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Making It All 'Relative'

August 6, 2009 By:
Hillel Kuttler, Jewish Exponent Feature
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Materials on all kinds of genealogical research were on hand at a city conference. Photo by Eugene Hurwitz

Soon after Laurel Katz moved from Los Angeles to South Philadelphia three years ago, she began investigating her local roots. She joined the Jewish Genealogical Society of Greater Philadelphia, and at meetings wore a badge reading "Magen," the surname adopted by her great-great-grandfather Samuel -- Shmuel Megadenke in Ukraine -- when he moved to the city in 1904.

A genealogy society official informed Katz that she had just completed research on the Magen family for a friend's son who was celebrating his Bar Mitzvah. Katz reaped the windfall of information.

Through conversations and Internet research of census records, Katz learned that Samuel first stayed with a married sibling at 512 Bainbridge St., moved to Hoffman Street and then to Leidy Avenue (where other relatives moved, too), and that he ran a Judaica shop. When she drives by the buildings now, she said, she feels a "vibe" -- a spiritual connection to her long-dead relatives.

Excitement over the discoveries and the urge to learn more led Katz, who does voiceovers for corporate films and advertisements, to a downtown hotel this week for the annual conference of the International Association of Jewish Genealogical Societies.

The event drew nearly 900 attendees and featured sessions geared to genealogists from beginners to experts. A handful of talks were area-specific, such as on city and state genealogical research, the participation of Jewish Philadelphians in the establishment of professional basketball and Jewish agricultural colonies of Southern New Jersey.

Some genealogists, like Katz, were new to the field, but many more had been at it a while. Befitting the topic, several generations of families attended.

Barbara and Richard Wissokur of Massachusetts came with their daughter, Amy Wissokur Graham, a Delaware County librarian. Barbara caught the genealogy bug 20 years ago, following the death of her father, Henry Zimmer, some of whose relatives had immigrated to Philadelphia in the late 19th century.

"At that point, it meant going to the archives, delving into the Ellis Island records and the census," she said of her early research. "When we visited Washington, we went to the National Archives. We've done a lot in different archives: YIVO in New York, HIAS. You could just go on forever."

Technology Feeds the Addiction

In the technology era, she added, "it's very addictive, because you pass your computer, and say, 'Oh, I'll spend just a few minutes on it.' "

"She walks around the house with her laptop," confirmed her husband, standing next to his wife between conference sessions.

He had just gotten his cheek swabbed at a DNA table in the exhibit hall because he wanted to determine whether, as some relatives suggested, he was a descendant of the priestly Kohanim.

That led to lengthy discussions about his great-grandfather's roots in the Polish town of Visokie -- from where his Katzeff ancestors adopted their new surname -- and about a branch that settled in the 1890s in the Israeli towns of Petach Tikvah and Rishon le Tzion.

Wissokur Graham said that her mother's enthusiasm has been rubbing off.

At a session on Sunday about Internet research of burial sites, she noted that she'd like to volunteer for a project run by JewishGen.com to document the people buried on the grounds of her Wallingford synagogue, Congregation Ohev Shalom. Her mother periodically sends her updates on various discoveries, which she shares with her children for school assignments.

"We try to instill in them the importance of family and knowing where they come from," she said of the next generation.

One local family has even seen the genealogy bug work its magic in reverse.

Brian Cohen of Lower Merion, who is about to launch his education career as a West Philadelphia High School math teacher, is the family historian.

In high school, Cohen had mentioned a senior project on genealogy to his mother. He began taking a poster board to family B'nai Mitzvah celebrations, where he added names, photographs and stories. When the poster boards doubled and tripled to accommodate second cousins and multiple generations, Cohen decided to take it much further.

His mother, Adele Schneider, related memories of family gatherings in her native Johannesburg, South Africa.

"She and I started partnering over this. We've sort of been partners in crime," he attested. "I e-mail her if I get in touch with someone. She'll get an e-mail, 'Oh, a new baby was born,' and she'll e-mail it to me. We're pretty collaborative."

Cohen's data base now numbers approximately 1,000 people. He's been to a wedding of a third cousin in South Africa; visited cousins in Canada, Australia and New Zealand; and stayed in touch with cousins in England and Israel. Last month, he visited his great-uncle's grave at a World War II military cemetery in Italy.

He includes family stories on his data base, like the one about his great-grandfather, who in 1897 emigrated from Krekanava, Lithuania, to South Africa, where he slept under the counter of the pharmacy where he worked, and rose to found South African Druggists, which did so well that he very nearly bought a Rolls-Royce.

Cohen posts much of his information on an interactive, online family tree and encourages relatives to add to it.

From a Medical Perspective

Schneider relishes the long-ago conversations with her parents that revealed much about the family's background and provided leads upon which her son has built. But she is far more concerned with genealogy's role in improving families' health.

As a physician and the director of Albert Einstein Medical Center's Victor Center for Jewish Genetic Diseases, Schneider attended the conference to deliver a talk on the importance of utilizing family history to track medical conditions that might have genetic components.

She and her son also staffed a Victor Center table in the exhibit hall.

"I love the whole idea of the family," she said. "I think it's great. As an emigrant, leaving the family behind in South Africa, keeping the [extended] family together in some way is very nice. It's important to get young people involved because the histories will be lost if young people don't pick it up."

As a geneticist, she also said that people need to learn their medical histories, and genealogy can be a way to track that.

In the Ashkenazi Jewish population, for example, genetic conditions like Tay-Sachs can prove a real issue for couples trying to procreate.

Once it's detected, it's a problem in and of itself, but finding out where it came from can be a different matter altogether.

Often, said Schneider, family medical histories remain mysteries in this regard, "because a carrier is a healthy person and can pass it on for many generations undetected."

"With that focus," she said, "it's pulled me into Jewish genealogy. It all kind of gets tied in."

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