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.

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