Intriguing Pathways Across Time
Genealogy offers insights into the shifting ties between people and places. It’s a study in ironies and contrasts, not a monument to a coherent or definitive inheritance.
The Internet has helped fuel a genealogy boom. Websites serving the legions of amateur family historians are popular and profitable. As more archives are digitised and more data goes online, the field of research opens wide, a territory criss-crossed with intriguing, unexplored pathways. Half an hour on the web can turn up a link that in former times could only have been unearthed through months or even years spent amidst dusty tomes.
Genealogy has long exercised a particular fascination for North Americans. In a society that envisions its own birth and identity as a radical breach with the Old World, there’s a hunger for ancestry, and an industry that caters to it, with specialist services for Irish-, Scottish-, Indian-, African-Americans and others.
Since the U.S. is not only an immigrant but also a geographically mobile society, Americans without upper class pedigrees can find it hard to trace family history back beyond their grandparents. So in search of their forebears they search through census, draft board and social security records, passenger ship lists and local business directories. In my own family’s case, another useful source has been the FBI, whose (heavily censored) files are available to the public under the Freedom of Information Act.
Thanks to the FBI, I know that in 1943 my maternal grandfather was described by a confidential informant as “super-sensitive on the Semitic question and always on a Jewish crusade”. This informant advised that hiring him “in any capacity … would be a detriment to the Government and the war effort”?. I also know that in 1951, a citizen felt public spirited enough to inform J. Edgar Hoover that my father had “spoken favourably of the Soviet system”? in a launderette in Ithaca, New York.
I’ve got forebears who emigrated from Germany in the wake of the failed democratic revolutions of 1848. And from Poland and Lithuania with the great wave of Eastern European Jewry from 1881 to the eve of the First World War. Plus a lone non-Jew, an Irishman from Cork.
Thanks to a 19th century ancestor I share with a genealogist in Mecklenburg, Germany, I know that I am descended from (among many anonymous others) Yahi’a Ibn Ya’ish, the first Chief Rabbi of Portugal, who was born in Moorish Cordova in the 12th century. I know that one of Yahi’a’s descendants fled the Inquisition and established himself as a coin-maker in northeast Germany in the early 17th century. And I know that among the descendants of the coin-maker, those who remained in Germany in 1940 were annihilated by the Nazis. In the database of Yad Vashem, the holocaust memorial and institute, I can identify scores of names with whom I might have a connection.
Genealogy can be a wonderful introduction to the joys of research as well as a tool for democratising the study of history. But much depends on what people are looking for when they embark on the journey.
Some hope to aggrandise their lineage, to establish a personal link with famous or exceptional human beings. Some want proof of their ethnic authenticity. Oprah Winfrey paid a great deal of money to be told that her DNA showed that she was of Zulu heritage. The problem here is that Oprah’s forebears were enslaved in west Africa many years before the formation of the Zulu nation several thousand miles away in south Africa. A few years ago Indian Jews queued to have their DNA tested and their link with Judaism confirmed. But what is actually demonstrated by this test is merely that the person has a genetic strand in common with people who lived in ancient Palestine; its presence does not make one a Jew nor does its absence make one a non-Jew.
A social science
Genetics is not genealogy. Genealogy, if it isn’t to descend into obscurantism, is a social science. Not least because the genealogical chain depends on the testimony of generations of mothers, at least one or more of whom are bound to have been less than frank about the actual parentage of an heir. What’s more, the noteworthy ancestor is likely to be radically unrepresentative. The poor leave behind far fewer recorded traces. In rural areas family memory is sustained through oral tradition, but where a great break has occurred – from rural to urban, from Europe, Africa or India to the western hemisphere – that tradition is often lost. So conscientious family historians must study the ebbs and flows of the broader social groups to which their ancestors belonged, not just hunt out named individuals.
Above all, family historians must distinguish between conjecture and established fact. The temptation to claim a link because it is attractive, because it elevates the researcher’s sense of self, has to be resisted. In other words, family history has to be good history – both rigorous and imaginative. For me, genealogy offers insights into the shifting ties between people and places. It’s a study in ironies and contrasts, not a monument to a coherent or definitive inheritance. My great-grandmother who left Lithuania for the U.S. in 1888 was a divorcee fleeing the tyranny of the Rabbis as much as the pressure of anti-Semitism. She was one of five of my great grandparents who were Yiddish speakers and whose generation enriched the vocabulary of global English. If you’ve ever heard the word chutzpah, it’s because of them.