A family history project that Stephen Cohen did in second grade taught him the most essential skill for successfully conducting research on a family’s genealogy — interviewing living relatives. But what really sparked his lifelong interest in genealogy at the age of 7 was the memory his paternal grandfather shared of the terrible winters in his native Ukraine, where “the snow was piled so high between the houses that they had to dig tunnels to go from one house to another,” Cohen told NJJN.
For Caryn Alter, it was a paper she wrote at Douglass College on some long-lost Russian cousins her aunt and grandfather had found. They shared some previously missing information that motivated Alter to send questionnaires to relatives all over the United States and Israel, asking them to send her material on that branch of the family and any stories they had. In spurts, over time, she also recorded her grandparents on cassette tapes and videotaped her mother, aunt, and mother-in-law as she searched for more information.
Now, Cohen, a resident of Hightstown, and Alter, of East Windsor, have turned their passion for digging into family backgrounds into a guide for budding genealogists, teens in particular. “What’s in a Name? A Young Person’s Jewish Genealogy Workbook” (Hadassa Word Press, 2017) grew out of an effort to generate interest in the Genealogy Club at Beth El Synagogue in East Windsor, where Cohen and Alter are congregants and were founding members of the club about a decade ago.
Before the Internet, tracing family history was much more difficult, Cohen said, but he managed to identify his forebears back to the mid-1800s, based on interviews with relatives. Seeking to acquire more tools to further his genealogical pursuits, he studied Yiddish for two years at the University of Pennsylvania, where he was a chemistry major. In researching Eastern European Jewish families, he said, “there is some value” in learning the language, “but it is not a panacea.” Knowing the “mamaloshn” did enable him to speak Yiddish to his two children from birth, with the result that they are both fluent.
With the advent of the Internet, Cohen said, “all the Jewish genealogists were either creating databases of information or discovering governmental databases or commercial databases.” The resulting on-line trove was that on-site research was no longer necessary. “Once you start using databases you don’t have to go to Warsaw to visit a gravesite anymore,” Cohen said.
Since tapping into sources available on the Internet, Cohen has traced certain branches of his family back to the 1760s; Alter has tracked some of her ancestors to the 1800s.
As they designed their book, the two kept in mind the varied interests of their target audience of teens — history, languages, science and technology, and math.
“Code breaking,” for example, was their approach in the chapter on deciphering gravestones, Cohen said. “There are dozens of abbreviations used on gravestones, and they are not consistent over time.” To aid non-Hebrew readers, this chapter has a chart showing the Hebrew acronyms and numbers that are commonly used on gravestones.
Two examples in that chapter come from the authors’ own research. Cohen contributed the gravestone of his great-great-uncle, Michael Newman, from whom he got his middle name. “He is buried in the Catskills in a very obscure, tiny grave, in a tiny cemetery, and it took several years to find,” Cohen said. His uncle had immigrated to America, where he worked in sweatshops. When he contracted tuberculosis, he moved to Ellenville, N.Y., after a doctor told him he would be better off in the clean mountain air of the Catskills.
Alter included graves she found in an old Jewish cemetery outside the town of Polana, Ukraine, where her father-in-law grew up. A trip there was inspired by a personal ID card for her father-in-law that she had located on the website of the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial and research center in Jerusalem; these cards, kept on file for every prisoner who was interned in the Mauthausen concentration camp, detailed “name, height, hair color, eye color, what language he spoke.”
Other chapters in “What’s in a Name?” explore the shifting borders of countries where Jews lived and how Jews were treated as the governments changed; how to transfer recordings from cassettes to digital format; how to raise difficult topics like adoption, conversion, or the Holocaust with family members; and how to gather information via the Internet and other sources.
The most valuable research sites, Cohen said, are jewishgen.org, the central website for Jewish genealogy; ancestry.com, a commercial database; and familysearch.org, run by the Mormons. He has also used Facebook effectively to contact Facebook friends of his cousins who have the same name; using this tool, he has successfully added 150 people to his family tree in the past year.
United States Census records are also helpful, although they are available only every 10 years, and the last one open to the public is the 1940 census. Cohen has also used the International Red Cross’s tracing service and Yizkor books, volumes about towns decimated during the Holocaust; many such books are available on line through the New York Public Library’s Jewish collection.
“What’s in a Name?” is available in black and white on Amazon, but Cohen recommends the color version, which can be purchased at morebooks.de. Cohen and Alter are also available to make book presentations at local synagogues and genealogy clubs.
The two authors, bringing their varied skills to the table, worked well together. “Steve is a wonderful technical person and good with graphics and computers; I like writing and don’t mind proofreading,” Alter said. “We wrote everything together; we had a symbiotic relationship.”