Category Archives: Genealogy

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?

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.

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? :-)

Childhood Memory Monday – Challenger, 1986

I started this blog post on Thursday, January 28th, the anniversary of the space shuttle Challenger’s destruction. This is a time of sad anniversaries for NASA. On January 27th, Apollo 1 exploded during the “plugs out” test, and on February 1st, the Columbia broke up in the atmosphere.

One bit of good news came through Twitter this morning from @NASA, the US has been in space for 52 years since the launch of Explorer 1 in 1958.

I was in eighth grade at Norland Middle School. After lunch, I was walking out of the cafeteria when someone stopped just long enough to tell me that the shuttle blew up. I simply didn’t believe it but proceeded directly to the library; I knew they had a TV there. (These were the days when TVs were scarce in schools.) For maybe 10-20 minutes, I watched with almost no volume, until I had to go to my next class. (I don’t know why they didn’t turn it up so we could hear.) All they showed were two people, over and over again. That certainly didn’t tell me what happened; they just stood there barely doing anything. (Too shocked?) I didn’t even know who the people were. I learned later that they were Christa McAuliffe’s parents.

When I got home, I headed straight for the TV in the living room, which was probably already showing the news. Only then did I finally believe it.

In 1994, during one of my trips to get out of Florida, I went to Washington DC, where I took the picture of the Challenger memorial at Arlington National Cemetery.

Arlington, Challenger Memorial

I don’t remember Columbia as clearly. I was simply at home watching TV when it came on the news. I was shocked, but somehow the first tragedy is always harder to take. Also, I was a lot younger for Challenger.

With thanks to Mark Tucker, who came up with this blogging theme on Think Genealogy.

To Wiki or Not To Wiki, That is the Question

If you’ve been following me on Twitter, then you know I just got a new computer. It’s a Windows 7 computer. So along with the new OS, I decided to upgrade all my software. I downloaded the newest or newest stable releases of Apache, PHP, and MySQL, since I do my own web development and my genealogy database is self-programmed using those. I also opted for the latest release of TikiWiki. I had an old release before only because it would run on the old PHP/MySQL versions I had.

Unfortunately, the wiki program seems to have degraded over time. There were fewer themes and the old ones were utterly incompatible, so I had to go with an entirely new look. After not spending enough time on that, I started looking around at my pages. The wiki menus had changed and I didn’t like them. My Hebrew text didn’t survive for some reason. Maybe it was the way the wiki set up the database, but my regular genealogy database Hebrew survived the transfer to the new computer. One of the newest wiki pages I created was a name index with a list of surnames at the top linked to the anchors within the page. Well, the new TikiWiki version entirely erased all those anchors within the page and even when I tried to put them back, it wiped them out again. It has new plugins specifically for anchors and linking within pages, but they don’t seem to work or I couldn’t figure out how they work. The documentation site is usually non-functional, but I was on it briefly and saw nothing to suggest how to use them differently than I was already trying to do.

So that leaves me with the big dilemma. I originally wanted to use MediaWiki because I like the look and feel of Wikipedia. But I was also considering putting this online someday as a private web site and my current web host practically begged me not to use that particular wiki. They had TikiWiki installed and I was able to find an older version that I could install to my local computer. There seems to be a way to convert from one to the other, but it’s in Python, which I don’t have or really want, and it was done using an even older version than I was using, so it might not work at all.

I spent a lot of time on the wiki and was finding the initial results to be very interesting. I hate to abandon the project, or even start over from the beginning again in a new wiki program, but I’m considering it. I’m also considering going back to my original database and working more with that. My GEDCOM export was still riddled with errors and I wanted to fix those. And I wonder if I could write my own wiki-like program based on the database I already have. I was setting up some things quite differently in the wiki, so I would have to make a lot of adjustments for it.

So in the middle of writing this post, I installed PHPMyAdmin, which went pleasantly well. Taking a look at the database tables for the wiki, I noticed that most of the tables TikiWiki created are empty. One table has the text of each wiki page while another keeps track of every link between pages. If I don’t try to do the latter, I bet I could use the database I already have and generate output that looks like the wiki.

Once I get the rest of my computer applications set up and running, creating a wiki-like output from my current database may be my next project.

Cemetery Sunday – Royal Palm, St. Petersburg, Florida

This week’s cemetery is also in Florida. I only visited once in 1999. Royal Palm Cemetery, as I recall, was a very large cemetery for multiple faiths. My maternal grandfather, Abraham “Abie” Rosenthal is my only relative buried there.

Abraham Rosenthal, Gravestone

Besides seeing my shoes reflected on the stone, you can see a row of stones across the top. Jewish tradition in America is to leave stones instead of flowers, to differentiate ourselves from other religions. In Israel, leaving flowers is normal.

Cemetery Sunday – Mount Sinai, Miami, Florida

I’ve been watching as many people on Twitter are following the daily blogging themes and making those posts to their own blogs. Not one to do what everyone else is doing (well, except actually start a blog), I’m going to try a theme, but I’m straying from the pack. I first considered Tombstone Tuesday, but I would feel like it goes by too slow, although doing one stone at a time would certainly fill a lot of blog entries.

So I’ve decided to take a crack at Cemetery Sunday. Looking at gravestones depresses my relatives, but I like them and so do other genealogists, so I’m going to share them on this blog.

Today’s cemetery is Mount Sinai located in Miami, Florida. I have four relatives buried there: my paternal grandparents Sidney and Mary Feldstein, and her brother Alex Miller and his wife Blanche. Mary remarried a few times after Sidney’s death, so her stone bears her final surname, Goldfarb.

I’ve included two images of Sidney’s stone just for fun. The first was taken in 1999 before I was using a digital camera. The second was in 2005.

blog - a - Sidney Feldstein

Sidney Feldstein, Gravestone

Sidney has two gravestones. The one below was erected by Mary. But my parents wanted to do better by him and put up the taller one just behind it. Notice the year of birth on the two stones? He was actually born in 1904.

Sidney Feldstein, Gravestone

Mary Goldfarb, Gravestone

Sadly, this family didn’t plan ahead very well. When Alex died, they purchased two plots together so Mary could be buried next to him. Sidney and Mary are both several rows in from the road, on opposite sides of the road.

Alex Miller, Gravestone

My parents question whether Alex served during World War II, which Mary put on his stone. I haven’t researched it yet.

Blanche Miller, Gravestone

Blanche is even farther away from Alex and Mary than Sidney is. They all used to be inline with a tree, as my mother told me to use the tree to find them, but it wasn’t there when I went to visit them. The last time I was in that cemetery before going for genealogy research was in 1990 at Mary’s funeral. I don’t recall going for the unveiling.

My last visit to the cemetery, I went looking for a couple of Gottesmans whom my mother believes are probably our cousins. Unfortunately, I couldn’t find them in the cemetery, even with directions from the office. Someday I’ll have to follow that lead again.

UJGS January Meeting

Last night’s meeting of the UJGS was the first meeting when I was the President. I had the agenda planned out and I brought a lot of business to the table so we had to rush through a lot of it. I really wanted to bring some more structure and discipline to the group, but alas, that didn’t quite happen.

While I was wasting time fighting with the projector to get it to work, my co-President discussed his workshop idea with the other members. We are finally beginning our mentoring program, though we’re calling it the UJGS Work Meeting. Put simply, we will meet at a designated time at the Family History Library to do our research and be available to help each other where we can. The first meeting will be from 5-9pm on Wednesday, February 10th on the B1 floor.

We amended the bylaws and I passed around a few samples of flyers and business cards I had created. All the generic business cards were claimed by members before the meeting was over, so I’m glad that idea was adopted so quickly. I’ll need to have a lot more printed.

Since the 2007 IAJGS conference, we’ve had a small collection of genealogy reference books but hadn’t put them to use. Rochelle Kaplan graciously donated some books this meeting and we decided to split our library. “Let’s be shell-fish,” Rochelle said. After the meeting, she checked with the synagogue board meeting, which was coincidentally happening in the room next door, and they were discussing their library. So we will have a shelf or two in their library, and the reference books will be with the librarian (me) and we will offer a look-up service for members with those.

When it came time for my presentation, I had less than an hour. Having rehearsed the whole thing early in the morning, I was probably more prepared than for any previous lecture or computer lab I’ve given, which was good, since I had to rush a bit through the presentation titled Social Networking: Facebook and Twitter and Their Genealogy Uses. The comments afterwards were positive, so that’s always a good thing. I stuck to explaining the basics of both services and then went back and reviewed some specific genealogy uses. I was aiming for beginners, those who had never signed up before or who signed up and didn’t use it because they didn’t know what to do with it.

And now for my critique of myself. The fact that the projector blurred everything (and we didn’t really try to fix it) didn’t help, as I repeatedly mentioned it, except that it prevented me from clicking many things which would have taken time that we didn’t have. But actually showing what I was talking about would have been better. I didn’t take the time to stop and ask for questions at several places where I had planned. I’m still not sure if the four parts were in the right order. I gave a quick introduction to Facebook, then Twitter, then covered genealogy uses in Facebook, and then Twitter. Would presenting one service at a time have been better? Should I switch to the basics of Facebook, it’s genealogy uses, then do Twitter, and it’s genealogy uses?

I’m looking forward to our Work Meeting in February. I think I will use that opportunity to reserve that time to do my own genealogy research. I always do client work first so I rarely get to my own family research. I hope the meeting works out well and we repeat it every other month as we seem to be planning.