God Bless the Genealogists

Laura Arnold Leibman

Rabbi Malcolm Stern, Author of
First American Jewish Families
Genealogy fever has swept the nation.  Commonly considered the second most popular American hobby, genealogy is surpassed in the number of devotees only by gardening. Genealogy similarly holds the second place internet record for "most visited category of website," with only pornography capturing the American gaze more frequently (USA Today).  Genealogy helps Americans understand who they are, where they came from, and how they fit within the larger narratives of American history.

Religion has played an important role in genealogy's rise in prominence.  The Mormon Church's interest in baptizing the dead has encouraged the church to dedicate tremendous resources to mapping the past.  Equally crucially, many of the early American documents desired by genealogists (including marriage and burial records) were often originally created and kept by religious organizations.  Religious practice can also fuel the desire for knowledge about one's ancestors.  In my own field, which covers both converso and early Jewish American families, people sometimes turn to genealogical research to make sense of their personal religious life stories.  Furthermore, genealogy fever has helped channel vasts amounts of human and financial resources into digitizing early records that can help foster scholarship on American religious communities.  God bless the genealogists! Genealogists make our scholarly lives easier; however, they also challenge us in productive ways to rethink our audience and create more interactive and accessible modes of history making.

Every early American project I have worked on has been made easier not only because of the wonderful academic scholars who came before me, but also because of the tireless work of professional genealogists.  Editing  Experience Mayhew's Indian Converts (1727) would have been much more painful were it not for Jerome D. Segel and R. Andrew Pierce's Wampanoag Genealogical History of Martha's Vineyard, Massachusetts. I similarly owe an enormous debt to Rabbi Malcom Stern, the father of American Jewish genealogy. While new sources mean there are occasional errors and oversights in Stern's magisterial First American Jewish Families, my  research would be exponentially harder if I didn't have Stern's genealogies to use as a starting point for identifying the exceedingly complex family relations. David Kleiman's Americans of Jewish Descent from the Inquisition to Integration (AOJD-online.net) has helped update and expand Stern's work.  David's recent death was a great loss to all of us working in the field of early Jewish American studies.

More recently I have been grateful to the nonprofit and for profit genealogical  organizations that have blossomed to meet the needs of both professional genealogists and family history hobbyists.  My most recent wave of gratitude goes out to Family Search, for digitizing the New York Probate Records, 1629-1971. In the past week, they added 8,613,673 images added to this collection, increasing its holdings by 63 percent. A significant portion of my current book project involves the Jewish and African American communities in early national New York. Although I have an upcoming research trip planned to New York, I am grateful not to have to spend a significant portion of that trip pouring over the wills, deeds, and inventories of the communities members who interest me. Rather I can maximize my time on the east coast by discovering what I can before I get there.

Yet even as I benefit from the resources and manpower put into genealogy, I am also cognizant that the national obsession with family history has shaped my own scholarship, particularly its digital manifestations.  When I created my Indian Converts Database, for example, I had a vague idea that it might be of use to people doing family history or members of the Wampanoag community.  I was taken aback a couple of years ago, however, when a colleague in computing at my college noted that the Indian Converts site was so popular that three of the Indian Converts Study Guides (those on kinship, clothing and colonial American handwriting) were in the top five most commonly visited CONTENTdm pages in the college's collection pages for the past six months.  That is, the colonial Native American community on Martha's Vineyard drew in more readers than our college's pages on sexism in advertising, classical art, architecture, or maps. I knew from the email queries I'd received that most likely these visits were from people engaged in family history research.  When we designed the Jewish Atlantic World Database, this audience helped shape the new database's structure, content, and metadata.  For example, I made sure we had tagged all gravestones and objects by family name as well as individual names to allow people doing genealogical research to find connections across the collection more easily.

Informal Discussions in the Hunts Bay Cemetery, Jamaica
The Jewish Diaspora of the Caribbean” (Leibman, 2010)
Genealogy also reminds me that my seemingly obscure scholarly talents can be of use to people outside of academia.  Recently, for example, I have been participating in two facebook groups dedicated to the intersection of Sephardic genealogy and history, one of which is the brainchild of archivist and Renaissance man Ton Tielen.  In my mind, these groups represent the internet at its best.  These online communities function as a virtual and ongoing version of gatherings like the The Jewish Diaspora of the Caribbean” conference in Jamaica in 2010, in that they help foster connections between historians, professional genealogists, and lay people.  In addition to posting items of general interest, people on the Sephardic Diaspora facebook page commonly post leads or documents on which they are stuck.  For example, sometimes someone will post a gravestone, marriage contract, or document for which they lack the linguistic skills or historical knowledge to interpret.  Group members respond with translations, connections, and help "decode" the document.  Each individual commenting brings a different piece of expertise to the puzzle, and often discussions about interpretation emerge (e.g. what are the connotations of the particular handwriting style used in the document?). These group collaborations are not only a good example of crowd sourcing, but are an important reminder that the internet is a great way to make the methods that infuse our research visible and useful to others. For example, one post about a ketubah led to my "top ten list of things you can learn from a marriage contract." For those that are interested, besides the date of the wedding, ketubot can provide:
  1. The names of the fathers of the bride and groom
  2. If either of the couple had been married previously (even to each other, e.g. in Portugal in a Christian marriage)
  3. If the husband of the couple could fluently write (and hence possibly read) Hebrew
  4. If the husband of the couple was literate in Spanish, Portuguese, etc. (based on the groom signature's handwriting)
  5. How the husband pronounced his name (if in roman alphabet)
  6. Who in the community was close to the family (the witnesses), and if those men knew Hebrew
  7. How much money the bride and groom's family had and what each family brought to the marriage
  8. If the parents of the bride and groom were alive when the couple got married
  9. If either of the couple was a convert
  10. If the groom favored Spanish or Portuguese.
How rare and precious it is to find another academic who cares about the minutia of our methods.  How much more powerful to find average people might not only find our methods and skills interesting, but be able to use them to learn more about themselves and their past.

Resources Mentioned:
New York Probate Records, 1629-1971. https://familysearch.org/search/collection/1920234

Questions:  Does public history or family history influence your work, and if so, how?   Do you use social media to connect to non-academics who might benefit from or be interested in your research?  If so, what have you found is the result?


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