Oct. 6 drop-in genealogy session at the Jewish Community Library in San Francisco with members of the San Francisco Bay Area Jewish Genealogical Society. (Courtesy SFBAJGS)
Oct. 6 drop-in genealogy session at the Jewish Community Library in San Francisco with members of the San Francisco Bay Area Jewish Genealogical Society. (Courtesy SFBAJGS)

Genealogy ‘mavens’ go old-school to uncover Jewish past

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Final part of three-part PAST LIVES series on Jewish genealogical research.

On a recent Sunday afternoon, Sam Ginsburg sat in a library with a mess of papers scattered in front of him. He was looking for an uncle he had never met, and who was most likely dead.

He had little information besides the man’s name — Morris Cooper — and an address, found in a 1950s New York City directory: 477 FDR Drive. He knew it was the right Morris Cooper, because he matched the address to a wedding invitation for a second cousin’s wedding. And he also knew Morris’ family had originally come from Slutsk, Belarus, and that their last name had likely been Cooperman at some point.

But that’s all he knew.

So he turned to the “mavens” — volunteers with the San Francisco Bay Area Jewish Genealogical Society — who gather once a month at the Jewish Community Library in San Francisco for brainstorming sessions.

“I’m a little overwhelmed trying to figure out who he was,” Ginsburg said. “There’s a million Morris Coopers.”

At-home DNA testing, which has doubled in usage each year since 2017, and popular television shows like “Finding Your Roots” on PBS and “Who Do You Think You Are?” on TLC, demonstrate our growing fascination with, and yearning for, finding clear and convincing evidence of where we come from — not simply relying on fading memories and family lore.

For Jews comfortably ensconced in the United States, the improbable life stories of the people who once bore their surnames can feel remote. What is shtetl life to someone in San Francisco? Can we imagine a life lived under threat of a pogrom?

Moreover, many Jewish legacies are not as easily traced as, say, those of Mayflower descendants. Few records were kept in the Russian Pale of Settlement, the center of European Jewish life until the early 20th century. And surnames were rare among Ashkenazi Jews, who used patronymic names roughly until the 19th century.

And yet, the centuries-old struggle of European Jewry to survive makes the drive for Jews to uncover their familial past just as strong as it is in the general public — maybe even stronger.

As technology races ahead, a few dozen Bay Area genealogists are still using old-fashioned resources to dive deep into the past, and are surfacing with vital information: resources like ocean-liner passenger lists, newspaper classified ads, Ellis Island arrival records and century-old census data (much of it, thankfully, categorized online, with more being added every year).

Some are members of the S.F. Bay Area Jewish Genealogical Society, a registered nonprofit that first met officially on Aug. 4, 1981, in the community room at a bank. At the meeting, according to its minutes (society members are nothing if not diligent record-keepers), secretary Peter Tannen volunteered to “computerize” the mailing list on his Apple II personal computer. Dues were set at $10 a year.

Four decades later, the SFBAJGS is still meeting every month, still sending delegates to national conferences and still producing a quarterly journal, titled “ZichronNote” (a pun on the Hebrew word for memories). The annual membership fee has inched up to $23.

“We exist as an organization to support individuals, to get people thinking,” said Jeremy Frankel, a London-born former mapmaker who has served as SFBAJGS’ president since 2001. Frankel’s wife, Victoria Fisch, is the president of the Jewish Genealogical Society of Sacramento.

Jeremy Frankel
Jeremy Frankel

Frankel described genealogical research as “like doing a jigsaw puzzle, but without the box-top picture.” As a maven — society members prefer it to the word “expert” — he’s confident that with a bit of time and effort, most American Jews can find information about their forebears.

“I suspect with a bit of work anybody can research their family probably to about 1800,” he said. “Then it gets challenging.”

On the first or second Sunday of each month, SFBAJGS volunteers hold drop-in sessions at the Jewish Community Library in the Western Addition, called “Brainstorming with the Mavens.” The next session will be held on Dec. 8.

Some attendees come to find a long-lost cousin, or to get to the bottom of a family mystery. Most, though, want to know more about their family tree and where they came from — and seek help overcoming “brick walls” in their research.

The drop-in sessions are organized by the library, though SFBAJGS members are vital participants.

The society is one of about 60 similar American genealogy networks scattered all over the country, all member organizations of the International Association of Jewish Genealogical Societies. The IAJGS also has member groups in far-flung places including Australia, Israel, Europe and Jamaica.

The SFBAJGS also hosts speakers and presentations on topics like American Jewish “kinship clubs” or the Jews of Shanghai. In recent years, members have volunteered to transcribe about 35,000 Bay Area cemetery records into an online database: the JewishGen Online Worldwide Burial Registry. The JOWBR represents an effort to document “all extant Jewish cemetery and burial records, worldwide.”

“This goal may never be fully achieved,” the SFBAJGS website says, “but the results to date … represent an amazing resource for all genealogists.”

Frankel, who remembers the day 34 years ago when he first became fascinated by Jewish genealogy, is poised to lead the SFBAJGS into its 40th year in 2021, and beyond.

“We’re very fortunate,” he said of accomplished society members like Judy Baston, Ron Arons, Robinn Magid and others. “Anyone who joins has access to some of the top minds in the field.”

After spending 14 years as a cartographer in the U.K., Frankel moved to the U.S. in 1987. He would go on to lead canal tours in upstate New York, and ultimately wrote a book on the subject: 1991’s “New York State Canal Guide.”

One of the most important things to understand about genealogical research, Frankel says: “It’s a challenge.” And it requires creative thinking.

I suspect with a bit of work anybody can research their family probably to about 1800. Then it gets challenging.

For example, “say you’re looking for your great-grandfather in the 1920 census,” Frankel said. “His age could be wrong. His first name could be wrong. He may have a heavy accent. People were mishearing and not writing down names correctly.

“You have to look at it as a mathematical problem: How do I minimize errors?”

The session Ginsburg attended was led by Baston, a former journalist and 27-year library volunteer, whose areas of mavenhood are Poland and Lithuania. In 2015, she was awarded a Lifetime Achievement Award by the IAJGS, at a ceremony in Jerusalem.

Baston often says that the world of Jewish genealogy changed for good in the early 1990s.

“Two things happened at the same time,” she explained. “One was the growth of the internet. The other was the fall of the Iron Curtain.”

After the breakup of the Soviet Union in 1991, archives that were previously locked behind byzantine regulations and state-imposed secrecy (in Poland and Lithuania, in particular) became accessible to the general public for the first time. And organizations such as Jewish Records Indexing Poland and the Litvak Special Interest Group invested time and money building searchable, online databases, which now offer around 8 million searchable records with more “added every few months,” according to JRI-Poland.

Baston advises those searching for Eastern European Jews to “use Jewish Gen or JRI-Poland” rather than Ancestry.com, a company with ties to the Mormon Church whose records are scant, she said.

As to Ginsburg, the man looking for his uncle, the mavens, as usual, started with what they knew.

Judy Baston
Judy Baston

“So he was sent a wedding invitation. Did he go to the wedding?” Baston asked.

“The bride didn’t know who he was,” Ginsburg replied. “And she has since died.”

“I’m just wondering if anybody had pictures,” Baston said. Back then, people often sent photographs by mail to distant relatives, with notes written on the back.

“That never occurred to me,” Ginsburg said.

“Leave no stone unturned,” Baston intoned.

Another maven, Steve Harris, weighed in. A professional genealogist specializing in New York City records, Harris has a psychology Ph.D. from UC Berkeley and is a member of the Association of Professional Genealogists.

“You know he was living [on FDR Drive] in the ’50s,” Harris said. “Which eliminates the census. Unless he was also living there in 1940.”

Since the U.S. Census only releases individual-level data after 72 years pass, person-specific information from 1950 won’t become available until 2022.

But Harris had another thought.

“He would have been roughly the correct age for what was called the World War II ‘Old Man’s Draft,’” he said. “It was for people who were born in about 1870 to 1890, roughly.”

Using Ancestry.com while sitting in the library, Harris searched and found 27 people with the name Morris Cooper who had filled out these draft registration cards. Each bore an address.

“I don’t have time to go through all 27,” Harris said.

But Ginsburg called that number “reasonable” and was eager to begin combing through them for clues.

Earlier that day, Baston reflected on why she spends so much time and effort on genealogical research. She was addressing, specifically, past controversies involving the Mormon Church — in which it became clear that members of the church were posthumously “baptizing” Jews, including Holocaust survivors, using their vast troves of genealogical records.

“Some people say, ‘Why does it matter?’” she said, of the posthumous Baptisms. “Well, to me it matters. It’s historical falsification.”

Then she asked a rhetorical question: “Why do I do this?

“I don’t really do it for other researchers. I do this for the dead people. So that they will be remembered, and found,” she said. “People should be remembered as accurately as possible.”

Gabe Stutman
Gabe Stutman

Gabe Stutman is the news editor of J. Follow him on Twitter @jnewsgabe.