Unearthing China’s hidden Jewish past


When Shi Lei finished a presentation about China’s hidden Jewish past recently, his California State University, Northridge (CSUN), audience was full of questions.

They wanted to know more about the former synagogue in Shi’s hometown of Kaifeng and about his Jewish ancestors who settled there 1,000 years ago. One yenta, however, had more contemporary concerns on her mind:

“Is there a nice Jewish girl back in China for you to marry?”

Perhaps, but there can’t be too many, given that only about 500 people in Kaifeng, a city of more than 4 million in eastern China, identify themselves as Jews. How that came to be is a largely untold story that goes back centuries.

“I don’t think many people hear about Chinese Jews in Kaifeng,” Shi told the capacity crowd of about 100 on March 2. The tour guide, who has studied in Israel, visited the university as part of a cross-country speaking tour.

Originally, the Jewish merchants who were his ancestors came from Persia to China via the Silk Road. The first to settle was a group of about 1,000 that arrived in the late 10th or early 11th century. At the time, Kaifeng was China’s capital, and they were received by the emperor.

Shi said the emperor was pleased with their wares and happy to welcome them into his country. They were allowed to follow their own customs and even received citizenship. There was one problem, though.

“The emperor was confused about the names of these Jews. How to pronounce their names? No clue. What to do?” Shi said.

An easy solution, he said, was to give them the emperor’s own surname and those of his six ministers.

In 1163, the Jews bought property downtown and built their first synagogue, its size and location evidence of the merchants’ success. The structure, which no longer exists, mimicked the architecture of Asian temples.

Eventually, Shi explained, the Jewish community realized that the path to success in China was not through business but by civil service. In a way, this led to the community’s undoing.

“They [became] more and more involved in Chinese learning, but somehow at the expense of their Judaic studies,” Shi said.

Over time, they became ignorant of Jewish practices and began to intermarry. Their last rabbi died in 1810, and after rebuilding the synagogue numerous times over the years due to river floodings, they abandoned it in the 1850s.

“They forgot, in a word, all the Jewish practices,” Shi said.

They did not forget, however, their roots. The fact that they came from a Jewish background continued to be relayed from generation to generation as part of the culture’s stress on ancestor worship.

“These words — ‘You are Jewish. You are from Israel.’ — get passed down,” Shi said.

He speaks from experience. Always filled with a desire to go to Israel, the 33-year-old studied there for several years before returning to Kaifeng. Others have followed his example.

While Shi said that Israel does not consider the Jews of Kaifeng to be Jewish according to halachah, the community in China is in the process of revival. Individuals study Hebrew together, and even though there is no rabbi or synagogue, they celebrate major holidays and Shabbat in their own way.

Some physical reminders of the ancient community still exist. Inscribed stone monuments provide evidence of its history, not to mention Torahs and manuscripts housed around the world. (The Skirball Cultural Center offers occasional exhibitions on the Jews of Kaifeng and permits private group tours of related items from its collection.) Little remains in Kaifeng, however, where Shi has turned his grandparents’ house into a mini-museum dedicated to the city’s Jewish history.

He takes joy in talking about his past, like how the Jews of generations past circumvented a requirement to have a tablet in every house of worship praising the emperor by adding the word “shema” in golden Hebrew letters above the required inscription, indicating that God was above all else.

But he likes talking about the future, too.

“The community died,” he said. “Now it’s living again.”

Jody Myers, coordinator of the Jewish studies program at CSUN, said she believes Shi’s presentation offers an important way to remind people that Jews can be found across the globe.

“It’s a way to really show that we are a diverse people and we’re very interesting,” she said.

Shi’s speaking tour was sponsored by Kulanu. The New York-based nonprofit, whose name means “all of us” in Hebrew, supports isolated and emerging Jewish communities around the world.

“Kulanu stands for the idea that the Jewish world is a diverse world, that not all Jews are white or American or Israeli, that there are Jews in places you never thought of,” said Harriet Bograd, the organization’s president. “We think that American Jews are enriched by a knowledge of that.”

Creating a new community


When I moved from Miami to Los Angeles four months ago with a tenuous plan and a lofty dream, I packed my car with all the things I thought I would need to survive on my own: 600 thread-count Calvin Klein sheets (because a gal’s gotta dream), a Proust novel (intellectual sustenance to counterbalance tabloid shallowness), Villeroy and Boch silverware (a reluctant gift from my mother, who relinquished her extra set for my alimentary benefit), a portable navigation system (from my dad, who knew that without it I’d wind up in Mexico on the way to my first job interview), my Artscroll Tehillim (for times of gratitude and times of duress) and three journals my grandmother gave me the night before I left (in which to deposit the contents of my experience).

I was ready.

These are hardly the items to ensure safety and security for this 23-year-old woman leaving home for Hollywood. But upon arrival in the second-largest city in the country, I quickly had to discern between things needed to keep me happy and things needed to sustain viability here. I started shopping at South Coast Plaza — fabulous retail, ethnic food court, isolated anonymity — a comfortable destination. But soon enough pressing needs like, say, having an income, a residence and a California auto insurance policy (which my first car accident efficiently expedited) took precedent over bric-a-brac intended to furnish an abode I did not yet have.

What I needed was some help. What I needed was my family.

Every Shabbat for three months, I ached for their presence; the laughter tumbling through the hallways, the Friday afternoons spent cooking with my mother and sipping sauvignon blanc, kneading challah dough with my 15-year-old brother, who is quite deft at leveraging his religiosity for a day off from school. Most of all I missed the frustrating commotion of our time together: the competitive commiserating at the table, my father’s completely ridiculous jokes, my sister’s hurried recitation of the blessings so we could eat the raisin challah — already — and my grandmother’s prolific and endless anecdotes about everything from King David to President Bush.

When the grind of settling in subsided, I leased a studio-with-a-view in pristine Santa Monica and acquired a job in the film industry to foot the rent; I also regained the luxury of longing. Three thousand miles divided me from comfort and companionship, and though I was determined to forge ahead and establish my independence, I needed a community.

I spent weekends strolling down Main Street, eyes transfixed and ears abuzz with the Sunday morning bustle of Santa Monicans walking their dogs and carting their strollers, holding their babies and eating their brunches, sporting their iPods and donning couture — how do they put that much effort into early morning regalia? Now and then I’d make an acquaintance — in the Starbucks line (“Oh you love soy? I know — it tastes so rich!”) or at The Omelette Parlor (“Slather your muffin with apple butter … di-vine!”), but recreating the role of family takes more than casual conversation.

In order to integrate myself into the community here, I committed myself to two things: I would accept any invitation and seize every opportunity, either finding friendship or business connections, or at worst, acquiring fodder for amusing my editors and colleagues at the Journal. And if I turned on the television because I had nothing else to do, I resolved to leave the apartment.

I enrolled in a Jewish history class, which sounded very romantic, with its “4,000 years in four weeks cruise through the ancient world” motif. The age gap between me and the others in the class ran the gamut from 40-or-so years to 60.

Although it was not quite Saturday-evening fare, I was thoroughly embraced by peer and professor alike as the chronically late 20-something who hops over the desks for a discreet seat in the back and then countermands her carefully styled privacy by posing provocative questions. After all, connecting with your elders is a crucial threshold in community building and since my grandmother’s footfalls are a tough act to follow, it was going to take a village.

Another tool emerged vis-a-vis the Miami neighborhood of yore, as I endured an almost daily barrage of phone calls and e-mails from community members proffering their connections to help me put down roots. I was apprised of who to meet and where to go, and in typical Jewish fashion, heard a good deal of, “This one’s sister and that one’s brother knows someone, who knows someone, who knows someone living — somewhere — in Los Angeles.”

With nothing to lose but sleep, I complied with every insistence to connect.

Thus began a programmed routine of breakfast with film producers, sushi with television executives, coffee with Jewish musicians and, finally, a temple not to call home, but to recall home.

On Shabbat, I attended Friday Night Live, which brought me closer to the friend back home who recommended the event, while strengthening my bond to new friends, who came to the service because they knew how much it meant to me. With familiar melodies reverberating throughout the crowd, this was the moment I first felt the force of belonging — and challah never tasted so sweet!

As the days pass, the deep longings for my home and family, my temple, my rabbi, my mentors and friends, do not wane or wither.

But a different yearning forms and festers; an unfamiliar place gives birth to a new destiny, and my mind whirls with possibility — the dream of creating my own family begins to unfold.

Clues to family drama’s Jewish roots finally add up on ‘Numb3rs’


Add family drama plus FBI action, and the sum equals CBS’s hit drama, “Numb3rs.”The show, which just started its third season, is as much about fathers and sons as it is about using mathematics to solve crimes. Alan Eppes (Judd Hirsch) is the widowed patriarch to two disparate sons: son Don (Rob Morrow), an FBI agent, and Charlie (David Krumholtz), a math genius who works as a consultant for Don. The subtext is that Charlie the prodigy, is the favored son, while Don feels abandoned and bitter and yearns to connect with his father. The Oct. 6 episode deepens this dynamic while “outing” the family as Jewish.
 
This time, the brothers investigate a piece of Nazi-looted art that may belong to a Holocaust survivor who lost her family in the camps. Don is deeply moved by her story and by his father’s revelation that a cousin of theirs also lost all her relatives in the Shoah. The agent tells his father he would like to investigate what happened to them — an unusually emotional statement for a character who tends to repress his feelings.
 
“This episode gives us a glimpse into Don’s soul,” Morrow told The Journal. “Don feels a yearning to connect to his heritage, which reflects his longing for his father and for connections in life.”
 
At a time when crime dramas abound on prime time (think “C.S.I.,” “Law & Order” and their various spinoffs), “Numb3rs” stands out for its focus on family and “unexpected shades of character,” according to Newsweek.
 
Yet one aspect of the characters has been neglected, at least until tonight’s show — their obvious Jewishness. After all, these actors are well known for playing members of the tribe: Hirsch, 71, was cabbie Alex Rieger on “Taxi”; Morrow, 44, played Dr. Joel Fleischman on “Northern Exposure,” and Krumholtz, 28, portrayed numerous “neurotic shlubs,” in his own words, before landing the “Numb3rs” gig.
 
“When they cast the show, an executive said the poster was going to show the three of us emerging from shul triumphant,” Morrow says with a laugh.
 
Even the series’ creators, Cheryl Heuton and Nick Falacci, say they had envisioned the Eppes as Jewish since casting the show in 2004. (The first hire was Krumholtz, partly for his uncanny ability to make math sound cool, even though the actor had flunked algebra twice.) The producers say they were waiting for the right story to “out” the characters, and they found it in the headlines about Nazi-looted art. They feel the onscreen family chemistry works, in part, because the actors share culturally Jewish New York roots. A subtler dynamic helps the performers create the favorite son/black sheep son nuances on the show.
 
Neither Hirsch nor Krumholtz have previously worked with Morrow (although they enjoy doing so now), but they share a rich performance history together. Krumholtz got his big break playing Hirsch’s son in “Conversations With My Father” on Broadway 15 years ago.
 
Krumholtz was 13 at the time and had no previous acting experience, nor had he ever been to the theater. He auditioned on a lark — “something to do on a Saturday afternoon” — and landed the role, in some measure, because of his resemblance to Hirsch.
 
“I was frightened for David,” the older actor recalls. “His first production was going to be this extremely violent, emotional play, and he was going to be an ‘object’ in it.”
 
Hirsch’s character, a volatile Jewish immigrant, chokes, grabs and smacks his son, and also chases him around the stage with a strap. Hirsch worried the production might overwhelm the ebullient, novice performer.
 
Hirsch’s solution, Krumholtz recalls, was a form of theatrical “tough love.”
 
“Teasingly, he pointed out every little thing I did wrong,” the younger actor says. “I was extremely unprofessional; I had an opinion about everything, and every time I was loud or said something when I was supposed to be quiet, or missed a line, he was right there with a big ‘shut up’ or ‘That’s you, kid,’ or ‘get with the program.’ It was rough, but I knew he was doing it because he believed in me. By the end of the show I had learned about professionalism, and I loved Judd with all my heart. I now call him my ‘acting father,’ because I feel I owe him my career.”
 
When Krumholtz eventually left “Conversations” to pursue movies, he cried so effusively that Hirsch sat him on his lap to comfort him.
 
The father-son dynamic is still apparent as the two sit side by side over lunch in a studio cafeteria. The boyish Krumholtz avidly listens as Hirsch tells long stories, with relish, about thwarting anti-Semitism in the Army and how his own father chased him around the house with a strap. Both recount growing up in working-class homes (Krumholtz’s “Conversations” salary paid for his bar mitzvah reception) and describe Morrow as “more of a Westchester County [a.k.a. wealthy] Jew.”
 
In a phone interview, Morrow laughs ironically when told of the “Westchester” remark.
 
“I was as working class as they were,” he says, sounding a bit like his misunderstood “Numb3rs” character. Actually, he grew up comfortably middle class in White Plains, N.Y., until his parents divorced when he was 9, and his father, an industrial lighting manufacturer, moved to Manhattan and later to Florida. Morrow stayed behind with his sister and his mother, who went to work as a dental hygienist to support the family.
 
“Suddenly money was a real issue, but my mother was determined to keep up appearances, so we moved to Scarsdale and we were living on the fringes of this wealthy enclave,” he recalls.
 
Like the fictional Don, he says he felt somewhat abandoned by his father (“suffice it to say I spent a lot of years in therapy”), and he has channeled those feelings into his “Numb3rs” character.

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.

Viva la Cinema!


In Veracruz, Mexico, there lived a group of people who for generations had avoided eating pork and lit candles on Friday night without knowing why. In the early 1980s, some members of the group discovered their Jewish roots and converted to Judaism, and now, 20 years later, are still struggling for acceptance from the Jewish community in Mexico.

Their story is being told in "Eight Candles," a 2002 Mexican documentary, one of nine Jewish films being shown in Mexico’s first Jewish film festival.

"This opportunity is amazing, because for this first time the documentary is going to confront its intended audience," said "Eight Candles" director Sandro Halphen, who lives in Mexico City. "I hadn’t found venues to reach out to them."

The Jan 25.-Feb 3 sold-out festival aimed to teach local Jews about their heritage and non-Jews about a community that is sometimes misunderstood.

"We are looking at this festival not as a Jewish event," said Aron Margolis, director of the nonprofit Mexico International Jewish Film Festival. "This is an excellent opportunity for Mexican society to get to know the Jewish community. The Jews in Mexico are known as a community that is very closed and doesn’t let people in to get to know us. But the more they know us, the more they understand us."

There are about 50,000 Jews in Mexico, a predominately Catholic country. Most live in Mexico City. The sold-out festival in Mexico City is one of only a handful of Spanish-language Jewish film festivals in the world.

The Mexico festival features nine films, including "The Burial Society" (Canada) "Time of Favor" (Israel) and "Trembling Before G-d" (United States), a documentary about gay and lesbian Orthodox and Chasidic Jews.

Margolis hopes the Spanish-translated films can be shown elsewhere Latin America.

A Journey to Home


I was born to Protestant parents. By age 7, I was constantly questioning: Why are we here? Who is God? What happens to us after we die?

I think I was 10 years old when I realized that Christianity wasn’t for me.

When I was 15, I fell in lust with the rock band Counting Crows’ Jewish lead singer, Adam Duritz, and subsequently fell in love with Judaism.

Christmas ’95 I received the most ironic of gifts — Rabbi Morris N. Kertzer’s "What Is a Jew?" The book was given to me by a friend, who originally bought it as a gag gift for her boyfriend. He had Jews in his family somewhere but apparently wasn’t too proud of his Hebrew roots. He rejected the book and it became mine.

"What Is a Jew?" spoke to me. This characteristically Jewish way of questioning stood out in weekly Sunday school at church, where a large leap of faith was required. I don’t remember exactly what my Sunday school teachers said to me, but phrases like "Don’t question," "That’s the way it is" and "Jesus died for our sins" were the answers I remember receiving to my most deepest questions on faith.

At 17, I discovered "The Jews of America," an oversized, hardback book with more than 200 pages of pictures of Jews — from Chabad Rebbe Menachem Mendel Schneersohn to director Steven Spielberg and his mother, Leah Adler. I’d find great joy and comfort thumbing through the pages of that book, most of the time not even really knowing why.

In my junior year of college, I declared a Jewish minor. With that, I took an introduction to Judaism class and two Jewish history courses. I also learned about the Holocaust and was profoundly touched by Elie Wiesel’s "Night." In these secular classes, I came to understand why Israel is so important to the Jews and why the Jews don’t believe that Jesus was/is the messiah.

After graduating from college and landing my first real job, I started seriously considering conversion. I enrolled in a Reform conversion class but dropped out after several weeks, feeling that it wasn’t the movement for me. I stumbled upon Chabad, and a few months later began keeping kosher, observing Shabbat and holding to other mitzvot. I wasn’t sure that I was going to commit myself to Orthodox Judaism; I was merely trying it on for size. However, a few days into my observance and I knew that I found what I had been searching for my whole life.

I always knew that I would someday live in Israel, but there was a part of me that doubted that it was possible. I felt like I had a better chance of winning the lottery or becoming a rock star than "coming home."

I spent my first two months in Israel on a "holy high." Nothing is ever average: you’re either experiencing the most incredible high praying at the Western Wall, feeling the Divine Presence right there with you; or you’re mourning the death of a young Israeli soldier who gave up his life for something bigger than he could ever put his finger on, and you cry like it was your own brother.

I woke up every morning in the breathtaking hills of biblical Judea and studied Torah until at least 1 p.m., Sunday through Thursday. Shabbat was never ordinary, filled with extravagant meals, joyous singing and dancing and moments of real rest. The celebrations came one after another — Rosh Chodesh (the new month), weddings, engagements, brit milot, bat mitzvot, Yom Haatzmaut (Israel Independence Day), and they were never small nor quiet affairs.

After being in Israel, I didn’t think that I could ever return to the States, even for a short period of time. But I missed my friends and I missed my family, so I booked a ticket home for a three-and-a-half week visit. I was in the process of switching schools and had a period of about a month before the new school’s semester began. I was also running low on money and figured I’d work some while I was here and apply for a small but significant loan to cover the costs of tuition, room and board, and other expenses.

But the substantial tuition discount that I had hoped for didn’t come through; my parents, who were happy to see me back, weren’t so eager to loan me money to return to the Middle East. I became more and more worried about taking out large loans when I knew I could get the same education for much less after I made aliyah.

While I wanted nothing more than to return to Israel, it made more sense to stick around until I was able to save money, finish my conversion at my own pace — working one on one with a rabbi versus in a classroom setting — and have the time to learn Hebrew.

But still, it’s tough living in Orange County. There are no kosher restaurants and many of the apartments near Orthodox synagogues are pricey (a conversion candidate, as well as an observant Jews, must live near an Orthodox synagogue, so they can walk there on Shabbat). But I am doing the best I can.

God willing, I will soon return to where I feel I belong, Our Holy Land, Israel.


Before heading off to Israel, Heather Fuller worked as a news assistant in the Arts & Entertainment section of The Orange County Register. She has also worked for BMG, VH1 and OC Weekly.

Seder Helps Poland Jews Reclaim Roots


Three years ago, Los Angeles entrepreneur Severyn Ashkenazy gathered in Warsaw, Poland, a small group of American and Polish Jews, all of whom had fled their native land during the Holocaust, and hosted the first Passover seder in that city since 1945.

They savored Ashkenazic delicacies of their homeland, and their festive meal was filled with song and camaraderie that symbolized rebirth of the Jewish community in Poland.

Before World War II, there were some 3 million Jews and 450 thriving synagogues in Poland. But in 1994, when Ashkenazy, a vibrant survivor in his 60s, went back to his native land for the first time since he was a child, he could only find a handful of ultra-Orthodox Jews.

It was springtime, Passover was coming and the city was ablaze with lilacs and cherry blossoms. Not only couldn’t he find a place to celebrate the holiday, but most of the depleted Jewish population wouldn’t admit to being Jewish — they wanted nothing to do with the religion that had caused so much grief. (During the Holocaust, 90 percent of the Jews in Poland were killed.)

Then and there Ashkenazy decided that if there was a supportive, progressive Jewish community in Warsaw, these “quiet Jews” could reclaim their identity and make peace with their past.

And so he began Beit Warszawa (congregation of Warsaw). His first order of business: to host a Passover seder. It wasn’t easy convincing people to attend.

“But we are a people who were constantly saved by miracles, so our group [three Poles and eight Americans] persevered,” Ashkenazy told The Journal.

“The first Seder [in 2000] had just 20 people, eight Jews and a smattering of Poles, who weren’t brought up Jewish and were unconscious of their roots,” he said. “We also welcomed some curious Christians — we were happy they were interested and encouraged them to participate.”

The fledgling seder was held in a hotel; the room was near the garden.

“We ate our favorite foods, we sang, but most important, it was a place for people to feel safe being Jewish,” Ashkenazy said. “Now we celebrate all the Jewish holidays and more and more people just appear. We’re never sure of the numbers, but they just keep increasing.”

Now in its third year, the congregation boasts 300 people, most of whom will be in attendance this Passover. Ashkenazy has recruited a number of Los Angeles leaders to visit and lead services. This year, Cantor Mindy Harris, ritual director of Temple Aliyah in Woodland Hills, will officiate at the Beit Warszawa services. Ashkenazy’s good friend, Rabbi David Baron of Temple Shalom for the Arts in Beverly Hills, also plans to lead services there soon.

Baron said he finds Ashkenazy’s journey particularly prescient for Passover.

“God didn’t just give Moses the power to part the sea and save his people. He told his disciple to have the Israelites go forward — the first step of the faithful into the sea would save them,” explained Baron, the author of “Moses on Management” (Simon & Schuster, 1999).

“It’s the power of taking a leap of faith to stand up against a tyrant and declare your freedom,” Baron said, noting that Ashkenazy also took a leap of faith.

Seeing the impact this experience made on his father, Ashkenazy’s son Adrian, newly graduated from law school, wanted to contribute to the new congregation. He traveled with his father to Warsaw and decided to host the first Oneg Shabbat, and called it “one of the most meaningful acts” of his life.

At his father’s house in Beverly Hills, the 28-year-old Ashkenazy spoke about the impact that one of the new congregants had made on him. While recruiting Polish Jews to join in the activities of the new congregation, he met with actor Andrzej Blumenfeld, who was most recently seen as the restaurant owner in the Academy Award-winning film, “The Pianist.”

“We met for drinks,” Adrian Ashkenazy said. “I mentioned that I was hosting an Oneg Shabbat. He immediately shut down. ‘I’m not interested,’ he said adamantly. ‘Not me. Not my kids. I don’t want anything to do with it.'”

Two years later, Adrian Ashkenazy showed up at the Beit Warszawa Rosh Hashana service.

“The first person I saw was Andrzej, with his children, having a wonderful time,” he said. “He told me that while filming ‘The Pianist,’ in one scene, he and Adrien Brody hid under the floorboards of the restaurant to escape being found by the Nazis.”

Adrian Ashkenazy said Blumenfeld told him, “‘It forced me to come to terms with my fear of becoming Jewish. I realized the man in the film was me, a Polish Jew, although I had not even said that out loud for years. I had kept my religion buried.'”

“Soon after, Blumenfeld, as well as his son, openly declared themselves Jewish,” Adrian Ashkenazy said.

Zionism, by George


In a key scene in “Masterpiece Theatre’s” “Daniel Deronda,”adapted from George Eliot’s 1876 novel, the hero attends a Zionist meeting.”Isn’t the way forward through assimilation?” asks Deronda (Hugh Dancy), anorphaned aristocrat unsure of his roots.

“When we pretend to be what we are not, we lose a bit of oursouls,” Mordecai, a Jewish mystic, replies. 

If the early Zionist movement seems an unlikely topic for aVictorian novel, Eliot (“Middlemarch,” “Silas Marner”) was an unlikelyVictorian novelist. “She raised eyebrows,” said “Deronda’s” Jewish producer,Louis Marks, who spearheaded the teledrama with screenwriter Andrew Davies.

Born Mary Ann Evans, Eliot began shocking people when sherejected Christianity at age 22, according to Marks.  She was further shunnedwhen she moved in with her married lover in 1854.  Although the unofficialeditor of the influential Westminster Review, she was never publiclyacknowledged because she was a woman.  In 1859, she began publishing a stringof acclaimed, socially conscious novels under the pseudonym George Eliot. 

Her final novel was “Deronda.”  “As an outsider, sheidentified with the Jewish experience of oppression,” Marks said.

“She was outraged and disgusted by the degree ofanti-Semitism that existed in English society,” Davies, Marks’ longtimecollaborator, said.

Eliot began writing “Deronda” after befriending theGerman-born scholar Emmanuel Deutsch, the prototype for the fictionalMordecai.  An official in the Jewish manuscripts department of the BritishMuseum, he taught Eliot Hebrew and about the then-nascent idea of Zionism. When he was diagnosed with terminal cancer in the 1870s, he went off to die inJerusalem. “That inspired Eliot,” said Marks, whose daughter lives inBeersheva. “His return to his roots perhaps moved her to create Deronda, a manalso struggling to find his roots.”

The producer said the novel inspired early Zionist leaderssuch as Eliezer Ben-Yehuda and aristocrats who backed Britain’s BalfourDeclaration, the first political recognition of Zionism.  With war erupting inthe Middle East, he believes its message is equally relevant today:  “Manypeople are worried about Israel’s survival, and ‘Deronda’ makes people aware ofwhat is at stake,” he said.

The two-part drama airs March 30 and 31 on KCET.

Community Briefs


Prime Minister ToutsMuseum

If there was any doubt that the Polish government is takingseriously plans to build a Museum of Polish Jewish History in Warsaw, they wereput to rest Feb. 5 in Beverly Hills.

That’s when Leszek Miller, prime minister of Poland, metwith about 100 area Jews to reaffirm his commitment to the long-plannedproject. “We want to reach beyond the image of Poland as a place of martyrdomfor the Jews,” said Miller in his brief prepared remarks. “The museum will be agreat educational project, and a symbol of our new approach to the history ofthe Jews.”

Miller’s appearance before the gathering of Jewish religiousand communal leaders, including Holocaust survivors and elected officials, wasorganized by the Consulate General of Poland in cooperation with the AmericanJewish Committee (AJCommittee). It took place during the first visit by aPolish prime minister to the West Coast, according to Consul General KrzysztofW. Kasprzyk.

Miller announced the establishment of the Museum of theHistory of the Polish Jews in Warsaw last January. The multimedia museum, to bedesigned by Frank Gehry, is to be completed in 2006.

Polish officials, who say that as many as 80 percent of Jewsacross the world can trace their roots back to Poland, hope the museum willspur Jewish tourism to their country. They are also hoping that Jewish donorsabroad will help fund some of the museum’s estimated $63 million cost.

Among other exhibits, the museum will recreate the homes andstreets representing 1,000 years of Jewish civilization in Poland. The Naziinvasion and deportation to death camps claimed the lives of the majority of Poland’s3.5 million Jewish population, which had been the largest in Europe.

Miller said the museum is part of an agenda ofreconciliation between Poland and world Jewry that includes the restitution forJewish property, restoration of Jewish cemeteries, commemoration of victims atdeath camps throughout Poland, and increasing ties between young Jews and Poles,and between Polish and Jewish entrepreneurs. The museum itself will demonstrate”how important a place was occupied by Jews in the history of Poland,” saidMiller.

AJCommittee Los Angeles chapter President Peter Weil saidMiller’s appearance, amidst high level visits with high-tech entrepreneurs anda previous state visit with President George W. Bush, was a clear indication ofthe value the Polish government places on its relations with world Jewry.

Along with Miller and the consul general, guests heardremarks from Rabbi Gary Greenebaum, AJCommittee’s West Coast regional director;County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky; Adrien Brody, star of “The Pianist,” andmuseum director Jerzy Halberstadt. 

For more information the Museum ofPolish Jewish History in Warsaw, go to www.jewishmuseum.org.pl . — Staff Report

 

Media “Blitz”New Israel Fund Cuts Back

The New Israel Fund will centralize and scale back its U.S.offices in the hopes of pumping $1 million more toward peace and social justiceefforts in Israel. The Washington-based group, which promotes peace and civilrights programs in Israel, will close regional offices in Los Angeles, Bostonand Chicago, and expand hubs in New York and San Francisco, the group announcedFeb. 6.

For the three-person Los Angeles staff who will soon faceunemployment as a result of consolidation, the recent news brings mixedreactions.

“I still strongly believe in the importance of theorganization and the value of its work in Israel, and I understand that theinternational board that made the decision took a lot of issues intoconsideration in reaching its conclusions,” said Los Angeles New Israel FundDirector David Moses. “At the same time, I’m deeply disappointed in the closingof this office. We’ve had 4 years of continuous growth and increased visibilityin the Los Angeles Jewish community and I’m very proud of what we’veaccomplished here.”

The move was aimed at lowering the group’s overhead andconsolidating operations, and should largely fund the additional $1 million for Israel, officials said. The fund said it has awarded $120 million to 700Israeli groups since 1979. — Rachel Brand, Staff Writer

The Consumer


Ancient Greek democracy created the “citizen.” Renaissance
Europe invented the “gentleman.” Colonial America produced the
“frontiersman.” Each human civilization, it seems, fashions
its own unique character type. And ours is no exception. Contemporary America
has spawned the “consumer.”

The consumer is a character type unique in human history.
The Greek citizen saw himself as an inseparable part of an organic community.
The European gentleman conceived of himself in terms of a code of obligations —
chivalry and noblesse oblige — that bound him to others. The frontiersman, a
loner in human community, felt himself an integral part of a natural
environment. By contrast, the consumer seeks absolute independence. He is
sovereign, complete unto himself, and in need of no one. No unfulfilled
existential need motivates him. The consumer engages the world only as a source
of stimulation and satisfaction. To protect his sovereignty, he presses every
encounter into the form and shape of a commercial transaction so it can be
easily controlled. Ever notice how the newspaper’s personal ads and the
classified ads are almost interchangeable? “Clean, quiet, reliable. Sleek
exterior. Warm interior. Runs great. Low maintenance. A steal at this price!”
Even the most personal becomes a matter of barter and trade. 

Henry James called America a “hotel culture.” A hotel —
where you eat and sleep, but never fully unpack and move in. You never set down
roots. You never really own the place. You can mess up your room knowing that
while you’re out, someone else will come and straighten up. You care nothing
for the people who live next door for soon you’ll be checking out and moving
on.  So, too, the consumer joins, but never belongs. Never will he allow the
obligations that come with relationships, values or community to compromise his
sovereignty. He has no attachments, only a series of limited-liability
partnerships.

In politics, for example, he has no deeply held convictions,
visions or loyalties. He asks only what his country can do for him. Candidates
are sold to him on television alongside soap and aspirin, and with the same
claims: New and Improved! Brighter and Cleaner! Quicker Relief! He doesn’t want
to be too deeply involved. The causes of the day, the problems of society, the
issues of civic life are not his personal concerns. He allows nothing to claim
him. 

Even in religious life, he is a consumer of services. He may
contribute but resists commitment.

He’s a member of the synagogue. He’s also a member of AAA,
Blockbuster Video, Blue Cross and Bally Total Fitness. And he has same
arrangement with them all: He pays his dues, drops off his kids, visits
occasionally, but wants and expects little else.  In a moment of crisis, he’ll
call for Emergency Roadside Judaism. Otherwise, he keeps his distance.

It works. In a culture so saturated with entertainment,
diversion and distraction, the consumer can always find something else to
occupy his time and make life pleasant. It works — until one of those life
moments arrives when all is called into question. And then the consumer finds
he’s truly bereft. He hasn’t the resources to construct a sense of personal
meaning. He hasn’t a community to offer support, nor the intimacy of a good
friend willing to listen. He hasn’t access to eternity, to deeper values, to a
larger narrative that would provide context and purpose for his struggle.
Having allowed nothing to claim him, he has nothing to stake his life upon.

“Let them make for Me a sanctuary that I may dwell among
them,” we are commanded in this week’s Torah portion (Exodus 25:8). An awesome
responsibility: Build a place for God in this world. A remarkable opportunity:
Create the conditions for Eternity to be present among us. But this is no
casual weekend project. We are commanded to bring our best — the best of our
hands, hearts and minds; the best of our resources. A sense of life’s meaning
isn’t a consumer product. The assurance of life’s purpose cannot be purchased
or rented. No infomercial can sell them. They are fashioned out of the gifts we
bring in response to the claim we feel upon us, the claim of a covenantal
community that asks us to share in the work of making a place for God in the
world. They are available only when one is prepared to donate the entirety of
the self. Greece had its citizen, Europe its gentleman, America, its consumer.
The Torah projects the character of the tzadik (righteous person).  

‘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 www.museumoftolerance.com.

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

Kerry’s Jewish Roots


First it was then-Secretary of State Madeleine Albright.
Next it was Gen. Wesley Clark, the supreme allied commander of NATO during the
war in Kosovo. Now it’s Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry whose
Jewish roots are being reported.

Kerry? The Massachusetts senator, the quintessential WASP-y
looking politician with an Irish-sounding name?

Yup.

Two of Kerry’s grandparents were Jewish, it turns out.

Kerry, who is a practicing Catholic, said he has known for
15 years that his paternal grandmother was Jewish, but had unsuccessfully
searched for news of his paternal grandfather’s roots.

However, a genealogist hired by the Boston Globe found that
Kerry’s grandfather was born to a Jewish family in a small town in the Czech
Republic.

“This is incredible stuff,” Kerry told the Globe. “I think
it is more than interesting. It is a revelation.”

The records show that his grandfather, Frederick Kerry, was
born as Fritz Kohn. He changed his name to Kerry in 1902, immigrated to the
United States in 1905 — and committed suicide in a Boston hotel in 1921.

Frederick Kerry’s story highlights the Jewish experience of
earlier generations, said Brandeis University professor Jonathan Sarna.

“What we are realizing is how significant was the trend
toward conversion and abandonment of Judaism, for the sake of upward mobility,
in an earlier era of America,” said Sarna, the Braun professor of American
Jewish history at the school in Waltham, Mass. “Given the quite significant
anti-Semitism of the early 20th century and the evident obstacles that stood in
the path to success, people simply changed their names and sloughed off their
Judaism.”

But that path wasn’t always successful, Sarna said.

Kerry’s grandfather’s suicide apparently stemmed from
financial troubles. But one could wonder if, by changing his name and identity,
the man had cut himself off from any sense of community, Sarna said.

The Kerry story also might hold lessons for the present and
future makeup of American Jewry, Sarna added. According to current statistics,
millions of Americans like Kerry may have Jewish roots but don’t consider
themselves Jewish.

“The question is if that is going to be seen a century from
now as a harbinger of where American Judaism is going,” Sarna asked.

Of course, several people contact the American Jewish
Historical Society every year asking for help in their search for Jewish roots.

The e-mails usually run along the lines of, “My name is
Kelly Smith, but my grandmother’s name was Sara Goldstein,” said Michael
Feldberg, the executive director of the historical society, which is based in
New York.

Kerry said he had asked cousins and searched on the Internet,
but had found only bits of information on his family history.

The news does not appear to have major political
ramifications.

There was an initial hubbub when Albright, secretary of
state in the Clinton administration, learned in 1997 that three of her four
grandparents were Jewish. The next time she was in Prague, Albright visited the
Pinkas Synagogue, where the names of her paternal grandparents are inscribed on
a wall among thousands of Czech Jews who died in the Holocaust.

There was little political fallout from her discovery —
though when she dealt with the Israeli-Palestinian peace process many Arab
commentators called her a Zionist and said she had a pro-Israel bias.

Observers say the revelation about Kerry is unlikely to
affect the 2004 presidential race.

“There’s no question there’s a lot of pride in a Jewish
candidate and pride in family Jewish connections, but the American Jewish
community is fairly mature in its political behavior,” said Ira Forman, the
executive director of the National Jewish Democratic Council.

As far as non-Jews go, “had it come out in 1953 instead of
2003, it would have been fatal to his presidential ambitions,” Feldberg said,
but not in today’s world.

Kerry’s revelation adds another Jewish flavor to the 2004
race for the Democratic presidential nomination. Sen. Joseph Lieberman
(D-Conn.), who declared last month that he will seek the nomination, is an
observant Jew.

Another contender, former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean, is
married to a Jewish woman and is raising his children as Jews.

And Clark, who told the Forward recently that he is
descended from “generations of rabbis,” is also weighing a 2004 Democratic
presidential bid.

“I wonder what this means for his Saturdays?” Jano Cabrera,
a spokesman for Lieberman’s campaign, joked about Kerry. “Regardless, at this
rate, we should have a minyan at the debates.”  


JTA correspondent Matthew E. Berger in Washington contributed to this report.

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 www.ellisislandrecords.org, 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."