I admit it. Television shows that trace the family roots of celebrities, like Who Do You Think You Are? and Finding Your Roots provide all the suspense I can handle. I get too scared watching thrillers, much less horror movies, and these programs have the ability to get me nervous about what may lie ahead – Will Harry Connick, Jr. discover his Southern relatives really were slave owners? (Spoiler alert: Yes, he did.) But they also carry the implicit comfort that all the startling details are safely left in the past. Sure, on Finding Your Roots Anderson Cooper learned that his ancestor was beaten to death with a hoe, but I didn’t have to watch it on screen like a bonus scene from Children of the Corn. And then there are the discoveries that are just plain fun – like the time when Curb Your Enthusiasm’s Larry David learns he’s actually related to former presidential candidate and Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders, who he had recently played on Saturday Night Live. “What the hell?!” David exclaimed. “That is amazing! Alright. Cousin Bernie.”
So, there’s absolutely nothing shocking about me confessing that I am ridiculously excited for our trace-your-family-history workshop, Dig Your Roots, that’s happening this Sunday, March 4, at the Center for Jewish History. Afterall, we’re going to learn how to uncover the mysteries and surprises in our own family trees from some of the best in the business – the crack team of J.D. Arden and Moriah Amit from CJH’s Ackman & Ziff Family Genealogy Institute.
Arden and Amit help academics, researchers and, yes, regular people with a yen to learn about their families use their vast collections, from databases to newspapers to tax records from European towns. And there’s no end to the surprises they’ve unearthed: someone who thought they were an orphan had living relatives; that an Israeli family with the surname Gefen (Hebrew for vineyard) would have been known by some variant of the name Wein when they lived in Europe; that all those stories about people having their names changed upon arrival at Ellis Island are bunk.
Amid the thrill of discovery, there’s a certain melancholy that runs through the work. Some of the resources that are especially helpful for tracing Jewish family history are reflective of anti-Semitic governments. Some documents from Russia are as detailed as they are because the government relied on those records to conscript Jewish boys into the army. There are extensive tax records for Jews in Eastern Europe because the Jews were taxed at much higher rates than non-Jews. There are few official records of Jewish families in the Islamic world during certain periods because Jews were excluded from much of civic life, including the army, government and land ownership, Arden notes.
According to my own family lore, my grandfather was born somewhere on the Atlantic, on a ship coming to America from Romania. I’m descended from the Mendel Beilis depicted in Bernard Melamud’s novel The Fixer. And a distant relative was the economic counselor to the King of Romania. At the workshop on Sunday, I’ll be looking for confirmation that my roots are in the ocean, in literature and among royalty. And if that turns out to be a tall order, I’d be happy enough finding out that I’m related to Larry David!
Join me at the Center for Jewish History this Sunday at 2pm for Dig Your Roots! Visit our website for more information and tickets!