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Jewish Genealogists, From Amateur to Professional, Will Research and Revel at L.A. Conference

by Julie Gruenbaum Fax

June 30, 2010 | 12:52 am

In a common quest to bring the past forward, more than 1,000 people are expected to gather at the 30th annual International Conference on Jewish Genealogy.

The conference, July 11-16 at the JW Marriott L.A. LIVE conference center downtown, offers resources, information and concrete research opportunities to dabblers in family research, avid amateurs and professional genealogists.

“Most Jews mistakenly believe that they cannot research their family trees because ‘our name was changed at Ellis Island’ or ‘my grandfather’s shtetl no longer exists’ or ‘all the records were destroyed,’ ” said Pamela Weisberger, co-chair for the conference and a professional genealogical researcher. “These are all false concepts, but without instruction on how to do family research, most Jews will never attempt to document their family history or gather the precious stories of elderly family members, and their histories will be lost to time.”

The conference aims both to provide resources to those interested in genealogical research and to inspire others to start. To that end, organizers have designed Sunday, July 11, to offer a comprehensive experience in just one day. Locals can purchase day passes for Sunday or any of the other days.

Sunday’s programs will include several how-to sessions aimed at beginners and a multigenerational workshop for parents, children and grandparents with the conference’s genealogist in residence, Arthur Kurzweil, an author, publisher and teacher.

Sunday afternoon’s Market Square Fair will offer on-site resources from expert photo analysts, who can pull clues from the clothes, background and hairstyles in old family photos, and a resource room staffed by professionals equipped to decipher cryptic documents or tangled family stories. Archivists from Yad Vashem, the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum and the Shoah Foundation will be on hand to help people figure out how to access newly released Holocaust records.

For those more advanced in their research, the conference offers networking opportunities for people researching the same geographical area, or for people emphasizing specific research technologies or techniques.

On Sunday and throughout the week, attendees will explore topics such as culinary history, medical genealogy and DNA tracing, and Jewish surnames in some non-Jewish families. Ron Arons, author of “The Jews of Sing Sing,” will offer tips on black-sheep research — uncovering family secrets about criminals and scoundrels.

Professional guides from Ukraine will outline how to plan a family heritage tour, and whole tracks are dedicated to the history of and resources for Persian and Sephardic Jews, as well as non-Jews who think their families may descend from conversos from 15th century Spain.

Some researchers will teach how to decipher not only names and dates, but personalities of ancestors, based on town records and Yizkor memorial books, which offer more color than ship manifests or birth certificates. Other sessions will teach how to write family history and produce multimedia presentations.

Technological advances have changed the face of research, which at one time involved old documents, microfilm and trips to Europe, Weisberger said. Today, many of the databases are available online, and one can conduct a tour of a Polish shtetl through Google Earth. The conference will present how-tos for accessing the technology and using social networks in research, plus a special workshop for Mac users. (That workshop and other specialty sessions require an additional fee.)
The opening keynote address will be delivered by Daniel Mendelsohn, author of the award-winning “The Lost: A Search for Six of Six Million,” about his worldwide search for information about the fates of six relatives who perished in the Holocaust. 

Paul Mazursky will moderate a screening of his 2006 film, “Yippee, A Journey to Jewish Joy,” which looks at the annual pilgrimage of 25,000 Chasidim to visit the grave of Rebbe Nachman in Uman, Ukraine. Films will be screened all day throughout the conference, with some filmmakers on hand.

Throughout the week, guided tours will bring conference goers through historic downtown, Boyle Heights, Hollywood and the Los Angeles Holocaust Museum, and lectures will illuminate the Jewish histories of Los Angeles and California. Attendees will have opportunities both to create and to purchase Judaic objects, and kosher food will be available for purchase on site.

Evening entertainment includes Yale Strom’s klezmer band, Hot Pstromi; Ellen Sandler’s dramatic adaptation of New York Times food critic Mimi Sheraton’s “The Bialy Eaters,” starring Tovah Feldshuh; and Kurzweil’s “Finding God in a Magic Shop.”

Weisberger says while the sessions and special features are the core of the program, as at most conferences, sometimes it is what happens in the hallway that is most interesting, as people network and find new ways to research their families. In the past, conference goers have discovered distant cousins at the conference itself.

While those discoveries might be rare, Weisberger says she has seen people get bitten by the family research bug, their lives enriched as they gain a clearer picture of where they come from, learn about branches of relatives they didn’t know they had or end up feeling part of the larger Jewish family.

“Our concept is to entice, and then enable, all members of the L.A. Jewish community — young and old, Ashkenazi, Sephardic, Mizrahi, or conversos, religious or secular —  to discover their legacies in a variety of innovative and, yes, conventional ways,” Weisberger said. “We hope to open the eyes of a diverse group of Los Angeles Jews to worlds they never imagined they’d see and allow them to travel back in time — to identify the bearded man in the photograph,  the bride in the shtetl, the name of the shtetl.”

The conference is at the JW Marriott at L.A. LIVE July 11-16. Registration is $310, with student and senior rates available. Day passes are $105 for Sunday and $85 for other days. Kosher food is available for purchase on site. For more information or to or register, visit jgsla.2010.com.

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