This is the time of year I start thinking of my family roots, my heritage. Many of us do, as we enter into the season of family traditions. Now, as I was growing up, my family didn’t have a lot of family traditions that centered around Christmas. We’re Jewish, so it’s really not our time of year, which is precisely why I start thinking of my heritage.
When I was young, mom and dad did a short stint connecting with the religious aspect of Judaism. I remember attending Temple Menorah every Saturday for a time, and attended classes to learn how to “be” and “do” Jewish. My brother studied for Bar Mitzvah. But I don’t recall that phase lasting very long, so I was left to my own devices to choose to learn or not. Well, being the focus of anything was always uncomfortable for this introvert, and I never liked it when the three other Jews in my class and I had to do some stupid Chanukah skit, so I pretty much turned away from Judaism, and any religion for that matter.
But here’s the thing. While I may not practice Judaism, I am still a Jew. By that I mean, I am Jewish by culture, ethnicity, heritage and even biology. It wasn’t until fairly late in life that I embraced my Jewishness, and now I find myself drawn to the culture – the artwork, the history, the Yiddish language.
I never thought about genealogy, about studying the family history. I know my family is Ashkenazic, and all my grandparents migrated here from eastern Europe in the late 1800s to early 1900s, but that’s where it ended. I figured because of the history of fairly frequent migration, as well as destruction of paperwork during times of persecution, records would be next to impossible to locate. Plus, my grandparents had all passed by the time I was eight years old, so I never had the chance to ask them questions.
My sister, Judy, recently took up the search however, and I am in awe! She sent me a bit of life history of my paternal grandmother, mentioning it involved a lot of detective work, and it’s fascinating. So many things I never knew – where she was born, how old she was when she arrived in the U.S., her profession, when she arrived in California – amazing! The more she uncovers, the more I want to know and I am looking forward to the stories of my other grandparents. Theirs was a tough life, to be sure, and I am grateful for the sacrifices they made so that I may have a better one.
What I’m leading to is this: Every family has a story, and learning about that story can help you understand more of your own personal story. Even if there are a few surprises, mysteries and skeletons, it can lead to compassion for those who came before you, as well as healing from your own traumas.
So how do you even get started? Well, I understand that now it’s easier than ever, thanks to the internet. Here are six ideas to put you on the path to finding out more about your family and your culture in general:
Do your research
There are many genealogy websites out there including familytree.com, ancestry.com and others. Visit the National Genealogical Society for a full list. The sites will help you in your next step.
Talk to family members
This can be a great source of learning more about your ancestors. You might hear some fun anecdotes about your Uncle Joe that you never knew, or find out about the “old country.”
When you cook up ethnic meals, find out what the history is behind the meals. For instance, this week I share my recipe for Potato Latkes, and include a link to why we eat them for Chanukah.
Learn the language
Someday, I will learn Yiddish. I know a very few words that I remember my parents saying (and that I, in turn said to my kids), and I would love to learn more. It just keeps me connected to my roots.
Make plans to visit the area your ancestors were from, unless of course you already live there. Even then, visit important places of ceremony right where you live.
Art, and music for that matter, are such a reflection of culture. I first became interested in Jewish art in my college art history class, and have several pieces. Again, do your research. For example, I have a piece of Art from Amram Ebgi that someone gifted me called “City of Jaffa.” This lead me to learn more about Jaffa, and down the rabbit hole I went.
So, spend some time with your family roots this year, even if you can’t spend time with family. Let me know what mysteries you uncover.