*bubbe/strong (Yid.) grandmother
For those looking to get started in researching your Jewish genealogy there are many ways to get started. From experience, I have learned that the best place to start is in talking with the oldest generations of your Jewish family. My grandmother was one of those rare people who wrote down her memories for posterity’s sake. As a result, I had a great document to refer to whenever I got stuck. Not everyone is as fortunate. So, my recommendation to you is to start by interviewing your oldest living Jewish relatives.
Sometimes older relatives may feel self-conscious or suspicious about your reasons for asking so many questions. Be sure to explain to them that you are trying to learn about your family’s history and that you want to know more about what their life experiences have been. Tell them that you will share your genealogical findings with them and usually this will be enough to open them up to being interviewed. If not, sometimes you can get someone to open up by simply interviewing someone else in front of them. Before long they will be throwing in their two cents as well!
You may find that you will have so many questions that you want to interview them several times. This is a good thing because often, once you get your relative to think about the past… new stories will come up in subsequent meetings.
There are a number of items I would suggest you take with you in preparation:
A recording device. Whether it’s a video camera or some kind of audio recorder it doesn’t matter. I find that audio tends to be less obtrusive and easier for your relative to deal with. However, if you can get a video camera the result could become something priceless for future generations to see your relative share their stories. Regardless, I would strongly recommend that you record the conversation in some way so that you won’t have to take a lot of notes. Being more present in the conversation will help you to draw your relative in and ask supplementary questions that may occur to you as you talk. I have a great little device called the Blue Microphone Mikey that I can attach to my iPod that records easily and is down-loadable into iTunes for my use later. If your relative doesn’t want you to record it, I recommend typing up your notes as soon after the interview as possible. It’s easy to forget things weeks later!
Bring a list of questions. There are many great lists of questions available online. In particular, you might want to look at the JewishGen InfoFiles page which has an extensive list of questions. You might want to ask about your relatives’ memories of certain holidays like Hanukkah, Passover, or Purim. Memories of family weddings, bat/bar mitzvahs, and funerals may also yield some interesting tales. A wonderful book by Arthur Kurzweil, “From Generation to Generation” has some great questions within it as well.
Bring photographs that you may have. Sometimes a great way to break the ice is to look through old family photos. You may hear stories of Great Aunt Beulah that you’d never heard before. Perhaps you’ll discover that you’re relatives used to get together every year at Thanksgiving and have potlucks and talent shows. You just never know! Plus, you may be able to better identify who is in that picture that you didn’t know before. Write on the back of the picture or on a post-it (in pencil!) who everyone is, rough time period, and what was going on if they can remember. These are priceless bits of information you can refer to later in your research.
Bring a digital camera or scanner in case your relative digs out some documents or photos you’ve never seen before. Take a picture of family heirlooms that may be around the house too. Ask if there are candlesticks, kiddush cups, ketubah, letters, immigration papers, passports, and recipes that you could see.
Ask who else in the family might have information to share. Finally, try your best not to ask “Yes” or “No” questions. You want to get them talking and telling stories!
My last bit of advice on this is to be proud of yourself for trying to do this. It’s not easy to sit down with older relatives sometimes. There are generational barriers that may make you hesitant to ask personal questions. But remember, your interest in their life and their stories is something that can be passed on to future generations.
“If you don’t recount your family history, it will be lost. Honor your own stories and tell them too. The tales may not seem very important, but they are what binds families and makes each of us who we are.” – Madeleine L’Engle