This week, I have been in Orlando at the International Association of Jewish Genealogy Societies (IAJGS) for the organization’s IAJGS 2017 conference. There were about 1,000 people here, both professionals and amateur genealogists just looking for answers to their own family tree mysteries.
My head is spinning with new ideas and new directions to take my research. And I didn’t even attend all of the sessions I could have! My head just wouldn’t take any more in! So in my down times, I volunteered as a German translator, poring over old German hand-writing to decipher birth, marriage and death details. Sometimes, this provided answers people were looking for, but often they learned that was another dead end to finding out what happened to their ancestors or their families. Or, in most cases, the cursive writing of long ago Germans was just impossible to read, which was very frustrating for me and for them. I went to this conference in 2009 also, and I found in both cases, that volunteering gave me an extra opportunity to meet people from all over the world on the same journey I am on.
I went to only two of the evening events. On the first night, I heard a fascinating talk by Professor Robert Watson of Lynn University about “Alexander Hamilton, the Jews, and the American Revolution.” He is an expert on American presidents and gave a fascinating talk about Alexander Hamilton, who was born and raised in the Virgin Islands, orphaned at a young age and raised in the then thriving Jewish community there. He gave examples from later in Alexander Hamilton’s life where that early exposure to the Jewish community affected his decisions and actions later in life as a close adviser to George Washington. And on the last night, I was inspired by Henry Louis Gates, host of “Finding Your Roots” on PBS.
But there were so many other workshops and encounters that have added to my to-do list! Here are some of them:
- Emily Garber gave a workshop on blogging. That’s what finally got me to start this blog. Her blog is called “The Extra Yad.” Her workshop was filled with useful advice.
- Moriah Amit from the Center for Jewish History in New York did a great workshop on mapping your family history using Google Maps. You can expect to see some maps on this blog in future! I’m working on them now as I learned all kinds of new mapping tricks in this workshop.
- One day, I spent most of my time with the Litvak SIG (special interest group), including a delightful lunch speaker. Elisa New, a Harvard English professor, talked about how the discovery of her great great grandfather’s carved cane led to her own genealogy search to learn what the carvings meant. She has turned that into a book called “Jacob’s Cane: A Jewish Family’s Journey from the Four Lands of Lithuania to the Ports of London and Baltimore.”
- By the way, Litvak refers to Lithuanian Jews, which would include my Goldman and Blum families. I have joined and contributed to a group that is working to gather and translate records from the various places that Lithuanian Jews lived as the borders shifted in Eastern Europe. At various times, parts of their homes — which didn’t move — were part of Lithuania, Poland, Russia, or Belarus, and probably others I don’t know about. So there were conversations about which records have recently been gathered and translated, which are available on this database or another.
- Another day, I spent most of my time with the Belarus SIG, which would include my Gravitzky / Horowitz family, and where there are similar efforts to find and translate records.
- My head hurt the most from trying to learn everything I could about how DNA tests affect all of the things that we are all learning about our histories. In particular, what can you learn about your history — not just who’s your current cousin — from the DNA tests from Ancestry, FamilyTree, and others. I sat in on several talks by Israel Pickholz, who blogs at All My Foreparents and has done an enormous amount of learning about Jewish DNA. Israel emailed me a few months ago, as our DNA came up as some sort of match. He hasn’t yet figured out how we match, and I have decided that if he can’t figure it out, I needn’t even try.
Next year’s IAJGS conference is in Warsaw, Poland, in early August. I would love to go and then visit the places where my Goldman, Blum, and Gravitzky ancestors lived. One of my favorite movies of all time is “Everything is Illuminated,” and I have images in my head of similar magical experiences.