Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Changes in Access to the SSDI and Vital Records

I've been meaning to write this post for the past few weeks, and am sorry I did not do so earlier. There have been a number of changes in access to data of interest to genealogists in the United States going on, and in some cases this can seriously effect the ability of people to do research.

One major source of information for genealogists has been the Social Security Death Master File, usually referred to online as the Social Security Death Index (SSDI). The Death Master File is considered by law to be a public document, and lists all people who applied for a social security number (with an SS-5 form) and subsequently had their deaths reported to the Social Security Administration. Information on the SS-5 form can frequently be very useful to family researchers, as it usually lists the names of the parents of the applicant.

SSA increases delay in receiving names of parents

Last month, the Social Security Administration, without any announcement, extended the amount of time one must wait to get the names of parents on a social security application from 70 to 100 years from the applicant's birth. In other words, if last month you could order an SS-5 form of someone born in 1941 and find out their parent's names, now you will not be able to order that record until 2041. Put another way, you can only order records today for people born before 1911. In fact, the reality is worse, you can order the SS-5 and they will charge you for it, but they will just white-out the parent's names which is probably the only good reason to order an SS-5 anyways.

Reduction in State records in the DMF

Another change also took effect last month, when it was announced that some state death records would no longer be incorporated into the Death Master File, and over 4 million existing records would be expunged from the existing file. The reason for this is a claim that state records have different privacy rules, and thus cannot be incorporated into the public Death Master File. This also means nearly a million records a year will no longer be added to the Death Master File going forward (over over 30% of records that would have been added). Why this wasn't recognized for the past decades this file has been available is not mentioned. Additionally, it seems the Social Security Administration has also dropped last residence zip codes from the information they add to the Death Master File. When dealing with people with common names in large cities, zip codes are very useful in figuring out which record it the correct record.

Massachusetts tries to go against hundreds of years of open access rules

In my home state of Massachusetts, a bill (H.603) was introduced earlier this year in the state legislature to restrict access to birth records in the state. Massachusetts has always been an open access state when it comes to public records, so this would actually be the first time that access to vital records have been restricted in Massachusetts. Open access to vital records can be seen as an easy way for identity thieves to steal information, or as an easy way to prove the legitimacy of identities. This reckless attempt to restrict access to these records is not just a setback for genealogists, but will restrict access to those people looking to build a family medical history (needed for some inherited diseases) and also restrict the ability of military personnel to track down next-of-kin of soldiers, something the genealogical community has helped the military with for many years. It's also a bit of political hackery, as it doesn't actually address the issue of identity theft.

Good politics?

It's not clear to me why this has become a political issue for some, but I guess seeming to protect people's privacy (while not actually doing anything about it) is good politics. Politicians love to scare people and tell them that their identities will be stolen if the government doesn't crack down on identity theft. Except, they don't actually crack down on identity theft, such as addressing how its possible for someone to file for taxes with the social security number of a deceased person. You'd think the IRS would have access to the Death Master File, and could automatically check social security numbers against filings, but that would be too simple a solution (and would actually put the onus of checking for fraud with a government agency).

The KIDS Act of 2011

In steps Representative Samuel Johnson (R-TX) and his Keeping IDs Safe Act of 2011. This bill, also knows as the KIDS Act, would make it illegal for the government to release the Death Master File at all. Does it address fraud at all? No. Does it prevent government employees from sharing information with identity thieves? No. How about legislating 10 year jail sentences for government employees who release personal information to anyone unauthorized to view it? Regardless, this bill and some of the press coverage of identify thefts that led up to it, has scared various genealogy companies into cutting back on access to the SSDI.

My sister's story

It's worth noting a story from when I was a child in Boston. As I recall, my teenage sister had gone to get her driver's license and it was supposed to be mailed to her. Except it never arrived. Eventually she contacted the RMV and they sent her her license. What happened to the original one? Nobody knew. Well, someone knew. One day we get a call from a branch of our bank the next town over. This was when people still went to the bank to, you know, do bank stuff. A woman had arrived each day over the past several days and deposited checks into my sisters account adding up to a lot of money. Before those checks could clear, she arrived again at the teller she had been depositing those checks with, and asked to make a withdrawal. She had a driver's license with her picture on it, but my sister's name. The teller didn't know my sister, but she thought the woman looks a bit older than my sister's age as listed on the license. The teller asked the woman to wait a moment, and brought the license to the branch manager. The manager had previously worked in the branch my family went to, and actually knew my family, and knew this was not my sister. It was an interesting scam, of course. Depositing checks with the teller so the teller would associate her with depositing money into the account, then using a fake license to withdraw money from the account. If the branch manager hadn't previously worked at the branch in our town back in those days when branch managers knew their customers, the woman might have gotten away with it. In the end, I don't remember if that woman was arrested, or got away. I do remember being told they had tracked the scam back to the RMV where multiple licenses had been forged with incorrect photos. I don't know how much the RMV worker was paid to forge my sister's license, nor what the thought process was that led them to risk doing that, but presumably if there had been harsh laws against this, they would not have done it.

I'll guess most of the people reading this haven't seen the movie this comes from, but this had to be done:


That must have been when Samuel Johnson was still trying to get into the college parties...

For those who are lost, I'll share this clip from the movie Superbad:


That isn't high art, and that clip is highly edited from the original (this is a family blog after all), but I felt it necessary to insert a little comic relief here. Back to the issue at hand...

The easiest site to search SSDI online has long been Rootsweb, which is a genealogy community site that has been hosted and run by Ancestry.com for more than 10 years. The Rootsweb SSDI page just days ago changed from a site that allowed full searching of the SSDI, to the following message:
Due to sensitivities around the information in this database, the Social Security Death Index collection is not available on our free Rootsweb service but is accessible to search on Ancestry.com. Visit the Social Security Death Index page to be directly connected to this collection
If you follow the link to Ancestry.com's own SSDI search page, you can search and get results, but unless you are a member of Ancestry.com, you only get partial information. Even if you have an Ancestry.com subscription, they've further cut back on the information available in their SSDI database, as they describe:
Why can’t I see the Social Security Number? If the Social Security Number is not visible on the record index it is because Ancestry.com does not provide this number in the Social Security Death Index for any person that has passed away within the past 10 years."
This is a bit of pre-emptive work it seems, to keep the politicians off their backs.

Ancestry.com and GenealogyBank cut back on SSDI access

Ancestry.com is not the only company to cut back on access to the SSDI. GenealogyBank has eliminated the social security numbers from its database altogether. Genealogybank offers free searching of their SSDI database, but you must register for the site in order to see the results. Even if you're a subscriber, there are no social security numbers listed in their database at all now. GenealogyBank says they removed all social security numbers after people called them and explained they were erroneously in the SSDI and everyone could access their social security numbers through the GenealogyBank database. One article I read online estimated that out of the 2.8 million new entries added each year, some 14,000 entries are added for people who are still living. That seems a clear statistical estimate (half of one percent), and I have no idea how they came up with that number, nor how many of those false entries get removed from the database in subsequent revisions. I'm not saying people are not horribly effected by these mistakes in the SSDI, but maybe the solution is to fix the processes that introduce those mistakes? Any even if there are 14,000 mistakes a year, no one has shown that this has led to a single stolen identity as far as I can tell.

FamilySearch.org still offering SSDI access...for now...

FamilySearch.org still offers free searching of their SSDI database, without registration, and still shows the social security numbers of everyone in their database. I don't know how long that will last, however. Personally, I recommend everyone search the FamilySearch.org database and mark down the information they have on each person in your tree. This isn't only the social security number, but the birth date, death date, place of issuance (of the social security number), last residence, and place where last benefit was sent. All of this information can be useful in genealogy research, and while these companies are removing the social security numbers now as a pre-emptive attempt to prevent further regulation, if regulation does arrive from the legislature, as written now it would eliminate access to all of this information (not just the social security numbers). Therefore, I suggest making a list of those people in your database who were working in the US after 1935, and going through the FamilySearch.org SSDI Database and copy all the information you can, while you still can...

Also, for a comparison of the Ancestry.com and Familysearch.org SSDI databases (written before the changes), see this article from Ancestry Insider called SSDI: Ancestry.com vs. FamilySearch.org. If you have a subscription to Ancestry.com, it might be worth it to take a look at their database as well, to see if they list the ZIP code for earlier entries in the database.

Great-Grandma's Cherry Pie: An entertaining look at copyright issues

The California State Genealogical Alliance (CSGA) recently launched two blogs. The first one is simply the CSGA Blog, covering genealogical issues in California.

The second blog, Csgacopyright, is of interest even to those with no connection to California, as it covers the thorny issues of copyright, as they pertain to genealogy.

Image from Wikimedia Commons.
This second blog just posted a very entertaining look at what copyright issues might exist when a great-grandmother passes down her secret cherry pie recipe through various generations. It's worth a read if just to remind us of the complicated issues family sometimes find themselves dealing with...

As for the blog, I have no idea who is actually writing it, nor if they are qualified copyright attorneys, etc. so until they let people know who are authoring their articles, I guess take the legal advice with a grain of salt, or cherry pie, whichever you prefer.

Monday, December 19, 2011

Books on Sephardi Jews

It won't be shocking to anyone that there are many more books in English on topics specific to Ashkenazi Jews than to Sephardi Jews. I could spend a lot of time analyzing the reasons for this, but one simple reason is that the American Jewish community is predominately Ashkenazi. It's true that some of the earliest Jewish communities in the United States were Sephardi, but over time these early communities were overtaken by the large influx of Jews from European countries which were primarily Ashkenazi.

For those who are unfamiliar with the terms Ashkenazi and Sephardi, they literally mean German and Spanish, but are more loosely used to refer to Jews who came from Eastern Europe and Germany (Ashkenazi), and those who came from Spain and the Middle East (Sephardi). Sephardi Jews are sometimes further divided into those who came from Spain and Portugal and were expelled (during the Inquisition which started in 1492) to North Africa and other lands (Sephardi) and those that lived continuously in the Middle East from olden days (Mizrachi, which literally means Eastern). While there are many community-specific traditions (leading to different prayer styles for those from Yemen and Iraq, and those from Hungary and Germany) there is a more fundamental split in customs between Sephardi and Ashkenazi Jews, upon which these other differences are then added. The reason for this is quite simple, as the Jewish communities that became Sephardi and Ashkenazi split about a thousand years ago, before most countries today existed. While both groups of Jews certainly were connected over the past thousand years, they also settled in different areas, and in kept separate traditions.

I've collected books for more than two decades and it is more uncommon to see books specifically on Sephardi topics. It was thus very interesting to get a catalog this week from Dan Wyman Books in Brooklyn, with 200 books on Sephardi and Mizrachi Studies.

The catalog covers many very interesting topics, such as the early Jewish communities in the United States, to Jews in Jamaica, Curaçao and Surinam, to the Sephardi communities of Amsterdam, France, Greece and even India and the Balkans. The abandoned Jewish cemetery in Belize I mentioned in my post yesterday was almost certainly from a Sephardi Jewish community (although none of the books listed cover Belize, they do cover connected communities such as Jamaica). North African and other Arab countries are covered, as well as Turkey. Two little known off-shoots of Sephardi Judaism are also covered, Karaism and Sabbatianism. There is a lot there. Not all the books are in English. Some books date back to the 1700s.

For those who have family from these communities, or just are interested in reading about the many different countries that Jewish communities existed, it's worth taking a look at Dan Wyman's catalog and seeing what books he has on the many Sephardi communities that have existed over the years.

As this isn't an ad for Dan Wyman, I want to add a few other resources for Sephardi books. Broder's Books in Connecticut also has a Sephardi catalog of used books online. Henry Hollander Books in California has quite a few Sephardi books in their catalog, although I see no easy way to list just them (he has no category for Sephardi books). Schoen Books in Massachusetts has a Sephardi category, but doesn't list very many books. It's a good book store to know about, however, and he has made an effort to re-print many hard to find Jewish books (including several of the Sephardi books he lists).

For new books, you can also refer to the American Sephardi Federation's online bookstore.

For Sephardi genealogy in particular, Avotaynu sells three books on the topic: Jeffrey Malka's Sephardic Genealogy, Mathilde Tagger and Yitzhak Kerem's Guidebook for Sephardic and Oriental Genealogical Sources in Israel, and Guilherme Faiguenboim et al's Dictionary of Sephardic Surnames. Jeffrey Malka operates the SephardicGen web site and offers his own Bibliography for Sephardic Genealogy and History.

Do you have Sephardi Jewish roots? What countries does your family come from? Might any of the books on these pages help you find out more about where your family originated? Share your thoughts in the comments.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

The 1940 US Census


It's rare that massive new sources of genealogical information are released, and certainly rare that such sources are released for free. Every ten years in the United States, however, the census from 72 years earlier is released. In the past it has taken a lot of time to get the census made available to the public, primarily because of the massive cost in digitizing and indexing information on tens of millions of people.

On April 2, 2012, the 1940 US Census will be released to the public. Besides the obvious benefit of having information on the over 130 Million residents of the United States in 1940, there are other reasons to be excited about this release.

For one, it is the first time that the National Archives is releasing the census in digital form. In the past, companies needed to scan millions of pages of microfilm to create their own digital images of the census records. On April 2, 2012, the National Archives is releasing the entire 1940 census in digital form. There will not be an index to those records, which brings us to the second reason this release is exciting: Many genealogy companies and organizations have been planning for this release for years and it will be indexed in record time.

For starters, Stephen Morse on his great One Step website, has created with Joel Weintraub and the help of volunteers, ways of finding the 1940 Enumeration District (ED) of any address in the United States. They even have a quiz that helps you determine what the proper way to figure out the ED for where your family lived in 1940. When the census records are released, searching by ED will be the only way to find records in the census. If you know where your family listed in April 1940 (when the census was taken), then you can find the records for that address using Steve Morse's tools. FOr a very detailed look at how the process will work, see Stephen's article Getting Ready for the 1940 Census: Searching without a Name Index which appeared in the Association of Professional Genealogists Quarterly this month.

Next, Ancestry.com has announced that they will be making the images and their index to those records (which they will develop on their own) free through at least the end of 2013. It's unknown how long it will take Ancestry.com to index the records, but presumably their index would be available before the end of 2013.

Archives.com, which has been seeking in recent years to compete with Ancestry.com as a lower-cost service, announced that they have partnered with the National Archives to be the official host of the images that will be released on April 2, 2012. The official site the images will be released on has not yet been announced, but Archives.com has posted information on this partnership at archives.com/1940census.

More recently, it has been announced that three different genealogy companies have joined forces to index the 1940 US Census together and thus make the 1940 census searchable for free as well. These are Archives.com, FamilySearch.org and FindMyPast.com. They will be using FamilySearch.org's indexing tool (which I discussed almost exactly a year ago here) to coordinate the indexing project.

One interesting point is that it makes sense that Archives.com is involved since they are hosting the images for the National Archives (and have no public indexing tool of their own), and it makes sense that FamilySearch.org is involved (since they have the indexing tool and have previously proven themselves by indexing the 1930 US Census), but the odd man out seems to be FindMyPast.com. What's interesting is that FindMyPast.com just re-directs to FindMyPast.co.uk, as it is actually a British genealogy site. Is FindMyPast planning to move into the US genealogy market and is the 1940 census their means of doing so? or are they just planning on offering the 1940 census index to their British users as a means of tracking relatives that moved to the US? The use of FindMyPast.com in the press release instead of FindMyPast.co.uk makes this an interesting question.

Together, the three companies have set up the 1940 Census Community Project. You can check out the information on the project now, and if you're interested in helping index the 1940 US Census, you can download FamilySearch.org's indexing tool now and try it out with other projects FamilySearch.org is indexing.

In addition, one of the interesting pages the project has released is what the enumerator was supposed to ask each family when adding them to the census. This gives you a good idea of what to expect when the 1940 US Census is released.

So there you go, we're 105 days away from the release of the 1940 US Census images. Now you know how you'll be able to find your family (if they were living in the US on April 1, 1940) when the census is released.

Abandoned Jewish Cemetery in Belize

My cousin who lives in South Korea sent me a link about someone who came across an abandoned Jewish cemetery deep in the jungle in Belize. Truly there are few physical boundaries today.

The pictures are not very clear, but the woman who wrote the post, Megan Wood, was traveling in Belize and came across an abandoned cemetery which had broken gravestones on the ground. I can't see it myself, but she says in real life it was clear the image engraved on the gravestone was that of a Star of David.
Broken gravestone in the jungle of Belize (from meganlwood.com)
Belize never had a major Jewish community, although some refugees from Sint Eustatius were believed to have settled there after their community was destroyed by the British military which took over that island in 1781. Jamaican Jewish traders were also know to trade at the Belize port.

The IAJGS International Jewish Cemetery Project (IJCP) lists two mentions of burial locations of Jews in Belize, adding up to only 5 graves, but certainly not this cemetery in the middle of nowhere.

The Jewish Online Worldwide Burial Register (JOWBR) lists 4 out of the 5 graves mentioned in the IJCP, but doesn't list the names on the graves.

Who were these Jews and what were they doing far into the jungle of Belize?

Friday, November 25, 2011

1st Blogiversary: The Year in Review

One year ago today I started this blog. It seems like a lot longer. So much has happened in the past year, that I thought I would share a bit of my experiences from the past year, and point to some of the articles and features I've added to this site that I'm most proud.

My first post one year ago asked the question of whether I should switch from the genealogy program Reunion, which I've used for more than 15 years, to the then recently introduced Mac version of Family Tree Maker (FTM). At the time, I didn't feel it made sense. Since then I've actually taken part in beta testing the next version of FTM for the Mac (due out any day now, currently in pre-sale for 20% off). They've added the incredible feature of syncing your tree with an online tree on Ancestry.com. There are still some issues that may prevent me from switching, but they are definitely moving in the right direction. The one missing feature that may seem minor, but which just means a lot of work for me to switch (and heck, I'm lazy), is the ability to virtually crop photos when displaying them on a specific user's profile. For example, you can use one family photo that has ten people, and crop a headshot for each family member from the single photo (without having to actually crop the photo in another program). I'll hold judgement until the final version is released soon, however.

The first article that I posted of real genealogical content was the next day, when I published the article Researching Jewish Relatives Who Passed Through Belgium.That article, now very much out of date, formed the basis of the lecture 'Utilizing Belgian Archives for Jewish Research' I would later give at the IAJGS International Conference on Jewish Genealogy in Washington, DC this past August.

Website Features

In preparation for that lecture, I also created an index browser for the one of the record sets I discuss, located at the Felix Archives in Antwerp. This was quite a lot of work, linking over 5,000 index page images (showing over 10,000 pages) to the images on the Felix Archives website (which is in Flemish only).

The updated information provided in that lecture then formed the basis of a forthcoming article in the journal AVOTAYNU: The International Review of Jewish Genealogy. One thing I've learned in publishing in the print format, compared to publishing online, is that there's a limit on space. Maybe I'd be a better writer if I was always limited in how much I could write, but I like being able to use as many illustrations as I want online. While I will probably post a more detailed and updated version of my original second-day article to this blog, for the moment I have a page (tab also above) with all the links and resources mentioned in the lecture and article kept up to date.

In addition to the index browser I put together for my lecture, I also created several other unique resources on my site over the past year.

Click for info on Forms
Some of my most popular resources are the PDF Forms I created. These genealogy forms include an Ancestor Form (Pedigree Chart), Family Form, Sibling Form, Ancestor Location Form, and the very unique US Immigrant Census Form. What is unique about all of these forms, is that they are fillable on the computer, can be printed in Letter or A4 sizes, text entered into a field that is too long for the field will shrink to fit, and the forms can be linked to each other. Forms are linked, for example, when you fill out an Ancestor Form and want to add the siblings of the source person's parent, you just fill out a Sibling Form and write the number of the sibling form next to the name of the parent on the Ancestor Form. These forms are intended for those new to genealogy, but also for experienced genealogists who want to use them to collect information from other relatives. The US Immigrant Census Form is useful to anyone doing research on immigrants who arrived in the US between 1860 and 1930. For more information on all of these forms, go to the Forms page (also a tab on the top of all pages of my blog).

Another popular resource is my page on US Naturalizations. Besides discussing different options for retrieving US naturalization papers, I also provide the list of records available from the National Archive through their electronic ordering system. Normally you need to log into their system and start filling out the form to order before you can see what is available. My page tells you what years records exist for through the various locations around the US.

One of the features that doesn't get a lot of notice, but which I spent a considerable amount of time developing, is my B&F Enhanced Search Engine. Inspired by the Mocavo genealogy search engine, I created my very own search engine using Google tools, and it is very good at finding genealogy records connected to names you enter into it. It also has an additional benefit for people searching for information from towns in the former Austrian province of Galicia, in that it will automatically expand town names so variants of the town names are also searched. The reason it is only for Galicia is that Google restricts how many of these substitutions you can use, so I picked a small region to test it out. If you have family from Galicia (like all of my father's family) you're in luck.

Most Popular Articles

The five most popular articles on this blog in the past year were:
  1. Finding and getting copies of Jewish records in Poland
  2. Jewish Genealogy Basics: Mailing Lists
  3. Jewish Gravestone Symbols
  4. Finding Information on US Immigrants
  5. Genealogy Folder Organization: The B&F System
The most interesting thing about that list is each article is very different.

The first article, explaining how to retrieve copies of Jewish vital records from Poland, was a surprisingly popular article. It is very long, and perhaps no one had gone into that much detail on the notoriously different process of ordering records from Poland before. That article has also been published in print, over two issues of the Pineles Genealogist (actually more accurately half has been published, the other half coming in the next issue). I was also asked to publish a modified form of this article in another genealogy journal, but unfortunately did not have to the time to make the changes necessary.

The second article is a guide to Jewish genealogy mailing lists, on JewishGen, Rootsweb, Yahoo, etc. It is an attempt to be a comprehensive list of mailing lists of interest to Jewish genealogists. This article is one of several 'Basics' articles I've published in the past year, trying to help people get started in genealogy. Other 'Basics' articles include an article on the JewishGen Family Finder (critical for Jewish genealogy), Ancestral Towns (Shtetls), and the more general Historical Newspapers and Up, Down and Sideways (a look at researching through collateral relatives). In addition, I have guest-published a series of articles on the JewishGen Blog, called JewishGen Basics, which take a detailed look at some of the more important features of the JewishGen website. Some of these articles are expansions of articles that originally appeared on my own blog.

Jewish Gravestone Symbols
A very popular article, and something that seems to get consistent traffic, is my article on Jewish Gravestone Symbols. It is a very visual look at many of the symbols used on Jewish gravestones, based on a set of photographs I shot almost twenty years ago while in Poland. I was going through my old negatives and when I found my pictures from Poland, I decided I had to scan the gravestone images and turn them into an article. There are a few books on the subject of Jewish gravestone symbols, but not a whole lot online, which I suppose is why the article gets a lot of traffic.

Naturalization Petition
Finding Information on US Immigrants is one of my favorite articles, and one I almost set up as a dedicated page like the page on naturalization records. In helping others with their genealogy, one of the big brick-walls people tend to run into, especially among American Jewish genealogists, is figuring out where their ancestors were from before coming to the United States. This article attempts to help people figure out where their family is from by looking at various resources that can provide clues, such as census records, passenger manifests, military draft cards, naturalization papers and historical newspapers. I think it's the only article that I added a Table of Contents to, to make it easier to navigate quickly (as people can use it as a reference). The information in this article, combined with the US Immigrant Census Form I created, can really help people whose families came to the US in the several decades before and after the turn of the century to figure out where they originated.

Folder Organization
The last article among my top five is one about folder organization. It describes how I organize my genealogy files – what I call the B&F System. Everyone organizes their information differently, but this article describes how I try to keep track of images and documents connected to thousands of individuals. The key is being able to find exactly what you're looking for quickly, and to be able to know what you have for every individual at a glance. No system is perfect, but my system is an attempt to minimize the many compromises that emerge when organizing so many files and folders.

Lectures

As mentioned earlier, I spoke in DC this past summer at the IAJGS International Conference on Jewish Genealogy, on the topic of Utilizing Belgian Archives for Jewish Research. In addition to that lecture, I've made a few other lectures here in Israel since starting this blog.

My first lecture was actually on the topic of genetic genealogy (The ABCs of DNA), which I gave in Ra'anana back in May. This lecture was based in part on my article Using DNA for Genealogy: Y-DNA and mtDNA, although the lecture also included a discussion of using Autosomal DNA for genealogy, but I still haven't written an article on that topic. I gave a version of that same lecture in Modi'in (where I live) the next month with Richard Gussow, whose personal genetic genealogy success story added a very important personal touch to the lecture. Like the nice color diagram of DNA inheritance?

Perceptions of Relationship
Speaking of diagrams (I think visually, so I like making diagrams) I recently published my own version of the famous cousin calculator table in my somewhat philosophical discussion of Perceptions of Relationship, where I try to see if how we perceive our relationship to our cousins match with an objective measure (percentage of shared DNA).

Another topic I recently lectured on twice is Preserving Family Photographs: Physical and Digital. That lecture is based in part on my article from back in January, Preserving Photographic Prints, Slides and Negatives, but also adds information on scanning photos and options for backing up your digital files. I gave this lecture last week in Jerusalem, and this week in Modi'in. A good overview of how to start with drawers full of photos and slides and organize them, place them in archival sheets and binders, and then digitize everything and back everything up. Perhaps this will make it into a screencast one day if I get around to doing screencasts - it's on my list. 

Social Networks

One of the more interesting aspects of blogging isn't the blogging at all, but connecting to others through social media. Before I started blogging, I used Twitter passively as a way to follow news I was interested in, not to send anything. When I started blogging I quickly moved to using Twitter more actively, both to follow other genealogy bloggers, but also to promote my blog articles. Over the past year I've added 265 followers on Twitter (twitter.com/bloodandfrogs). Over 150 people subscribe to the blog via e-mail. Facebook, however, is where I have the most followers, with over 2500 fans (facebook.com/jewishgenealogy). Facebook is also where I am able to interact more directly with my readers, answering questions and helping people with their research if I can.

Another kind of social network is geneabloggers. A social network is, after all, just new-fangled name for a community. Geneabloggers, with Thomas MacEntee at the helm, has really helped create a community between the many people out there that blog about genealogy. Many thanks (and complete awe at how he does everything in a 24-hour day) to Thomas for working so hard to build and old-school social network among genealogy bloggers.

What's Next?

It's been a busy year, and I really have no idea what will be coming up in the next year.

Many genealogy blogs are about the person's personal genealogy. I have specifically tried to avoid discussing my own genealogy in the blog, however, as my goal was always to provide information that others would find useful in their own genealogy. I think maybe this year I will include more of my family research as a way to explain how I found certain pieces of information, on the hope that others will be able to replicate the techniques I used. In the end, however, tomorrow is promised to no one, and we'll have to wait and see...

Thursday, November 24, 2011

Why We Do Genealogy

This is a touchy topic I think, mainly because there are so many reasons individuals do genealogy, and moreover people have very different connections to their families, and in some related fashion connections to their genealogical work.

This article is a more general view, but if you're interesting in finding out why I, specifically, do genealogy, my recent guest-post on The Scrappy Genealogist's blog titled Philip Trauring - How He Does It - Secrets from a Geneadaddyblogger is probably the best exposition on that topic (as well as why I blog about genealogy).

This article is partly a book review, or rather it is a book review intertwined with my view as to why people do genealogy. I'm not sent books to review by genealogy or Jewish publishers, and in any event this book was published by the University of Nebraska Press, so yes I bought this book to enjoy it. The book is What They Saved: Pieces of a Jewish Past by Nancy K. Miller. I wasn't familiar with Ms. Miller's work before, and perhaps if I had read some of her other books, including an earlier book on the death of her father, I might have had a different perspective, but I'll write my impression based on the book as it stands on its own.

Of course, nothing stands on its own. I came to be interested in the book because it related to genealogy, and specifically Jewish genealogy. That background colors my view of the book, to be certain, as does my own history.

The book's title, What They Saved, is as good as any place to start. Maybe I'm crazy, but the title strongly reminded me of Tim O'Brien's collection of Vietnam-based fictional stories, The Things They Carried. Miller is a professor of English and Comparative Literature, as well as a literary critic, so I would guess she has read the book or is at least aware of it. I am not a literary critic, so perhaps the convention used in naming both books is some know method (The Third-Person Perspective Descriptive Method - I'm kidding), but it still struck me for some reason as connected. As Ms. Miller is a literary critic, I hope she doesn't take offense at me pointing this out (or anything else I'm about to write).

So why do we do genealogy? It's a question many people reading this have probably asked themselves, but even more likely it's a question the people reading this article have been asked by others repeatedly. Why do you do genealogy? Why do you care about people who have been dead for a hundred years? What are you going to do with all this information you're collecting? The questions come in many forms, but most people who spend a lot of time doing genealogy get asked the same thing again and again.

Before answering the question, I think it's worth taking a look at why Ms. Miller decided to pursue her own family history. Her grandfather was a religious Jewish immigrant to the United States, coming with his wife and son. Her father was born in the US after her grandparents and uncle immigrated. Her father and uncle took very different paths in their lives, her father the upstanding lawyer, her uncle a gangster-hanger-on before moving out west and going through more life-role-changes than a Rockette goes through costume-changes. Ms. Miller doesn't spend much time in the book on her relationship with her father – perhaps that was covered in her earlier book. She instead spends a lot of time trying to track down what happened to the uncle she never knew who moved out west and was everything from a bar owner, to military man, to small town mayor, to seeming vagabond.

It's interesting to note that Ms. Miller's original surname, that of her father and uncle, was actually Kipnis. In her evolution to feminist activist in the 1970s she took on her mother's maiden name, Miller, and kept it after getting married. She interestingly points out a correspondence she discovers between her father and uncle on preserving the Kipnis name (her father had only daughters and her uncle's only son also only had a daughter), while also remembering that her father, the lawyer, helped her fill out the name-change form when she made that decision.

There is almost a melancholy overtone to the whole book, as Ms. Miller doggedly pursues the clues to her family's past, yet openly recognizes that since neither she nor her sister had any children, there will be no one to inherit the information she gathers. Perhaps, as she points out her uncle donating personal items to a museum to be stored, alongside items belongs to Wyatt Earp and others from his region in Arizona, as a way to perpetuating the Kipnis name, she too is seeking to perpetuate the name and her family through her book.

Ms. Miller's book did not go into a lot of detail on the genealogical side, and indeed from a genealogical point-of-view it is a bit unsatisfying. The idea of taking a few found-objects left behind by your family and using those objects to reconstruct one's family tree is a nice idea, but the amount of work needed to do that is not really described, but somewhat assumed in the book. As a family memoir it is interesting, but as a genealogy book it leaves out a few too many details. Indeed one of the simpler things I found was that whenever she would describe a truly significant item she would almost never show a photograph of that item. There are very few photographs in the book, and usually they are not particularly significant. In one instance, she shows the outside of an album which has no genealogical value (but has symbolic value) instead of showing the items she describes as being inside the album. Ms. Miller is of course a writer first, so she probably feels that it is more important to write about the objects than to show them. Perhaps that is the fault of my visual nature, a bias of mine, but it was still somewhat disappointing. Ms. Miller does add some photographs to her book's website, although not that you would know anything about the website when reading the book – I googled the book when writing this article and only came across the site by chance.

So why do people do genealogy?

Some do it out of a strong desire to know where they originated. We are the product of our parents, grandparents and great-grandparents' life decisions. If my gg-grandfather had moved to Israel like his in-laws (my ggg-grandparents), his world, and indeed the world of everyone that came after him would be very different. If my gg-grandfather had decided to stay in New York like his brother, rather than returning to Europe, things would also be very different. Learning about ones ancestors, and seeing how the decisions they made affected their lives can put ones' own life choices into perspective.

Some people do genealogy as a way to connect their children or grandchildren to their past – a way of grounding them. Teenagers have a way of thinking they know better than their parents, and think everything they do is unique and their parents can't possibly understand the decisions they have to make. While your great-grandparents didn't have to worry about which cell phone would run the apps they need to communicate with their friends, or deal with injuries like Texting Teen Tendonitis, they made very real decisions on where to live, where to work, how they wanted to educate their children, etc. that can help your children realize that many decisions you made for them are not so different then the decisions that were made by their parents, or their grandparents, and one day the decisions that they themselves will need to make. The details may change, but the overall decisions stay the same.

Other people do genealogy as a way to connect them to people in the past, either famous people, royalty, or in the case of Jewish genealogists, frequently famous rabbis. Saying a descendant of the Vilna Gaon is kind of like the Jewish version of my ancestor was an indian princess (with apologies to those who are actually descendants of the Vilna Gaon).

For some, genealogy is about the detective story where you and your family are at the center. Some people read detective fiction for fun, others enjoy the detective work required to piece together one's family tree. Figuring out where to find the records you need to prove (or at least mostly prove) where and when you ancestors were born is a challenge, even under the best of situations. The challenge is a major motivator for people, and successes in finding obscure records and proving theories on where different ancestors came from can be very satisfying. Breaking through a genealogical brick wall is akin to playing golf and getting a hole in one. It doesn't happen often, and usually only happens with very experienced players (although some people get lucky), but even for the most experienced players, getting a hole in one is a reason to celebrate. So too, some genealogy is easy and some requires a lot of experience to achieve (and sometimes you get lucky), and when you find that one record that sends you back another generation, links different branches of a family that you had not previously been able to link, or directs you to an ancestral town you were not aware of, it is a time to celebrate.

I admit to not understanding every kind of genealogist. There are those who seem to have a compulsive need to add names to their family tree, but are not interested enough in the individuals they are adding to actually verify their information. If they find an online tree with some of the same people they are researching, they are likely to just download that tree and integrate it into their own, without knowing the quality of the tree they are downloading. That's one kind of genealogist I just don't understand. Sure, it's easy to copy trees from the Internet, certainly easier than adding source citations to every piece of information you add to your tree. Genealogy is one of those things where I think quality definitely beats out quantity. Partly by virtue of Ms. Miller's relatively small family, she commendably seems to have spent time trying to find as much as possible about each individual in her tree – at least on her father's side which is the focus of the book.

Ms. Miller's motivations seem to fall primarily in the first category described. This is brought forth by the sub-title of the book: Pieces of a Jewish Past. To whose past is she referring? Her past? The 'They' in 'What They Saved' presumably excludes it being her past. Her parents past? or that of her grandparents? maybe she is collectively referring to all her ancestors? She explains that her father had little to do with Judaism, and she herself left almost all vestiges of Judaism behind (including, as she feels the need to point out, that she and her sister married non-Jews). Yet, with all of this, she keeps the tefillin (phylactery) boxes she finds among her father's possession as a kind of desk ornament along with photos of her family. Did her father have a stronger connection to his Jewish faith than his daughter knew, or was this pair of tefillin kept for the same reason his daughter decided to keep them, as a kind of bridge to the past. Indeed, it's even possible the author was wrong in ascribing the pair of tefillin to her father, for he could have been keeping his own father's tefillin in the same way his daughter kept what she thought was his.

I think this motivation, of wanting to know where one came from, is ironically prevalent among many people who start looking into their family history as they reach their retirement years. I can't say for sure, but perhaps this genealogy is a form of introspection. You've lived your life and made the major decisions that put you, and possibly your children and grandchildren, in the places they are now. You start to wonder, did I make the right decisions? There's a lot to learn by looking at how each branch your family differs. If you start out a hundred years ago and look at the different choices two brothers made, and how those simple decisions determined in large part the different lives their descendants lived, you can in some fashion extrapolate those differences to the decisions you made in your family, and how those decisions will have an effect on future generations of your family.

Why do you do genealogy?

My motivation for doing genealogy is some combination of understanding how the choices we make have a profound effect on future generations, as well as enjoying the detective work. When my children are older, I suspect I will also want to use the work I've done to connect my children to their past, but my children are too young right now.

So let's continue the conversation. Why do you do genealogy? Do you fall into one or more of the categories I've described above, or do you have totally different motivations? Post a comment below and share your motivations for doing genealogy.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Paris 2012

The next IAJGS International Conference on Jewish Genealogy will take place next year, July 15-18, 2012 in Paris, France. Hopefully the fact that it starts the day after Bastille Day will not be a problem. If you are planning to attend, I suggest booking your flight and hotel as early as possible.

The conference has officially opened up registration, and has set up a website to get further information, to register, and to find out information about the hotel (the Hotel Marriott Paris Rive Gauche).

The conference is being hosted by the IAJGS and the Cercle de Généalogie Juive, in partnership with the Jewish genealogical societies of Belgium, Luxembourg and Switzerland.

There is also a call for lecture proposals. Proposals can be submitted until April 30, and should include a 10-20 line abstract and short bio. Decisions on lectures will be made before May 30.

Sunday, November 20, 2011

FamilyTreeDNA 2011 Holiday Sale

I've discussed genetic genealogy a few times before (in this introduction to a previous sale, and in an article on Y-DNA and mtDNA). If you've been interested in trying it out, you can take advantage of FamilyTreeDNA's Holiday Sale through the end of December. Examples of price reductions include:
Y-DNA37 for $119 instead of $169 ($50 off) - men only
Y-DNA67 for $199 instead of $268 ($69 off) - men only

mtDNAFullSequence for $239 instead of $299 ($60 off) - men and women

FamilyFinder for $199 instead of $289 ($90 off) - men and women

FamilyFinder + Y-DNA37 for $318 instead of $438 ($120 off) - men only
FamilyFinder + mtDNAPlus for $318 instead of $428 ($120 off) - men and women
FamilyFinder + mtDNAFullSequence for $435 instead of $559 ($124 off) - men and women

SuperDNA (Y-DNA67 + mtDNAFullSequence) for $438 instead of $548 ($110 off) - men only
Comprehensive Genome (SuperDNA + FamilyFinder) for $627 instead of $837 ($210 off) - men only
No special coupon is needed. Just go to the Products page and the price reductions should already be shown.

If you've successfully used DNA testing to further your genealogy research, post about it in the comments.

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Tying together my last two posts

Two posts earlier, I launched into a discussion on the future of eBooks based on my interest in reading the book Ancestors and Relatives: Genealogy, Identity, and Community by Eviatar Zerubavel, and if it made sense at this stage to get it as an eBook, or whether I should order it by mail.

My last post was about how we are connected to our relatives, both physically (objectively) and how we perceive ourselves to be related. How close is a first cousin once removed compared to a second cousin? Can we come up with an objective measure of such relatedness, or are such measures inherently subjective?

Now an article published yesterday contains an excerpt of the book mentioned in the first post that goes into detail on the topic I brought up in my second post. The article, published in Salon, is called Why do we care about our ancestors? and discusses how our perception of our ancestry in many ways helps define our perception of ourselves. An interesting read, it makes me look forward to reading the full book when it arrives.

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Perceptions of Relationship

In a project I'm working on I have been giving some thought to how we relate to others, but also how we perceive we relate to others. These are not necessarily the same. Certainly it's possible to be closer socially with cousins that are more distantly related than other cousins, but that's a choice. What I am thinking about is how we actually perceive we are related to others, and are we right? How would we judge that in any case?

I'm sure many of you are familiar with the traditional 'cousin calculator' chart, such the the one below (click to enlarge):
Traditional Cousin Calculator Chart
For those of you unfamiliar with how a cousin calculator works, you take two people and determine their common ancestor. You move in one direction (i.e. along the top) from the common ancestor until you reach the relationship of the first person to the common ancestor. You then move in the other direction (i.e. down along the side) until you reach the relationship of the second person to the common ancestor. The box where those two lines merge is the relationship between the two people. For example, if you are the great-grandchild and someone else is the grandchild of a common ancestor, you move along the top to the third column for great-grandchild, and down to the second row for the grandchild, and the box that is in the 3rd column and the second row is 1st Cousin, Once Removed.

If you take a close look, you'll notice I've color-coded the chart how I think we normally perceive relationships. Essentially, our sibling and parents are one degree away, our nieces/nephews and 1st cousins are two degrees away, and so forth. A second cousin is generally perceived as one degree further away from us than a first cousin. A first cousin, once removed is, at least to me, in the same category as a second cousin, and that's what this chart shows.

Now how can we actually determine how closely we're related? One simple method is by how much DNA we share. If we add in the percentage of DNA present between any two relatives to the chart it looks a bit different (click to enlarge):
DNA Cousin Calculator Chart
Note in the above chart that I've changed the color coding to match the percentages of shared DNA. The colors no long take a box shape around the common ancestor, but instead move out in the straight line. What we can see by looking at the numbers is that actually the degree of relationship is moving twice as fast as we perceived before. From a first cousin to a second cousin, the amount of shared DNA is one quarter, not one half. We perceive the second cousin as being twice as distant a relative as a first cousin, but from the perspective of DNA, they are actually four times as distant!

I know one of my 5th cousins, and we share just 0.049% DNA. That's a half of a tenth of a percent. Not very much. Anyways, this was just an attempt to create some kind of objective view of family relationships. Of course, nothing having to do with family is really objective, right?

Sunday, October 23, 2011

The End of the Printed Book (coming soon, but not yet)

So I live in Israel and while it's not too hard to get popular books from best-selling authors in English, it's a bit harder to get things like technical books, or more niche books like those that deal with genealogy. Finding ways to get English books to Israel cheaply is somewhat of an obsession with much of the English-speaking community here, and it's not so simple. Amazon.com was a long-time favorite for many years, although now-Amazon-owned BookDepository.com seems the better deal (books are a little more money, but shipping is free). Of course, with the rise of eBooks one would think eBooks are the simple solution – usually cheaper and no shipping charges. My wife recently got an iPad, and when I decided to order a book recently (Ancestors and Relatives: Genealogy, Identity, and Community by Eviatar Zerubavel) I thought about getting it as an eBook. The price was almost half the printed version ($9.99 on Kindle versus $18.21 in Hardcover on Amazon) and that's without considering shipping for the hardcover.

I've been a book collector for more than twenty years, and while not all my books make it out of my library, I do lend many books out. Considering how hard it is to get niche books like an academically-published one like Ancestors and Relatives..., here in Israel I figured it would be highly likely I would be loaning out the book at some point. So how does one loan out an eBook? First I think it's worth taking a look at who the different players are in the eBook field.

So the big players in eBooks are Amazon (with the Kindle), Barnes & Noble (with the Nook), Apple (with iBooks) and Google (with Google Books). Amazon has long been the leader in this field, with both the hardware (the Kindle) and the store (Amazon.com) to provide the total package for eBook reading. In fact, Amazon is really the only company that offers software on just about every type of device (Mac, Windows, iPhone, iPad, Android, and of course their own Kindle devices) and in that they have a real advantage. When Barnes & Noble, the retail leader in book sales in the US, launched their eBook platform called the Nook, they introduced one feature which had been missing from the Kindle – the ability to lend books. Amazon quickly copied that feature and made it available on the Kindle, but with the same odd restrictions – you could only lend a book once to a friend, and only for 14 days. Sure, I wish everyone I lent a book to would return it in less than two weeks, but that's not reality. Why does it matter how long the book is lent for exactly? When a book is lent out, you cannot view it yourself, which makes sense. If I can't view it while it is being lent out, who care how long it is being lent out and to whom? Herein lies the problem with eBooks as they currently stand – you're not buying the book, your essentially leasing it. In fact, even with the lending features of Kindle and Nook, not all publishers allow books to be lent – you need to check each book when you buy it and see if lending as a 'feature' is enabled.

In the days before Apple launched iTunes and the iPod, digital music failed to take off in a major way. The reason it failed was that it was easier to freely download pirated music than it was to buy and use music from the big labels. Apple fixed that, not by eliminating all the restrictions music companies wanted on the files, but by removing enough of them that using digital music legally became easy enough that most people wouldn't bother trying to get it illegally. The big breakthrough was that Apple had the store (what Amazon and Barnes & Noble now have for books) tightly integrated, and that Apple got the music companies to loosen their restrictions so that customers could play music on multiple devices (their Mac, their iPod and their now their iPhone for example) and could even burn CDs of their music for their own use. Most people don't really remember what digital music was like before Apple, but none of that was possible. Sure, the iPod was a breakthrough device when it came out, but the real reason it was so successful was the integration with the iTunes Store and the improved licensing from the music companies.

The problem with eBooks is that none of the companies have yet hit that sweet spot of great device, great store integration and good enough licensing. It's hard to even think about licensing a book. It reminds me of a used book store I used to visit almost 20 years ago in Jerusalem that had a copy of a book that was out of print, yet highly in demand, so they rented it out. It was bizarre and I didn't rent it. I waited a little longer and I found a copy for sale elsewhere. Eventually the book came back into print and everyone could get a copy. The iPad is a great device for reading books, and the various Kindles and Nooks are also good devices. The new Kindle Fire is really trying to compete with the iPad, and is perhaps the first device that will be able to do so, but while there are devices that are great, and there is store integration which works okay (I wouldn't yet call it great on any platform), no one has gotten the licensing right yet.

It took years of battling between Steve Jobs and music companies to get the licensing right for music – and that battle included a visionary like Steve Jobs and music company executives that finally 'got it' (perhaps they were forced into 'getting it' by Jobs). How long will it take for book publishers to 'get it' is anyone's guess. It's already possible to download illegal eBooks, although I don't know if the book reading public will adopt that as quickly as the music listening public did in the days before the iPod and iTunes.

One company that seems to be getting ready for the inevitable move to eBooks is, believe it or not, IKEA. Apparently, they are creating a deeper version of their popular (some might say ubiquitous) BILLY bookcase in order to accommodate the display for physical items, perhaps larger coffee-table style books, but not actually rows of books.

Music needed easy purchasing and a liberal licensing scheme so that people could listen to their music on all their devices. Books needs the same things, but something more. People listen to the same music over and over, but they don't read the same book over and over – instead they lend it out to others. The book publishing industry needs to come to grips with this difference and make their eBooks as lendable as their printed cousins. Until that point, buying books for reading on digital devices will not be ubiquitous (not even as ubiquitous as BILLY bookcases). What's worse is that as a 'leased' product instead of an owned product, what happens if the publisher decides to change the terms after the purchase, further restricting the usage of the book. What can you do about that? Not much, other than wait for the publishers to wake up and figure out that books are not music, and they need to be treated differently.

So in the end, I ordered the book from the Book Depository web site, and will get it in a couple of weeks. It's a little pricier, but I get to own the book and lend out as often and to as many people as I like, without having to worry about what the publisher thinks. Of course, since Amazon bought Book Depository they'll still be getting my money, but at least I'm getting something tangible for that money. In the future no doubt I will be buying eBooks along with the rest of society (I do not believe my grandkids will be buying physical textbooks) but for the time being I'm doing my share to help the paper industry.

Geneadaddyblogger


So a little over a week ago Jennifer Shoer, otherwise known by her nom de blog The Scrappy Genealogist, started a series she called How She Does It, Secrets from the Geneamommybloggers, getting genealogist moms to explain how they juggle being moms and doing genealogy. She gathered a whos-who of genealogist moms to post in the series, including Caroline Pointer, Jennifer Holik-Urban, Kerry Scott, Amy Coffin, Marian Pierre-Louis, and Elizabeth O'Neal. For those of you who follow genealogy blogging, you probably recognize most if not all of those names. After seeing the series start I jokingly asked Jennifer on Twitter, why no Geneadaddybloggers? To which of course, Jennifer put me on the spot and asked me to write a guest post as well. I don't think I fit into the list of other bloggers (and not just because of the Y chromosome) but I did write something, which you can read on her blog: Philip Trauring – How He Does It – Secrets from a Geneadaddyblogger. So give it a read and let me know what you think. Post comments to the original article on Jennifer's site so everyone who reads the article can read them.

Monday, October 17, 2011

A little known Facebook feature (for genealogy)...

I just ran across an interesting Facebook feature that is fairly helpful for genealogy. I don't know if this has been around a long time, or if this is something they recently introduced.

Simply, if you go to facebook.com/family you can search all Facebook profiles by surname. Not only that, but the search is created using an easy to remember web address, so you can share a search result page. For example, searching for the surname Zylberman would send you to the page:

facebook.com/family/Zylberman/1

which is the first page of search results for the surname Zylberman. Similarly, if you changed the 1 to a 3 at the end of the web address, you would be taken to the third page of results. Of course, these search result pages will change as new accounts are created, or old accounts are deleted, etc. so sending a result page might show the names you want to show someone in the short term, but may not show the same names later.

In addition to searching in English, you can search in other character sets, such as Hebrew:

facebook.com/family/זילברמן

There are actually more Zylbermans listed in Hebrew than in English, but that's likely because there are less alternate spellings in Hebrew. For the same name in Hebrew, it could be Zylberman, Zilberman, Zylbermann, Zilbermann, Sylberman, Silberman or Silbermann in English (only the variation Sylbermann does not show up on Facebook).

You can also browse surnames which is interesting. One thing you can see is how many surnames are fake on Facebook. Besides that you can see lots of variations of surnames you may not have thought to search. Like in searching, you can also browse in other character sets. When browsing, Hebrew started on page 14893 of the 'Other' character set listings when I tried to find it, which you can jump to by going to this page:

facebook.com/family/directory.php?q=Other&p=14893

It may or may not be where Hebrew names start when you read this, but it's probably not too far off if you're reading this post not long after it was written. I could be mistaken, but it looks like Hebrew follows Armenian and is followed by maybe Farsi? When I searched, Hebrew names ended on page 17611, which means there are currently over 2700 pages of Hebrew names, or with 96 names shown per page, over a quarter of a million surnames in Hebrew on Facebook. I suppose its possible some of those names are actually in Yiddish and not Hebrew, but presumably the majority of them are Israeli users who have listed their names in Hebrew.

What if you want to search for names in Hebrew (or Yiddish) and don't know enough Hebrew to spell the name in Hebrew, or have a Hebrew keyboard to type it out? Try using Stephen Morse's Transliterating English to Hebrew in One Step web page, where you can type the name in English, and receive the text in Hebrew. There are slight differences in the transliteration in some cases if you choose onto the options: Sephardic, Ashkenazi or Yiddish. In the case of Zylberman, both Sephardic and Ashkenazi options return the same result (the same spelling I guessed above). Yiddish is less likely to be useful (and in this case no search results were found using the Yiddish tranliteration) for the simple reason that anyone who uses a Yiddish spelling for their name (as opposed to English or Hebrew) is not very likely to be on Facebook altogether. Once you get the text in Hebrew letters, you can copy that text and paste it into the Facebook search box.

So there you go, a super-easy way to search and browse surnames on Facebook, even using foreign alphabets.

Monday, October 10, 2011

The Fate of the Sabbatarians

I don't often link to other articles online, but I read an article today that struck me as fascinating, well-researched, well-written, and which has many implications for those interested in Jewish genealogy.

The article, by Shay Fogelman in Haaretz, is titled Discovering Europe's non-Jews who kept the faith and it discusses the fascinating history of the Sabbatarian community of Transylvania (Szekler Sabbatarians). The Sabbatarians were a community founded in the late 1500s by a Christian nobleman who, fascinated by the Bible and other Jewish writings, adopted many customs of Jews such as keeping the Sabbath (thus the name Sabbatarians) and keeping kosher, etc. He spread his beliefs to his court, which slowly adopted his beliefs, but it was his adopted son and successor who really spread this new belief-system by translating Jewish prayerbooks into Hungarian for the use of his followers. They were not Jews, they were not Christians, and that created no shortage of problems for them.

Bozodujfalu, center of the Sabbatarian community
In many ways they were persecuted even more than the Jewish community in the same region, because the Christian churches which dominated the region viewed Sabbatarians not as Jews, but as Christian heretics. By 1635 when they were forced to convert to one of the four major Christian sects in the region by the government, they counted their members at 20,000 people. Driven underground the religion persisted in hiding for hundreds of years, pretending to be Christian but intermarrying either amongst themselves or occasionally with the local Jewish community. In the mid-1800s with the emancipation of the Jews, the Sabbatarian community came out of hiding (although they were still persecuted as heretics) and half of the community converted en-masse to Judaism. The community, now half Jewish, continued to pray together in the same Synagogue as before.

When WWII started and the Nuremberg laws came into force, the Hungarians who controlled the region, and the Germans who eventually took over, were not sure what to do with the Sabbatarians. At first they considered them Jews, but after protests (including by local Christian clergy) some were exempted from the racial laws that sent the Jews into ghettos and eventually to the death camps. Some who were given the opportunity to leave the ghetto remained there as they decided they would rather share the fate of the Jews (if that was what God willed). Very little of the community seems to have survived the war, although some descendants of the community still live in the area, and even in Israel.

The story is interesting from a genealogical point of view because of the history of the community. While the mass-conversion of half the community occurred within a time-period that is well documented, the previous two centuries of the community is not well-documented, and the interaction between the Sabbatarians and the Jewish community is not well known. If members of the community intermarried into the Jewish community (presumably converting to Judaism beforehand), then that is in many ways reverse intermarriage compared to the much-more-common-at-the-time marrying out of the community. It would be extremely rare at that time to find large numbers of a non-Jewish community marrying into the Jewish community.

How is this influx of the local population into the Jewish population reflected the DNA of the Jewish population? If intermarriage really started in the 16th century, the number of descendants could in fact make up a large minority segment of the Jewish population from that area. What are the predominant haplogroups of Sabbatarians? Do those haplogroups exist in any large percentage in the Ashkenazi Jewish community? Some haplogroups such as Q1b1, which is a minority among Ashkenazi Jews (5%), but which is almost all Jewish, have been theorized by some to be a remnant of the Khazarian mass-conversion (the only other large-scale conversion since biblical times that I can think of), but perhaps the Q1b1 haplogroup derives from the Sabbatarian community? or another mass-conversion which we don't know about?

It would also be interesting to document the connections between the two halves of the Sabbatarian community after the mass conversion in the 19th century – presumably there was intermingling between the two halves after the conversion (they still prayed together after all).

From the article in Haaretz it seems those Jewish descendants of the Sabbatarians identified by the author may not be interested in researching this history. We may therefore never know the full story of the Sabbatarians, and what their influence on the make-up of the Jewish people today is (perhaps significant, perhaps inconsequential).

In any case, I recommend reading Shay Fogelman's excellent article and learning about this little-known non-Jewish sect which followed many Jewish laws (although not circumcision among others).

Out of curiosity, how many of you had heard of these Sabbatarians (Szekler Sabbatarians) before this post? If so, where did you hear about them?

Sunday, October 9, 2011

Ancestry.com 15 Days of Free Access and Prizes

Ancestry.com is in the middle of a 15 day celebration of their 15th anniversary. They are making one data collection free each day between the 1st and 15th of October (thus they are a little over half way through) and they are giving away a prize each day, and a grand prize after the 15th (going behind the scenes of the NBC TV show Who Do You Think You Are? with Lisa Kudrow). Each collection they make available for free remains free through October 15th, so you can access all the ones made available so far:

Oct 1 - Social Security Death Index
Oct 2 - Ireland, Griffith’s Valuation, 1848–1864
Oct 3 - California Marriage Index, 1960–1985
Oct 4 - Bavaria, Germany, WWI Personnel Rosters, 1914–1918 (in German)
Oct 5 - 1920 U.S. Federal Census
Oct 6 - Australian Electoral Rolls, 1903–1980
Oct 7 - Texas Birth Index, 1903–1997
Oct 8 - Sweden, Births from the Swedish Death Index, 1947–2006 (in Swedish)
Oct 9 - World War I Draft Registration Cards, 1917–1918

More collections will be made available Oct 10-15.

Today's collection, WWI Draft Registration Cards, 1917-1918 is a particularly interesting collection if your family lived in the US during WWI, as all males were registered (even if they were unable to be soldiers) and the registration cards can provide information on where the person was living, where they were born, etc. I discuss these draft cards in my article Finding Information on US Immigrants.

To access these collections, go to the Ancestry 15th Anniversary Collections page.

From that page you can also click on the link (and orange button that says Enter Now) to take you to the daily sweepstakes page where they are giving away a prize every day until the 15th (and then the aforementioned grand prize to go behind the scenes on the NBC TV show Who Do You Think You Are?).

Today's prize is an iPad 2...