Sunday, March 11, 2012


A few weeks ago, I received an email from a fellow in England, as follows:

I should like some research conducted about a distant relative whose family may have settled in the UK and Israel.  He was the nephew of ...Getzel [who] lived in Odessa.  His youngest son, Hyman K[redacted] (my grandfather), who was born in 1878, came to the UK in the 1900s.  He told people that his father had a sister, Sadie, who had a son who was also living in the UK.  It his his relatives who I am trying to trace.  The only information I have is what my grandfather once said, which was that the man's name was Berman (though that could be Burman, I suppose), that he was about my grandfather's age, perhaps a little younger, and was living in the Edgware Road in London in the 1950s.  He had a kiosk which sold newspapers but which may have been a small department store.  Berman had a sister in Israel (who married someone named Chainin) and a son in London who was a senior civil servant, who would have been born in about 1910.  Both Saul [who had recommended me..IP] and I thought that the best way to trace Berman was through his brother-in-law.

Please let me know whether this is the sort of research which you would be prepared to undertake.
As a rule, before answering this kind of inquiry, I poke around a bit, without turning on the meter, to see what the likelihood is that I can accomplish anything useful. As often happens, my first task is to understand what it is that the inquirer has told me. Many times the story of a family structure suffers from antecedent ambiguity. It may be perfectly clear to the writer whom each "his" refers to, but it is not always clear to the reader. Had I actually taken this case, I would have drawn up a chart based on what I understood the family structure to be and sent it back to the client for confirmation and with notations such as "Born when?" (More often than not, the client sends it back with all kinds of corrections and clarifications. Sometimes he just goes away and it's probably for the better.)

I attended a lecture by Dr. Neil Rosenstein at one of the International Association of Jewish Genealogical Societies (IAJGS) conferences, on the difficulties of doing rabbinic genealogy which is his specialty. Although linking to a prominent rabbinic line is considered analogous to getting onto a major highway, once there, you often find that the antecedents are very confusing, there are few mentions of years and the punctuation does not always meet the needs of the modern reader. He brought one example where a particular rabbi's line was described something like this:
His father was xxx and his mother was xxx and his father was xxx and his father was xxx and his father married the daughter of xxx and her mother was the daughter of xxx and his father was xxx...
The way Rosenstein told the story, he published a work describing this nine-generation lineage, realizing only later that it seemed like too many generations for the number of years involved. Only several years later did he realize that the "her" that I marked in bold blue actually refers to the mother of the rabbi at the bottom of this lineage rather than the person immediately preceding that pronoun.

In the case the man in England presented, we seemed to be talking about a woman named Berman or Burman who married a man named Chainin a couple of generations ago. No given names here, except that the woman's mother was Sadie.

The first question, of course, is how you write Chainin in Hebrew, since there is no Hebrew letter that sounds like the English "ch." People unfamiliar with languages other than their own often think that sounds transfer from one language to another simply and unambiguously, not realizing that a name with a simple spelling can be written half-a-dozen ways in another language. In Hebrew this is complicated by the absence of vowels. (In one memorable instance, I was looking for someone with the uncommon name KERN, but in Hebrew it is written the same as the very common KEREN. Client was not happy.)

The name that made the most sense to me as a representation of Chainin was what I would write as Sheinin and there are probably 150 households by that name in Israel. So even assuming this is correct AND that the name hadn't been changed either by the original couple or by subsequent generations AND that the family had sons to preserve name going forward AND that they even remained in the country, finding someone would be no simple matter.

And it's one thing to look for a needle in a haystack.  At least when you find the needle, you know you have completed the task. In the case of many searches you have to wonder how you will recognize a positive result even if you happen across it. There may be many needles - which is the right one? Or it may not be clear if what you find even qualifies as a needle.

There is one possible solution, of course. That would be to write letters to all those 150 households and ask if there was a Berman woman in their past.  Or Burman. Or Borman. I have done this kind of thing before. About ten percent of the letters are returned by the post office. Probably another thirty or forty percent are not answered. Of those who do answer, many tell me their life stories and expect me to find answers to their family questions. It isn't the kind of thing I want to do, even if I had the time, which I don't.

Another possible solution is to put this story out in places where such things are discussed. For the most part, the potential client shouldn't need me to do that, aside from some very basic guidance. But as he pointed out when I mentioned using this as a blog topic, maybe someone reading my blog will recognize the people.


  1. You outline some of the most basic difficulties in family research in a way that is very easy for the reader to understand. Let's hope that this is widely disseminated so that those wishing to learn more about their families, learn how to outline their questions. Kudos!

    1. Trying to mix in the professional with the personal.