Rivka Goldblatt of Manchester, England, is a professional genealogist, meaning she spends a lot of time studying her own and other people’s family trees, and even getting paid to do it
Getting Started in Mishpachology
Rivka was bitten by the genealogy bug early in life, at age 15, when she started asking around in her own family to find out who her great-grandparents were and more details about her ancestors’ lives. Her family couldn’t understand her obsession, which has only grown since then.
Why does Mrs. Goldblatt find genealogy so fascinating when lots of other people might just yawn?
“The funny truth is that I’m not good at names,” she says. “I focus more on the family stories. When people talk about family trees, they aren’t just referring to the names on the tree, they’re talking about those stories. I call it ‘mishpachology.’”
Family trees don’t reveal much about how people lived. “Most documents say the what and the how and the where and the when, but don’t actually say the why,” she says.
While a family tree might not seem fascinating at first, that why can be utterly fascinating. “A lot of family stories can be found by looking at a family tree, where they lived and when, where they traveled and when. That’s really the family story.”
Long-Ago Detective Work
There are a vast range of documents Mrs. Goldblatt uses to research those “what and how and where and when” questions: local birth certificates and death certificates, immigration records, passport applications, passenger records from ship lines, old family photos, and many more. Even mohelim, in her experience, usually keep records — which may be stored in their descendants’ basements for generations. Her quests for information have taken her deep into Manchester’s city archives and put her in touch with archivists and historians in other cities and countries.
Being able to read handwriting from long ago is very helpful. Even the handwritten notes from long-ago shul meetings can reveal important information such as how active a person was in the local Jewish community — and whether they paid their dues on time, as in the case of one client’s family member.
“We didn’t have a lot of information about him,” she says, but she found a similar name in a shul’s account books. “He was a shul member and missed his payment. We knew that this person had moved to Wales around the year 1907. And most people who missed their dues to the shul came up again and again. It’s usually the same people who didn’t pay. But he didn’t come up anywhere else, and the year matched, so I wondered: Maybe he moved to Wales that year and forgot to cancel his membership. They sent him a letter and he paid it off and he probably canceled his membership... so that would fit.”
How to Grow Your Own Family Tree
Forget computer programs. Even as a professional genealogist, Rivka Goldblatt says they’re all way too hard to figure out. Just grab a pencil or pen and a piece of paper. “It’s not complicated,” she says. “Anyone can do it. Draw a box at the bottom of the page and put your name in it. Then add your parents, grandparents, and great-grandparents.” (To add more people, try asking some of the questions in the “Ten Great Questions” sidebar.)
And don’t forget old photos! If you’re not sure who’s in old black and white photos, sit down for a few minutes with the oldest person in your family and try to sort out who’s who. If you can just get a few names (Uncle Itzie, Tante Mirel) or find out the occasion (“Yechiel’s bar mitzvah, 1950”), you’ll have added another couple of links in the chain!
Artifacts are also important. While visiting older relatives, look around their homes (with permission) for heirlooms and objects — Shabbos candles, old siddurs, Kiddush cups, Seder plates, or souvenirs of Eretz Yisrael — and take a few minutes to find out who and where they come from.
Once you’ve gathered enough information, you might even want to set up a “family museum” at your next family get-together. Put your tree, along with some of these objects, stories, and pictures, on display for everyone to enjoy — and discover more about themselves.
Stories from the Past
For Mrs. Goldblatt, it’s detective work like this that makes what she does so exciting. When people decide genealogy is boring, they may be making the mistake of believing people in the past didn’t have the same emotions that we do today. Their lives may all look the same on paper, but that doesn’t mean they didn’t have unique and thrilling stories.
For instance, Mrs. Goldblatt has traced one side of her own family back to the early 1700s in Lithuania. “My ancestor was an innkeeper. There was a water mill and an inn, and a horse exchange point. You can imagine all the stories.”
Since this was at the time of the Baal Shem Tov, her first question was whether they might have crossed paths. “That took some research, but it turned out that no, the Baal Shem Tov wouldn’t have been going to that part of Lithuania. That part is Vilna Gaon territory; he might have met the Vilna Gaon, who lived about two hours away at the time.”
Another question was that at some point, the family sold the inn and moved to a big town nearby. Nobody knew why, since the story was buried beneath generations of history. “I got in touch with the people who live there now. They’re non-Jews; their family took over from my family, and the descendants have records of what happened.”
That’s how she actually found out why her family left. First, the mill broke, meaning the family could no longer make money grinding flour. Second, a local priest banned alcoholic drinks, which was part of the inn’s income. And finally, the local authority moved the main road — and suddenly, there weren’t enough travelers passing by to stay at the inn, completely destroying the family’s main livelihood.
She admits that not everybody in her family is as excited by their past as she is. Yet in every family she’s met, there are one or two “family historians” who hold onto these treasured links.
“It’s an interesting phenomenon that Hashem created, I can’t think of any other explanation… There’s only one or two people in every family, but it adds up to quite a lot of people in this chain of family historians. There’s always a great-aunt or aunt or grandmother, and then someone a couple generations later who has taken that information. On my mother’s side, there’s an uncle, my mother’s brother, who is that generation’s family historian. And now if anyone has questions, they say ‘Oh, ask Rivka.’
“It’s really important; it’s got to be passed down, so that the chain and the mesorah stay whole.”
The Older, the Better
In a way, the innkeeper ancestor from the 1700s suited Mrs. Goldblatt’s interests perfectly. As far as she’s concerned, the older the history is, the better. She’s less excited about newer history, although obviously, when she’s working for clients, she’s happy to research newer records as well. Her favorite type of assignment is a “fresh” family tree, just a few names which haven’t been researched too much yet. That way, there are lots of branches for her to explore — and have fun picking the “juiciest” fruit, in the form of all the great stories she can unearth.
She’s thrilled when clients share her own excitement. “I once had an interesting client… I found a lot of information for him that shed a lot of light on family legends and experience, and he was very pleased.” He met someone else who was having similar problems unraveling his past, and Mrs. Goldblatt was able to use what she’d learned to help the other person as well.
But even for the most dedicated genealogy researcher, not all the answers are available, especially when records have been lost during the Shoah or simply in the mists of time. For the “interesting client” above, she admits, “I never did figure out his complex lineage.” But she doesn’t let that stop her. “I actually still work at it from time to time, for curiosity,” she says.
Ten Great Questions You Can Ask to Get the Story Started
According to Rivka Goldblatt, creating a family history starts by asking the people around you, “Who are my grandparents, what are their parents’ names, siblings’ names, what was their life like? It’s important to start now.”
Discovering your family history is easy when you start with these ten questions. Don’t be in a hurry to rush on to the next question; try to really listen.
Who were you and your siblings named after? (Maybe add: How did you choose your children’s names?)
What was the house you grew up in like? Where was it located?
What were your parents’ (and grandparents’) jobs?
Did your relatives move to another city or country? If so, when did they move and why?
Which of your parents or grandparents are you most like, and why? (Maybe add: Who would you most want to be like?)
Did you go to school (yeshivah/cheder), and what kinds of things did you do there each day?
What was your favorite part of Shabbos when you were growing up?
Which foods or special minhagim for Yom Tov did you most look forward to each year?
Who was the oldest relative you met as a child? What do you remember about their life?
What is the biggest difference between our lives now and your life growing up?
Three Great Reasons to Learn Your Family History
Bring school classes to life. Knowing where and when your family members lived can make history and geography classes in school come to life as you connect what you’re learning with your own story (“My great-great-great-grandfather lived 20 miles from where Napoleon invaded Russia!”)
Gain self-esteem and confidence. Psychologists have found that children and teens who know about their family history are better adjusted and have an easier time transitioning into adulthood. If you ever feel like nobody understands you, you probably come from a long line of people who just might have. As Rivka Goldblatt says, the teenage years can be difficult. “But if people realize, ‘I’m not myself in isolation. I’m part of something coming down from the generations, people who came before me, likely people who will come after me.’ You realize you’re part of everything… and then it’s not so overwhelming anymore.”
Share what you know. You may dig up enough fascinating material to write a book of your own! Many writers have created books based on their own family histories — sometimes published commercially, and sometimes self-published to enjoy within the family. If you don’t have enough facts to fill in all the blanks, you can always try your hand at writing historical fiction inspired by those ancestors’ lives.
They Were People, Too
The stories intrigue her and keep drawing her back, deeper and deeper into the past.
And no wonder, she says; these were real people that anyone today could relate to. Her own innkeeper ancestor, for example: “They were struggling with parnassah, they didn’t have much technology at all, but they still had to know how to communicate with noblemen and give good customer service. He had a wife and four daughters and two sons and had to raise them. They lived on the border, and there was a war, Napoleon crossed this river 20 miles from where my ancestors lived. That would affect you. Kids would run and watch from a hill, you would know about it, it would be part of your life.”
It’s too easy, she believes, to dismiss these details. But by looking at the full lives these people experienced, just like our own, we can start making meaningful connections. “Our grandparents were people, too.”
At this time of year, we read many pasukim about trees. One of them is, “ki ha’adam eitz hasadeh” (Devarim 20:19). Meforshim bring a range of explanations, including the idea that trees need to be nurtured and cared for to yield good fruit.
Our family history is exactly like a tree. It gives us life, literally. And if we nurture it, we can enjoy the “fruit:” the sweet stories from our families’ lives and a rich sense of belonging to the great chain of mesorah.
(Originally featured in Mishpacha Jr., Issue 845)
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