Mixing with genealogy big-hitters

Technically the postings that I am going to be making over the next few days are not directly to do with JGSGB but are still worth expressing through this blog.  I should explain at the outset what this is about.  I am at the RootsTech conference in Salt Lake City, Utah as an individual delegate, along with my wife Jeanette.  RootsTech (http://rootstech.org/)  is a massive conference with 6,700 delegates now signed up to it and with practically every major star in the genealogy firmament attending, along with the major suppliers of genealogical data and technology exhibiting and giving talks.  This event is very much about the future of genealogy and about how the histories of our families will be researched, recorded, written about and passed on to future generations.  It will affect us all, not only as individual genealogists but also as genealogical organisations.  Hence the link to JGSGB.  What I hope to discover over the next three days of the conference is how JGSGB will need to adapt to fit into this new landscape.  What can we offer that the technology can’t provide; what aspects of technology can we adopt to improve what we do; and most importantly is there a future for us and many other existing institutions in the new technological world?  This may seem a bit doom and gloom but we should be prepared to make the best of what is coming along.

Having said all of this, the event itself is going to be terrific if this evening is to be the standard.  Having had a meal in a hotel restaurant we were about to leave the building when we saw a familar face to us and to many JGSGB members – Schelly Talalay Dardashti who wrote the Tracing the Tribe blog until recently (http://tracingthetribe.blogspot.com/)  and who has spoken at JGSGB conferences.  Schelly invited us to sit with her and when we looked around the bar we were in we saw we were in esteemed company indeed - Dick Eastman, of Eastman’s Online Genealogy Newsletter (http://blog.eogn.com/) - probably the most read genealogy blog in the world; Randy Seaver of Genea-Musings (http://www.geneamusings.com/), again one the best blogs around; Thomas McEntee who runs his own blog but also importantly runs the Geneabloggers website (http://geneabloggers.com/) listing and promoting thousands of genealogical blogs; and Cyndi Howells of Cyndi’s list fame (www.cyndislist.com/) amongst many others.

Just sitting there with so many of the “big hitters” of genealogy, with many more yet to meet during the conference, brought home just how big and important the event will be not just for those here but for everyone else involved in genealogical research.

I look forward with both excitement and trepidation to what will come.

Mark Nicholls


WDYTYA? Live 2013 Day 2

So day two of the 2013 show at Olympia is over.  Being Saturday it was expected to be much busier than Friday and we were not disappointed.  It was wall-to-wall, minute-to-minute, query after query until about the last 30 minutes or so.  Today’s queries made me think even more about the reasons that we were at the show and also more about why genealogy and family history societies are still relevant in a world where it seems possible do do everything by yourself from your computer.  The questions asked by people at our stand showed that there was still an enormous need for a dialogue between people to enable clearer understanding of the finer details of Jewish genealogy and also of genealogy in general.   With Jewish genealogy there are many special nuances that have to be understood, otherwise mistakes can be made.  These include where Jewish families originated from, names used at different times and places, occupations, entitlements to occuptations, broader political and historical issues, etc.

Societies such as ours provide an often needed reality check for assumptions .  Also a much required support network for individual researchers.  Researchers being able to ask questions of the hundreds of members of a society means that they can get the right answers or several different interpretations that open up more research avenues.  These answers and views don’t just help the individual but also gived food for thought to the rest of the membership.  A collective approach to genealogy has a multiplying effect.  This is one of the reasons why we read genealogy magazines, subsrcribe to blogs and discussion lists and so many other places where like-minded people gather.

The genealogy society still has a place in the world and can add enormous value.  No one can know everything about a subject and we can all continue to learn from each other.  I learn at each event I attend, someone mentions a fact or a resource that I didn’t know about andI can then pass that on to another person.

Being involved in a society definitely helps, be a supporter, an expert and a learner at the same time.

Mark Nicholls

Chairman JGSGB

WDYTYA? Live 2013

This posting is being written at the end of a very long first day of the latest Who Do You Think You Are? Live (WDYTYA? Live) show at Olympia in London.  For those who don’t know what WDYTYA? Live is, it is simply the biggest family history and genealogy exhibition in the world.  Attended by over 15,000 people over three days each year, it is the place to be for researchers.  JGSGB has been at every show except the second one and we have seen and helped hundreds, if not thousands of people with queries about Jewish genealogy.

Today was no exception, the doors opened at 10.00 a.m. and the public poured through the doors.  Within 15 minutes we were fielding query after query.  The JGSGB team of volunteers were terrific dealing with every type of question about Jewish roots and research.  As ever there were the people who thought they might have Jewish ancestry and those that definitely knew they did.  Each of these presents their own unique problems.  Those who have Jewish ancestry are looking for ideas of how to solve the enduring and elusive problem all Jewish genealogists face – how to find records of their ancestors in a foreign land.  Our volunteers have to use their great breadth of knowledge to come up suggestions of where to look.  JewishGen (www.jewishgen.org) was often suggested as a place to look for possible family.  Websites such as JRI Poland (http://www.jewishgen.org/jri-pl/from_jewishgen.htm) for Jewish records from Poland and the LitvakSIG for Lithuania (http://www.litvaksig.org/) were frequently consulted.  Our aim though is always to give people the necessary tools and the ideas to use to find their ancestors after the show.

The people who think they have Jewish ancestry present a different set of issues.  That is mainly trying to get to the bottom of their research so far to see why they think that someone in their family was Jewish.  Sometimes it is a family story, other times because the names in the family seem to be Jewish in origin, or because there is something about the look of the family.  More often than not we found that family was not Jewish as marriages took place in churches and children were baptised.  Also we explained that naming patterns are important to Jewish families.  For Ashkenazi Jews the tradition is not to name a child for a living ancestor, so we asked people if the children had the same name as the father, often this was the case, again pointing to non-Jewish origins.  When these people left the stand we hoped that they had learned something about Jewish traditions and Jewish genealogy.

Tomorrow has the promise of more of the same questions, queries and assumptions and I look forward to it.



Paris Posting 6

This is a little late and being written well away from Paris but the last day at the conference was tiring and travelling back to London made it hard to sit down an compose something sensible.  The last posting told you about the JGSGB journal Shemot winning the award for Outstanding Publication but I should have said that JGSGB has won this award twice before.  Once in 1998 for Shemot and secondly in 2008 for the Jewish Ancestors? series of guides to Jewish genealogy.  These guides, written by members of JGSGB cover a range of topics, the United Kingdom, Lithuania, Latvia & Estonia, Poland, Reading Hebrew Inscriptions and Documents and so on.  The details of the JGSGB publications can be found on the JGSGB website at www.jgsgb.org.uk/catalog/shop.  Each of the guides provides detailed information about researching in the country or countries concerned.

The events of Wednesday mainly involved a lot of networking around the IAJGS table and the Annual Meeting of IAJGS.  The IAJGS President Michael Goldstein noted that there were people from 30 countires at the Paris conference and that more needed to be done to involve members from around the world.  I was formally elected to the IAJGS Board for the next two years.  It was reported that four new organisations had joined IAJGS and that three societies in difficulty were supported during the year and were now back on track.  Invitations were made for projects that need financial support through the Stern Grant award – The Rabbi Malcolm Stern Grant honors Rabbi Malcolm H. Stern, widely considered to be the dean of American Jewish genealogy, and his efforts to increase the availability of resources for Jewish genealogical research.   So if anyone knows of a project looking at Jewish records that needs financial support they should submit an application to the grant through JGSGB.

The evening was taken up mostly with an IAJGS dinner and a chance top socialise with fellow board members.  The ordering of the food was probably the greatest communication problem that we experienced throughout the conference, trying to establish what Poisson au Marché were (Gambas/Shrimps – Fish that Walk) through to whether the vegetables contained Bell Peppers or not.  The meal and then packing for leaving meant that a Blog posting wasn’t possible.

Thursday morning was taken up with an IAJGS Board meeting followed by a quiet lunch at the same restaurant we went to on the first day.  We even sat at the same table and next to the same person as the first day.  I have to say that as with all these conferences the feeling is that you have spent a very long time at them because you experience so much but in reality it is such a short time in most people’s experience.  Arriving home the intensity of the week took hold and a feeling of exhaustion has set in but many things still needed to be done, including telling the whole of JGSGB about winning the publication award.  A short message of thanks to all of the JGSGB members who have sent in congratulation messages.

I have been told that the post-conference events in London have been well supported, with about twenty people coming to the JGSGB Library on Thursday and also for the talk by Laurence Harris.

I hope that many of the readers of this blog will consider attending the next conference in Boston, Massachusetts 4-9 August 2013.  I can only say that if you are interested in Jewish genealogy and also want a holiday in the USA, combining the both are an absolutely excellent thing to do.

Next year’s conference will cause some confusion though, as it is co-hosted by the Jewish Genealogical Society of Greater Boston (JGSGB).

So this is the final posting to do with the Paris conference, unless I think of something else.

Mark Nicholls

Chairman JGSGB






Paris Conference Posting 5

Well a very interesting day at the conference today.  Firstly, I only managed to attend one lecture during the whole of today.  This was on DNA and how the process of deciphering how populations can be distinguished from each other and how Jewish DNA fitted in to the global picture.  The talk by Doron Behar showed that Jewish DNA tended to be associated with the DNA of people from the Middle East with various admixtures from local populations.  So the Eastern European Jews would have some genetic material from local populations but remained very much a separately identifiable grouping.  Some populations such as the Yemeni Jews, the Indian Jews from Cochin and Bene Israel had traces of typical Jewish DNA, mainly in the male line, with female mtDNA being mostly from the local population.

Apart from attending the lecture, I spent most of the day at the IAJGS table to deal with any queries about the organisation and also to handle any general queries.  I didn’t have to do much, which gave me a chance to catch up on JGSGB business and to talk to people in general.  With several people around the table at times we managed to talk about a lot of the things that were on our minds, such as how the conference was going.  In general we all feel that the organisers have managed to put on a very good event and that apart from the odd problem it has actually worked well.  These events are mammoth things to put on by volunteers.  We learned tonight that 850 people had registered, which is a lot of people to organise.  It also has to be borne in mind that many of the lectures are delivered with interpreters.  The organisers have had to cope with the bilingually-challenged such as myself but pretty much everything has felt like other conferences.

The conference organisers were thanked and applauded at the conference Gala event for their efforts.  The Gala is a formal dinner and celebration event, with a keynote speech and awards being made.  The key note speech this year was given by Father Patrick Desbois on the work of Yahad–In Unum, which works in parts of the former Soviet Union to uncover the story of the holocaust and to identify places where Jews were murdered.  This involves interviewing local people who remember the events and the details of the people who were killed; allowing names and the lives of people who were killed to be remembered.  The organisation also helps the relatives of the murdered to find the places where they were killed or lived.  It was a very moving presentation.

The awards were very great news for JGSGB – we received the Award for Outstanding Publication by a Member Organization of IAJGS for the JGSGB journal Shemot.  This was something that I have known about for about two months but have been sworn to keep secret.  It has been very difficult not to say something to the JGSGB Council, members and especially my wife but I managed it.  The Award was fittingly accepted by Bernard Valman, the Editor of Shemot, who I was only able to tell about the award five hours before the Gala.  I have to say that I am so very proud of the work that Bernard and his principle colleague Mike Gordon have put into producing Shemot, especially over the last couple of years, with the themed editions.  The themed content was something very much appreciated by the Awards Committee in reaching their decision.  I understand that there were about five different publications up for the award.

So now to bed, happy with a very good day at the conference and with a very great day for JGSGB.

Mark Nicholls

Chairman JGSGB




Paris Conference Post 4

Today was very busy for us.  It was the day of the UK SIG meeting and lunch and the GerSIG meeting and lunch. For those that don’t know, SIG stands for Special Interest Group, of which there are a great many at the conference.  They cover not just UK (United Kingdom) and Germany (Ger) but Poland, Lithuania, Ukraine, Bessarabia, Canada, Belarus, France, Alsace & Lorraine, Hungary, Galicia, Latvia, Austria Czech, Romania, South Africa and many other places.  At the SIG meetings and lunches people who have research interests in the particular area receive updates on the activities of the SIG and presentations on relevant topics.  For the UK SIG I gave an update on the Jewish Community and Records UK website (www.jewishgen.org/jcr-uk/) explained the usefulness of the community pages on the website to find out more about the locality and associated records and data.  The JCR-UK discussion list (www.jewishgen.org/jcr-uk/subscribe.htm) was promoted as a good place to post questions about finding family.  We also discussed other useful sites such as Cemetery Scribes (www.cemeteryscribes.com/) and British-Jewry (www.british-jewry.org.uk) as ways of finding information or asking questions.  As part of the UK-SIG meeting, I had the privilege of presenting two JGSGB members with their Roll of Honour scrolls.  The members were both from Scotland, Michael Tobias and Harvey Kaplan.  Michael has been instrumental in the development of the JewishGen databases and website amongst many other things and Harvey has been one of the principal key people involved in the development of the Scottish Jewish Archives (www.sjac.org.uk/)

The UK-SIG meeting was followed by a paid for lunch and presentation on immigration to the UK by Dr Nicholas Evans, one of (if not) the most knowledgeable people on the subject in the UK.  As ever he presented information about many under-used resources and explained the migration process, including the fact that people often returned back to their homeland for visits or on a permanent basis.  We had a very good turnout for the UK-SIG meeting and for the lunch, with people from the USA, Canada, Australia and of course the UK.

The SIGs and the Birds of a Feather (BOF) are for most attendees major highlights of the conference and help them to meet people with the same research interests.

The UK-SIG lunch was followed by the GerSIG meeting, which Jeanette Rosenberg chaired along with Roger Lustig.  The SIG members were told about new developments and also reminded about the many different activities of the SIG.

Following on from the SIG meetings there was a sequence of UK-related lectures.  The first was delivered by Jeanette on UK Newspapers as a resource for genealogy research.  The benefits of using newspapers for research cannot be under-estimated and the UK is blessed with many thousands of historical newspapers that contain information about Jewish people, from the national dailies through to the local parish newspapers and on to specialist journals.  Many titles are now being digitised, which is making them far more accessible to people all over the world.

The final lecture on UK records we attended was given by JGSGB member Daniel Morgan-Thomas on records relating to deaths in the UK.  Daniel explained about death cerificates in England and Wales and finding graves, wills and other related records.  Daniel did extremely well in delivering his lecture considering that he is only just 18.

The recent late nights have taken their toll on us and tonight we have made it an early night, though I am finishing this blog post at 11.30 p.m. – better than trying to do it at 1.00 a.m.

So here’s to the next day’s events.

Mark Nicholls

Chairman JGSGB

Paris Conference 3rd Posting

So now the conference has started in earnest and lectures and meetings have taken place during the day and early evening.  The contingent from the UK has grown over the last day or so, with many JGSGB members arriving at the hotel.  It is nice to see so many familiar faces and say hello to them.  The feedback from some of the members has been very positive, with stories of finding useful information from the lectures and more importantly, to my mind, from the networking that is going on.  Chance conversations and overheard discussions are leading to breakthroughs in people’s research.

From a personal perspective, I have been engaged in what might be called management issues and events at the conference.  First event of the day was a round-table presentation from the main European Jewish Genealogy Societies about doing genealogy in each country.  What this showed was that there is little difference between each organisation and how they operated for their members but that there were very large differences in the way that records were accessed in each country.  The Swiss in particular have to deal with extremely high charges to obtain even basic information, whereas records in places such as France were free.

The theme of European genealogy organisations continued into the afternoon session, where I ran the first of the IAJGS Management Seminars.  This was mostly about how to create new Jewish Genealogy Societies in Europe.  We discussed the many issues that faced any new society in Europe, in particular how they faced up to political and cultural difficulties.  There were many contributions from the floor and at the end of the session we had a feeling that it would be possible for some new societies to get started.  There is a definite enthusiasm for having societies in some countries but there is a need for the right level of support to get things off the ground.

I attended a further management session on ethical dilemmas in genealogy.  This covered issues such as recording illegitimate births, divorces, criminal records, and many “skeletons in the closet” situations.  There is never one single answer to the dilemmas, and often no answer at all.  One thing that is clear though is that any one doing genealogy has to be prepared for the chance that they might find out things that could upset them or others.

The evening events were the IAJGS Presidents reception, which is social gathering for the IAJGS Board and the presidents/chairs of the Genealogical Societies attending the conference.  It was a chance to talk with colleagues and find out what was going on in different parts of the world.  The final formal event was the welcoming talk given by David Marwell, Director of the Museum of Jewish Heritage in New York.  David spoke about the museum and also about its association with JewishGen, which he believed would continue for a long time.

Mark Nicholls

Chairman JGSGB

Paris Conference Second Posting

Much to my surprise we have managed to spend more time out of the hotel than at previous conferences, albeit mostly in local restaurants talking to and eating with our conference colleagues.  Despite the conference being in France and with its obvious language differences, the pre-conference activity has been very much the same as other conferences.  We have gathered together in the hotel lobby and talked to our colleagues about genealogy and the expectations from the conference.  My morning was taken up with attending the International Association Board meeting and considering issues such as the future conferences in Boston, Salt Lake City and Israel.  So the Bastille Day celebrations were mostly missed by me but I understand many of the conference attendees did get out and about and see the day’s events.

This afternoon, Saturday 14 July, we registered for the conference and received our conference documentation and the very nice conference bag.  There was the chance to see the final list of attendees and who had come from the UK.  In all there are about 40 delegates from the UK at the conference out of over 700 attendees, it would be nice to have seen more here from the UK.  So far we have either bumped into or seen half the UK attendees.  I hope that they really enjoy the event and get some really useful research ideas from it.  Sunday will be extremely busy for me, with several genealogy management events to attend and one that I will be running on developing Jewish Geneaolgy Societies in Europe.  The events and consequences of the last World War still play a major part in Jewish genealogy and historical studies in Europe and I hope that the sessions will show us whether or not there is a way forward for Jewish genealogy on the ground, especially in the eastern part of continental Europe.

Some of the UK attendees will be staffing a table at the SIGs and BOF (Special Interest Groups and Birds of a Feather) Fair on Sunday afternoon, answering queries about UK research and how JGSGB can help.  We have brought a large number of our JGSGB genealogy guides with us and hope to sell them at the fair and over the week.  These are really useful guides to doing research in the UK, Poland, Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia.  The guides can also be purchased online at www.jgsgb.org.uk/catalog/shop.

So now it is off to sleep to be ready for a very long and active day.

Mark Nicholls

Chairman JGSGB

Paris International Conference

Well here we are again at and International Association of Jewish Genealogical Societies (IAJGS) conference.  This time it is in Paris, France and much closer to our home than Washington DC.  Firstly, the weather, pretty much like London – dull, cloudy, wet and not that warm.  At least we won’t feel that we are missing out on nice weather and sight-seeing while holed up in the conference hotel!

The hotel is the Marriot Rive Gauche and is not too bad.  We arrived yesterday – Thursday and will be here until next Thursday.  The view from our hotel is towards the north and we can just about see Montmartre and the Sacre Coeur Cathedral in the murky distance.  The conference starts in earnest on Sunday but I have an IAJGS Board meeting to attend on Saturday morning – Bastille Day.  Already though the networking and genealogy talking has begun.  We have started to meet up with delegates we know through day-to-day contact and also with others we met at other conferences.  Once you get to go to one or two of these conferences you tend to get to know a lot of people.  Last night we went out to eat with Philip, JGSGB’s Treasurer and with Jeanette’s “DNA Cousin” Doris and her husband Dick.  This may have been the last meal outside the hotel before we return to London, though there are a few local restaurants we might get out to – depending on the weather and how busy we get.

Mark Nicholls

Chairman JGSGB



Are Blogs Worth It?

This may seem to be a bit of strange title for a blog posting but it was prompted by a recent posting by Randy Seaver on his Genea-Musings blog, where he posed the question “Are We Strangers in the Genealogy Land?”  (www.geneamusings.com/2012/06/genestrangers-in-strange-genealogy-land.html)

Randy’s blog prompted me to respond to him with the following message:

“As the Chairman of a genealogical society I find blogs useful in providing up to the minute information for my members. We have a very active discussion group (last count 467 members) where news of developments in the world of genealogy are posted. These keep members interested in being part of the group. We always quote the source of the information and hope that some of our members look at the sources. We also have our own blog as a means of trying to capture the interest of people who wouldn’t join a society. Blogs, Twitter, Facebook and others are now part of the landscape on which the genealogist/family historian walks. So far from being strangers in the land, I think we are the land. (www.jgsgb.org.uk) ”

I think many blogs act as streamed newsletters, constantly updating their readers about the latest developments in the world of genealogy in a way that static newsletters can’t always do.  Other blogs provide the general thoughts of the author about the world of genealogy and family history, things to get you thinking about researching your family.  The family blogs that exist help people connect with cousins.   Individual blogs may only get a small number of readers but collectively blogs are read by many thousands of people.  Blogs are worth reading, so have a look at a few and see what they offer.

Mark Nicholls, Chairman JGSGB


1851 Anglo Jewish Database Updated

Petra Laidlaw has done an update to her incredible database which is available to read about and search exclusively at http://www.jgsgb.org.uk/1851-database.  This is a most exciting work which covers Jewish families backwards and forwards through the years with a starting point of the 1851 census.  JGSGB is proud to be the only website which gives details of Petra’s study and the facility to search for names. Regular users of the AJDB will notice that the ability to search by ID has been removed.  This has been done to add extra security to the valuable information.

Thank you Petra for your many years of hard work and research which has been invaluable to so many genealogists worldwide. You are an inspiration.

Whenever a new database is uploaded it invariably creates frustrations and difficulties for me with the technical side of the process. I must pay special tribute to our member Michael Tobias (also JewishGen Vice President). He has come once again to my rescue with his expertise and has also devised a way of adding security to the database. I could not have done it without him and both JGSGB and I pay tribute to his ‘coming to the rescue’ once again.

Louise Messik