Hobby Roulette: Genealogy

OK I admit it, I’m obsessed with ancestry. I got the bug a few years ago when I found a new service called Geni that helps you build your family tree and collaborate with your relatives who are also doing ancestry work. It’s essentially social genealogy and it is addicting. More on Geni in a sec.

The real question to ask is why am I so interested in genealogy these days. Yes, there is a Renaissance of sorts going on thanks in large part to the wealth of online information now available at sites like Ancestry.com and Ellis Island online, not to mention several great ancestry television shows like Finding Your Roots and Who Do You Think You Are? I am all in on these shows — it’s like watching a mystery unfold right before your eyes. But for me the impetus is more personal. For one thing, having a kid has made me want to give him a better sense of where he comes from and knowing your roots is a large part of that. Additionally, nearly dying a few years ago has left me thinking a lot about my legacy and that in turn has led me to want to know more about what my predecessors left behind.

I have never felt much of an affiliation with my heritage. Most people know where they’re from in general terms — they are Irish or Italian or Polish. But I was always told my heritage is Jewish, which makes no sense at all to me since Jewish is a religion not a culture or nationality (I know some of my Jewish friends will argue this point but you are wrong!). On top of that, I do not practice Judaism so I can’t be Jewish. Now this might all be a moot point for a science-based person like myself because I understand through science that all human roots can be traced back to northeastern Africa making me (ahem) African-American. Regardless, my more recent ancestors came from somewhere and I want to know where.

Back to Geni. It’s a free service (with pro options that cost a bit) that allows you to build your tree. You simply add your name and details and then add in your family members. As you add people to your tree it identifies other people on Geni who may be connected to you and then you can combine forces to grow your tree together. You can also invite your relatives by email to join your efforts and add their information and whatever they know about the family. Pretty soon you have a huge interactive family tree. It’s not a place to do in-depth research on your ancestry like Ancestry.com or MyHeritage.com, but it’s free and fun and ultimately its goal is to build a tree that includes everyone on the planet. In fact, it will tell you how you are connected to people, so you can see how you are connected to famous people. But that’s just a side-show. The real power is connecting you to existing relatives and growing your tree.

Using Geni I found Lois Gutman, my second cousin once removed’s wife, whom I did not know. Lois was working on a different branch of our family tree, and what we discovered together was quite remarkable. Her husband Michael’s grandfather and my grandfather were brothers. Michael has a sister named Sheila Mae Gutman who lives in Staten Island New York — just a few miles from my aunt who is also named Sheila Mae Gutman. They’ve never met. On top of that, Lois and Michael have a daughter named Jodi Beth Gutman — my sister is also named Jodi Beth Gutman. Crazy. Together Lois and I have been adding to our tree and we recently discovered my second great grandparents, Benjamin & Mollie Gutman, I then sent away for Mollie’s death certificate from the state of New York and found out that her parents were named Benjamin and Charna Sherman — another generation added to the tree.

So what have I learned about my ancestry so far? Well, it turns out the paternal side of my family is Eastern European, primarily Russian and Ukrainian with some Polish thrown in. Basically I am from an area known as the Pale of Settlement  created by Catherine the Great in 1791 to remove the Jews from the heart of Russia. Jews were forced to live in this region, which covers areas that today include Ukraine, Western Russia, Belarus, Lithuania and Poland. Jews lived in villages called shtetls that were made famous in Fiddler on the Roof. Basically a rural slum. On the maternal side it’s more of the same, though I still need to do more work on that side.

Ancestry is a really interesting hobby, especially if like me you have a little journalist or historian in you. I’m really enjoying putting the pieces together to uncover my roots, but more than that I’m discovering and meeting new relatives. Another of Lois and Michael’s daughters lives here in the Phoenix area and I’m hoping to meet her soon. On my mom’s side I discovered my cousin Paul Fleischman, a Newbery Medal Winning author.

Another great thing about ancestry is that you can do most of the work from home thanks to the wealth of information available on the Internet. There are lots of free resources including FamilySearch.org, and for a small fee you can use more advanced tools like Ancestry.com or MyHeritage.com. If you don’t want to pay the membership fees you can get free access at the public library or at one of 4,500 LDS local family history centers worldwide. The Mormons are very serious about their ancestry for some reason and say what you will I found a very nice quote on their website that brings it home: “A life not documented is a life that within a generation or two will largely be lost to memory.”

I want to bring the memory of my ancestors to life, and I don’t want to be lost to memory.

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