paint goes on differently on different surfaces I can’t get certain effects on canvas that I could do on board.  I make lavish use of medium to try to make the surfaces more equivalent.

 So let me share a few version 2s with you.  You may remember Buried Truths based on the Polish journalist who lived in the forest of Ponar where he witnessed the murder of the Jewish community.  He wrote about what he observed and buried his pages in bottles in the ground.  The original one is on  the left and Buried Truths 2 is on the right.  The original is a little darker, murkier.  I discovered in the first one that I liked the line that cut across and wanted to highlight that so in version 2 you see it is much more distinct.  One would think that this would be an easy one to reproduce as it is not particularly representational, but it was actually quite difficult.  It may not come across well in a photograph, but the painting is built up with medium to create an almost fossilized effect when I glazed the medium with white. I also had some accidental drips in the first one that I decided I liked.  In the second version I tried to get it to drip blue across the iron oxide thinking of the drips as the roots of the trees reaching deep into the earth.

I am probably not done yet as I think I will want to make some of the background bottles slightly darker to distinguish them from the foreground and darken some of the background. Fortunately I have lots of time to play with this.

Another one which I have been working on is Sholom Aleichem with the old man who came to the restaurant in Vilnius only to reveal that he once lived there during the time of the ghetto.  There were a few themes that were captured in the original painting- a coal chute with a child who was hidden below, the gate to the tunnel which ran from the synagogue behind the restaurant under the building and out the ghetto gate.  There were also circles signifying the wall of wine bottles that now stands in this gentleman's former bedroom.  In the upper right corner they melt into the night sky.  Again the original version is on the left and version 2 is below in the center.

While I liked the image of the man in the first painting, I wanted him to be looking more contemplative so I tried a different view and changed him a bit.  I liked the wine bottles, but decided to have them overlap the man and liked having the background merge with the painting.  On the right I decided to add a new image - coal.  As the chute led to a a coal bin, I thought it would be interesting to paint coal which I did through the use of medium and glazes.  As an aside, I find that I need to take time from the studio to do other things and let ideas emerge.  In this case I was walking around the lake with a friend when I saw rocks that reminded me of coal.  I promptly took that image back to the studio. The gate still needs some work and I keep debating whether to have a child on the chute.  The scale seems too small for the painting.  It is likely that will get painted out or reformatted in some fashion.

What I find interesting about this image is that the images of coal, the circles of the wine bottles and the night sky could stand on their own as an abstract painting. Without the central figure they take on a symbolism of their own.  Perhaps they will find their way into a new painting in this form.

Both of these paintings require more work so I will feature them again as they evolve.  The third painting that I have been working on is Afikomen which is based on the hidden matzo factory in the Vilnius synagogue during Soviet times.  The imagery really didn't change between the original and the version 2, but I found that I couldn't get certain effects as easily on canvas.  As you can see they are not dramatically different except some colors appear more blended on the canvas.What is interesting about the process is that the original evolves organically.  It is only after it is done that I look at it analytically and think about repetition of form and how fields of color interact.  In version 2 of this painting I was less involved in organic evolution, but more focused upon capturing color and line.

So preferences?  Is version 1 just the prototype to be improved upon or does it have something unique by being more part of an organic evolution?  The mere exercise of putting these side by side has me itching to make changes to my version 2s.