Thursday, August 8, 2013

IAJGS Conference - Days 4 and 5

Wednesday afternoon at the conference I finally hit the wall.  I was headed to my fifth session of the day and suddenly my brain turned to mush.  (Well, it had been three and a half days of nonstop lectures.)  I had trouble figuring out which talk I wanted to go to, then couldn't find the room, and when I looked at the handout the words were like little black bugs walking around on the page.  I decided maybe it was time for a break, so I spent the rest of the day in the computer resource room, searching in databases I don't normally have access to.  But before I fried my brain I did attend a couple of good presentations.

Avrohom Krauss taught a class on how landsmanshaftn records can add great background information about your family members.  Landsmanshaftn were societies that Jewish immigrants started when they immigrated.  A society was usually built around everyone being from the same town or area (a landsman is a person from the same town as you).  The groups were organized to help newcomers integrate themselves into their new country while at the same time maintaining ties to the old country.  They often offered insurance to members and charitable support.  Krauss discussed the types of records created and the repositories with large collections.  If your ancestor was active in a group, you can perhaps find his (membership was mostly for men) name in the society's records, and maybe even a signature.  I have a photograph of my great-grandfather with a branch of the Workman's Circle, and now I feel inspired to look for him in their records.

Jeff Malka's session on Sephardic research was enjoyable and informative, and it didn't hurt that a lot of the resources he talked about are online, with the Dutch State Archive being particularly useful, so you can research from your chair.  One of the more interesting things he talked about was how a person might have several variations ("aliases") of his name, most of which were based on translating the name from one language to another.  So Aben Melec (Hebrew) is the same as Aben Rey (Spanish) and Aben Meleque (Arabic), and they are all based on the word maleque/meleq, which means "king" and comes from Aramaic.  Keeping track of someone's aliases and proving that they are all for the same person is an important aspect of Sephardic research.  Another tidbit was about the group of Jewish merchants who arrived at New Amsterdam from Recife.  Pieter Stuyvesant, the governor, didn't want to admit them, but he was an employee of the Dutch West India Company, and company officials said they wanted the businessmen to be allowed to settle.

1584 Map of the Azores
Thursday was a banner day -- I had "aha!" moments in three different sessions!  I guess everything started adding up from all that learnin' I've been pouring into my head all week (and taking that break Wednesday afternoon probably didn't hurt).  The first light bulb went off in another presentation on Sephardic research, this one by Schelly Dardashti.  She covered the general travel path used by many Sephardim after they left Spain and eventually worked their way to the New World, and the languages used by the Sephardic diaspora.  The Azores were one of the important stopping points for many people.  When discussing languages (which for Sephardim include Hebrew, Ladino, Judeo-Spanish, Judeo-Farsi, Judeo-Arabic, and a Roman dialect, among others), Schelly mentioned that names beginning or ending in "al" usually could be traced to Arabic, and these were often Sephardic converso names.  And that's when I thought of a woman I used to work with (at one point I was working on the genealogy of everyone in my office) who has a Portuguese line from the Azores by the name of Amaral.  While working on her family, I had learned that the Amarals were one of the original settling families when Portugal claimed the Azores, and that many Jews were among the settlers also.  So now I'm wondering if maybe the Amarals were originally Jewish.

The next session with a revelation was on Jewish American research before 1880, by David Kleiman.  This again was focused on Sephardic research, because probably about 90% of the Jews in the U.S. for the first 200 years were of Sephardic origin.  This time the aha was for research I had done for another woman I used to work with (yup, in the same office).  She had always been told that her ancestor was Jewish.  I had found him in a book of extracts for a county in Virginia, listed as "Daniel Joseph, Jew" (well, how much clearer can you get than that?), but hit a solid brick wall at that point.  I found someone who looked like it could (should!) be him in Rabbi Malcolm Stern's book First American Jewish Families, which had been digitized and placed online, but I couldn't prove the connection, and it's been bugging me for years.  Kleiman explained that an updated version of Rabbi Stern's family trees, with corrections, additions, and enhancements, is being built at the Americans of Jewish Descent Web site.  Between that and the other resources Kleiman discussed, I think I'm finally going to be able to connect Daniel to Israel Joseph of Charleston, South Carolina.  Then it's on to tracing their family in Europe!

The last aha was actually for my own family.  Maureen Taylor, the Photo Detective, gave a talk called "Immigrant Clues in Photographs."  She covered some of the same points that Ava Cohn had on Sunday, such as thinking about who is in a photo and who kept the photo, and some of the occasions for which people often had photos taken.  Two of the most common times were when people were getting ready to leave to immigrate, and soon after they had arrived in their new country.  And I realized that a photograph I have of my great-grandmother and great-great-grandmother with three other people (a woman and two teenage girls) had to have been taken just before my great-grandmother left Russia to come to the U.S.  Now that I have a context for the photo, I'm almost certain that the second woman in the photo is my great-great-grandmother's sister.  I still have to figure out who the other two girls are, but I'm making progress!  It is amazing how it feels when several things you've learned suddenly click together.

The rest of Taylor's presentation was very entertaining.  She showed several different photographs she has picked up over the years, with hairstyles, clothing, studio props, and other items that help determine when, where, and why a photo was taken.  One photo had two men and a woman standing kind of between and behind them, and a broom on the floor.  Taylor explained it was someone "jumping the broom", a tradition commonly associated with black Americans but which Taylor said was also a Swiss-German custom (though the Wikipedia page I've linked to mentions Gypsies but not Swiss-Germans).  And a man in the audience identified the soldier in one of the photographs she showed, which really surprised her.

The last day of the conference is tomorrow, and only a half day at that.  But I'm assisting at the 8:15 session, so I better get at least a little sleep.


  1. With as many cons as we've done together, I have *never* seen you in brain-mush mode. And I think you're the only person I know who, when in brain-mush mode, uses research to get un-mushed.

    I don't know whether to shake my head in chagrin or applaud your work ethic.

    The talks you did get to sound wonderful. I love that you had an "aha moment" - not as great as a "genealogy happy dance" but close.

    1. I think the brain-mush was caused by a combo of too many lectures and about only 3-4 hours of sleep each night. Admit it, that has to add up.

      I am reserving the genealogy happy dance for when I solve one of these problems! Then the dance may go on for an hour. :)


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