Wednesday, November 19, 2008

On Family Research

One Genealogist's Search of Self

In every family, there's always at least one person who wants to document its existence. The others don't quite get us—why this obsession to track a chain of ancestors, where they came from, and all their most intimate dates? Some may even suspect us of nefarious motives and refuse to cooperate with our desire to dig deep into their personal details.

For some genealogists, there is the joy in finding a distinguished personality among the flotsam and jetsam of the rest. I call this the "fame by association" syndrome. Researchers afflicted with this syndrome will not tell you about crazy Uncle Harold who lived in a stable and smelled. They're only going to tell you about the stars hanging off their trees which appear like so many Christmas decorations.

One of my relatives told me that he changed his surname in an effort to lose his association with a famous ancestor so that he could make his own name, and not rest on the laurels of his grandfather. Yet, he too, delights in tracking the branches of his tree. This relative's motives are altruistic: he enjoys his personal history, but doesn't make use of this to further himself. He is an historian, taking care to preserve a proud family history for his grandchildren.

My own motives are neither fame-seeking or altruistic, but fall somewhere in between.

I am an American who made Aliyah at the age of 18. It is not always simple moving to a new country and to become part of a new society. Some will hear my accent and assume that I am rich and spoiled. They fail to understand why I would want to live in Israel, since I come from a wonderful democratic and wealthy country.

Yet, I want to belong. This is, I believe, a very human instinct. Before I began my research, I knew that my family had a proud history in my chosen country dating back to the Ottoman Empire. Once I uncovered the very exciting story of my family in Palestine, I walked the streets of Jerusalem with pride. I felt I belonged more than just about anyone walking down Jaffa Road. I held my head so much higher with this knowledge, and I think my children, did, too.

But there was another desire I set out to indulge with the fact of my research: finding a community of relatives. I now live far from the warm family circle in which I was raised. By choosing to live in Israel, I have denied myself large family Passover Seders and other family events.

I discovered both Israeli and American relatives in Israel. While they will never substitute for the relatives of my childhood, there have been some wedding invitations extended to my family.

When I stand outside in the cold evening air of Jerusalem, watching a wedding unfold under a wedding canopy, I begin to feel that perhaps my great grandmother Anna (Chana) JANOFSKY KOPELMAN and her sister, Anna (Nechama) JANOFSKY GOLUB (REPNIK) are watching the proceedings somewhere up there in heaven while they hold hands, and happy tears course down their cheeks. They are watching as a new branch of their family is forged in the Holy Land. They are so glad that their descendants have found each other and attend each other's joyous events.

I'm too much of a Kalte Litvak to tear up, I will leave that to that self-created chimera of my maternal ancestors; still I shiver and get goose bumps just the same.

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