I am a genealogy agnostic.
Doing genealogical research can become an all-consuming passion. Some of those who do it exhibit almost cult-like intensity.
I tried it, and it just didn’t take.
When I retired a little more than four years ago, I thought it might be fun to see if I could increase my knowledge of my forebears, which was scant at best. So I registered on a couple of the big genealogical research websites, JewishGen (www.jewishgen.com) and Ancestry (www.ancestry.com).
Both sites are treasure troves of resources for those serious about finding their personal history. On the other hand, there’s so much there that browsing can be overwhelming. One link leads to another, which leads to yet another, and you can pretty easily get lost in the content.
A common problem for Jewish genealogy researchers is that it can be difficult to know which name to research.
Most of us have parents, grandparents or great-grandparents who came here from Europe, where their surnames were often written in Yiddish, Russian or another alphabet that doesn’t automatically translate to Latin characters. And many shortened or Anglicized their names when they reached America.
For me, having unusual family names was both a blessing and a curse. If I had been a Cohen or a Goldberg, I would have easily found thousands of matches — but it would have been difficult to sift through them to find actual relatives.
The only people I’ve ever encountered with my father’s family name — Naidoff — or my mother’s family name — Gansar — have been known relatives. On the genealogy sites, I had to list every conceivable spelling of those names: Naidovich, Naidovitch, Gansarsky, Gansarski, Gancar.
None of my early efforts on the genealogy websites unearthed new family members, and I soon lost interest because I felt I didn’t have enough time to devote to the project.
Meanwhile, one of my husband’s cousins set up a family tree on a website called Geni, so we added our family information.
A few years later, out of the blue, I was contacted through Geni by a young man in Israel who turned out to be a second cousin once removed. He had found my maiden name on the family tree.
His great-grandmother and my grandfather were siblings. My grandfather and a brother left Minsk for Philadelphia in the early 1900s; another brother and three sisters stayed behind. My grandfather never talked about them, so I never knew this branch of the family existed.
In the 1990s, my new-found cousin, his parents and grandparents moved to Israel. I sent him some old photos, taken in Russia, I got from my grandparents. I didn’t know who was in the photos, but he did. One photo of four people included my grandparents and my cousin’s great-grandmother. It’s the only photo I have of my grandparents as young adults.
Did this experience make me a genealogy convert? It did not. But I have enormous admiration for people who do expend the time and energy to research their family histories — and I’m glad my Israeli second cousin once removed is one of them.