Genealogy is the study of families and the tracing of their lineages and history. The Jewish Genealogical Society of Greater Boston (JGSGB) was formed in 1982 as a study group for people searching for their Jewish family history and is now a nonprofit organization with over 600 members.
Research Sundays are one of JGSGB’s recurring opportunities for aspiring genealogists of all levels to consult with experienced researchers as they work to discover their families’ pasts. Experts are on hand to offer guidance on everything from starting a search to interpreting DNA results to translating languages like Yiddish and Polish.
And three times each year, JGSGB publishes an award-winning journal that’s humorously entitled Mass-Pocha (a play on the words “Massachusetts” and “mishpocha,” the Yiddish word for family). The publication covers all things Jewish genealogy, and has contained articles detailing pursuits of family history that have led people as far and wide as Belarus, China and Zimbabwe.
JGSGB, which celebrates its 35th anniversary this year, designs much of its programming to lead up to its Research Sunday events. Earlier this month, I attended JGSGB’s sponsored lecture on “The Art of Taking an Oral History.”
The speaker, Sharon Zane, an oral historian associated with Columbia University’s Center for Oral History, began her lecture by confirming that oral history—the collection of people’s recorded testimony about their life experiences—is enjoying a surge in popularity. “The disappearance of diary-keeping and letters and the ephemeral nature of emails have all played a part in oral history’s growing acceptance,” she said. Once largely an academic practice, oral history is a burgeoning field. In recent years, Columbia University has expanded its offering on the subject from a one-term seminar in the 1980s to a one-year master’s degree program in 2015.
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Zane’s talk covered her journey to “unearth” her own family history and the basic dos and don’ts of preparing for and conducting an interview. As a writer and interviewer myself, I appreciated Zane’s first rule of knowing how to use your own equipment for an interview, as well as her advice for averting disaster by coming prepared to a session with an extension cord and extra batteries for the recording device.
Zane surprised the audience by pointing out that even in the digital era, a steno pad is “a powerful piece of equipment” that is almost as important to have in an interview as a reliable taping device. With a single printed line down the middle of every page, a steno pad is an efficient way to list topics on the left-hand side of the paper and write corresponding notes or follow-up questions on the right.
Another piece of advice Zane gave was keeping in mind that flexibility is key to conducting a successful interview. “Having a reasonable idea of what you want and what you need to ask only works if you allow the subject to answer however he or she wishes,” Zane said. Pre-determined questions are never helpful and only force an interviewee into a space the interviewer has defined.
As Zane talked about which questions to start with, like asking about family background, I thought of all the relatives I wish I had interviewed. Now, my prime candidate from whom to gather my family’s oral history is my mother’s 90-year-old cousin, Moises. My second cousin has had an eventful life, with a front-row seat to myriad family occasions and historical events that led him from Havana to New York City to Miami.
The son of a single mother, Moises put himself through school at the University of Havana. He was his mother’s only lifeline, and she lived with him and his family until she died. He knows my mother and her family like I never will because he lived with them in Old Havana for a time, contributing to the household by selling newspapers and lottery tickets.
These days my mother’s memory is failing, but cousin Moises’s is not; there are stories he can tell me that she simply doesn’t remember. It resonated with me when Zane said to be prepared for highly emotional reactions. “Some will elaborate. Others cannot,” she added. I expect my cousin will be forthcoming and generous.
And I’ll take Zane’s most poignant piece of advice when I finally go to Miami: “Do not be afraid of silences. Do not rush in to fill the void. Sit and wait. Something wonderful will come your way if you do. Something unexpected, something illuminating.”
The Jewish Genealogical Society of Greater Boston will be offering its annual eight-week course, “Jewish Genealogy: Discover Your Family History,” at Hebrew College on Wednesday evenings beginning March 1.
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