June 30, 2010
Capturing Your Family’s History
“How absolutely terrifying.”
“I have found what I was looking for.”
Dialogue from yet another TV investigation series? Yes, but the speakers weren’t tracking down criminals; they are Brooke Shields, Sarah Jessica Parker and Emmitt Smith III, and they were looking for themselves on NBC’s “Who Do You Think You Are?” The program explores the family trees of the “rich and famous,” including Lisa Kudrow, one of its executive producers, as they travel back through history, made personal by their ancestors’ experiences during the Salem witch trials, slavery, the Civil War, the Gold Rush and the Holocaust, to name a few. But on this show, the real stars are the historians, genealogists and librarians who comb through public records and archives, uncovering the roots of each week’s guest. Like anyone who learns their family history, they were overwhelmed with emotion.
Who would’ve thought that genealogy would fly on prime-time network TV? The joys of genealogy proved to be entertaining and popular on the PBS program “Faces of America,” created by historian and Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates Jr., whose previous PBS programs focused on black history: “African American Lives” and its sequel, and “Oprah’s Roots.”
While some families can trace their lineage across several continents to centuries past, others count theirs in years or decades. Either way, family trees have taken root in America and are laden with memories, so it’s up to you to start the conversations and harvest your history.
So, where to begin? It depends upon what you’re looking for. There is a plethora of family history Web sites that can guide you to and through the wealth of online information; each site has links ad infinitum.
Ancestry.com is a popular portal to the past and a good place to start. For a reasonable monthly fee, with automatic renewal, you can access a broad range of public records; ships’ passenger lists, including steerage; U.S. and foreign census; city directories; and more. Other places to check are ellisisland.org, which is free, as is the Library of Congress — just Google it to get the Web sites for specific collections. Also check archives at public and university libraries; they typically require a card or affiliation for online access.
Locally there’s the Los Angeles Family History Library of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints on Santa Monica Boulevard in West Los Angeles. While closed for updating — it expects to reopen this fall — its public classes continue.
Then there’s Jewish geography. Online you’ll find an overwhelming number of genealogy societies, databases, maps and links to research just about every aspect of Jewish history and life, from the global to the esoteric: specific nationalities, languages, cities, countries, regions such as the Jewish Historical Society of Western Canada, burial grounds, birth and marriage certificates, obituary lists like one from Poland beginning in the late 19th century — you get the picture. Sites such as jewishwebindex.com and jewishlink.net seem to have a thousand links to Jewish history resources and organizations.
Los Angeles is fortunate to have the Jewish Historical Society of Southern California (JHSSC) and a Jewish Genealogical Society of Los Angeles. And July 11-16, the city will host the International Association of Jewish Genealogical Societies’ 30th international genealogy conference at the L.A. LIVE conference center.
But searching through Web sites, archives and government records can be daunting, dusty and disappointing if little or nothing is found. And while documents can provide information, they don’t talk. The flip side of genealogy is oral history, given by elderly family members. The surest way to collect and pass on family stories and memories is to hire a professional oral historian who can also dig into the plethora of archives to find missing pieces.
Family Oral History
Do we focus so much on our ancient roots that we neglect our own history? Will your treasured family memories and stories be buried with your mothers and fathers? And what about those of your grandparents, aunts and uncles? The answer is yes if you haven’t recorded them for future generations.