Is the Genealogy Bug a Jewish Thing?

Playing Jewish Geography to the Nth Degree

Attendees in Israel at this week's International Association of Jewish Genealogical Societies revel in exploring family history, blood connections.

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In the brand new Hollywood film “Woman in Gold,” his character is the young, struggling lawyer who ultimately forces the Austrian government to return a priceless painting stolen from Holocaust victims to its rightful owner.

But in real life, Randy Schoenberg has an even greater passion than recovering Nazi-looted art: He’s a genealogy maven, with a special interest in Jewish family trees.

Schoenberg is among roughly 800 Jewish family history buffs convening this week in Jerusalem at the 35th annual conference of the International Association of Jewish Genealogical Societies. Like him, the overwhelming majority have flown in from abroad to take part in this flagship event of the organization. (For the first time in more than a decade, it is being held in Israel.)

Schoenberg explains the common bond that unites them all: “Many of us are here because we have this narcissistic need to find out more about ourselves.”

His newfound celebrity status has made Schoenberg a big star at this gathering. From left and right, fellow genealogy enthusiasts ambush him in the hotel corridors dying to find out what he truly thinks of his portrayal in the film. Some joke about his resemblance, or lack thereof, to Ryan Reynolds, the Hollywood hunk who plays him in the movie. Others simply want to pose at his side for a selfie.

But Schoenberg is clearly more in his element sitting behind his laptop, away from the adoring crowds, in a quiet corner of the hotel coffee shop poring over family trees and speculating about possible blood connections. With just one or two clicks, he can demonstrate his family connection to almost any other person in this room. And for those curious about possible family ties to Jewish celebrities, Schoenberg is happy to guide them through the process of finding out.

Judy Maltz

The scene at this annual gathering of Jewish genealogists – a mixture of professionals and rookies, Israelis and Diaspora Jews, mainly middle-aged and older – is best described by Pamela Weisberger, the president of Gesher Galicia, a non-profit that helps individuals research their Jewish family roots in the former Austro-Hungarian empire. “I call it our summer camp,” she says. “It’s our one time a year to catch up and network.”

There are as many as four presentations taking place simultaneously at every given hour of the day, spanning the gamut of the very general (“Jewish Genealogy – How to Start, Where to Look and the Breadth of What’s Available” and “The DNA of the Jewish People”) to the niche-focused (“Sephardic Dynasties: Irish-Crypto Rabbis with a Converso Twist” and “Star of David on the Green and Yellow Flag: Brazil’s Jewish Military of WWII”). But many participants would rather avoid the big lecture halls, preferring the less formal environment of the coffee shop where, huddled around laptops, they can share scanned photos of old town records and maps. A computer room off in the corner provides less sociable types with an opportunity to hunker down on their own with rare genealogical databases.

The crowd gathered in the Ramada Renaissance Hotel boast some of the biggest names in certain fields, among them Michael Tobias, who specializes in Scottish Jews, and Ron Arons, a world expert on Jewish mobsters.

“I’m a Proud Galitzianer” t-shirts are on sale here for $15, but their designers are not the only ones sniffing out business opportunities among this crowd. Numerous brochures advertising genealogy-themed merchandise like DNA-testing kits and DIY family history books are stuffed into conference bags distributed at the registration desk.

For enthusiasts like Schoenberg, who lives in California, the great thrill of genealogy is figuring out how we’re all part of one big family – and not just the Jews. He first got hooked at age eight, when he was required to do a family roots project for his social studies class. It was just at that time that a biography had been published about his grandfather, the well-known Austrian-Jewish composer Arnold Schoenberg.

“That biography allowed me to trace the family history back to the 1700s,” he recounts, “so I was able to do this great project. When you’re eight years old and you discover you’re good at something like this, that becomes your thing.”

Today, he serves as a volunteer curator at Geni.com, where he manages more than 100,000 profiles. He is also a board member of JewishGen and co-founder of its Austrian-Czech special interest group. Yet, he still considers it a hobby. “I would say, though, that I probably do more genealogy before breakfast that most pros do in a month,” he remarks.

Weisberger stumbled into genealogy at a more advanced age. As a graduate student, she had been interning as a researcher for the legendary movie director Otto Preminger.

“He did not take ‘no’ for an answer,” she recalls. “He would just scream, so you had to find out whatever it was that he needed. That ended up being great training for me as a researcher.”

After moving to California and taking a long career break to raise three children, Weisberger attended her first genealogy conference about 15 years ago and was sold. Historic cadastral maps of Galicia are her area of specialization, and in recent years, she’s become a sought-out speaker around the world on this rather esoteric topic.

Marla Raucher-Osborn is the case of a person whose whole life has been taken over by genealogy. It was on a trip to her family’s hometown of Rohatyn in Galicia that she discovered broken and untended Jewish tombstones scattered everywhere she turned. That became her call to action.

“I call myself an accidental activist,” she relays, “but I just couldn’t walk away. I know there are many people who say that the locals in these towns should deal with this, but the locals want to get instructions from us, the descendants of these Jewish communities. We have to take ownership of this problem.”

Raucher-Osborn and her non-Jewish husband (“the most Jewish non-Jew you’ll ever meet”) promptly sold their house and everything else they owned in California, left their jobs (she had been a lawyer, and he an IT specialist) and relocated to Warsaw, where today she serves as a senior executive at the Foundation for the Preservation of Jewish Heritage in Poland and a board member of the Gesher Galicia Jewish headstone recovery project.

Jordan Auslander counts himself among the minority here for whom genealogy is not just a pastime, but also a profession. A native New Yorker, Auslander specializes in forensic genealogy, which means he does things like identify heirs for unclaimed estates and provide expert testimony in legal disputes.

“Lots of us get into genealogy as a way to socialize our obsessive-compulsive nature,” he remarks half-jokingly. “We feel this constant need to organize things.”

Mark Halpern, another member of the hardcore group, says he came to genealogy not on the typical path.

“Most people first get into genealogy, and then take a roots trip to their family’s hometown," he says. "I took the roots trip first, to my mother’s home town of Bialystok, and that’s where I got turned on to genealogy.”

Since then, he has been back a dozen times and is a regular fixture at the annual conference. Today, he runs the Bialystok Archive Project and serves on the board of Jewish Records Indexing – Poland.

Is obsession with genealogy a particularly Jewish thing? Schoenberg thinks so. “It’s what the Bible is all about – passing on family stories,” he says. “You might even say that it’s in our DNA to do genealogy.”

Auslender agrees. “We’ve reached a critical juncture,” he says. “Two or three generations after the big Jewish immigration waves, grandchildren today want to remember what their grandparents wanted to forget.”