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.

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