Photo from Flickr.

How I Discovered My Cousin, the Dodger

A couple years ago, after center fielder Joc Pederson spectacularly debuted with the Los Angeles Dodgers, I decided to look into his family tree.

What a tree it is. Pederson’s mom, Shelly Cahn, has a remarkable Jewish background. Shelly’s paternal great-grandfather, Leopold Cahn, was born March 13, 1864, in San Francisco. Leopold’s grandparents came from Bouxwiller in Alsace, France, and have typical Jewish surnames from that region: Cahn, Loeb, Weyl and Bamberger. And on and on.

Some people like to do crossword puzzles. I like to do genealogy.

I got started in third grade with a family tree assignment. You know how it is when you’re a kid and you find out you’re good at something? I wish it had been baseball, but it turned out to be genealogy.

After consulting with my maternal grandmother and a new biography on my paternal grandfather, Austrian composer Arnold Schoenberg, I came back to school with an enormous, deep family tree, stretching back to the 1700s.

From then on, genealogy was my passion.

Amazingly, after 40-plus years, I keep finding new things. As resources become available online and get indexed, searching for new clues is just too much fun.

But in between discoveries of my own, I like to keep busy by working on other people’s trees. That’s how you really learn to be a genealogist.

A while back, I started a project on, my favorite genealogy platform, to explore the family trees of famous Jews throughout history. It’s called the Jewish Celebrity Birthday Project, and it lists all of the famous Jews I can find, with links to their family trees.

We’ve got all the Nobel Prize winners, the musicians, actors, politicians, even the baseball players. You can click on a name, and Geni’s World Family Tree will tell you how you’re connected to them — if not directly, then cousin to cousin to cousin.

For Jews, a connection is pretty much automatic. It turns out we’re all pretty closely related.

As for Joc Pederson of the Dodgers, let’s keep following his branches.

His Cahn ancestors came first to New Orleans in the 1840s. Leopold’s father, Israel, was a wool merchant. He and his brothers moved on to Monterey, Calif., and ended up in San Francisco, where they were charter members of Temple Emanuel. Shelly’s paternal grandmother, Zelda Sugarman, was born in 1907 in San Francisco, one year after the great earthquake, to parents who had emigrated from Russia around 1889. Her father, Michael, owned an iron and metal business.

The family of Shelly’s mother, Suzanne Heyman, is even more fascinating. Suzanne’s paternal grandfather, Samuel Heyman, was born Feb. 20, 1869, in New York to a family of German immigrants from Glückstadt in Schleswig-Holstein, while her grandmother, Fannie Morris, was born Oct. 4, 1873, in San Francisco. Fannie’s father was from Poland, but her mother, Bessie Adler, was born in New York in 1857 to parents from Poland and Germany.

Is that close enough to ask for tickets to the World Series?

Suzanne’s maternal grandfather, Charles Weil, was born Dec. 12 , 1871, in Hornersville, Mo., before his family moved to Modesto, Calif. His father was from Germany, but his mother, Fannie Parara, was born Sept. 2, 1852, in Providence, R.I. Fannie’s father was Salomon Abraham Rodrigues Pereira, born Nov. 9, 1809, in Amsterdam, descended on his father’s side from that city’s large Sephardic community, with ancestors also named Querido, d’Aguilar, Barzilay, Quiros, Provencal, Belmonte, Tartas, Abendana and Baruch. Salomon’s mother, Meintje Levie de Goede Stodel, was not Sephardic, but also descends from a large Dutch-Jewish family, as did Salomon’s wife, Mietje Halberstadt.

Finally, Suzanne’s maternal grandmother, Ancie Weil, was born January 20, 1878 in Shasta, Calif., to parents from Germany. Ancie’s father, Joseph Anschel Weil, was born Aug. 30, 1841, in Steinsfurth and was an early pioneer in Shasta. In a book on Old Shasta, you can see an old photo of Joseph and his brother David, early vintners in the area.

Joseph Weil


Using the genealogical resources we have available online today, I could come up with this tree for Joc Pederson’s maternal ancestors in a matter of hours, while watching him play a game. It turns out we’re not that distantly related. The niece of Joc’s great-great-great-grandmother Fannie Weil (Parara) married Joseph Stampfer, my second cousin three times removed.

Is that close enough to ask for tickets to the World Series?

E. Randol Schoenberg is an attorney and a law lecturer at USC.

Jewish Educational Trade School student Isser Brikman works with Jewish Home resident Michael Candiotti on a computer-based genealogy project. Photo courtesy of JETS.

Seniors team with teens to trace family trees online

The sign in the library at the Los Angeles Jewish Home reads, “Silence is appreciated in the Library,” but on one recent stormy Sunday, the place was positively abuzz with activity.

Six residents of the senior living home and six teens from the Jewish Educational Trade School (JETS) sat in a row, each in front of a computer monitor. More teens loitered around, and elders sat in plush leather armchairs, waiting for their turns at the computer.

The seniors brought binders and notebooks with biographical details about relatives, and as they spelled out place names and birth dates, the students keyed the data into, a genealogy website.

For the students, the Jan. 22 afternoon get-together was a capstone, of sorts. They’d spent eight weeks learning about genealogy in a not-for-credit seminar taught by E. Randol Schoenberg, an attorney who made a name and a fortune reclaiming Jewish-owned art looted by the Nazis. As their final project, the students volunteered to help the seniors upload information that connects them to a global Jewish family tree.

“Teenagers are tech savvy, but it’s the seniors who want to put up their family trees,” said Rabbi Naftali Smith, the principal of JETS, who accompanied the teens to the Jewish Home.

For the seniors, such as Joe Levoff, 86, who was born in Shanghai, the session provided an opportunity to explore their roots. “I’m always interested to know where I came from, how far back I can go,” he said.

The idea undergirding Jewish genealogy, Schoenberg explained, is that Jews really are one big family.

“It’s like this giant, connected puzzle where we’re all related,” he said. illustrates that fact by allowing users to search for their connections with anybody whose family history is logged on the website. So, for instance, it turned out that Levoff’s student mentor was also his aunt’s nephew’s ex-wife’s second cousin’s ex-husband’s first cousin’s husband’s great nephew, according to

But here’s the catch: You can find connections only if you’ve added enough information about yourself to link you to the global network of connections already uploaded to Geni’s World Family Tree. Schoenberg curates about 152,000 of these profiles.

So by helping the seniors log their data, the students were linking them to a network that includes, in theory, every Jew in recorded history. Some lucky seniors had enough information during the two-hour session to plug them into this massive family tree.

The students had only recently experienced this phenomenon themselves.

Oran Gabriel Sherman, 16, said Schoenberg helped him find his great-grandfather in Russia. Sherman hadn’t known he had any Russian ancestry. The search had even turned up a photo of his great-grandfather  — “He’s a good-looking guy,” he said — that shocked him.

He showed the photograph to his grandmother. “She was amazed herself,” he said.

Another JETS student, Isser Brikman dutifully typed as Dorothy Scott, 94, the senior home’s resident chaplain, leaned forward and spelled names of places and people in a commanding staccato. For Scott, whose childhood ended when her family was displaced by the Holocaust, the exercise carried an extra weight.

“We, the children, don’t know anything about who we are,” she said.

Schoenberg considers the event a success, and is looking to repeat the seminar at JETS or other schools.

“This was totally experimental,” he said. “It worked.

My fifth-grade family tree project

My son Joey’s fifth-grade class at Sinai Akiba Academy is participating in the worldwide “My Family Story” competition sponsored by Beit Hatfutsot, the Museum of the Jewish People, on the campus of Tel Aviv University. The kids have to start by building a family tree, and then they put together an art project. The winners get a trip to Israel for an exhibit at the museum. Last year 13,000 students participated.

Rather than try to live vicariously through Joey’s project, I decided that I would do my own project alongside his. I have been working on my family tree for about 40 years, since I did my own grade-school family tree assignment in third-grade. Over the years, I’ve become something of an expert in the field of Jewish genealogy, serving on the board of, the Internet hub for Jewish genealogy, and as a curator for’s World Family Tree, an online collaborative tree with about 87 million connected profiles and more than 3 million connected users. Last year, I launched a Facebook group called the Jewish Genealogy Portal, which already has over 4,000 members.

My project was to try to get all 53 kids in Joey’s class connected to each other in one tree. is the perfect platform for this experiment, as it has by far the largest online tree. I quickly found about half of the kids in the class were already on Geni. Connecting to the World Family Tree is not hard for most families. If you add someone who matches a person in someone else’s tree, you merge the trees together. Once you are merged into the World Family Tree, Geni’s relationship finder can often find the shortest relationship path between two people in the tree (actually a very difficult computational task). In the Jewish parts of the tree, finding a relationship is pretty much automatic. Everyone is related by marriage, cousin to cousin to cousin. This turns out to be true, regardless of where you are from. Sephardic, Ashkenazi, Persian, Mizrachi, Yemeni, Italian — it doesn’t matter. By now, all Jews in the world are very closely related or connected to one another.

Getting the rest of the kids in the class connected required some effort. First I wrote to all the parents, explaining the project and offering to help get them connected. That quickly helped bring me up to 35 kids. Cajoling the remaining 18 families to participate proved to be more difficult. Some were afraid of identity theft, which really is not a risk from online genealogy, although many people wrongly think it is. (In any case, Geni makes living people private by default.) I used every opportunity to plead my case. And I tried to find other people who could help connect to the remaining families. After a few weeks, I decided to start the remaining trees myself. That helped me find connections to several of them, because Geni alerted me to a match in another tree that I had missed.  

I used every resource at my disposal and ultimately succeeded in linking up the last remaining kids in Joey’s class. That’s right. All 53 kids were connected to one another in one single family tree. As I connected the kids to Joey, I printed out the relationship paths and he brought them to school to show his classmates. Joey told me that some of the girls weren’t so excited to be related to a boy in the class, which of course only made him more eager to show them the connection.

The relationship between Joey and his 52 classmates wasn’t necessarily very close, but the connection could be found. One boy turned out to be a distant blood relative, Joey’s 15th cousin thrice removed. The rest were connected by marriage, with between 16 and 42 steps between the kids and Joey. (An immediate family member  — parent, spouse, sibling, child — is considered one step away.) The average distance was 28 steps.

Although many people believe that their family trees are private, it turns out that we all leave enough traces on the Internet for someone to figure out our family relationships. Of course, the whole idea of living anonymously is a recent construct. Think back to the villages in which our ancestors lived. There wasn’t a person in town who didn’t know who your parents and grandparents were, or who wasn’t connected to you (by blood or marriage) in some way. Geni’s World Family Tree is allowing us to re-establish this same level of connectivity on a much more massive scale. There is no denying the fact that we are all connected to each other.

To prove this point, best-selling author A.J. Jacobs is writing a book on genealogy and is convening a Global Family Reunion to benefit Alzheimer’s research on June 6, 2015 at the New York Hall of Science. Who’s invited? You! And all 7 billion members of the human family. Those with a proven connection to A.J. (via Geni) will get a bracelet and be part of the biggest family photo in history. (See for more information.)

I don’t know whether I will be attending the Global Family Reunion, and Joey hasn’t decided what his art project will be for the My Family Story contest, but we’ve already learned a lot, not only about our own family, but about how connected we are to everyone else in the world. Building a family tree doesn’t have to be just an assignment for fifth-graders; it can be a project for the whole family, the whole class and even the whole world. 

E. Randol Schoenberg is president of the Los Angeles Museum of the Holocaust.

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 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,, or the very popular 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, 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 and I can help you get started. 

‘Finding Your Roots’ explores Jewish genealogy

Singer-songwriter Carole King’s Russian grandmother barely escaped a pogrom that killed 32 of her neighbors. 

Playwright Tony Kushner lost many relatives in a 1941 massacre of Polish Jews. 

Criminal defense attorney and former Harvard law professor Alan Dershowitz’s grandfather got 28 relatives out of Czechoslovakia in 1939 by guaranteeing them employment in the basement synagogue he ran in the Williams-burg section of Brooklyn, N.Y. The ones left behind were never heard from again. 

These shocking truths are part of the family histories that are revealed to each of these Jewish celebrities for the first time in the Nov. 4 episode of the PBS series “Finding Your Roots With Henry Louis Gates Jr.,” now in its second season on PBS. 

Titled “Our People, Our Traditions,” the episode’s theme is strength and survival in the face of religious persecution. Each of the revealed histories includes stories of pogroms and the Holocaust. 

“We found firsthand accounts of the massacre of Tony Kushner’s ancestors in the Bukowinka Forest in 1941, including rare accounts by survivors and by a German officer who participated in the killings,” Gates, a Harvard professor and the series’ producer and host, told the Journal in an email. “We also found the original affidavits that Alan Dershowitz’s grandfather, Louis Dershowitz, used to help his relatives escape Czechoslovakia right before the Nazi invasion.” 

Admittedly, Gates got lucky in finding that evidence, and in obtaining Russian marriage records that enabled his research team to trace King’s family back to the 18th century. 

“It’s always very challenging to trace Eastern European Jewish ancestry because there are so few documents. These are a people who were oppressed for centuries and seen as less than human. Many were illiterate. As a result, very few records of their lives were kept, and very few of those records were saved,” Gates explained. “Also, they lived in a region marked by shifting borders and countless wars, which made written records even harder to trace. A few townships actually have excellent records, but not many. And the tragedy of the Holocaust erased even more evidence of their lives.” 

However, Gates added, “I liked challenges, especially challenges that yield meaningful content. And Jewish genealogy is just that: a huge, meaningful challenge. If you can succeed in finding those lost ancestors and their stories, it’s deeply rewarding, both for the guest and for me as a scholar. 

“Jewish history is fraught with struggle and suffering, and I always find that so moving. And, of course, each of my guests did as well,” Gates continued. “Though their Jewish identity means something very different to each of them, for all three it was also an important part of their sense of self. Tragedy and loss deepen our connection to our roots, and especially to the history that was stolen from us. All three of our Jewish guests wept when we showed them the original documents that recorded what their ancestors endured.” 

Such revelations deeply affect the series’ participants, Gates consistently finds. 

“They’ll call me or email me weeks later and tell me that they’re still thinking about what they learned, or that they want to know more. They are very proud of what their ancestors accomplished, even if their accomplishment was just to survive. And they are very grateful that their ancestors made sacrifices that laid the groundwork for their own success. They understand that their ancestors endured things that we probably could not endure. This was very true of the Jewish episode.” 

For example, Gates said that Dershowitz was humbled when he saw the names of his ancestors and heard all of their accomplishments. The legal scholar talked about how honored he was to have carried on their struggle — even though he himself never faced the challenges they did. 

Sometimes, Gates’ findings give participants new insights into a side of their relatives they never saw before. 

“Carole King remembered her grandmother as a tight-lipped, severe woman — someone she had never felt close to as a child. When she learned that her grandmother lived through a vicious pogrom that killed over 30 Jews in her hometown, she felt like she understood her better. It meant a lot to her.” 

King, born Carol Joan Klein in Brooklyn, also learns that her paternal grandparents had eloped and arrived at Ellis Island illiterate and with $2 between them. With no means of support, they were detained and would have been denied entry had a cousin, Sam Kline, not vouched for them. 

The Nov. 4 episode doesn’t represent the only time “Finding Your Roots” has revealed Jewish connections. Earlier this season, former WNBA basketball star Rebecca Lobo learned via DNA analysis that she has more than 10 percent Ashkenazi Jewish ancestry from one of her great-grandparents (it couldn’t be established which one). Actress Gloria Reuben got confirmation that her Jamaica-born father, who died when she was a child, was Jewish: His forebears had fled the Spanish Inquisition and its persecution of Jews.

“She was very moved because she knew so little about her family. It was very exciting for her,” Gates said of Reuben. “I don’t know if she’s attended a synagogue yet, but I can see it happening.” 

In the Nov. 25 finale episode, which focuses on DNA, actress Jessica Alba is surprised to discover that she has Sephardic Jewish ancestry on her father’s side. “I don’t think she’d ever even considered the possibility before that she had Jewish ancestors, but I can say that she was very intrigued,” Gates confirmed. He has already lined up such celebrities as Jamie Foxx, Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Jimmy Kimmel and Gloria Steinem for season three. 

Complicated genealogy research can easily cost $50,000, depending on the availability of records and the amount of original research required, he noted. “But we’ve done people for a lot less.” Gates suggests that people who want to investigate their own roots start with, which sponsors the series, by searching for their grandparents’ names. 

For Jewish genealogy, he said a good starting point is a website called JRI Poland ( 

“They are indexing and digitizing new documents every day. You should also reach out to local researchers in the towns where your ancestors lived,” Gates advised. “You never know what might be hidden in a tiny town archive or a newspaper archive. And, if you can, go there yourself. Visit the towns where your ancestors lived. Walk those streets. At the very least, you will get a sense of place to attach to your ancestors. Even that alone can be very meaningful.” 

VIDEO: Duke professor searches for ‘kohanim’ genetic marker

Dr. David B. Goldstein from Duke’s Institute for Genome Sciences and Policy talks about tracking the genetic history of the ancient Jewish priesthood (kohanim) and the Lost Tribe of Israel, the focus of his news book, “Jacob’s Legacy”.

Nation & World Briefs

Israeli Mystic Was 104, 106 or 112

To many Jews, he was the celebrity of the century, a mystic with mystique.

No one knows exactly the age of Rabbi Yitzhak Kadouri, who died of pneumonia late last month. The official statements of the Israeli religious party Shas, for which he served as charismatic figurehead and sage, said he was 106 years old. But other accounts spoke of 104 or 112.

Neither was it precisely possible to quantify Kadouri’s contribution to the Orthodox canon. Unlike other leading rabbis, he left no great writings and never specialized in founding yeshivot.

Yet, close to a quarter-million mourners, including Israel’s chief rabbis and political notables, attended Kadouri’s funeral in Jerusalem on Sunday, Jan. 29, bringing the capital to a halt as his coffin was borne through the streets.

Israeli President Moshe Katsav eulogized him as “one of the outstanding leaders of the Jewish people in the past generations.”

Kadouri was the first name in kabbalah — a discipline which, almost by definition, fits those who seem more ethereal than others.

Well before the Kabbalah Centre in Los Angeles began recruiting superstars like Madonna, well before kabbalah was well known outside the secretive circles of Jewish mystics, Kadouri was studying it, prognosticating and even concocting his own talismans.

The Iraqi-born rabbi was an icon to Sephardic Jews, who attributed special powers to even the most mundane items — such as chairs and food — that he touched. Kadouri contributed to this image with a lifestyle at once virile and ascetic. A resident of Jerusalem’s impoverished Bukhari Quarter for most of his life, he chain-smoked cheap cigarettes with little apparent impact on his health, and was married twice — the second time when in his 90s, to a woman half his age.

Katsav called him “a symbol and example to all of the repudiation of materialism.”

His influence was important to the hordes of politicians who would seek Kadouri’s counsel, especially around election time. In 1996, Shas leader Aryeh Deri persuaded Kadouri to endorse the party, and it went on to major gains in the Knesset.

Kadouri’s support also helped Benjamin Netanyahu, a Shas ally, win the premiership in 1997.

“What interested him was that the religious parties would help the people of Israel and the Torah world,” Deri said.

Israel Continues PA Contacts

Israel’s acting prime minister said ties to the Palestinian Authority would continue as long as it is not led by Hamas. Ehud Olmert said the monthly transfers of taxes levied on behalf of the Palestinians by Israel would continue, but on a case-by-case basis, as long as Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas remains independent of Hamas, the Islamic terrorist group that won parliamentary elections last month. Addressing a Tel Aviv economic conference, Olmert said that withholding the tax transfers, which he had considered, would only “play into the hands of the extremists.”

The Palestinians have several weeks to form a new Palestinian Authority government. Abbas has tried to assuage international concerns by proposing that he keep control of security forces even if Hamas ministers are appointed.

Gaza Farmers to Get Retraining

The Hebrew University of Jerusalem plans to retrain evacuated Gaza Strip settlement farmers. The university announced this week that around 100 farmers evacuated from Gaza would receive advanced training at its Faculty of Agricultural, Food and Environmental Quality Sciences. The government-funded studies begin March 5 and will last between six and 24 months. The project is intended to give the evacuees high-level professional training and help them return to work and re-establish farms.

Settlements Are Really Expensive

Settlements have cost Israelis more than $14 billion, not counting military expenditures, an independent Israeli study said. The study, released last Friday by the Research Institute for Economic and Social Affairs, also said the government spends twice as much on settlements as it does on local authorities inside Israel. The institute, funded by a German group that backs Israel-Arab dialogue, took 18 months to calculate the costs of four decades of settlement in areas claimed by the Palestinians. The government refused to provide assistance. There are about 250,000 settlers now living in the West Bank.

New Genealogical Center Opens

An institute devoted to Jewish genealogical research and study opened this week in Jerusalem. Described as the only one of its kind in the Jewish world, the International Institute for Jewish Genealogy at the Jewish National and University Library, is headed by Yosef Lamdan, a former Israeli ambassador to the Vatican. According to Lamdan, the institute will focus on teaching, research and collaborative projects of practical benefit to family historians. Jewish genealogy has gained immense popularity across the Jewish world over the last two decades, and especially since the rise of the Internet.

Emma Thompson Backs Anne Frank Site

Actress Emma Thompson helped launch a new Web site connected to the Anne Frank museum. Thompson placed her name on a leaf at the Amsterdam museum last week. Visitors to the Web site can attach a story or a poem about what Anne Frank means to them to a cyber “chestnut tree,” a replica of the tree that sat outside her attic.

Briefs courtesy Jewish telegraphic Agency.


John Kerry’s Jewish Brother

When Cameron Kerry fell in love with Oak Park, Mich., native Kathy Weinman, he chose to convert from Catholicism to Judaism.

Little did he know that he already had a strong Jewish connection. His father’s parents were Jewish — a fact uncovered last year when the Boston Globe hired a genealogist to check into the family roots of his brother, John Kerry, the Democratic presidential frontrunner thought by many to be of Irish background.

The Kerry family was traced back to a small town in the Austrian empire, now part of the Czech Republic. There, the paper discovered that before immigrating to America, the Kerrys changed their name from Kohn and converted from Judaism to Catholicism.

“It was mind-blowing,” said Cam Kerry about first learning his grandparents’ true history from the newspaper story. Also surprising to him was the number of Jews in his synagogue who came up to him with similar stories. “It’s an American story, ” he said.

It also could be a powerful Jewish story if John Kerry wins the White House. He would be the first president of the United States with Jewish roots.

“If my zaydie could see this election,” said Anne Weinman, Cam’s Farmington Hills mother-in-law, who with her husband, Joe, originally emigrated from Eastern Europe. “Joe and I are first-generation Americans and it was inconceivable back then that we could be connected to the president of the United States.”

“We have to pinch ourselves once in a while. It’s amazing to have a ringside seat to history in the making,” added Cam’s wife, Kathy Weinman.

Kathy and the couple’s two daughters, ages 13 and 17, have also participated in making history. They were in New Hampshire during the primary. Her daughters campaigned for their uncle, knocking on doors, making calls and holding up signs. Their elder daughter worked in Iowa and volunteered for the Kerry campaign last summer.

Cam, 53, has taken time off from his law firm, Mintz Levin in Boston, and from his position as an adjunct telecommunications law professor at Suffolk Law School there, to work on his brother’s presidential campaign. Last week, prior to the Michigan Democratic caucuses on Feb. 7, he was in Detroit stumping for his brother. He stayed with his in-laws in Farmington Hills, where, Anne said, she keeps a kosher kitchen, and Cam, who is knowledgeable of Jewish dietary laws, is one of the few people she trusts in it.

Role Of Judaism

Cam’s wife, Kathy, 49, attended Oak Park High School and went to Hebrew school at Congregation B’nai David in Southfield, Mich. Her mother is a former English teacher at Berkley High and her father was part-owner of Murray Lighting in Detroit. The Weinmans now belong to Congregation Beth Ahm in West Bloomfield.

After graduating from the University of Michigan law school in 1979 — magna cum laude — Kathy got her first job at a law firm in Washington, D.C. At the same firm she met Cam, also a magna cum laude graduate (of Boston College Law School). The two were married in 1983. Though brought up Catholic, he decided to convert to Judaism before the marriage.

“I was influenced by Kathy,” Cam said. “Judaism is deeply held and meaningful to her. Early on, we established we would raise any children we had as Jewish. So it flowed from that. To be a full participant in their religious education, I would convert.”

Cam said what appealed to him about Judaism was the role of study in the religion, that it valued learning and intellectual pursuits, which were comfortable and a part of his upbringing.

He added that standing on the bimah for each of his daughters’ bat mitzvahs as a full participant made his religious commitments well worth it.

“Judaism is central to us,” said Kathy, who is active in her suburban Boston synagogue, Temple Israel in Brookline. “Judaism is a core of my life and important to our family.”

When asked how the Catholic and Jewish sides of the family relate, Kathy replied, “It’s a terrific relationship.”

She said that candidate Kerry was supportive when his brother converted to Judaism. He and his family have attended both nieces’ baby namings and bat mitzvahs. Kathy said she is very close to John Kerry’s two daughters.

And the Weinman and Kerry families have become mishpachah, said Anne Weinman. Cam’s late “blueblood” mother, Rosemary, whose heritage goes back to colonial times with family names like Winthrop and Forbes, and his late father, Richard, were wonderful people proud of all four of their children: Peggy, John, Diana and Cam. She adds that the Kerry family — including Cam’s parents and John — were present when Cam and Kathy’s daughters were named at the temple.

“Religion has never been an issue between Cam and his [side of the] family,” Kathy said. “John’s always loved participating in our happy occasions. He’s always been there and part of our family.”

The Weinmans say they are very active in the Kerry campaign. They support the candidate because of his stand on the environment and education, Anne said.

“I have a greater appreciation for the early caucus and primaries and the role they play,” Kathy said. “Our country is so big and it’s impossible for everyone to know the candidates. But the Iowans and the people of New Hampshire get that opportunity. We saw them get to know my brother-in-law and his opponents. They made their judgment from the place of knowledge and understanding.”

Of course, when asking Cam or the Weinmans why people should vote for Kerry, you won’t get a strengths-and-weaknesses kind of answer. However, the warmth and intimacy of the reply gives another insight into this political family of diverse backgrounds.

“There’s nobody else I want by my side in a tough situation than my brother,” said the easygoing Cam, who has been at his brother’s side for all of John’s campaigns for office. “In times of war and great economic challenge, he’s the kind of leader we need.”

This article originally appeared in the Detroit Jewish News.

‘Finding Ourselves’ Through Genealogy

“In this fast-food, fast-fame world, we are like singleblades of grass,” says Dr. Maya Angelou, the poet, author and historian. “Butwhen we know our roots, we are like trees and we stand a little more erect.”

The pithy remark can serve as both introduction andsummation of “Finding Our Families, Finding Ourselves,” an exhibit ofremarkable scope and imagination, opening Tuesday, Feb. 11, at the Museum of Toleranceof the Simon Wiesenthal Center.

In exploring the roots and genealogy of nine famous Americansof diverse accomplishments and ethnicities, the exhibit illustrates both thesingularity and the common strands of our experiences in this nation, whetherour ancestors arrived as immigrants, as slaves or were among the originalnatives.

Even for the Wiesenthal Center leadership, which likes tothink big, the statistics for the project are impressive. As the largestmultimedia exhibit in the decade since the museum’s opening, “Finding OurFamilies” took seven years from concept to completion, cost $7 million andextends over 10,000 square feet of the museum’s third floor.

Its centerpiece is the reconstruction of the childhoodmilieu of four of the nine diverse Americans.

For Angelou, it is the general story of the early 1930s inStamps, Ark., where her African American grandmother raised Angelou and herbrother after they had been abandoned by their mother.

For actor-comedian-director Billy Crystal, whose father diedwhen he was 15, it is a Brooklyn apartment on Fulton Street, re-imagined fromwatercolors painted by his uncle.

Another Brooklyn setting is the dinner table of the ItalianAmerican family of Joe Torre, National League Most Valuable Player and managerof the four-time World Series champion New York Yankees.

A simulated recording studio reflects the life of CarlosSantana, multiple Grammy winner and Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Famer, as he recallshis Mexican heritage.

Complementing the in-depth excursions into the past, someextending four centuries back, are video encounters with five other literary andsports figures. They are basketball great Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Native Americanauthor and poet Sherman Alexie, figure skating champion Michelle Kwan,journalist and talk show host Cristina Saralegui and quarterback Steve Young ofthe San Francisco 49ers and National Football League Player of the Year.

A visitor mounting the stairs to the exhibit floor hearsfirst the voices of past immigrants arriving in America and then faces ajumbled attic with mementos hinting at the lives of the nine featured men andwomen.

Crystal, in appropriate immigrant garb, welcomes visitorswith a tongue-in-cheek video spiel, as he struggles with a heavy trunk (“Didthey have to bring the stove along?”) and salutes the huddled masses who”dreamed of a land with indoor plumbing.”

Passing a strategically placed camera, visitors becomeinstant new immigrants, passing through Ellis Island and its dreadedexamination and detention rooms, as well as a display of historic artifacts.

Next, a large, abstract “quilt,” featuring video segments ofthe nine participants, leads into the four rooms recreating the childhoodsettings of Angelou, Crystal, Santana and Torre.

At the end of the approximately 80-minute tour, a bank ofcomputers guides visitors in the initial steps toward discovering their ownfamily histories.

The seeds of the exhibit were planted in early 1996, whenNew York-based genealogist Rafael (Rafi) Guber met with Rabbi Marvin Hier,founder and dean of the Wiesenthal Center, to broach the idea of an innovativeproject on family histories.

“Two minutes into my pitch, Hier said, ‘Let’s make ithappen,'”Guber recalled (see page 15).

Shortly afterward, and quite separately, Guber was contactedby Janice Crystal, Billy’ wife, who commissioned Guber to explore the historiesof her parents’ Polish Jewish and Irish Catholic forebears as a 50th weddinganniversary present. Happy with the results, she next asked Guber to do thesame for her husband’s family, as a surprise for his 50th birthday.

It wasn’t long before the Crystals and Hier, linked byGuber, decided to merge their efforts and the actor and his wife assumed theresponsibilities as executive producers for the future “Finding Our Families”exhibit.

“We wanted the project to be unique and fun, unlike anyother museum experience, with a sense of humor, immediacy and atmosphere,”recalled Billy Crystal. “Ultimately, we wanted to inspire people to go out andsearch for their own stories and find their own mentors and heroes.”

For the Wiesenthal Center, there was the added incentive ofcreating a child-friendly exhibit in a place devoted largely to more matureHolocaust and racial prejudice themes, said Liebe Geft, director of the Museumof Tolerance. School tours of “Finding Our Families” are planned forthird-graders on up, while families visiting on their own are encouraged tobring children of any age.

All of the nine participants in the project made discoveriesabout their ancestors to reinforce Angelou’s dictum that “it is impossible toknow where you’re going, unless you know where you’ve been.”

Poet Alexie found out that his grandfather, killed in actionin the Pacific, was a World War II hero, and he learned something more.

“I’m realizing that every family has Shakespeare in it,”Alexie says. “Every family has a King Lear and a Hamlet and a Romeo and Juliet,regardless of skin color or income level.”

Santana, remembering a father who played at baptisms and barmitzvahs, traced his lineage back to 1715. Marveling at the hosts of newlyfound ancestors, Santana exclaims, “I am a walking world, a walking universe.”

Torre discovered his mother’s home in the Italian villagewhere she was born and in a visit, found that a third of its residents wererelated to him. As in many other immigrant families, Torre credits much of hissuccess to an indomitable mother, who, in his case, shielded the children fromtheir abusive father.

Angelou, with whom The Jewish Journal connected in KansasCity during a break in her one-month trek by private bus from Winston-Salem,N.C., to Los Angeles, said she got to know for the first time the names andexistence of enslaved ancestors.

Crystal was startled to find out that one of hisgreat-grandfathers was an apparent bigamist, who maintained two separatehouseholds — one in Brooklyn, the other in Queens — and gave the same firstnames to his children in both family arrangements.

Even Hier learned that when his father, Jacob Hier, a lamppolisher by trade, arrived at Ellis Island in 1921, he came within ahairbreadth of being deported back to Poland because a relative, who wassupposed to meet him, didn’t show up for 28 days.

As in Hier’s and Torre’s cases, Guber said he finds thatships’ manifests, listing the names of passengers, are often the first clues toan immigrant ancestor’s arrival and life in the United States. Such a manifest,now accessible via the Internet, often “leads to 24 other documents,” Gubernoted.

However, he warned amateur researchers to be careful aboutthe quality and proliferation of genealogy Web sites, which are now second innumber only to pornographic sites.

Among the exhibit’s creative talent are producer-designersDoris and Geoff Woodward of Taft Design, who worked off initial concepts byWalt Disney Imagineering.

On Monday evening, Feb. 10, the opening of the exhibit willbe celebrated during a tribute dinner at the Beverly Hilton Hotel. Among thehonorees will be Billy and Janice Crystal, Angelou and Torre, with Santanadoubling as honoree and entertainer.

“Finding Our Families, Finding Ourselves” will open to thegeneral public on Tuesday, Feb. 11, and will remain at the museum for at leastthree years. Tickets may be purchased for the exhibit alone or in combinationwith an extended visit to the entire museum. For information, phone (310)553-8403; or visit

The exhibit will require a large number of docents andvolunteers. For information, call Dr. Carolyn Brucken at (310) 772-2508.  

Web Helps Jews Trace Genes

Seven years ago, Montreal businessman Stan Diamond arranged to index the Jewish records of his ancestral town of Ostrow Mazowiecka, Poland, because he wanted to trace the path of a rare genetic condition within his family tree.

Diamond’s goal was medical as well as genealogical, since he sought to alert potential carriers of the beta thalassemia trait of the hazard involved. Offspring of two carriers stand a one-in-four chance of acquiring a blood disease that is always fatal, usually before they are 20.

After tracing his own ancestry back to 1760, and finding and warning many distant relatives with the genetic trait, Diamond realized that a wider indexing project would be a boon for thousands of Jewish genealogists.

“I began to think, ‘Wouldn’t it be wonderful if we could do this for all of Poland?'” he recalls.

With the help of fellow genealogists Steven Zedeck of Nashua, N.H., and Michael Tobias of Glasgow, Scotland, he became coordinator of the Jewish Records Indexing Project (JRI) for Poland, which to date has produced an index of 1.8 million vital Jewish records from the 19th century.

The index is easily accessible and searchable on the Internet, where it is consulted by hundreds of researchers every day.

The project relies upon a widespread network of hundreds of volunteers whose efforts are coordinated largely over the Internet.

It also employs several Russian-born data-entry clerks in Warsaw. Facility with both Russian and Polish is essential for these workers because the record books were handwritten in Polish until 1868 and in Russian thereafter.

A former manufacturer of decorated ceilings and the president of the Jewish Genealogical Society of Montreal, Diamond estimates that roughly 20 percent of all available Polish Jewish records have been included in the JRI-Poland database so far.

It is the largest and perhaps the most impressive of about 60 indexing projects accessible via JewishGen, the Internet gateway to Jewish genealogy.

In its six-year existence, JewishGen has experienced explosive growth. The nonprofit communal organization maintains a Web site that is a focal point for daily discussion groups and many volunteer projects, including an effort to post a growing number of searchable databases to the net.

The Jewish Genealogical Family Finder (JGFF), a computerized listing of researchers’ ancestral surnames and towns, offers a striking example of the phenomenal rise in popularity of Jewish genealogy in recent years.

In its first 14 years, the JGFF grew to include about 3,200 participants until it was taken over by JewishGen in 1996. Since then, an additional 60,000 people have contributed their research details.

“The number of people doing Jewish genealogy has unquestionably grown enormously,” said Gary Mokotoff, head of the New Jersey-based Jewish genealogical publishing house, Avotaynu Inc.

Since the advent of the Internet, the annual gatherings of the genealogical community have swelled in size. Between 800 and 1,000 registrants are expected at the 22nd international conference on Jewish genealogy in Toronto from Aug. 4-9.

Diamond and Mokotoff are among a roster of international speakers slated to deliver more than 150 talks at the conference. Diamond is a possible recipient of an award, presented each year by the conference’s host group, the International Association of Jewish Genealogical Societies.

The gamut of conference topics ranges from the latest developments in genetics and DNA research to the newest wrinkles in the age-old pursuit of tracing the lineages of King David and the medieval sage Rashi. Other topics include how to find records in many Jewish ancestral lands, how to trace Holocaust victims, how to get the best results from the Ellis Island database of passenger arrivals to New York, how to find cousins in Israel, and much more.

The conference also offers a beginners workshop, numerous meetings of special-interest groups, a vendors marketplace and nightly screenings of roots-related video documentaries.

Thanks to the advent of the Internet and the opening up of archives in Eastern Europe and other factors, there’s never been a better time to be doing Jewish genealogy, according to Diamond.

“Everything used to be against us, with the whole process of writing letters and making expensive long-distance phone calls,” he said. “Now it seems all the pins are falling into place.”

New Route for Roots

It’s virtually "genealogy for dummies."

In a nation of immigrants where more than 35 percent of the population — or 100 million Americans — have at least one relative who passed through Ellis Island, officials at that historic entry point to New York have unveiled a new Web site that will enable even the least tech-savvy to mine a mother lode of information on their families’ roots.

"This marks an immigrant’s first footstep in America and provides information leading back to Europe and forward into America," said Peg Zitko, spokeswoman for the Statue of Liberty-Ellis Island Foundation, Inc.

Some immigrants, she said, "were very specific about which street they lived on in Kiev and which street they were going to in Cleveland."

The treasure trove of data, accessible at, is being gobbled up by a public that reportedly cites "family history research" as among its favorite interests.

As soon as it opened at 6 p.m., April 17, the Web site averaged 27,000 hits per second and recorded 26 million hits in its first 54 hours, Zitko said. At first, only one in seven would-be genealogists could access the site, she said, but the bottleneck eased somewhat this week as additional database servers quadrupled the site’s memory.

The new Web site, offering information of staggering depth and access, promises to revolutionize the field of genealogy.

Experienced researchers also are happy to save hours formerly spent scrolling tediously through microfilm. "Our ancestors are for the most part forgotten, but doing this brings a part of them back," said Adam Bronstein, who serves on the executive council of the New York-based Jewish Genealogical Society.

Bronstein was impressed with the site in the brief time he gained access but said he would have preferred an "advanced search function" to do a more detailed search. Still, he understood the need for a utilitarian approach: "I could see how they’d dummy it up for people who have never done this," he said.

Indeed, as Zitko said, "The database was designed to be user-friendly, not something complicated."

The Web site contains records of the 17 million immigrants — and 5 million other travelers and crew members — who passed through Ellis Island between 1892 and 1924.

Online records will display details in as many as 11 fields regarding an immigrant: given name; surname; ethnicity; town and country of last residence; date of arrival; age on arrival; gender; marital status; ship number; port of departure; and line number on the ship’s manifest.

In some cases, information may include the immigrant’s occupation and mother tongue.

Perhaps most remarkably, the foundation has scanned 3 million pages of manifests and photos of 800 ships that docked at Ellis Island — some 85 percent of the total. For a fee, the foundation will provide an image of the precise page that lists one’s ancestor and of the ship he or she traveled on.

Crucial to the project were the 5.6 million hours logged by 12,000 volunteers from the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, or Mormons, as they are known, who are renowned for their keen interest in genealogy and their involvement in documenting Americans’ roots.

While the Mormon pursuit of what have been called "posthumous baptisms" raises some concern among Jews, many are grateful for the time and effort the Mormons have invested in the Ellis Island project. "Theirs was a significant gift, and it really cannot be underestimated," Zitko said. "They saved the foundation millions of dollars."

Visitors to the site are asked to enter a relative’s name, and the search begins. In some cases, however, this can be tricky. Names in Cyrillic, for example, might have numerous possible phonetic spellings in English. A name like Moskovic might also be spelled as Moskovich, Moskovitch, Moscovic, Moscovich or Moscovitch. Users therefore are advised to try several variations.

They also are warned not to believe one of the great myths of U.S. immigration history: that many names were Americanized and simplified at Ellis Island. If names were changed, it happened in the old country or after the immigrants’ arrival in America — not at the point of entry, Bronstein said.

"The names were written out on the tickets where they were purchased, with the original information, and the ship’s clerk would transcribe it," he said. "You’ll never see a manifest that was adulterated. It’s just like at the Division of Motor Vehicles; a clerk would never change a name just to make it easier to pronounce."

The database itself is not foolproof. Zitko conceded that some records may be missing; handwritten records may have been misinterpreted; and humans may have erred when entering information into the database. "There’s no way to guarantee you’ll find your family’s records here," she said. "But we can guarantee an interesting search experience. It’s about the adventure of the search."

For those Americans determined to pencil in the family tree, Zitko, Bronstein and others offer a further caution: the Web site is not a panacea that will unearth the entire tree with a simple click of a mouse.

While a significant launching point, the Ellis Island site is only the first step. Old-fashioned legwork still will be needed to fill in other gaps — from microfilm of U.S. censuses or naturalization documents or records at the national archives or county clerk’s office.

And, of course, primary sources shouldn’t be overlooked. "This site is great," Bronstein said, "but you can’t replace going to bubbe and zayde and hearing the real-life stories."

Connecting the Dots

A name and date in a yellowing ledger. An inscription on a crumbling tombstone. A birth certificate. A walk along a dusty street in an Eastern European village. A faded family photograph. Sometimes a newly discovered relative.

These are rich prizes for tens of thousands of Jews worldwide who dedicate time, energy, and sometimes considerable amounts of money, to researching and documenting their family history.

Interest among Jews in tracing their roots emerged in the late 1970s, but it has been in the decade since the collapse of communism that Jewish genealogy has come into its own.

For the first time since before the Holocaust, the fall of the Iron Curtain opened up ancestral Eastern and Central European Jewish homelands to travel and research.

Conditions are still difficult in some places, but people now can physically walk in the footsteps of their ancestors, as well as consult local documents such as birth, marriage, death and census records that were long kept off-limits to outsiders.

At the same time, the growth of the Internet opened up vast new resources, enabling roots-seekers to tap into ever-expanding databases and keep in touch via e-mail with fellow researchers and contacts in Eastern Europe, including newfound family.

Last August, for example, more than 1,200 people, the biggest crowd ever, attended the 19th Annual Conference on Jewish Genealogy in New York — and dozens more were turned away for lack of space.

In 1990, there were 39 Jewish genealogy societies worldwide. Today there are 75, with 8,000 registered members. They represent only a fraction of Jews who are interested in tracing their roots, however — some 30,000 people alone are registered with a “family finder” service on the leading Jewish genealogy Web site,

“I got involved when people started to contact me by e-mail asking me to check information, to do some research,” said Ladislau Gyemant, a Jewish and European history professor at Babes Bolyai University in Cluj, Romania, who carries out professional genealogical work in Romania and Hungary.

Jewish genealogist Miriam Weiner has been a major force in the movement. She negotiated agreements with post-Communist Polish and Ukrainian state archives to allow American Jews on-site access to genealogical data.

A former private detective, Weiner began researching her own family history more than two decades ago. She got so involved that she became the first certified Jewish genealogist — and turned her personal interest into a business.

Her home base in New Jersey is crammed with books, publications, maps, foreign phone directories, old photographs and postcards and other material about Eastern Europe. She lectures and writes a syndicated column, and has written and published comprehensive books on Jewish genealogical resources in Poland, Ukraine and Moldova.

Weiner regularly travels to Ukraine, Belarus, Poland and Moldova to carry out research for clients and also takes individuals or groups on research trips. In 1990, she organized the first Jewish genealogy tour to Poland that was officially sanctioned by the Polish State Archives and other state authorities.

For those who can’t make the trip, Weiner brings back copies of documents as well as photographs, souvenirs and videotapes of the ancestral town.

Sometimes, too, she puts American clients in touch with long-lost kin. This happens very rarely in Poland, where few Jews remain, but, she says, it is not uncommon in countries of the former Soviet Union.

Today’s Jewish genealogy phenomenon is part of a general boom. Last spring Time magazine ran a cover story on the genealogy craze, noting that millions of people of all ethnic backgrounds are looking for their roots.

This is related to a burgeoning sense of ethnic identity and awareness in recent years. “Roots” — the book by Alex Haley and the resulting TV mini-series in the late 1970s — played a major role, for example, in showing that genealogy was not the exclusive property of WASPs.

When “Finding Our Fathers” by Dan Rottenberg, the first how-to book on Jewish genealogy, was published in 1977, it represented the first time that many Jews learned it was possible to trace their family heritage — despite the ravages of the Holocaust, and the anonymity of earlier mass immigration.

“There is no question that the Holocaust is a major reason why so many of us want to trace our roots,” said Sallyann Amdur Sack, editor of Avotaynu, the International Review of Jewish Geneology, now in its 15th year of publication. “We have noted a sense of belonging to a long chain of history, one which Hitler came close to severing. In part, genealogical research represents a driven need to deny Hitler a victory.

“As the ‘help desk’ for the project, I have received countless inquiries of all varieties,” wrote Sack in Avotaynu. A woman in Canada “wanted to know why none of what she called ‘the major Jewish organizations’ have done this. Maybe the answer is that organized Jewish genealogy now is MAJOR.”

For more information, see the Web sites, Miriam Weiner’s Web site is