Sunday, December 29, 2013


I ordered something from a local business and the owner - a new immigrant from Detroit - brought it over to the house. As usual in this kind of meeting, I went into genealogy mode and asked him about his background. Where his family was from? And where before that? You know how it goes.

When I explained that I am a genealogy researcher, he told me that he had a problem that perhaps I could help with. He had a ketubah (=marriage contract) for an ancestral couple which adds the word "Halevi" to two mentions of the groom's name. The problem is that his family has no knowledge of coming from Levite stock. He acknowledged that this tradition may have been lost during a couple of generations of non-observance.

Still, he wanted to know as Leviim have certain perqs like being called second to the Torah. Symbolic, to be sure, but still.

I pointed out to him that it is not all symbolic. A Levite family is exempt from the commandment to redeem the first-born son. That is the case if the mother is the Levi, not just the father. Since this is a Torah commandment, he would do it even if in doubt, but a thinking rabbi, knowing the background, might have him do it without the blessing in order to avoid the "name in vain" business.

"Well," he said, "I am a first born and I know for a fact that I was redeemed."

So maybe that itself is enough to settle the question - unless of course he wants to do (or to commission) some more serious research. But the question in his mind remained, how could the error have occured to begin with.

So I countered with my own story. Well, not exactly my own, but the parents of my wife's late husband.
The wedding took place in 1949, under the auspices of the Tel Aviv rabbinate.
All five times the groom's name is mentioned (marked here in red), he is called "Halevi." The family has no Levite tradition.

The bride's's father is correctly called "Halevi" both times his name appears (marked in blue) and though that may be the source of the confusion, it certainly doesn't excuse it.

The groom, who was a Hebrew-speaking, synagogue-attending man, added his signature at the bottom (see the purple arrow). How did he not notice the error? I mean, it has to be wrong, no?

I did the due diligence and inquired among other people with the same  rare surname (including one who was in my high school class, who sent me to his father's cousin who was in my aunt's class), but none of them know anything one way or the other, about their own status.

The phrase "hewn in stone" implies both permanence and authority, the latter perhaps based on the Ten Commandments.

We know that gravestones deteriorate over time, but there are also occasions where they are wrong to begin with.  In one case I know personally, the widow made an error of over three months in the deceased husband's birth date.

Here is the footstone of a family member, who was born in August 1901.
The date is correct, but she was not forty-five. She was about a week past her forty-fourth birthday. I took this photograph twenty-some years after the burial, so they had had plenty of time to fix it. I am told that the stone was eventually replaced but have not seen a photograph of the new one.

Another problem with a date is this.

The date of death is the twenty-eighth of Shevat, not the twenty-eighth of First Adar. The Gregorian date is correct as is the date of birth. (Additionally, his father is Moshe Menahem, not Moshe as it appears here, and his mother is Devorah Rachel, not Rachel. But his two daughters may not have known that. And they certainly didn't ask me.)

Another oddity, this from the Pikholz Project.
It shows her name as "Olga, wife of Avraham." (It does not mention her father, Berisch.)

And here is her husband, "Matityah the son of Avraham."
Olga's stone misidentifies her husband, using her father-in-law's name by mistake. She had one living son at the time of her death.

People really have to check this kind of thing. And we genealogists need to be sure of our facts, not simply depend on what is written, whether on paper, on stone, or in any other medium.

Sunday, December 22, 2013


It took a couple of hours before it began to stick.
It snowed recently in Jerusalem. It started light, but there were two waves later on and they are officially calling it 40-65 cm altogether. Certainly enough to disrupt daily life, close the schools etc. Lots of issues with electricity, traffic and other asopect of daily life. Here are two photographs from our window, from the early hours.

It snows here in Jerusalem about once a year, but according to this historical chart (which tracks from 1870), about once every ten years it gets up to 30 cm.  Back in the last days of the Turks, there were some monster snows of 75 and 90 cm.

And it kept coming down for a few more hours..
The first year I was in Israel, there was a famously big 30 cm snowfall that shut down everything in Jerusalem, the first big one in a dozen years. I was not in Jerusalem at the time.

The following year, I was here in Jerusalem and a few days before Tu BeShevat, on 29 January 1969, it snowed. This was not like the foot of snow that fell the previous year, snow that truly shut everything down. This was a mere 10 cm, that shut down the city on novelty value alone. People walked down the street carrying umbrellas.

There are twenty-three photos below, some of the Old City and some from Carmon Street in Bet HaKerem, where I was living at the time.

The Old City photos include some taken from atop the walls - we walked them often, back before the government limited access - and some taken from the window of an Arab school near the Lion's Gate, overlooking the Temple Mount. I had broken my right leg a few weeks earlier and was in a cast to just below the knee.

The photos on Carmon include the street in front of the building and the view across to the university campus at Giv'at Ram. The Begin Expressway is nowhere to be seen. (We used to walk through the valley to the campus.)

The young fellow who appears in a the middle photograph of the last triplet is Sam Weissman of Los Angeles.There are two other people who ought to be in these pictures, but aren't.  Maybe because we saw them later in the day, when it was too dark for good pictures...

Sunday, December 15, 2013


A Response to Adam R. Brown and E. Randol Schoenberg

I have shamelessly borrowed the title of this essay from my cousin Adam Brown's "Big Bang" presentation in Boston. Though we have significant differences of opinion on these matters under discussion, I sincerely believe they can be discussed calmly and civilly, as befits our one big Jewish family.

In my previous encounter with Randy Schoenberg on the subject of Geni some months ago, I off-handedly told him that aside from anything else, the structure of the large Geni tree makes my ADD kick in and that I only look at Geni when a client is paying me to do so. I suppose that was a bit extreme, so in the interest of civility, I hope we both can set that aside.
The above is the opening of the first draft of an article which was just published in the Fall issue of Avotaynu, under the title   
Concerns about Geni and Other “Collaborative Genealogy” Websites.

Adam and Randy's articles were the lead in AVOTAYNU's Summer issue, which was published in September.

Rabbi Jeff Marx suggests:
that we use "Amalgamative Genealogy" for Geni and other sites that exist simply to compile names into one big unity, and reserve "Collaborative Genealogy" for the real process of give and take interaction with others using genealogical standards of proof.
 An excellent idea, though I think I prefer the term "Patchwork" to the cumbersome "Almagamative." Kind of like a quilting bee.

Following is my article as it appears in AVOTAYNU. (Click on the images to enlarge.)

Again, I want to thank Varda Meyers Epstein for assisting me with this. There was a bit of a mixup and I saw proofs of the pieces by Adam and randy only one day before AVOTAYNU wanted my first draft response. Varda reviewed my work several times during that day, otherwise there is no way I would have made that deadline. She also reviewed the subsequent  revisions.

Oh, and Sallyann Sack Pikus, the editor I worked with, wrote:
You made a substantial contribution to what I really hope will be a "serious" (good word!) discussion of the merits and drawbacks of the Geni approach.

There are a few other examples which were not included in the final draft of the article.

In one of my family branches, there is a woman who had a child from a husband whom she divorced soon after. That child was raised by the second husband, together with the subsequent children, and took his surname. The mother said she did not want the first husband mentioned on the family tree. The fact that I have a database that is separate from the website allows me to follow the mother's wishes on the website - even the password-protected page, where living people are named - while maintaining the correct information in my Brother's Keeper database, which only I see.

In another case, a third cousin on the Pikholz side was horrified that her name and the names of her brother and sister not appear anywhere. I found that a bit peculiar, especially since the sister's son was perfectly happy to appear openly on the password-protected page. That page now includes he three of them as follows
(1)  Sister of PRIVATE-PERSON-WHO-PREFERS-HER-NAME-NOT-APPEAR-IN-PUBLIC b. Denver CO 1950 m. Anthony Gronich b. Los Angeles 1949.

(2)  Brother of PRIVATE-PERSON-WHO-PREFERS-HER-NAME-NOT-APPEAR-IN-PUBLIC b. Abt 1954, m. Sandy xxxxx, b.1930's.


The names of the children of the sister appear in full.

Both of those examples refer to the importance of maintaining a database, distinct from what appears on a public website. I am not sure that the AVOTAYNU article was sufficiently emphatic on that point.

Adam wrote in his article about the technological advances in image identification. I agree that this is important for many people, especially the younger researchers who are Adam's target audience. I told the following story, which was edited out:

On some of these technology issues, I have to trust the experts. But there is a picture on my office wall of my son Renanel and my daughter Hadas, in profile, working in my mother's kitchen maybe a dozen years ago, when they were both teenagers. Hadas was here a couple of weeks ago and pointed out that this is not Renanel at all, but one of my nephews. The only reason she recognized him was that she remembers the occasion. But if you tell me that your facial recognition technology can get it right, then good for you.

I mentioned in my original opening that I have ADD issues with Geni and other tree-type programs. Part of that is because I have trouble telling where I am and where I am going. But there is also an issue of horizontal scrolling. This was in the first draft:

Nonetheless, my genealogy mentor Carol Skydell taught me that people build websites to scroll vertically, not horizontally, for good reason. Horizontal scrolling is much more difficult and people cannot do it as well. It's like a book – for thousands of years we have been reading from side to side within a defined area and then proceed down the page. I'd bet that no one ever wrote a Torah-type scroll with long scrolling horizontals.Perhaps that is just "old peoples' talk" but I see it in my own web behavior, even on my 24" screen.

Of course you cannot record tens of thousands of names in a vertical tree-type chart. (Real trees, are, of course, vertical.) But it doesn't mean I have to choose to work that way when I have my own options. Those invariably involve presenting one family at a time with links, rather than linking them all via dynamic screens.
I understand that Randy asked for an advance copy of this article and intends to have a rebuttal in the Winter AVOTAYNU. I told Gary Mokotoff (publisher of AVOTAYNU) that this may go on for a few iterations and he thought that would be fine. I believe that I am not alone on my side of the debate and I hope someone else would get involved in the response to Randy's next piece - if in fact it is accepted for publication. Preferably someone with more hands-on experience with Geni that I have. (I saw some of Randy's comments on his own site, and was disappointed to find my own positions presented in a distorted way.)

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BLOG #100
Believe it or not, this is my one hundredth blog post. I began nearly two years ago with a single item and chose the blog style to enable discussion among a group of people. Nothing ever came of that, but it quickly became a weekly thing that I do partly to maintain self-discipline.

Blogger tells me that there are four or five hundred unique visits each week, though the comments certainly do not reflect that. My thanks to all the readers - those who comment on the blog, those who comment on Facebook and elsewhere and those who do not respond at all.

Now it's on to the second hundred - or at least  number 101, which I can tell you now, will be about the Jerusalem snow of 1969..

Sunday, December 8, 2013


My father's second cousin, whom I'll refer to as Baruch, is the great-great-grandson, in an all male line, of Jossel Kwoczka (~1794-1849) and his wife Jutte Lea. Baruch's surname should be Kwoczka, but his father changed it.

Jossel and Jutte Leah were called Kwoczka on their death records, but we do not know how far back the name goes. All the Kwoczkas lived in Zalosce and it appears that they are all descended from this couple or perhaps a couple who lived a generation or two earlier. I discussed this family about a year ago.

Baruch's grandfather Rachmiel Kwoczka had an older sister named Jutte Leah, my great-grandmother. Rachmiel and Jutte Leah had a brother Pinchas, who was also married to a Jutte Leah. Her father was a Zwiebel and her mother a Lewinter, but I have always had a strong feeling that the two Jutte Leahs could be traced back to a single namesake.

The question of the two Jutte Leahs is very much a back burner issue, mostly because there is so little documentation available for Zalosce.

There are additional children in all these families
So about eighteen months ago, I asked Baruch to do some DNA testing. I wanted an autosomal test to nail down the fact that my Jutte Leah is in fact the sister of his Rachmiel, which is now clear. And I asked him to do a Y-DNA because of his male line. I was not specific enough and he only did the very basic twelve-marker test, which does not lead us very far. It is sufficiently vague that he has 313 perfect matches, but of course that number would shrink drastically if he had tested for 25 or 37 or 67 or 111 markers. (The standard is 37 and I myself did 67.)

Nonetheless, every once in awhile, I'll have a look at Baruch's matches to see if anyone interesting shows up. A month ago, one did – a man named LeWinter in the US. I saw from his information on the match page that he had done a Y test with 111 markers, but had not done an autosomal test. There was an email address. I wrote.

He listed his most distant male-line ancestor as a Lewinter from Tarnopol, the provincial capital not from Zalosce.

I started putting together the scenario in my head. If Baruch and this LeWinter are in fact a good Y match, it means they have a common male-line ancestor. Without an autosomal test for LeWinter or at least a higher level Y test for Baruch, we could not tell how far back the common ancestor might be, but Tarnopol and Zalosce are so close that it would be reasonable to think that two hundred years ago is quite possible. That is about when the Jews of Galicia adopted surnames and we could have two brothers, one became Kwoczka and one Lewinter. Or maybe one took a surname from his wife. This looked like it might lead to a huge breakthrough.

I wrote and got a response, from the mother. He himself isn't very interested and this is all her doing. She sent me the grandfather's SS-5 form, where he applied in his own hand for a Social Security number. His parents, writes the grandfather Louis Lewinter, are Berel Lewinter and Yetty Lewinter. Yetty. There is Jutte again. Maybe even Jutte Leah. This could be really close family. Born 23 July 1895 in Tarnopol.

Nothing from my side was familiar to her. I was hoping she would know of our Zwiebel-Lewinter couple, whose descendants lived in Pittsburgh. But no. But also not necessarily important.

I went to JRI-Poland and looked up births of Lewinters anywhere near 1895, anyplace in Tarnopol province. After all, Louis may not have meant Tarnopol the city, just the general area.

There was one good match. Nachman Leib – Leib becomes Louis easily enough. Born 29 July 1895 – off by six days. Born in Tarnopol itself. So far so good. The mother is Jutte Dyne, the father is Berl.  It's certainly the right man. 
One problem. Jutte Dyne is the daughter of Nachman and Menie LEWINTER and Berl's surname is MANDEL. Louis – Nachman Leib – got his Lewinter surname from his mother. That happened often in east Galicia as the Jews did not always record their marriages with the civil authorities. That means my cousin Baruch's Kwoczka male line is a match with a family named Mandel. He may be related to the Lewinters, but not in that male line.

Too bad. Maybe the next DNA match will pan out.

The youngest Jutte Leah
Sometimes things work out right without being planned. I am writing this on Wednesday evening, the last night of Hanukkah. The second of Teveth. That is the fifth birthday of the youngest Jutte Leah. Her family calls her Lakie. She is the great-great-great-granddaughter of Jutte Leah Zwiebel and Pinchas Kwoczka, which makes her my third cousin twice removed.

Her mother made the decision to choose that ancestral name while sitting in my office about a month before Lakie was born. And it just happened to work out that I am sitting in my office writing this on her birthday.

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Housekeeping notes
1. The Fall AVOTAYNU is out. Next week I plan to write about my response to the two articles from the Summer issue on collaborative online genealogy, including a few outtakes from my earlier drafts.

2. The call for papers for the Salt Lake City conference came out this week.

While the program committee will consider all submissions, we have
identified some focus areas in which we are especially interested.
These include Genealogy and Jewish History related to World War I,
Jews of the Western United States, Technology in support of
genealogical research, Immigration and migration over the ages and
Ethical considerations in genealogy.

The conference will kick off one day shy of the 100th anniversary of
the start of World War I (Austria-Hungary declared war on Serbia on
July 28, 1914, one month after the assassination in Sarajevo of
Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria). Many of us have ancestors who
served in the armies of the various nations engaged in this conflict.
The War and subsequent fighting for control of Eastern Europe
devastated much of Europe including the Jewish heartland in the Pale.
It stimulated a wave of Jewish migration and resulted in the Balfour
declaration, calling for "the establishment in Palestine of a national
home for the Jewish people". If you would like to submit a speaking
proposal related to the "War to End all Wars" please do so.

I'm not sure I have anything to say on those topics, but I have until 15 January to come up with something. 

Sunday, December 1, 2013


In late June, I received an inquiry from a woman named Louise, living somewhere in Israel. She was looking for information on her father's line and had been referred to me by Stanley Diamond of JRI-Poland.

Recently I have found the Gnivish family in Canada. They say we are related. There was a 17 th century Rabbi that took the name of his town Gnivishow. All the Gnivisch's stem from him. He is on the geneological tree of the Baal Shem Tov. His granddaughter married a grandson of the Rabbi Noam Elimelech.
So how do I find out if this is my family?
I need to find out about my great grandfather Samuel Gnivish from Poland.

How do I do that - cant find anything in Jewish geneology as records for Krosno are from 1900 or so - too late.
What do you think?
I have documents if there is anything you think might give a clue.

A couple of days later, she added that the 17th century rabbi's name was R' Pinchas.

A few days later, I replied:

I did a bit of looking around without turning on the meter and I am not

I see that your great-grandfather and his wife Debora Hollander has stillborn twins in Krosno in 1893, the record being for the town of Korcyna.

You are correct that there do not seem to be earlier vital records from
Krosno, but do you know how long that had been their home? Perhaps thirty years earlier they lived someplace else.

The Central Archives for the History of the Jewish People is being integrated into the National Library here in Jerusalem and there are a few earlier microfilmed records for Krosno, but these are not vital records. These would be community records rather than individual records. Even if an ancestor might be on a list of melamdim, there would likely be nothing attaching him to either previous or subsequent generations. Even so, most of these records are later - the earlier ones are from about 1877.

I did not mention that I do not have any particular expertise in rabbinic genealogy.

Louise replied that she wanted to meet, but would be going abroad for six weeks. As I was planning to go to the US in August, I suggested that we start from scratch after the holidays. I figured that by then we would need to start from scratch as I would not remember any of this correspondence by then. But I opened a file with her name on it and made a note on my calendar to drop her a note after the holidays.

For some reason, it was 24 October – four weeks after the end of the holidays – that I sent her a note and we made an appointment to meet in my office on 7 November. At this point I had no recollection of what she wanted, but we were going to start from scratch so it didn't matter. I did note the subject ine that accompanied all our emails "Gnivish family tree."

The following Monday, 28 October, I attended a seminar at the National Library – the staff there is trying to get involved in genealogy and invites genealogists to lectures from time to time. They want to make their resources aavailable to genealogy researchers on one hand and to learn how to best serve the genealogy community on the other.

Several of the speakers emphasized errors in rabbinic genealogies, often as a result of misunderstandings or ambiguities that get copied from one person to another. This is a matter in which I have some interest, as my regular readers know.

One of the speakers was Rav Yehiel Goldhaber, who works at the National Library. I did not realize at the time that he is American-born, as his accent is what we call yishivish. Goldhaber spoke about the family of Rav Meir ben Yitzhak Eisenshtat (1670-1744), who is known by the name of his major work Panim Meirot.

As Goldhaber ran through the names of R' Meir's children – not all of whom appear in the published genealogies – he mentioned that one of his daughters had married R' Pinchas Gnivish. Well, that was a name I had seen just a few days earlier, in the subject line of my correspondence with Louise. So I took his personal email address and  dropped him a note the next day. He said he would be pleased to hear from her.

To be sure, had I not been in correspondence with Louise a few days earlier, there is no way the name Gnivish would have triggered any recollections from four months previous. And if I had heard the name before renewing my correspondence with Louise, I would not likely have remembered the name from the lecture. (As I say, rabbinic genealogy is not where my expertise lies.)

The grave of the Panim Meirot
(photo credit: CC-BY-SA, Vischroni, Wikipedia)
So the next week, I met Louise in my office.  She was aware of the connection of R' Pinchas Gnivish to the Panim Meirot and in fact had a copy of the book itself. She was delighted to hear that I had made a contact with someone who had been doing serious research on the family and she called R' Goldhaber right then. They set to meet at his home later that afternoon. (She lives more that hour from Jerusalem and wanted to get as much done on this trip as possible.)

While she was here, the subject of Louise's Kushelewitz line came up so we had a look at the JewishGenFamily Finder, my resource of first resort. There we saw that this the husband of a friend of mine is doing that family, so I called the friend on the spot and I let the two women discuss that.

I understand that the meeting between Louise and R' Goldhaber was very productive, for both of them. She wrote the following:

Was wonderful - like a dream - to meet Rav Yehiel Goldhaber - so thankful you went to his lecture
Will meet him again on his return and will put him in contact with the lovely Canadian Gnivishes .

Then added:

It turns out my copy of Panim Meirot is very rare and of great interest to Rav Yechiel as it has much added handwritten text.

You never know exactly when you should be paying attention, but sometimes it's all in the timing.