Wednesday, August 28, 2013

A Declaration of Being

I'm a "???".  Most of us can fill in the blank with a number of descriptors. At the Jewish Artists' Lab* exhibition, artist Robyn Awend has an interactive piece which consists of plastic card holders, each pocket holding a card that describes one attribute among the multiplicity of things that can describe a person. The act of taking a card is a declaration of being, of who one is, or at least one aspect of who one is.  It is in the combination of attributes that we begin to define our uniqueness.

Last week at the opening we had a gallery filled with people and vibrating with energy. The catalog looked beautiful and each artwork told a story about a subject we had discussed, but also gave a glimpse into the artist.

The poem I wrote to accompany my painting drew a lot of interest and brought me back to the topic of declaring who one is. " I'm not really a poet ," I protested, conscious of the "real" writers and poets who create far more "poetic" work among our group. The act of declaration seems to carry a responsibility to work at and develop a craft. I'm not sure I'm ready to make such a declaration about poetry. I think about a journal from my 20s filled with poetry, a chronicle of my first marriage. When did I stop writing? I think it was as that marriage wound down, as if I could only write when faced with youthful angst. Since then I've written a handful of playful poems for special occasions, but nothing of the daily fabric of life.

So what motivated this recent effort? In this case it just seemed like the best way to juxtapose the two stories, Abraham and Isaac and Dora and her mother. The other advantage of poetry was that it let me tell the story through the eyes of Isaac and Dora. Not only could I contemplate their experience, but for a brief moment I could step inside of it and imagine it through their eyes. I am accustom to working in a series of paintings, each one allowing me to look at a different facet of the topic I explore. One painting just didn't seem like enough. I could easily have done a series, but lacking wall space in the exhibition, I decided to use a different medium. In the process it felt a bit like discovering an old friend. The sound of words lapping up against each other, giving voice, echoing, weaving in and out, each voice stepping up in turn to declare itself.

I thought about those other declarations in my life. "I am an artist" took me a long time to state. Back when I painted just for me I used to debate with my husband what made one an artist. He felt that painting for a larger audience was important to the definition. I argued that one who paints is an artist. Even as I asserted that, it was still hard to get those words out when asked what I did. It was only when I started showing my work that it gradually became easier to take ownership of that label. The rest of the world began to see me through that lens, but it still had to begin with that barely whispered assertion, "I am an artist".

"I am a writer" is still in its infancy. I've been writing this blog for over four years. Does that make me a writer or is blogging a category unto itself? Words are a medium that I embrace, but with such truly accomplished writers in the world, it seems like hubris to claim that label. And yet...claiming that one is a "fill in the blank" is often the first step to becoming that.

Yesterday I wore one of my other hats. I interviewed for an interim CFO job. When asked if I would be interested in full-time permanent work, I quickly responded with a definitive "No!". "Why not?" I was asked. "I have other things I want to do, I am an artist," I replied. I marveled at how easily it rolled off the tongue. I realized that I had reached a milestone when I could so easily integrate that part of me with the financial business side of my being. We are each many things and embracing that messy, squirming totality is the first step towards being our full selves.

*The Jewish Artists’ Laboratory is an arts initiative through the Sabes Jewish Community Center featuring 17 artists exploring the theme of Text/Context/Subtext through study and art making. The project is funded through The Covenant Foundation and similar projects are being done in both Milwaukee and Madison. Artists explore how the theme of Text/Context/Subtext is relevant to Jews and non-Jews, to religious and non-religious, to the community and to the individual, to the artist and the non-artist.

Thursday, August 15, 2013

Probate Records: An Often Forgotten Source

Most of us start our research with records that are easily accessible on-line before we graduate to archives. As we get a bit braver we begin to venture into less familiar terrain. One of my most successful forays has been to the unfamiliar territory of probate records. I began at the Ramsey County Courthouse in St. Paul, Minnesota looking for a client’s great-grandfather who came to Minnesota in the 1880s. There I found his will from the 1930s on a roll of microfilm and solved the mystery of where he came from. Emboldened by that success, I then braved the Surrogate Court records in Brooklyn where I discovered my own family. Realizing the value of this source, I decided to attend a seminar on this topic at the IAJGS Conference.

Allan Jordan presented an excellent overview using examples from his experience. My most important take-away related to terminology. We were told that if one dies with a will it is called in testate, but without a will it is called an administration. Now this was important because for most of my early family members a will was less likely so it is important to be able to ask about administrations which may be in a separate index than wills. Fortunately they appeared to be co-mingled in Brooklyn as at the time I didn’t know to ask for them specifically.

These records are public unless someone requests that a record be sealed. There may be restrictions on copying, but that varies with place. Prior to 1916 only about 25% had a probate file, but when the estate tax went into place in 1916 it became more common. Understanding when different laws went into effect and their impact is important knowledge for genealogists.

So what can one find in a probate file?

In the case of my St Paul discovery there was the name of the town he was from, something we had not known previously. We also discovered a sister of whom we had been unaware. How did we know it was a sister? The will told us the relationship. For each beneficiary it stated who they were, a veritable family tree. It also outlined all the charitable causes to which he contributed, both here and in Israel.

To find a probate or surrogate court record (they mean the same thing) you will need the person’s legal name. It helps to know both where they died and their legal residence. When I sought the death record of my grandmother's aunt I found a rather circuitous path. She lived in Brooklyn, but died at her son’s in Morristown, NJ. There I found her death record, but in the Surrogate Court of Brooklyn there was a document which listed her surviving children and their married names.

Some courts have computerized indexes, others use card catalogues or ledger books. Some have records on site, others are in storage. While I was able to access records without delay it is wise to call ahead to see if they are in storage rather than encounter a delay.

When I went to the records in Surrogate Court, I didn’t find wills, but I did find guardianships and records on deaths without a will. Within the files I found death certificates, addresses and married names of surviving children.

An administration establishes the date of death, assets and heirs. Typically it is a 4 page document that says where the person died and where they lived. The Administrator has to find next of kin and has to do research so if you are lucky you may find a family tree.

Much of this information is on-line as expands its digital offerings. I was able to access the card catalog on-line for the Brooklyn Surrogate court to locate my great-grandaunt. Unfortunately they didn’t have the files digitized after 1923 so you will need to go there to retrieve them. If, however, you are seeking a will prior to that time you can access it in your pajamas. Simply go to and go down the page to Collections. Go to US and enter Probate. If you are interested in Brooklyn, go to the listing for NY and then go to Kings County. You can find the listing in the card catalog and then pull it up from the digital files. Happy hunting!

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

So Many Books!

In a recent post I discussed the wonderful session at the IAJGS conference on literature that can help to inform your genealogy search. In addition to those books that were discussed in the session and the prior post, we were given an extensive list of titles. Some were recommended by the session leaders, others were recommended by many of those who attended the session. I have a pretty extensive list of my own, many of which have been discussed in this blog. I've combined my list with the list from the session and you can download it from my website as well as peruse blog articles on genealogy topics. The books cover family searches, life in Eastern Europe, the immigrant experience, the Holocaust or the Jewish experience and span both fiction and nonfiction. If you would like to read the reviews of many of these books on my blog, input "recommended reading" in the search box.

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Making Sense of Genealogical Clutter

At the recent Jewish genealogy conference, I rather sheepishly found myself attending Rhoda Miller's session entitled Organize It. Sheepishly because I am often thought of as quite organized, but I knew that my organizational system had deteriorated over time and required some fresh energy. Piles of genealogical papers now line my office, falling outside of the files neatly labeled by family name. Paper has always been my Waterloo, especially those difficult to classify scraps that still feel too important to pitch. While originally quite organized electronically, even that has begun to breakdown.

Showing up at Rhoda's door meant I was acknowledging a problem and hoping for fresh ideas. She did not disappoint.

The system she proposed made use of color coding. Each family name was assigned a color, after a marriage when a name changed, the color also changed. Thus a woman pre-marriage would reside with her family's color, moving to her husband's color post marriage, not unlike the Polish Books of Residents that cross her off and move her to her husband's page.

Rhoda's paper system uses binders with a clear plastic pocket with the tree. Binders and files are about people, places and documents. She then transposes her paper system into electronic by making use of a free site, This site allows you to color code files. Because she groups and color codes by family name, once organized the color coding was less relevant as whole groupings were of one color. Despite this she found that the act of organizing by color forced a new organizational focus that was helpful.

Perhaps my main take-away was to organize by name. I have folders by type, for example 1940 census records, 1930 census records etc. Rhoda would instead have the family name and under it the following categories: Documents, Pictures, Oral Histories, Places, Correspondence and Yad Vashem. Document files start with the year as they begin to tell a story once in chronological order.

Digital resources that she makes use of include, the previously mentioned and of course Evernote and Dropbox. I have been finding Dropbox very useful to share information with clients for whom I do genealogy research. At the conference resource room, I also found it helpful in accessing their material to do research as my research files were available on any computer.

She talked about efforts to organize a research segment, much of what I did prior to trips to the Family History Library. She began by asking what do you want to know, then what you already know. She then thought about what and where were the resources, including who can give expert advice. Finally the act of tapping those resources began with social history, a source of insight along the way.

When doing research offsite she offered some practical hints. Keep a packed supply bag and dress in layers with pockets. Use a conference badge holder, great place for glasses and copy cards. Bring a flash drive and here I shall interject one of my own tips, take a name and address label and mark it. Invariably you will forget one in a public computer. I try not to use an extremely large one as it is just more data to possibly lose and make sure you don't have personal or financial info on it. Charge your camera for photos and bring a magnifier with a light. Weigh the value of a laptop as it can be a headache to carry or store when you take a break. I used to bring a small one with a lock, a password, and little on it to worry about were it to disappear. Finally bring an iPad with your GEDCOM file. She recommended an app called GedView which I will need to compare to the one from Ancestry which I currently use.

Rhoda spent some time on evidence analysis and noting sources as original, derivative or authored (synthesis). She discussed the Genealogy Proof Standard which requires a reasonably exhaustive search, complete and accurate citation of sources, analysis and correlation of data and an attempt to resolve conflicts. She recommended writing it up because it makes you think. I chuckled at that as many of my insights have come when writing for this blog.

Finally she turned her attention to my nemesis; challenges to organization. Within that fell the categories of possibilities, correspondence, research sub tasks, scraps of paper,odd sized paper and miscellaneous items. Some of her recommendations were to make a scrapbook of your scraps. For me those include those notes jotted on an envelope from early conversations with my parents on family history, precious because my father was still alive and memories were still intact. For odd sized papers such as maps she uses artist portfolios and for other things such as parents' address books she used archival boxes.

Now to set aside some time and tackle that office!

Monday, August 12, 2013

Informing your Search Through Literature

I spent the past week in Boston at the International Association of Jewish Genealogical Societies (IAJGS) Conference. While I holed up in conference rooms learning about documents and databases, my husband walked the Freedom Trail, biked and whale watched. At the end of each day he shared his adventures and I, somewhat envious, had to ask myself why I chose to do research versus the many other options that life presents. But puzzles engage me and family history is the ultimate puzzle, a field of knowledge that touches history, language, and story.

In the next several blog entries I will share some of the insights from sessions I attended that may be of interest to other researchers. I have to start with one of my favorite sessions which was co-led by Ellen Cassedy and Lois Ogilby Rosen. Ellen is the author of We Are Here, a book that addresses how Lithuania is dealing with their Holocaust history. She had attended the Vilnius Yiddish Institute some years prior to my visit. During the course of that visit she explored both a family mystery and the larger question of how Lithuania comes to terms with its role in the Holocaust, a nation where 95% of Jews were murdered in part because of a high level of complicity. Her excellent book brings a compassionate eye to their efforts. She notes that much anti-Semitism still exists and acknowledges that it is a difficult process to emerge from a half a century under two regimes and confront layers of denial.

One of the session that she and Lois led was titled Calling All Readers. As an avid reader who has found that both fiction and non-fiction inform my understanding of family history, I was eager to add to my prospective reading list. Having greatly enjoyed Ellen's book I am optimistic about her recommendations.

Ellen led off with a brief discussion of what she looked for when reading as a writer, a vantage point that I have typically not brought to my reading, but anticipate applying. Her criteria included:

1) how the story grabbed the reader, 2) how skillfully the writer blends the story with the larger picture so it illuminates the larger story and vice versa, 3) how they created vivid scenes to pull the reader into them and 4) how they created suspense. Using those considerations as their yardstick she and her co-presenter had identified several books in each of five categories from which they shared excerpts.

The categories were 1) Life Experiences in the Old World 2) the Jewish Immigrant Experience, 3) The Quest for Family Roots, 4) For Children and Young Adults and 5)Unique Finds.

While I had read some of those she noted, I realized that much of my reading was of contemporary writings and a number of the books that they recommended were more first-hand accounts. In the first two categories that was of necessity of an earlier time.

In the category of Life Experiences in the Old World they noted three books:

The Memoirs of Gluckel of Hameln. - Gluckel lived from 1646-1724 and was a Jewish business woman and diarist. In the process of telling the reader how to live their life, she tells the story of what life was like in her day.

The Wandering Jews by Joseph Roth. Roth died in 1939 and never saw the outcome of WWII on the Jewish population in Europe. This non-fiction work was written in 1927 and reflects his observations of the Eastern European Jewish community.

Out of Egypt by Andre Aciman - this memoir tells the story of three generations of a Sephardic family in Alexandria.

Three books were recommended on the Jewish Immigrant Experience:

The Promised Land by Mary Antin. 1912. A digital version is available on-line. Mary Antin was a Jewish woman from Eastern Europe and the story is of her immigration from Polotsk, Belarus. She immigrated when she was thirteen and writes about both Russia and the immigrant experience.

A Bintel Brief means a sack of letters and is made up of letters from 1906-1967 sent to the Jewish Daily Forward. Within it we read of Jewish immigrants seeking advice about daily life in the new country.

Bread Givers by Anzia Yezierska. 1925. This story, set on the Lower East Side, is told through the eyes of a Polish Jewish female immigrant in the 1920s. It is a story of struggle between her father of the old world and a daughter of the new.

The third category addressed the Quest for Family Roots.

Within it fell The Hare with the Amber Eyes by Edmund de Waal which I've addressed in an earlier blog post. This story explores family history by tracing an unusual family heirloom, netsuke, as they move within the wealthy Ephrussi family of grain merchants.

Miriam's Kitchen by Elizabeth Erlich is a memoir and cookbook that addresses family connections. Her mother-in-law is a survivor and her kitchen is the venue for telling family stories and history.

For Children and Young Adults

The Night Journey by Kathryn Lasky. In this book the great grandmother tells of escaping turn of the century Russia, tales of pogroms and the czar's army.

Letters from Rifka by Karen Hesse. This historical novel tells the story of life in Russia and the 1919 immigration of a young girl. The story is told in letters written to her cousin who remains behind in Russia.

The Power of Light, stories for children by Isaac Bashevis Singer offers a story for each night of Hanukkah.

The final category was Unique Finds

Within this category was Peony by Pearl Buck. This historical fiction is about the Jews of K'aifeng, China. Set in 1850 and published in 1948 it is a story of interracial marriage.

Unfinished People: Eastern European Jews Encounter America by Ruth Gay. This book, winner of the National Jewish Book Award, addresses Jewish immigration to the US from 1880 to the outbreak of WWI. The Table of Contents gives some flavor for the range of topics addressed and includes Floors, Laughter, Chairs, Awnings, Hats, Papers, Work, Food, Corsets, Girls, Winter and Beds.

In addition to these recommendations they solicited favorites from others and provided us with a lengthy list. I've combined the list with my rather extensive list which you can download from my website.

Thursday, August 1, 2013

Criticism Without the Ouch

Our last Artists’ Lab*! Fortunately we have another year to look forward to beginning in October. Our upcoming show is up next week and I've dropped off my piece. I guess that means I've finished my artwork.

As you may recall, my artwork tells a story from my friend of a death march that she was on during the war accompanied by her mother. It has many parallels with the story of the Binding of Isaac, but presents a different take on parental sacrifice and plays with the idea of “binding” in a different sense. A poem accompanies it that contrasts the two stories. You can find the final work on my website and details on the show events.

At our last session we discussed criticism. How to give it, how to take it. The texts we referenced didn’t apply precisely to artistic criticism as they were more focused on reproof and rebuke, but one passage did seem relevant despite this difference.

Rabbi Tarafon said, “I wonder if there is anyone in this generation capable of accepting reproof.” For, (if) one says to him, “Remove the mote from between your eyes,” he would reply, ‘Remove the beam from between your eyes!” Rabbi Elazar ben Azarya said: “I wonder where there is anyone in this generation who knows how to reprove.”

There are two aspects to offering criticism, both receiving and giving and we could often benefit from some help at both ends. Many of the artists had examples from art school, most of how not to give criticism from experiences of art professors who damaged or reworked their paintings. Reworking someone else’s work is not a recommended approach.

David Harris from Rimon joined us to talk about the work of Liz Lerman, a choreographer and artist who created a process for artists to receive criticism in a way that actively engaged them in the process. The process has three participants, a facilitator, the artist and responders. The idea behind it is to create a positive environment for criticism and engage both artist and responder.
The responder is asked, “What has meaning for you about what you’ve seen?” This question creates a positive context. The artist then states a question about what they are interested in hearing about. The responder must then frame a neutral question. If the question is a loaded one, not really neutral, the facilitator steps in to reframe. An example from Lerman’s Critical Response Process takes “Why’s the cake so dry?” and changes it to “What kind of texture were you going for?” The final step is where the facilitator asks for opinions. The responder uses the following form, “I have an opinion about _____. Do you want to hear it? If for example the responder wants to offer an opinion about costumes, but they are not the ones that will be used in the final performance, the artist may tell them it isn’t a relevant subject for that reason.

I thought about feedback and criticism from my own experience. I share a studio with my husband and our work is very different. Generally when people come through our studio they resonate more with one or the other. People have different taste and that will color their response. Generally most respond positively or say nothing. I sometimes refer to a viewer as “one of yours” or “one of mine”. That reflects the understanding that different people naturally gravitate towards certain types of work.

I also find that I can draw viewers in by giving them a sentence of context and offering to answer questions. I might tell them of the origin of my recent series that is based on interviews with elders at Sholom Home, most in their 90s. With context, we often have very interesting discussions and they engage with the work.

The other point where I would typically get feedback is when a show is up, but then people keep it in a positive realm. They tell me what they like, not what they don't. Our group agreed that an opening is not a good place for criticism. At that point all the artist can do is agonize.

Artists respond to feedback differently at different stages. I’ve learned not to give my husband feedback when he is in the midst of a painting. The images in his work emerge for him from an abstract and until he has identified his direction, my view alters his process. He needs a certain quiet to hear his own voice. Conversely I prefer input while I am creating as after the fact is too late to experiment with that particular work.

Most critical feedback comes from friends and family as they can offer it in the context of a positive relationship. For the painting for this exhibition, I got feedback from some friends that actually was quite helpful. One commented that the cans in the painting were too much of a focal point. I thought that was a good point and I muted them. Other feedback was to make the figures look more distraught. While I thought that was a good suggestion, it would have involved more reworking than I was prepared to do at that stage. My friend on whom this story is based advised me to make the background look like snow because it occurred in January. I took this advice with some hesitation. It changed the colors that worked for me, but given that it was her story I decided to heed it. In these instances the feedback was presented in a positive context which allowed me to hear it without defensiveness and put it to good use.

If I were to ask a question as part of the critical response process it would be, "How do you respond to the fact that I only show a portion of the heads of the two women?" It feels a bit like looking at them through a window. Because we spoke of the story of Abraham and Isaac in terms of negative space, I had decided originally to just show a portion of the figures and actually had planned to suggest less than I ultimately developed. In fact I was not going to paint her mother's face, but it looked too disembodied with just her hands so she found her way in.

If you are in the Twin Cities area, please stop by the show to see both my work and that of the sixteen other artists as we respond to the texts we discussed. Not all of the artists work in a visual medium so the poets and writers in the group will read their work at the closing event.

*The Jewish Artists’ Laboratory is an arts initiative through the Sabes Jewish Community Center featuring 17 artists exploring the theme of Text/Context/Subtext through study and art making. The project is funded through The Covenant Foundation and similar projects are being done in both Milwaukee and Madison. Artists explore how the theme of Text/Context/Subtext is relevant to Jews and non-Jews, to religious and non-religious, to the community and to the individual, to the artist and the non-artist.