UJGS October Meeting

Gary Mokotoff was the featured speaker for the Utah Jewish Genealogical Society’s October meeting. Having spoken to our group last year, Gary drew a few extra people into the audience because they had heard such good things about his last visit. He presented The Paternal Genealogy of Bernie Madoff. While the title evokes a few chuckles, the content is serious. Gary used Bernie Madoff as an example of a fairly typical Jewish genealogy research project.

From the comfort of his own home (or wherever he was at the time), Gary researched the lineage of Bernie Madoff all from his computer.

Five Web Sites

Gary used five web sites to complete several generations of Madoff’s genealogy: Wikipedia, Ancestry, Steve Morse, JewishGen, and JRI-Poland.

Because most genealogy projects begin with some basic knowledge, usually a person and their parents at the least, Gary began on Wikipedia, which conveniently (and often for many entries) listed the parents of Bernie and his birth year.

From there, Gary proceeded to Ancestry to find the 1930 US census for Bernie’s father, continuing to the 1920 and 1910 censuses tracing the family back in time.

Using Steve Morse’s site, he searched for the ship list of the first immigrant in the family. Having some trouble, he returned to Ancestry where he found the naturalization documents.

With more information, he was able to return to Morse’s site and find the ship list, now knowing the original name of the family and more information about the immigration.

Searching JRI-Poland, he found over 1000 entries for the surname. Back to the other documents and a visit to JewishGen’s Shtetlseeker, he located the name of the town he needed and only had to check a few of the JRI-Poland entries to find more information.

Good To Have Friends

The final part of his research was the networking section. Having published a story in Avotaynu about this research, he received an email from a colleague stating that the Kiecle-Radom SIG had indexed even more records, along with the information that was found in that project.

In the end, Gary presented the ancestry of Bernie Madoff going back to the late 1700s, which is about as far as the average Jewish Polish genealogy can go.

I thought that this was another great presentation by Gary Mokotoff. He got stuck on a couple of slides, not sure why he repeated an image, but that was minor; he probably hadn’t reviewed the presentation terribly recently.

Pet Peeves

My only concern about this presentation was for any beginners who may hear it. I still remember the genealogy.com and Ancestry commercials where someone types in their name and their entire genealogy pops up. “Oh look, we’re related to the Wright brothers!” Anyone remember those? It makes people think that doing their own genealogy is that easy — that there is no research that they have to do. In honesty, if you go to a site like that, type in your name, and your genealogy pops up, someone else did all the research. Unfortunately, some people believe those commercials and must be told not to.

Even with the presentation entirely about his journey into researching this family, if it had been my presentation, I would have added other information. Certainly a lot of information is online, with more every day, but still, not everything is online and research must be done elsewhere to complete the genealogy. Even so, there are many web sites beyond the five that he used that may hold information someone is looking for.

Also, Gary did not obtain any vital records for the family. Not one birth, marriage, or death record, which is crucial information to genealogy research and to verify that he was researching the right people. It all seemed to fit, but sometimes you find records that are similar yet not the right family. And where he checked the JRI-Poland indexes of vital records, he relied on the index and did not check the records themselves. Beginners need to be taught that while indexes are convenient, they are not to be entirely trusted and the original record must be consulted.


Even though I have concerns about the bits that were skipped over, the presentation was a fantastic example of how much information can already be found online and how one can research a family tree without having anyone to interview for information. It won’t work for every family, but it’s a good starting place for someone who is just starting their research.

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