About six years ago, an American Christian woman asked local genealogist Michael Goldstein to find out whether her maternal grandfather was Jewish. Her suspicion was based on a vague gut instinct and contradicted her grandfather's own words - even his marriage certificate clearly stated he was Christian. Goldstein, who heads Israel's Genealogical Society, thought he was dealing with another wannabe Jew. Reluctantly, he started to dig.
Within about a week, the Toronto native located a woman who lived in Haifa who seemed to be related to his client. "I approached her hesitatingly," recalled Goldstein, who this week is expected to be elected president of the International Association of Jewish Genealogical Societies. After a short conversation it emerged that Goldstein's client was right: the Haifa woman was not only her cousin; her family tree reaches far into the Middle Ages, containing dozens of rabbis.
Anglos are largely overrepresented among local genealogists, says Goldstein, 63, whose organization has branches with some 200 members across the country. "Israel is behind but slowly catching up," he explains. "More than 90 percent of my clients live abroad, mainly in the U.S., Canada, Poland and Australia." The Jerusalem resident once advertised his services in a local Anglo-oriented weekly but found that locals are less ready to pay professional genealogists than Jews living abroad.
Lacking a clearly defined career path and a formal licensing system, most genealogists' careers start with a personal interest in their ancestry. Israel Pickholtz, a Pittsburgh native who two years ago quit his job to become a full-time genealogist, said he was fascinated by family trees since his mother took him to visit her relatives in Washington when he was eight. "My mother was explaining to us who everyone is, and I was making little boxes in my head," he told Anglo File last month in his Jerusalem home.
He says he did not start writing everything down until he was about to move to Israel 36 years ago, but only "dabbled" in genealogy until 15 years ago. "At my grandmothers 90th birthday party," he recounts, "the 9-year-old daughter of my cousin from Alaska asked me to share my information with her. I said to myself: I probably should get my stuff in order before I do that." Like many colleagues, he acquired his professional know-how by doing research and attending conferences.
Pickholtz, 61, distinguishes between two kinds of tasks: Locating a relative's grave or looking up a mandatory citizenship file, which can usually be done within two hours, is considered an "errand," while a "project" such as generating a whole family tree or finding ancestors of whom no accurate records exist needs more effort. Goldstein says there is no standard fee, and genealogists charge anywhere from $10 to $200 per hour.
Goldstein noted that about 15 percent of his clientele are non-Jews. "Many fundamentalist Christians who are big supporters of Israel believe they have Jewish roots," he said. "They see it as something good to have a Jewish grandmother." Some would-be Jews react bitterly when they learn that no Jewish blood runs through their veins. "I once had a case where I worked back to the 1700s but could not find one Jew," Goldstein said. "When I told her I thought she might become suicidal."
In most cases, however, he avoids dubious claims. "People approach me saying they dreamed they were Jewish, that they like the Jewish people or have friends that are Jewish and really would like to belong." Others have family members who on their deathbeds "reveal" they might be Jewish. "I rarely do work for people who come to me without any sort of [serious] indication, like a Jewish name," Goldstein said. "It's lovely that they empathize with the Jewish people, but as much as I want to earn a good living I'm not interested in taking people's money when I think it will end up nowhere."