All posts by Banai Lynn Feldstein

WDYTYA – Episode 1 – The Nitpicker’s Version

Don’t get me wrong, I thought the first episode of Who Do You Think You Are? was great. I enjoyed watching it and look forward to future episodes. But I also know that genealogy is about the details. So now that I’ve had a chance to rewatch the episode, I am going to break down the details and ask more questions. Warning: this will be a long blog post, so I’ve tried to break it up a bit with headers. I also hope that in my nitpicking, I haven’t gotten anything wrong. I confused even myself while I was writing this, so I hope I didn’t mix up any of the details.

No Lineage

At the beginning of the show, Sarah Jessica Parker (SJP) visited her brother, I think as an introduction to her and her family. He made an unusual comment that he thought “there was no lineage”, referring to his thinking that both sides of the family were recent immigrants. There are people who think that once your ancestors are no longer from America, there is nothing else to do. I wonder why people think that? True, for some locations, you may never get a single bit of information, but he wasn’t speaking of a specific ancestral line, rather the whole family in general. In my experience, if you’re searching for any of your ancestors, there is at least one familial line where records can be found, and usually more than one.

SJP mentioned that her father’s side was Eastern European Jewish. Her mother, Barbara, mentioned that all she heard about was German ancestry. Obviously, they couldn’t follow her entire ancestry in the 42 minutes allotted, but I would have found those interesting too.

New Jersey

When SJP visited her mother in New Jersey, she just walked in the door without knocking or using a key. Some people (other bloggers) thought that was very sweet, how they had that kind of close relationship. But really, does she not lock her front door? And it was interesting how her mother was always just around the corner. Maybe it was a small house. :-)

Prime Time TV

Sitting at a microfilm reader for hours is too dull for a prime time TV show, but sometimes the traveling across the country puts some people off. In fact, Friday night, one of my non-genealogy tweeps was talking about watching Friday night TV and I suggested WDYTYA. She thanked me afterwards but said she doesn’t “have the money to fly back & forth across the country” though she did find the show interesting. That is an unfortunate effect of the show. Do people think that they really have to do that much traveling to research their genealogy?

Cincinnati

SJP’s first stop after visiting her mother was Cincinnati where she met with Natalie Cottrill. Natalie produced a death certificate, an 1860 census page, and an obituary. SJP’s ancestor John Eber Hodge was born in September 1850, while his father died in 1849. Can anyone count how many months that is? Here’s a fun voice-over from SJP: “I’ve asked Natalie to pull the California census information from ancestry.com…” Really? I doubt that SJP actually asked for that but more likely Natalie had already done the search and they needed a segue to show the result. Maybe the sponsor wanted an extra plug in the show? He showed up in the 1850 census, but one of the possibilities was that he abandoned his family. Did they look for him in the 1860 census? They did check that to narrow down their search for him, I hope. Trying to find out what happened to him, that seemed the logical and easy thing to search for next.

I like that Natalie mentioned that the 1849 death was a mystery, though not necessarily because it was more than nine months between his death and the birth of his son. I wish she had mentioned that mysteries and inconsistencies were a normal part of genealogy research, or had pointed out that the obituary is not a primary source for the deceased’s father’s death and that more research needed to be done. In all likelihood, she did mention those things, but they just didn’t make it into the episode.

Stephen Aron at Cincinnati’s Museum Center produced another document, showing that John Hodge teamed up with several others and went to El Dorado, California, sending her across the country to find out what happened.

El Dorado

Jon McCabe, the local historian in El Dorado, showed her where he may have mined, eventually producing a letter written by John Gish, his business partner, that mentioned his death. This entire sequence, I believe, was more for entertainment than for research. There was no real reason for her to go there as I think the letter was found in Cincinnati. But that’s prime time TV: it’s for entertainment.

Boston

SJP then headed to Boston, almost on a whim if you go by the voice-over, to see if her Hodge family was part of the old New England Hodge family, as Natalie had mentioned to her earlier.

She met with Josh Taylor of the New England Historical Genealogical Society. This was one of the parts I really didn’t like. Again, I sincerely hope that everything important was cut from the show for time. He told SJP her genealogy going back for several generations, without any mention of how he found the information. John S. Hodge was the son of Eber Hodge, born just after the Revolution, his mother was Abigail Elwell, her father was Jabez, son of Samuel, son of Samuel, and son of Samuel born about 1635 in New England. What kind of documents did he use to find that? There wasn’t mention of a single source.

Checking the Great Migration Study Project of immigrants from 1620-1635, they searched another new name, Robert Elwell, who was Samuel’s father. Why didn’t he just mention that person before? Was that few seconds of dialogue cut for time? The computer showed that Robert Elwell immigrated in 1634, but this wasn’t stated aloud. Further computer details revealed that his first three children were Mary, Samuel, and Josiah, and there were many more details that I don’t feel the need to mention.

When SJP read the name of Salem on the record, of course the Salem Witch Trials came to mind for her and probably most people who were watching. Taking place in 1892, Josh said that Robert died around 1670 or 1680 but that his son Samuel would have been alive at that time. The computer screen stated the exact date of 18 May 1683 for Robert’s death. Maybe he just didn’t remember that when he mentioned it.

Actual Research Shown

SJP went on to the Massachusetts Historical Society in Boston, where librarian Elaine Grublin helped her. In these scenes, they showed SJP doing her own research for Esther Elwell, wife of Samuel, looking at the computer database, copies of a document, and one original document. Many people complained that, with an original document, they were supposed to wear gloves and that the pencil shouldn’t have been anywhere near it. Another genealogist friend of mine told me that the gloves are not to protect the document but to protect the hands from the 300 year old grime that is on them. As for the pencil, well, I agree with that one.

Also, I don’t doubt that these documents were found and probably waiting for her to arrive. Really, would they travel to a library, film crew and all, if they didn’t know ahead of time that they would find something?

Danvers/Salem

After reading the warrant about her 10th great-grandmother, Esther Elwell, being accused of witchcraft, SJP went on to Danvers, Massachusetts, where she met with historian Mary Beth Norton. Mary Beth pointed out that SJP’s ancestor was lucky because the Court of Oyer and Terminer, which convicted and sentenced every person who was accused of witchcraft, was dissolved on 22 October and the accusation came on 8 November, so her ancestor was not tried.

The biggest part about this whole section of the show that bothered me was, when was Samuel born? I mean the Samuel who was the son of Samuel and Esther. That is kind of an important point. The details were not stated or shown on the computer screen. Was the next generation of SJP’s family already alive or not when Esther’s life was put at risk with the accusation? That would certainly change the course of her family’s history. Samuel was born in 1635 and Esther in 1639 (as seen on the earlier computer screen). It seems to me that they may have already finished having all their children by 1892. Or maybe by then they had already skipped on to the next generation Samuel? This is where skipping details is problematic.

The final part of her journey before returning home was to visit the memorial in Salem. But SJP was told that Esther lived to be 82. So why not visit that grave since SJP was so emotionally involved in learning what happened to her?

Strange Comments

SJP made a few comments during the show that I thought were odd. She said that she didn’t really feel American until she found that her roots in this country went back to 1635. Why did she need to trace her family back to feel like she belonged in this country? All four of my grandparents were immigrants, as is my mother. I am an American and I’ve never felt otherwise. That just seemed odd. She also thought, at the beginning of the show, that she wasn’t connected to anything historical. But why did it have to be American history to be historical? There is history in other countries as well.

After the commercial breaks, there were recaps of what came before, and before the commercials there were previews of what was coming up. Was that video montage at the end really necessary?

Genealogists

One other curiosity came in the credits. I have listed in this blog the names of the people who appeared on screen with SJP, but only one of those people was listed as a genealogist in the credits: Natalie Cottrill, Megan Smolenyak, Krysten Baca, and Allison Aston. Did those four do work for the entire series and some of the others were just specific to the episode? OK, so some of them were credited as historians during the episode and not genealogists.

Conclusion

As I stated at the beginning, I really did enjoy the episode. As Lisa Louise Cooke stated in her Genealogy Gems News this morning, the show is for entertainment and not as a how-to for genealogy, referring to so many blogs that pointed out genealogy research omissions and such. And I know this blog entry is exactly what she was talking about. But I’m just a good nitpicker and used this opportunity to put that skill to use. Genealogy research is in the details and some that seemed to be important were skipped over.

I think there was room in the episode to mention how many people were involved and how many hours of research it took to find so much information. People watching might get the mistaken impression that everything can be found indexed on the computer, historians and librarians have plenty of free time to be at your disposal, one must travel across the country to find a single document, and that all you have to do is find the right genealogist and they will already know all about your family.

Then again, the BBC version doesn’t do any of that either.

Who Do You Think You Are? – Episode 1 – Initial Thoughts

I just finished watching the first episode of Who Do You Think You Are? on NBC with Sarah Jessica Parker. After seeing Faces of America (FoA), I definitely prefer the format of this show. It is very much the same as the BBC version, even using similar graphics.

It was exciting to see Sarah Jessica’s reactions to learning things about her ancestors. FoA seemed to be lacking in that a bit, probably because each of those people were simply sitting at a table where they were handed a book. There were some reactions, but it seemed like not quite enough. Sarah Jessica Parker (SJP) travelled to the locations and looked at some of the documents herself.

Of course, she didn’t really do the research herself. As some of us know, several celebrities were ruled out of having their own episodes because their stories weren’t interesting enough for a TV show. Clearly the work was done before the filming even began, as was evidenced when she visited with each professional genealogist and historian. In almost every instance, the professional produced documents they had already found or simply told her the names of generations of her ancestors until they reached the one with the interesting story. The celebrities are sometimes shown looking through books or searching databases, but they have already been searched by someone else to know that there was something to be found.

I don’t doubt that the research was done thoroughly, and hopefully it was shown and explained to SJP, but it’s something that is always lacking from these shows. Exactly how much time is spent tracking down all of those ancestors and the documents to prove it? It might give some people the false hope that if they call a professional, that person will already know everything there is to know about their family history, when in reality, it takes many hours of research sometimes to find just the smallest clue. And sometimes nothing is found at all.

Naturally, and possibly in part because it had to be interesting for TV, for every location that her ancestors lived, SJP had to travel there. There was no looking at microfilms or ordering documents by mail, which is what most people tend to do. She was at the location where her ancestor mined during the gold rush, she was in Salem to learn about her ancestor who was accused of witchcraft. So many genealogists would love the opportunity to travel to each location. All four of my grandparents were born in Eastern Europe, so it could never be as simple as a quick flight or a long drive across the country. I look forward to the day when I can go to Europe, but until then, I have to make due with microfilm and snail mail.

However, even without showing all the research that was conducted, not showing all the details of how so many generations were found, not finishing up and visiting the grave of her ancestor accused of witchcraft (though she visited the memorial for other victims), not explaining all the details of that ancestor (is SJP descended from a child born before or after the accusation?), it’s still a good show. I’ve enjoyed every episode that I’ve seen of the BBC version and I look forward to the rest of the NBC run.

Beginner’s Guide to the Family History Library – Part 1 – Plan Ahead

My first visit to the Family History Library, I was completely unprepared. I have a vague recollection of going through their standard orientation, but I didn’t know what I was looking for or what I was doing. I can’t even remember if I found any records or not. I do remember being shown how to write a certain surname in Russian. (And I’m certain that Margarita Choquette was the one who showed me; I befriended her after I moved here.)

A few years later, I made it back. By then, I had been doing genealogy research for a few years (not counting what I did in my childhood) and had a better idea of how to do things.

Now, I live in Salt Lake City and the Family History Library is my second home. (Seriously, I’ve got a cot in the back corner of B-1, but it’s got a perception filter so you won’t see it.)

I can go to the FHL whenever I want, but if you’re making a trip to Salt Lake City, you want to be prepared before you get here.

And that is the most important thing to do before visiting the Family History Library: Plan Ahead.

Know what you want to research. Choose a family to search, print out the charts with the information you need (or bring it on a flash drive), and figure out what you want to learn. Search the FHL Catalog to see what records are available. Make a list of sources that you want to check, and what you are hoping to find, and write down the film and call numbers. You don’t want to waste time doing that when you get here, so do it at home.

When you’re writing film numbers, make a note of what else the catalog says about it. Some of your research will be obvious, but each film has a number and a “code” that will say US/CAN, INTL, or BRITISH. In case you’re not sure or you forget, this will tell you where to find the film when you get to the building.

If the film says VAULT, then you will need to request the film. Not every microfilm in the catalog is at the Family History Library. Some are only in the Granite Vault. It usually takes a day or two for the vault to send it over to the FHL, so you will want to request those films before you leave. The FHL has a form online specifically for requesting films. In my experience, they can take a couple days to answer your email request, and probably a couple more days to fill the request.

Knowing what you hope to accomplish before you arrive will help a lot. Instead of spending time figuring out what to research, you can just jump right into the research.

Faces of America – Inspiration

I just watched the third episode of Faces of America on PBS and was inspired. I meant to write a blog entry about the second episode which dealt with immigration and naturalization, two topics I deal with a lot in my research, but instead, this third episode has given me a revelation.

Of course I was interested in the stories of the families who were in America before it was the USA, but the story that hit me the hardest was that Yo-Yo Ma. It was that book, the one that literally fell out of a wall. What genealogist wouldn’t do anything to find a book like that?

He is incredibly lucky to now have such an item in his possession, but the only way most of the rest of us are going to get a book like that is to make it ourselves. We probably won’t be able to go back as far in the lineage, and we certainly won’t have first-hand accounts of anyone who lived more than 100 years ago, but we can take what we know now and begin the book.

It’s the old adage of “publish or perish” that most genealogists have heard time and time again. We need to create the book ourselves so that future generations will have the information to look back on.

Can you imagine how the genealogist of your family in 100 years’ time might feel when they want to know more about their family history and they find the book that you create today?

So I have a new idea in mind for how to go about this. It’s an old project that has had a few starts, but maybe this will be the one that works out and finishes. (Not that genealogy research is ever finished, but the others never came very close.) I want to combine a blog, the coolest features from my genealogy wiki, and hopefully incorporate the genealogy database I already have to create a new web site. I want to entice my relatives to leave their own stories as comments, and be able to reasonably easily publish all of the information in a printed book or PDF. Oh yes, I have a lot of programming to do.

Ron Arons – The Jews of Sing Sing

I met Ron Arons in New York at the 2006 IAJGS conference. I’ve been to a few of his presentations and they are always thoroughly entertaining as well as educational. When he spoke about his upcoming book (this book) I was especially impressed and intrigued.

At the 2005 conference, I was in the room next door to where he was giving a lecture about Bugsy Siegel and Meyer Lansky, two of the characters who appear in this book, and that crowd was quite disruptive with bursts of laughter.

Jews of Sing SingI purchased “The Jews of Sing Sing: Gotham Gangsters and Gonuvim” from Ron at the 2008 IAJGS conference in Chicago. He signed it, “Stay away from this place!”, more evidence of his sense of humor.

The book started as a memoir to his great-grandfather, Isaac Spier, but when no one wanted to publish another personal memoir, his research took him much further into the histories of many Jewish criminals who spent time in Sing Sing Prison in New York.

Ron goes into great detail about their histories, sometimes a bit too much. I’m the kind of person who reads every word and every number in a book, so it got a bit tedious to read all the dates, addresses, census information, and other details. There are parts of the book where Ron fills in details about who was in each household in each census, their address, ages, professions, and such. While important to the research and to genealogy in general, it made it a little harder for me to read.

I’m also a bit of a casual reader, enjoying stories where I don’t have to concentrate much, and some chapters he introduced a plethora of characters. The stories were good, but I couldn’t keep all the characters straight.

My favorite chapters were the ones about Ron’s own family. Providing those same kinds of details, he also seemed to delve more into the narrative of the people, as well as giving more details about his quest for the information, mentioning each time he found a new clue or hit a brick wall. It seemed more casual and more personal, which better suited my reading style preference. Plus, I enjoy the hunt in genealogy, so reading about Ron’s research process was enthralling.

I found the last two chapters to be most enjoyable — the only time I read more than one chapter at a time. He wrote three chapters about Isaac Spier, including the penultimate one. The final chapter was about Ron’s visit to Sing Sing.

Lots of families have tales about the black sheep relative, the criminal, the person in the mafia — including mine — but Ron researched and learned the truth about his ancestors as well as many others. Once I got through the paragraphs of census facts, I enjoyed reading the stories. I look forward to checking out his second book, “Wanted: U.S. Criminal Records”, so I can research my own family mafia story.

Ron’s books can be purchased on his web site at http://ronarons.com/.

Disclaimer: Apparently there was some stuff going on before I started blogging whereas people were paid to write good reviews about products and such and didn’t tell their readers that is was moreĀ  of a paid advertisement than a personal opinion. Well, I wasn’t paid for this. If I was, I probably would have skipped over the less-than-favorable comments, don’t you think?

Integration

I’ve spent the past several days learning about WordPress and how it all works. Why?

  1. I’ve wanted to integrate the blog into my site since I went public with it.
  2. A potential new client wants a blog, along with everything else he’s asked for, and it was recommended to me to just use WordPress for the whole site as my content management system.

So here it is! My site and my blog should now fit together perfectly. I went ahead and added things like a Twitter feed, some “share this” buttons, and my surname list (using WP tags, actually). If you see any problems, let me know. I’ve tested in Firefox and IE8.

Now, I have some genealogy research to do.

Lisa Kudrow and Who Do You Think You Are?

Last night, I listened to Lisa Louise Cooke’s Genealogy Gems Podcast which had an interview with Lisa Kudrow about the upcoming NBC show, Who Do You Think You Are? I am excited about seeing this show. I’ve seen several episodes of the BBC version, but many feature British celebrities whom I don’t know.

After watching my first two episodes (David Tennant and Stephen Fry), I let Pamela Weisberger guide me to several others of interest by checking which ones she had aired at the film festival at various IAJGS conferences; the episodes featuring those with Jewish heritage.

It was interesting to listen to Lisa Kudrow speak about how she viewed her Holocaust history. What Lisa Louise Cooke seemed not to realize is that many Jewish families just don’t talk about it. While we know we lost relatives, and some even grew up knowing parents and grandparents who were survivors, it was not something that they wanted to relive. Lisa’s reaction to not really wanting to know the details about how her relatives perished seemed normal to me. In Jewish genealogy, everyone gets to a point where they lost relatives in the Holocaust, and it becomes really depressing if you start thinking about the details. We know what happened, we know what they had to endure, and now we’re trying to move beyond that and live our lives, in part to honor them. At least, that’s how I see it and I think others do too.

I do have one even more personal reason for wanting this show to be a success. Sometime last year, possible future subjects for BBC’s WDYTYA were announced and David Schwimmer was among them. When the official list was released, he wasn’t there. As someone with Schwimmer in my family (my great-grandmother Ester Malka Schwimmer from Fogaras, Hungary, now Zubovka, Ukraine), I was really curious to see his episode. My mother has been waiting for years for me to tell her that he is our cousin, so with Lisa Kudrow at the helm, maybe we have the chance to still see that story.

Faces of America

The new PBS show Faces of America (FoA) is helping to bring genealogy and family history to the masses just a bit more. I watched the episode online at pbs.org. Hosted by Henry Louis Gates, Jr., it examines the family history of twelve celebrities. After having seen many episodes of BBC’s Who Do You Think You Are? (WDYTYA), my review is going to compare the two shows.

I really like WDYTYA. My first exposure to the show was the David Tennant episode (I’m a Doctor Who fan), which was soon followed by several other episodes with Jewish or Eastern European backgrounds, as that is where my research tends to go. To me, that show defines the distinction between genealogy and family history: genealogy is the pursuit of information whereas family history is about trying to gather the stories. Each episode follows one celebrity on their quest to learn more about their family history. It looks to me like most episodes have professional research done beforehand and the celebrity is usually guided through their history, although they are occasionally shown looking through documents, and some clearly do at least some of the work themselves.

In FoA, all of the work is done for them. Some documents and photos are presented to each celebrity in a book and Gates is shown visiting the ancestral locations, so it shows that work has to be done to do the research. (As opposed to those old TV commercials where someone types their name into a web site and the whole family history just magically pops up.) But it also completely removes the celebrities from the research themselves. In one case, Kristi Yamaguchi’s father was taken back to Poston, the internment camp where he was located to during the war, but Kristi didn’t go to see it. In WDYTYA, she would have gone herself.

Another thing I liked less about FoA was the jarring effect of pursuing the histories of twelve different people in one episode. Not all twelve were pursued in this episode, but keeping track of whose family was being talked about required a bit of extra attention to not be confused. This might be good for the general audience, to keep it interesting and dynamic, but the genealogist in me would rather see one history pursued at a time. As a professional researcher, keeping track of multiple avenues of research for myself and my clients is one of the biggest difficulties, and this show tossed me around in that way.

Overall, I did enjoy the show, learning a bit about different bits of history that I don’t usually pursue because they are not in the stories of my family or my clients. I look forward to the rest of the series.

UJGS Needs Volunteers

Tonight was the first Utah Jewish Genealogical Society work meeting at the Family History Library. It was mostly planned by ex-co-President Lane Fischer and society member Louise Silver. Since Lane’s resignation, I knew he wouldn’t be attending. And a recent email from Rochelle Kaplan said that she couldn’t make it.

Though I wasn’t planning on being in charge, I did plan to attend, if just to see what might happen. Nothing did. Louise picked out a table for us and I sat there with my computer for about three hours. She kept coming over periodically but spent most of the time working on a computer or helping library patrons; she brought one over to see if I could help. Nobody else showed up. At least, nobody showed up and found us.

So apparently the work meetings were a bust. However, I haven’t completely given up on the mentoring idea. We’ve been trying to put that into motion for years but no one ever wanted to volunteer. All we really need are a couple of our members to volunteer to be mentors. I’m thinking that we could do specialized mentoring, with one beginner matched to one society member with more advanced skills, find a time to suit both of their schedules, and just let them work together for a little while without any hoopla. There’s no need to bring together a group of people; just one-on-one help at a time that suits those two people. I think we can do it. We just need a few volunteers.

Signature Saturday – Sidney Feldstein

I participated in Scanfest on Miriam Robbins Midkiff’s AnceStories blog last Sunday for the first time. I got an early start scanning, so by the end of Scanfest, I had a lot of documents scanned. I am rescanning old documents because my old scans of them are pretty pathetic.

Inspired by a blog post I saw a week or two ago (which I can’t find again — if I do, I’ll post a link here), I have created another blog theme for myself. Someone created a page of signatures of their ancestors which I thought was an interesting and not-difficult-to-do idea.

Today’s signatures come from Sunday’s scanning of my Feldstein documents. I have three signatures for Sidney Feldstein and one for Mary Miller (from their marriage certificate).

From his Declaration of Intention for US Naturalization, 1924:

Sidney Feldstein Signature, Declaration of Intention

From their marriage certificate, 1930:

Sidney Feldstein Signature, Marriage CertificateAnd from his application for Social Security, 1936:

Sidney Feldstein Signature, SS-5

They don’t quite match, do they? :-)