Over two decades, Jewish genealogy researchers have developed an ever-expanding body of knowledge, with books, websites, databases,
Inspired first by Alex Haley’s 1970s bestseller, “Roots,” and then by Dan Rottenberg’s “Finding Our Fathers,” and Arthur Kurzweil’s “From Generation to Generation,” large numbers of dedicated individuals forged ahead with family history research, only minimally distracted by such myths as “everything was destroyed, don’t waste your time.”
Since 1999, and building on 20 years of development, international researchers began to think about creating an entity to achieve the objectives of academic research and university-level teaching.
Now, with the recent opening of the International Institute of Jewish Genealogy (IIJG), located in the National Library, that process has begun. The IIJG is directed by Neville Yosef Lamdan, former Ambassador to the Vatican, and backed by an international founding committee of prominent Ashkenazi and Sephardic researchers in the U.S., Canada, France, New Zealand, Australia, Romania, U.K. and Israel.
The institute has, says Lamdan, received initial funding from an American philanthropist along with a significant donation from the Lisa and Douglas Goldman Fund, and additional fundraising is ongoing.
The first major project will be an international academic symposium in September to set priorities in research and university teaching. This area is “not covered by any other organization in the general Jewish genealogy community,” says Lamdan, who holds a PhD from Oxford University, and stresses that the evolving maturity of research has made these goals possible and necessary for the field to become an interdisciplinary academic discipline.
By its very nature, genealogy cuts across many academic spheres such as history (Jewish, family, oral, Holocaust etc.), sociology, anthropology, religion and economics, where the Rothschilds and Sassoons played vital roles. Lamdan explains that many ancient Cairo Geniza items are commercial documents. No one, offers Lamdan, has sat down with a genealogical eye to look at the names of traders, the families and cities cited.
Those questioning the institute’s plans have focused on possible duplication of efforts or undermining of achievements by others, but Lamdan is quick to state that those apprehensions are misplaced, “We hope that we will complement the work done by others and not compete.” He adds that the IIJG looks forward to developing close, cooperative relations with organizations and associations working in the same field. “Hopefully, we can help others and work with them.”
One primary project will be to produce a tool for researchers, to catalog major Jewish genealogical resources worldwide. Every day, new resources are discovered, but there is no central tool to help researchers learn where they are located. “We don’t want to reinvent the wheel,” says Lamdan, but to coordinate and bring together resources. Mapping of inventories is a perceived need.
While the sheer number of North Americans involved in Jewish family research is far ahead of Israel – Europeans are second – years of expertise by thousands of researchers has enabled the field to expand exponentially.
Although Israelis have had more immediate concerns, says Lamdan, they are catching up. Israeli researchers and members of local Jewish genealogy societies have been working steadily on projects of great value to the worldwide community. “Israel is significant in terms of quality of expertise, scholarship, language competence and knowledge of Jewish history, if not the numbers.”
The institute is based in Jerusalem because Israel is the epicenter of the Jewish people, and Jerusalem is the only place which commands everyone’s attention. “If we had established ourselves in New York, we wouldn’t be regarded as an organization for the entire Jewish world, we would be only another American organization,” says Lamdan.
A third reason is that the city houses excellent archival collections.
Lamdan is delighted that the National Library has taken the IIJG under its wing, realizing the new entity is a good fit with existing departments, and it is in a unique position to utilize the library’s unexploited materials for the benefit of international researchers.
Among such materials, says Lamdan, is the library’s collection of thousands of handwritten and illuminated Hebrew manuscripts, which often carry colophons with the name and ancestry of the person who commissioned the item, including such details as town, father’s name, names and backgrounds of the scribe and illustrator. This, says Lamdan, is immensely valuable data.
In addition to collections of rabbinical resources and 19th century European press, there are also items like the Slutsk (Belarus) Chevra Kadisha burial registers listing about 10,000 burials over more than two centuries. This is an important resource, stresses Lamdan, interjecting a bit of history based on personal research.
In 1914, Jews in western Belarus fled the war zone east to Slutsk and environs. In 1917-18, the Great Influenza Epidemic was rampant, and Lamdan’s investigation of the registers showed that his relatives were among those who moved to the area and died during the epidemic.
The Paul Jacobi Center, named after a famed genealogist and housing his collection, has a library of 12,000 books, as well as about 400 handwritten workbooks, which can be read by only a very few people. About 100 have been transcribed and typed, but until everything is indexed and sources retraced, the work will not be complete.
The IIJG and Les Fleurs de l’Orient (a project of founding committee member Alain Farhi) are now participating in a DNA project for the Sephardim of Ottoman Empire Origins, including those from Spain, Italy and Greece. The study, which will help in mapping Jewish migration, is being conducted by Bennett Greenspan, Family Tree DNA ;(Dr. Doron Behar, Haifa; Dr. Michael Hammer, University of Arizona; and Dr. Harry Ostrer, NYU Department of Genetics.)
The Temple in Jerusalem held family genealogical scrolls lost in that destruction. More Jewish family data was lost following more recent wars, epidemics, exiles, pogroms and other events. Today, international researchers work together to share information and make connections, while trying to reconstruct family trees, using many important resources, such as JewishGen.
There are some 80 Jewish genealogical societies under the umbrella of the International Association of Jewish Genealogical Societies which also sponsors an annual conference. The 26th IAJGS International Conference on Jewish Genealogy (New York City, August 13-18) anticipates the participation of 2,000 international researchers and experts (conference details: www.jgsny2006.org.)
In Israel, three IAJGS societies provide programming, reference libraries, help for beginners and support: Israel Genealogical Society (IGS, branches: Jerusalem, Tel Aviv, Beersheva, Netanya and Haifa, mainly Hebrew); Jewish Family Research Association (JFRA Israel, branches: Tel Aviv, Ra’anana, Petah Tikva, Rehovot and Herzliya, mainly English) and the Galil Society in Tivon.