Poem: Ancestry

How can I tell you
        that my ancestors are soap,
        that I’m descended from soap,

and every morning in the shower
        they melt in my hands
        and run from my body,

and that as hard as I’ve tried
        there’s nothing to hold onto,
        nothing that won’t rub away.

Originally published in “Sublimation Point,” Four Way Books (2004).

Jason Schneiderman is the author of the books “Sublimation Point” and “Striking Surface.” He is an assistant professor of English at the Borough of Manhattan Community College, CUNY.

How to get started on your family tree

Building your family tree has never been easier. Here are some quick steps to help you get started.

1. Choose a platform. You can scribble your tree down on paper the old-fashioned way, or you can save yourself some headaches and use genealogy software that’s been developed over the past 30 years. There are many programs you can purchase for your computer, but you are better off just using an online program. I like Geni.com because you can build your tree for free there, and work collaboratively with other family members. But for separate trees, you can also try Geni’s Israeli parent company, MyHeritage.com, or the very popular Ancestry.com. Each charges for access to data records and certain functions.

2. Start by just entering as much information as you know. Try to include dates and locations of birth, marriage and death to help identify each person on your tree. Add a photo to make the tree come alive. If you cannot remember or aren’t certain about a detail, just skip it and move on to the next. Once you have the information you already know set up, then you can start the work of finding out more. Contact your relatives and ask for information. You can invite them to join the tree by plugging in their email addresses so they can add more people to the tree. Don’t be afraid to share. Each person you invite will add a new detail or photo, correct a mistake or just marvel at the work you have done. The more people you invite to your tree, the better it will be.

3. Once you have exhausted what you and your relatives know, then the real work can begin. For Jewish research, the best starting point is JewishGen.org, the nonprofit hub for Jewish genealogy worldwide. On JewishGen you can find information about how to research in almost any country. There are special-interest groups set up for most regions, each with its own website and discussion group where you can post questions and get answers from experts. JewishGen provides access to millions of digitized records that might help you take your family tree back a few more generations. 

4. There are great resources online at MyHeritage, Ancestry and FamilySearch (operated by the Mormons). On Facebook, join the Jewish Genealogy Portal and get help from experts. Or contact me at randols@bslaw.net and I can help you get started. 

Jefferson was Jewish? Who knew?

On Feb. 28, The New York Times reported that Thomas Jefferson possibly had some Jewish ancestors.

Geneticists reporting in the American Journal of Physical Anthropology
concluded that this Founding Father may have had a Sephardic Jew on one of the limbs of his family tree in the 15th century.

If they had only made this discovery when I was a kid, my parents would have probably let me stay home from school on Jefferson’s birthday. If we had been Orthodox, I would have gotten to stay home for two days.

When I was growing up, my parents were always quick to point out proudly which famous people were Jewish. This applied to the rare Jewish athlete, to the occasional Jewish elected official and to the more common Jewish Hollywood personality. They knew which movie stars were Jewish, who had changed their names to non-Jewish names and whether they had married Jewish spouses. If someone was, say, only one-sixteenth Jewish but was nice, successful and famous, he was considered “Jewish.”

They got excited when a Jew did something noteworthy — like winning the Nobel Prize or becoming a senator. And they shook their heads sadly whenever a Jew did something notorious — like committing a crime.

Theirs was the typical “is this good for the Jews?” attitude, and I believe this mind-set is still prevalent today. That’s why some of us are kvelling about Jefferson possibly having some Jewish heritage.

It even got me wondering if maybe other Founding Fathers might have had Jewish ancestors. Maybe it wasn’t a key that got struck by lightning when Ben Franklin was flying his kite. Maybe it was Ben’s mezuzah. And I never liked thinking about young George Washington chopping down that cherry tree. It’s a lot nicer to think of him planting trees — in Israel.

Obviously, since the research came out, nobody is seriously suggesting that Jefferson changed his name from Jefferstein, or that his campaign slogan was, “He’s not British, he’s Yiddish” (or, more accurately because of his Sephardic roots, “He doesn’t just represent the East, he represents the Mideast.”). But I do think that because so few Jews are known for their role in American history, it’s understandable for us to feel some extra pride about Jefferson, even if he was just “a little bit Jewish.”

Does our pride about famous Jews mean we’re insecure about our identity and have an irrational need for heroes? I don’t think so.

It’s natural for all minorities to be excited when a member of their group excels in something. I know they’re not technically a minority, but it doesn’t seem odd that many women are proud that Nancy Pelosi is the first woman Speaker of the House. (And I wouldn’t be surprised if Italian Americans are proud of her, too). Would anybody fault an African American for being excited that a black man actually has a possibility of becoming president in the next election?

The good news is that — like other minorities in America — Jews have reached a point that we don’t blindly support and celebrate people just because they’re Jewish.

Years ago, if you had told me that a Jew would run for vice president some day and later try to run for president, I would have said that at least 99 percent of Jewish Americans would vote for him and always support him. But that isn’t what happened with Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.).

Jews were understandably proud and excited when he first came on the national scene and ran for vice president. But when they learned of Lieberman’s stands on certain issues, some Jews stopped supporting him.

And that’s how it should be. They allowed themselves to be excited about his historical accomplishment but not about his politics. Similarly, just because not every woman plans on voting for Hillary Clinton and not every African American plans on voting for Barack Obama doesn’t mean that they aren’t thrilled that these two people have the opportunity to run for the office today.

So I don’t think any of us should be ashamed about being excited that Jefferson — or any famous person — might have Jewish ancestors. I don’t love everything about Jefferson. But it’s fun to picture him bringing chicken soup to other Founding Fathers when they had colds.

And I have to smile as I wonder if he tried to insert a clause in the Declaration of Independence that would make it an inalienable right for grandmothers to complain if their grandchildren didn’t write them often enough.

Lloyd Garver writes the Modern Times column for the Opinion page of cbsnews.com. He has also written and produced for television, including “The Bob Newhart Show,” “Family Ties” and “Frasier.” He has also read many books, some of them in hardcover. He can be reached at lloydgarver@yahoo.com.

What’s Portuguese for Cohen?

A major new tool can help Brazilians learn about their possible Iberian Jewish origins: the "Dictionary of Sephardic Surnames," a 528-page tome featuring some 17,000 surnames of Sephardic Jewish families from Portugal, Spain and Italy and their descendants.

Written in Portuguese and English, the dictionary is the fruit of a research project started in 1995 by Brazilian historians Guilherme Faiguenboim and Paulo Valadares and Italian historian Anna Rosa Campagnano. Faiguenboim and Campagnano are Jewish. Valadares is of Portuguese "New Christian" — or Marrano — ancestry.

According to Faiguenboim, a founding member of the Brazilian Jewish Genealogical Society, the initial idea was to explore about 1,000 Sephardic surnames. After seven years of work, the team had more than 16,000 names.

The first part of the book features a historical introduction. The second tells about the Sephardic dispersion from the edicts of expulsion until the 20th century. The book ends with the dictionary itself, preceded by an explanation of the names’ origins.

For each entry, readers can find where the first references to the family name were found and the name’s subsequent path around the world. It also lists famous bearers of the family name through history.

According to Faiguenboim, historians say that 10 percent to 30 percent of the Portuguese population was Jewish before Jews were forced in 1496 to leave the country or be baptized. Many of them fled to Northern Africa and, beginning in the early 1500s, also to Brazil, Portugal’s major colony. According to historians, several Jews were among the sailors on the very first Portuguese caravel fleets to the New World.

Most non-Jewish Brazilians presume that they have Jewish ancestry because they have surnames that Jews were known to have used in the past to hide their Jewishness. However, such names — like Oliveira, Souza, Cardoso, and even Silva, the most typical Brazilian name of all — often are common among non-Jewish Brazilians.

Faiguenboim says that not everyone with a family name in the dictionary is of Jewish ancestry.

"But if a person is recognized as Jewish, his or her name will certainly be there," he said.