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B'siyata d'shmaya - With the help of Heaven


It's All Relative: Celebrate Family History

Jerusalem Post 20 March 2001

By Schelly Talalay Dardashti

Jewish Genealogy Month runs from March 25-April 23, sponsored by Avotaynu, publishers of Jewish genealogical books and materials. This year's theme, "Bringing Back the Names," encourages researchers to utilize all accessible resources: the internet, cemeteries, registers, libraries, memoirs, travels, oral traditions and more.

Contact a local genealogical society, become a member, get involved, ask questions - Pessah is a great time for family gatherings - and record answers about the past for future generations.

The Jewish Family Research Association (JFRA) is proud to once again welcome author Dr. Sallyann Amdur Sack from Washington DC, editor of Avotaynu: The International Journal of Jewish Genealogy. She will talk about the Arolsen Records, and the Tracing Service of the International Red Cross at 7 pm, Wednesday, March 28, at the Matnas Neve Eliezer, 6 Sheshet HaYamim St, Tel Aviv. All are welcome. For more information, contact JFRA president Aviva Neeman, 03-699-2813; email, aneeman@netvision.net.il.

A Jewish genealogy group is now being formed in Eilat. All those interested "down south" are asked to contact JFRA vice president Rob Sealtiel, tiigrs@matav.net.il / 03-552-1020.

And, now for the second part of an exploration of websites for researchers of Sephardic family history. The two columns devoted to this field are just an introduction to Sephardic sources on the internet. Use your search engines and discover many more country- and community-specific resources.

"Conventional genealogy - the collection of ancestors' names, dates of birth and death - was not my primary interest," says Shelomo Alfassa, director of Sephardic House research and development.

"For genealogy to be meaningful," he says, "I thought it was necessary not just to discover names and dates, but to reconnect to the cultural atmosphere and milieu that defined the lives of our ancestors." Although the everyday life of Sephardic ancestors is now gone, researchers still want to know about their lives, what they thought, what they talked about in the kitchen.

Sephardic has come to mean almost any Jew who is not Ashkenazi. Although there are wide cultural divergences within the Sephardic world, common liturgy and religious customs constitute underlying factors of unity. Shelomo adds that the site will encompass many other communities, including Mizrahim/Oriental. The site began with an emphasis on Ottoman Jewry, because the material was available - "We had to start somewhere." As new data arrives, it will be posted.

Shelomo adds that the communities developed under differing cultural and historical conditions, and it is more proper to speak of Sephardi cultures, than of one monolithic culture. The best we can do, says Shelomo, is to offer a site where memories of all types can be saved.

"We can't ever be 100% successful," Shelomo says. "The data is scattered in all sorts of material and none is labeled 'for future genealogists;' we have to look at many types of documentation, archives, and hope it pieces together a meaningful history."

In the late 1990s, says Shelomo, there existed few targeted Sephardic genealogy sites. Among them were Jeff Malka, Harry Stein and Shelomo's own Ottoman Sephardic site. In conjunction with Dr. David Sheby (US) and Mathilde Tagger (Jerusalem), and other researchers, SH developed its genealogical focus.

Shelomo says, "The website, as well as our focus and commitment to Sephardic-oriented genealogy has grown tremendously since its first appearance in June 2000."

"We get hundreds of e-mail requests," he says, "Most just want to know how to start." Readers are referred to well-written books on genealogy fundamentals, and to their own families, the real starting point." SH tries to convey, says Shelomo, a beauty, intellectual depth, and great appreciation for the multi-cultural past in which Sephardic ancestors lived, "We don't just list names." By presenting the past with dynamic visual presentations (rather than emphasizing name lists) it hopes to inspire readers to attempt their own original research.

SH is now in discussions with Crypto-Jewish and anusim communities who feel they might have Jewish ancestry, and is striving to develop a relationship with a major Crypto-Judaic study group to work with SH to answer concerns and questions of those who believe they are descendents of Conversos or other hidden Jews.

Today, too many people claim to be expert genealogists, says Shelomo. To be an "expert" in Sephardic genealogy one needs to be able to read Ladino (in Rashi font and solitreo handwriting), Hebrew, and Osmanlica. One also needs access to esoteric archival sources in Israel, Turkey, former Ottoman lands in the Balkans, and some European cities. Few people can do this.

Most archives do not have a sign reading "Sephardic Genealogy;" data must be extracted from source documents that cover many topics: Jewish community records, tax data, foreign consular documents, trade documents (such as French-Ottoman trade correspondence).

Resources come from Shelomo's own research, an internet team of dedicated professional volunteers, as well as 23-years' worth of materials in SH archives - some from old sources, previously unavailable in English. A translating team converts documents from Hebrew, French, Ladino and Spanish into English.

The role of SH, he says, is to demonstrate to people where such data exists, although it is highly unlikely it will ever be able to document all the family histories of all Sephardic descendents, due to catastrophies.

But with the Net, says Shelomo, SH can create digital archives: "We don't need original data - only facsimiles (scans). Without a doubt, digital archiving of materials will be a hot topic in the next few years." Future plans envision a megasite of digital archives documenting all types of memorabilia of the Sephardic experience and cultures. New portions are added as data arrives.

"WHAT is unique," says Shelomo, "is that all material we post will be printed and archived in hardcopy at the Center for Jewish History in New York," where it will be available with archives of the Leo Beck Institute, Yeshiva University Museum, American Jewish Historial Socity, YIVO, and the American Sephardi Federation.

Dedicated friends and researchers are instrumental in making the first year a success, and connections have also been made with the Quincentennial Foundation of Istanbul, and Rachel Bortnick's Ladinokomunita (a living Ladino discussion list).

"In our short eight months' online, we have facilitated many families finding related branches," Shelomo says."This includes many members - including myself - of our discussion list who have discovered we are distant relatives. This is incredible, and makes it all worth it!"


WHY does Harry Stein produce a website devoted to Sephardic genealogical resources?

Retired US Army officer Harry Stein is not Sephardic, but his wife "is a direct descendant of Don Isaac Abravanel, and from there to King David and Batsheva." He says the family is perhaps the icon of the Sephardic experience in Iberia, and his two children have Sephardic lines.

"I think everyone, as I do, wishes to give their children knowledge of their heritage. I have always advised them that before they rush off into the future, they must understand the past, where they came from." His site "is dedicated to my children, my wife and those who suffered pain."

Like most researchers of Sephardic history, he believes in the inclusive definition of the term: "Anyone who wants to be or who follows the Sephardic rites," and that placing people in categories is divisive.

"I learned a lesson when I visited Auschwitz," says Harry. "Sephardim from Salonika (my wife's family) and my Polish Brochsztain relatives were killed in the same place. We are the same."

Adding to his interest is his home in Arizona - with a large Hispanic population - and the fact that he was stationed in Spain for three years, where he "saw firsthand the remnants of a civilization that used to be.

"I know what these Conversos [those who converted to Christianity during the Inquisition] know, but who refuse to think about it or discuss it in public. I can see the face of Israel in their eyes."I remember seeing an old man in Segovia trudging into what was a synagogue 500 years ago, now a Catholic Church - it hurt."

"BASICALLY, all I wanted to do [in January 1999] was to take up some of my extra time and do something constructive for my people - I have," says Harry. "There was an obvious void in Sephardic genealogy, and I filled that void by providing names and references.

"I do almost all the research," Harry says, adding that the vast majority of resources come from the US public library system, including the International Library Loan program. "This is done to facilitate the research ability of my visitors. They need a reference they can find." Occasionally, he says, a reader will send names from a list or book or coats of arms.

"I used to get normal e-mails dealing exclusively with genealogy: 'How do I find this person? How do I obtain records?' This has changed. My site has become a site of enlightenment."

Fifty percent of his e-mail comes from those who want to determine if they have Jewish/Sephardic roots. Most of the time, he says, the names provided appear to have Sephardic roots.

"People who send me information are truly excited when they find out they may be of Sephardic origin. Many say their reason for inquiring is finding their names on the list and their 'unexplained' love for all things Jewish, and/or dislike for the Church."

According to Harry, this love of all things Jewish has given rise to a phenomena called "hereditary memory."

"I know every little about this, but some take it very seriously. I know that my site is responsible for conversions. I try not to get into that discussion because I have a genealogy site, not a conversion of philosophy site." He has added conversion [to Judaism] links, for example, so that he does "not have to respond the those types of questions.

His site offers several sections including Sephardic names, recipes, facts and lore, heraldry and origins, and extensive links to communities around the world, name sites, genealogy organizations, personal pages and Sephardic music.