National Archives Virtual Genealogy Fair 2015

The National Archives [NARA] will be hosting their Virtual Genealogy Fair October 21st and 22nd. Watch live via YouTube and ask the genealogy experts your questions. Get great tips and techniques for using Federal records in your research!

NARA hosts this event each year and there is a lecture for every research level. Live captioning will also be available.

For more information please visit:


Geneartistry on

Geneartistry on

Check out the segment that I just recorded with Fisher on It is a great story about how newspaper articles helped me crack a 104 year old cold-case in my hometown. It involves a jail break and mysterious murder. You won’t want to miss it!

Thank you to Fisher for having me on the show!

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Hello Genies! On this weeks show Dr. Joanna Mountain from answers an amazing listener question about…

Posted by Extreme Genes on Sunday, 13 September 2015

Interview with Jon Crispin, photographer

Interview with Jon Crispin, photographer

Jon Crispin is a professional photographer from Pelham, Massachusetts. His striking photographs of abandoned New York State prisons and asylums provide a rare glimpse into the lives of the often over-looked and forgotten segments of society. His current project, photo documenting 429 suitcases that belonged to patients of the Williard Psychiatric Center, opens a window to the personalities of the people treated there, some of whom never left. 

Sarah O’Connor: I’m thrilled to be able to interview you for my blog, My intent is to encourage people to bring artistic ideas and sensibility to their study of family history. Recently, I’ve set out to interview people who I feel are making a positive contribution to this mission. Photography is such a powerful way to connect art and history.

I’m eager to share your suitcase project with my readers but first, please tell me a little about yourself. What first interested you in photography? When and how did you get started?

Jon Crispin: I developed my first roll of film at summer camp when in my early teens. In college I majored in art, but no photography classes were offered, so I pretty much learned it on my own. (With lots of help from mentors and friends.)

Sarah: It appears from your website that you and your camera have been in prisons and asylums the past few years. You’ve captured some beautiful and haunting images of abandoned buildings. What inspired you to photograph these locations and how did the experience impact you?

Jon: Even as a young child, I was excited about going into places that weren’t necessarily “open to the public”. Once I became a working photographer (in 1974), I realized that I could combine the two interests, and when I started shooting abandoned 19th century New York State Asylums everything just jelled. I have basically done this sort of project work since then (along with my regular freelance work).Opentopublic

Sarah: One of your projects has garnered international attention. Can you tell us about the Willard Asylum suitcase project? How did you learn of the suitcases?

Jon: I started shooting at the Willard Asylum (later the Willard Psychiatric Center) in Willard, New York in 1983. It was one of four asylums in my Silent Voices project. In 2004 I learned of an exhibit at the New York State Museum featuring a collection of 420 suitcases that were “rediscovered” by Willard staff as the psych center was being closed by the state. The exhibit featured several of the cases, and the stories of the patients who owned them. I knew immediately that I wanted to document the entire collection. I approached my friend Craig Williams, who is a curator at the museum and he helped me get permission to start shooting. My first day with the cases was in March of 2011. In October of that year I ran a successful Kickstarter campaign to be able to devote a lot of time to the work. In the Spring of 2013, my photographs were featured in an exhibit at the Exploratorium in San Francisco as part of “The Changing Face of What is Normal”.

Sarah: Many genealogists are left to piece together the lives and personalities of their ancestors from little newspaper clippings or other tiny mementos left behind. All of the items that you found in these suitcases must have meant something to the patients who owned them. Seeing these items now after the patients have passed away is so intimate. How did you feel as you unwrapped, opened and arranged their belongings?

emotional connectionJon: This is a great question, and one I am asked often. My overall response is to feel honored to even be able to touch these items, let alone photograph them. While I don’t attach any “cosmic” significance to the objects, I do feel a great reverence for them, and to the people who brought the cases and their possessions to Willard. It is definitely an intense experience working with the suitcases, and I often find that I need to put my cameras down and just feel the emotional connection to the patients and their belongings.

Sarah: What was your methodology for photographing the suitcases? What did you most hope to capture?

Jon: As a photographer, I am not really interested in “set up” shots. The hardest part of this project for me is to arrange the objects, and I don’t like to spend tons of time moving things around in order to make a picture.

In terms of what I hope to capture, I always go for feeling. I never enter a project with an agenda; I always prefer to let the viewer take away what they will from my photographs. In the case of the suitcases, I primarily feel that I am a conduit for the inherent emotional quality of the objects. And they are very powerful objects.Agenda

Sarah: Was their one suitcase that was particularly memorable? What about it captivated you?

Jon: I can honestly say that I don’t have any favorites. I view each one individually; they all have something interesting to offer.

Sarah: Restrictive laws have made it difficult to research medical records and patient lists from asylums. Were you able to learn about the patients that owned these suitcases? Have any relatives surfaced since you started the project?

Jon: I try to stay away from knowing too much about the patients, although the New York State Museum exhibit in 2004 featured some of their stories. I am much more interested in what the suitcases tell me about their owners lives. As you may imagine, I get many inquiries from relatives of Willard patients seeking information, but my only option is to refer them to the New York State Office of Mental Health and the New York State Archives in Albany.

Sarah: This project must have been a massive undertaking. What was your biggest challenge?

Jon Crispin in Willard, NY

Photographer Jon Crispin

Jon: This is also a great question. No doubt, it is a massive undertaking, but I feel so fortunate to have access to this amazing collection that I really only see the positives. I suppose the biggest challenge is balancing my desire to work exclusively on the suitcases with my need to continue my freelance work.

Sarah: Seeing and reading about your work will likely inspire many readers to learn more about photography and possibly try their hand at photographing their own heirlooms. Is there any advice that you can give to someone just starting out?

Jon: It doesn’t take expensive professional photo gear to make good photographs. I would encourage anyone who has an interest in family heirlooms to document their family history with photography. With digital cameras, once the initial investment is made, the costs are very reasonable. The only way to improve photo skills is to shoot a ton, experiment, and figure out what works.

Sarah: What’s next for you? Do you have any other projects on the horizon?

Jon: I anticipate working with the suitcases for at least a few more years (and probably more). Because Willard was such an unique institution, I have become very interested in former staff and patients and will eventually start photographing and interviewing the people who spent time at the institution before it closed.

You can support the Williard Suitcase project by making a pledge to Kickstarter. For more information about Jon Crispin please visit his website or his blog, .

Interview with Dave Tabler – Appalachian historian

Interview with Dave Tabler – Appalachian historian

Dave Tabler is an Appalachian historian, blogger and editor of Appalachian History Weekly Podcast. His blog, Appalachian History, Stories, Quotes and Anecdotes focuses on Depression Era Appalachia and features a rich and extensive archive of stories and vignettes that highlight the unique struggles and uncommon resourcefulness of the region.

Sarah O’Connor: You have a remarkably broad presence on the Internet and use an array of social media tools to share your knowledge of Appalachian history. It’s clearly a passion for you. Where does this interest stem from, and how did you start?

Dave Tabler: I had no interest in history or genealogy whatsoever till I was 40 years old. That year my dad Kenneth, who grew up in Depression era West Virginia, decided to write a memoir. It didn’t take long before I found myself getting drawn into that project (here’s a review of that book: My dad had never written a book, and it was a long struggle for him to research and compile. It took eleven years from the day he decided to begin until he completed the thing.

Dave Tabler, Appalachian historian, blogger and editor of Appalachian History Weekly podcast

Dave Tabler, Appalachian historian, blogger and editor of Appalachian History Weekly podcast

Early in the process he asked me to help him edit it, which I did. Certainly I had heard many of the stories he shared in his book told round the dinner table over the years, but one thing continually gnawed at the back of my mind as I observed which stories my dad decided to focus on, and which to leave out. Not once in his writings does he mention the word hillbilly. He avoids talking about feuds. Or moonshine. He knew quite well how negatively the rest of America viewed these things, and felt it was his duty to show a less stereotyped, more realistic side of Appalachia. Hillbilly

I originally created the Appalachian History site in the fall of 2006 to help my father sell his then newly published book, but soon grew restless to branch out from the site’s original purpose. I was keen to explore some of those stereotyped aspects of App culture, in my own voice, that my father wanted to leave be.

Sarah: You offer so much insight and perspective on an often overlooked region. Although many have moved well past the old stereotype of Lil’ Abner in their view of the region–do you find there are still misconceptions that persist to this day?

Dave: Of course. The ‘Appalachian Outlaws’ show is just the latest in a long line of reality tv shows that perpetuate the misunderstandings and ignorance about the region. I came across a wonderful YouTube piece the other day from a young man known only as ‘eastkymen’ titled ‘The Appalachian Region: Exposed’. It’s a brilliant send-up of how today’s mass media might typically film a segment on life in Eastern Kentucky, complete with “You’ll Never Leave Harlan Alive” as theme song. The filmmaker drives through modern-day Pikeville, KY showing bustling malls, new construction, and suburban MacMansions, all the while narrating a classic-style script of how downtrodden and poverty ridden Appalachia is.

Why do non-Appalachian Americans insist on seeing the worst aspects of the region as representative of the whole?

In the case of Kentucky and West Virginia, I’ve come to believe it’s very much in the interests of the coal, gas and timber entities who control the region’s economy to maintain the hillbilly caricature of the dangerous backwoods bumpkin. If Americans from outside the region perceive WhyAppalachian residents as a frightening ‘other,’ they’re much less likely to be sympathetic to the incredible destruction foisted on the region’s populace by mountaintop removal. It’s been heartening to see a potential shift in this cultural perception as the poignant, human stories from the Charleston water poisoning have started appearing in national media. We’ll see if it takes, long-term.

Sarah: For many people, the first glimpses they had of Appalachian history were from Foxfire magazines and books. Those old publications have become a popular survivalist guide and are full of photographs and oral histories. As an avid Appalachian historian, what is your view of the publications?

Dave: Love ’em! I think they have complete credibility since they were spearheaded by a high school teacher local to the area, Eliot Wigginton, who in turn guided his students in conducting the interviews. Barbara Woodall, by the way, one of the original students involved, recently penned a memoir about the experience called “It’s Not My Mountain Anymore.”

Sarah: One of the themes of my blog is to highlight the importance of our ancestors’ experience, not just catalogue the facts and figures of their existence. I think your site is a fabulous resource for understanding what it was like for many of our grandparents or great-grandparents in depression era Appalachia. I know it’s impossible to generalize “what it must’ve been like”, but if you think about some of the fundamental difference between people then, and the way we live now–what would you point to?

Dave: This is a very slippery question to answer, because Appalachia is a huge geographic area, there are different races, classes, and ethnic origins, and each of those factors shades how one might answer this query.

I encounter folks all the time who wax poetic about ‘the good old days.’ How very easy it is for us to forget the harsh aspects of the past and focus on pleasant memories only! That’s not to say that the Depression era was all misery and misfortune, but we have to be careful not to swing too far toward the soft and fuzzy side.

Probably the most fundamental differences between now and that era — a difference that DOES cut across geography, race, class, and ethnicity — is expected lifespan. Yes, it’s true that today’s Appalachia falls toward the bottom of the lifespan list as measured against the rest of the USA. However, compared to Appalachian lifespans from the 1st quarter of the 20th century, when a person could expect to live to the ripe old age of 50, Appalachia has added an additional 20 years on average to lifespan. Despite the continued drag of widespread poverty in the region, that’s an astonishing change in such a short time.Luckier

In just the span of 3 or 4 generations we’ve banished diseases such as smallpox that were the scourge of humanity for thousands of years. We’ve learned about nutrition, and how to properly balance a diet. Vitamins and minerals were unheard of in 1900. Now, instead of a stick-thin populace barely able to feed itself, we find ourselves with the opposite problem of food abundance. Our ancestors were luckier than us in this one way — they never had to worry about the health problems that come with over-consumption of soda and fast foods: obesity, diabetes, heart problems, tooth decay.

The other broad change that has occurred between the Depression and now, and that affects everyone in the region, is the rapid buildup of infrastructure. Prior to the coming of railroads, paved roads, bridges, and more recently, TV/radio/internet, Appalachia was literally sealed off from the outside world. Hence the centuries-long preservation of ancient ballads, speech mannerisms, and other cultural norms brought over by the Scots-Irish, the Palatine Germans, the Huguenots, and other early immigrant groups.SelfSufficiency

Furthermore, knowing they were cut off this way, the Appalachian populace of 3-4 generations ago emphasized self-sufficiency in ways we can barely imagine today. “Mend it, fix it, wear it out, make it do, or go without” is a maxim that appeared regularly in the region’s cross-stitched samplers from the late 19th and early 20th centuries. This wasn’t an academic point: if you couldn’t do these things you were liable to find yourself in dire straits in short order. No one from the outside could be expected to help you.

Sarah: Amazing characters and personalities are found throughout your site. Do you have a favorite? Or is there an anecdote or quote that you find particularly compelling?

Dave: A hard choice, for sure. But if you’re going to pin me down, the story of Daintry Allison offers a pretty good summation of everything that I find admirable in the Appalachian character.

Allison describes how as a young school teacher she was sent to a remote village in western NC, where new teachers had been routinely getting run out-of-town by the town bully. Why? Because his teenaged daughter was a wild thing in school, and any teacher who attempted to discipline her met with the father’s rage.

Rural One-Room School P. R. Young and pupils, Transylvania Co. 1903 Charlotte Young Manuscript Collection, p80.

Rural One-Room School
P. R. Young and pupils, Transylvania Co. 1903
Charlotte Young Manuscript Collection, p80.

Moreover, she cared deeply about her charges getting a solid education. She was a tough disciplinarian on her female students — she saw clearly that many of them had been getting pregnant far too young, and dropping out of school. So she stepped in to try to prevent that. And of course it was only a matter of time before she crossed the town bully.

What surprised and delighted me most about her story was the clever, clever way she finally brought the bully to heel. I recommend you read this inspiring tale all the way through!

Sarah: I’ve been exploring the artistic ways in which people express themselves in preserving and displaying their family history. For instance, I truly appreciate beautifully restored heirlooms, family history quilts, creative family trees and the like. Have you come across any interesting examples of the intersection of genealogy and artistry that are unique to this part of the United States?

Dave: Just today I ran an article, “The Urge to Create Something Beautiful from the Commonest Materials” about how the hearth broom was lovingly crafted, and often passed down generation to generation. One of my readers responded: “My Great Grandfather Burress made the cane chairs, and was also a blacksmith and made all sorts of tools. My grandmother made this rocking chair pin cushion out of a tin can. She gave it to me when I was a child and I am going to try to reproduce just one. My other grandmother is said to have made the [hearth] brooms, and my Aunt had one for many years she had made.”

Sarah: Beyond your interest in history in this region, do you also research your own family history? Can you share any particular notable discoveries or breakthroughs with my readers?

Dave: My dad, and now my younger sister, are the official genealogists in my family. I’m less interested in the who begat whom, begat whom, begat whom of formal family trees, than I am in the rich individual stories. And so often the further back you go, the less frequent the stories become.

I’m distantly related to both Noah Webster and John Greenleaf Whittier, but so far as I know those connections have never brought me any fame or fortune!

Last fall I attended the Museum of Appalachia’s Fall Homecoming in Clinton, TN. As I was looking through one of the carved wooden object displays, I noticed a tag identifying one Edward Ambrose of Winchester, VA. I knew there were Ambroses in my family tree from that area, so I called my dad to ask about this fellow. Turns out he was the brother of my paternal great-grandfather. No one in my family was aware that this item was even part of the museum’s collection.

Dave Tabler at the Museum of Appalachia, holding an object carved by his ancestor Edward Ambrose.

Dave Tabler at the Museum of Appalachia, holding an object carved by his ancestor Edward Ambrose.


Sarah: I’ve enjoyed the amazingly rich archive of posts you have on your site, going back to 2006. I have to confess, I’m a bit in awe of how prolific you are, especially when I realized that so many are original essays. How do you do it? What’s your secret to sustaining this level of productivity?

Dave: It’s incredibly challenging, which is why a lot of sites pop up, only to fade away 6 months later. I’m very fortunate to have been raised by a professional librarian. Many times as a young kid I can remember nagging my mother Pat about the answer to some question I had, and she would always firmly point me to the bookcase that housed our World Book Encyclopedia collection.

And as I’m sure she hoped would happen, I’d often find the answer to my original question, but the encyclopedia article would pique my interest in some offshoot item. So I’d spend an hour or two just jumping around and reading what caught my attention. So secret #1, if you can even call it ‘secret,’ is to have a ravenous curiosity about whatever subject your site is to be about.Secret#1

I’ve been running the App Hist site, as you observed, since 2006. There are a thousand distractions that throw up roadblocks to staying productive: family emergencies, sick days, obligations of all shades. So the second comment I’d offer up to anyone thinking of starting a site is: you’ve got to be disciplined. You have to have a sense going in of how you’re going to structure your approach. In my first year of working on the site I was always frantic: committing to a daily post on a site is a full-time job. After awhile I realized that if I could create 2 posts in one sitting, I could get out from under that daily crush and buy some breathing space. But how to do that? Well, as with the encyclopedia experience I mentioned a moment ago, I kept my eye out for offshoot articles that could be developed from whatever main topic I was researching at a given moment. I started keeping a spreadsheet of these ideas so they wouldn’t get lost in the shuffle. 

Great joysOne of the great joys of growing a site over time is that, if you’re doing it right, you start to gather community around you. This is vital, both to refresh the spirits of those running the site, and to help incorporate fresh points of view into the site. I’ve been very grateful to have had museums call me offering to write up articles on shows they’re doing, authors and filmmakers offering to share insights on projects they’re working on, and general readers offering input, either corrections/additions on previously posted articles, or suggestions for fresh articles. So these days I get a wide circle of support. 

Sarah: You’ve got so much going on, what’s your vision for the work you’re doing and where it will go in the next few years?

Dave: I’ve been completely startled by the unexpected evolutions the site and podcast have taken already over the last few years, so it makes me hesitant to even begin to guess how my landscape will appear 4-5 years out. Maybe a book? Maybe a documentary? Who knows, I’m open to whatever comes down the pike!

Thank you, Dave, for sharing your work and inspiration with my readers. You’ve provided a valuable resource for anyone researching ancestors from Appalachia. Please visit Dave’s blog and subscribe to his podcast for more of his poignant stories and historical narratives. 

Interview with Dr. Steve Lasky, founder – Museum of Family History

Interview with Dr. Steve Lasky, founder – Museum of Family History

Dr. Steve Lasky is the founder of the Museum of Family History. The museum is a virtual, multimedia, and interactive experience designed to honor Jewish people and the Jewish family unit. The unique online setting is complete with a “floor plan” and features exhibitions and galleries as well as an education and research center. 

Sarah O’Connor:  My mission, through geneartistry, is to explore and promote the intersection between family history and artistic expression. I feel truly fortunate to have discovered the Museum of Family History which is such a wonderfully creative and dynamic way to honor Jewish families. Can you tell my readers what inspired you to create the site, and how you got started?

Dr. Steve Lasky:  There were many sources of inspiration that led me to create my virtual museum. It was a part of an evolutionary process, a step in my “journey of self-discovery” – so to speak – as I sought to find further meaning in my life. Although I chose to become an optometrist as my life’s work more than thirty years ago, there was always this latent desire for creativity, for language, for learning about Jewish history and culture that I had suppressed for a number of years in order to become an optometrist. I had done little with it until later in my life.JourneyZA

The road that led me to the creation of a museum of Jewish history began when I left my job as an optometrist in Southern California, choosing to go on my first trip abroad before returning home to New York, so I backpacked through Europe in the early eighties and visited ten countries in ten weeks. Since then my “wanderlust” has taken me to more than forty countries, and I’ve had the opportunity to visit many of the art museums of the world. I’ve seen history (and art) in all its glory, and studying French and Spanish and art for brief times in Paris and Mexico. I saw so many layers of history in one place. My imagination was stimulated. Eventually I became an amateur pastel portraitist back in New York, which further awoke my “creative juices”. So this really was the early “underpinning” to all that I have done to this point with my Museum.

I was also inspired by my love of family and close relatives, as well the fondness I had for the positive memories of my youth. I also wanted very much to keep Jewish history and culture alive, which I feel is so important, as I have seen over the years how the appreciation of Jewish history and culture has so diminished, at least in my opinion. To me, the past is not simply the past to be relegated to the history books, but is essentially part of the mosaic that tells us and the world who we are as a people. I wanted to do what I could to inspire others so they would think more about their own family history and to talk about their own family history with their children, grandchildren et al, and in this way they would be honoring and preserving the memory of their family for the present and hopefully future generations.

PastZB1Earlier you asked how I got started with all of this. As I recall, in November 2002 I was sitting in the den of the family house watching television, when I happened to glance off to the side, and I noticed under my mother’s collection of old LPs within her lamp table, one of those envelopes that drug stores give you when you pick up your developed photos and negatives. Inside of this envelope was a stack of old family photographs – black and white photographs of my mother, grandparents, my uncles and my aunts. These photos were yellowing a bit and were curled up as photos are prone to do when they were taken more than sixty years earlier. I asked my mother why they weren’t included in any of her other family albums, and of course she couldn’t tell me.

Then it instantly occurred to me how precious these photos were to me at least, and that I didn’t want them to get lost or otherwise discarded. Imagine finding such old photos of your dear family that you’ve never seen before – I felt like a kid in a candy store. So I then decided to put these curled-up photos into a photo album, while at the same time fully reorganizing our entire family photo collection.

Not long after this I had this idea of creating family newsletters, or “journals”,  to be published on paper, about sixteen to twenty-four pages long (double-sided), one version for each side of my family, and then I would send them out on a quarterly basis (in a clear report cover and slide-lock) for about a year-and-a-half. This wasn’t one of your “typical” family journals, because they contained family photos, interviews with family members, historical articles (that I wrote), and even a master calendar (with family birthdays) and a Yahrzeit list (just so folks wouldn’t forget).

This idea of creating a family journal was a great one (in my mind) for a number of reasons. Somehow in the course of conducting my research I got to meet cousins whom I had never met before (nor would I have ever met them if it wasn’t for my project), as well as to visit my dear cousins whom I hadn’t seen since I was a bar-mitzvah so many decades before. It’s funny if not sad how often we see relatives when we are younger, but with time and distance the chances of further meetings become less frequent, so that most often we only see them at weddings, bar mitzvahs or funerals.

It’s strange how these things work out, isn’t it? As I met with everyone, I made sure I interviewed them (digital recorder in hand), and with this I began to gather information about my own family tree – stories about a number of my family members I never would have heard otherwise. Then I transcribed some of them onto paper, for posterity and possible further use. 

  • Lives in the Yiddish Theatre - Exhibit of the Museum of Family History  David Pinski, actor Lives in the Yiddish Theatre - Exhibit of the Museum of Family History
  • Lives in the Yiddish Theatre - Exhibit of the Museum of Family History  Esta Salzman, actress Lives in the Yiddish Theatre - Exhibit of the Museum of Family History
  • Lives in the Yiddish Theatre - Exhibit of the Museum of Family History  Harry Jordan, actor Lives in the Yiddish Theatre - Exhibit of the Museum of Family History
  • Lives in the Yiddish Theatre - Exhibit of the Museum of Family History  Celia Zuckerberg, actress Lives in the Yiddish Theatre - Exhibit of the Museum of Family History

Somewhere within that year-and-a-half of publishing my family journals (I called “Family Circles”), I decided that it would be wonderful if I could switch from paper journals to a website – it would be easier I thought, once I learned the “ins-and-outs” of how to create such a website, which I had never done before. My first intent was to fill the website with information about my family, ancestors et al, but due to a few expressed “privacy” concerns, I chose to include only a small amount about my own family and relatives — mostly information about those who were already deceased. Then I continued on with my research about Jewish history in a general way, thought of many ways that I could present my website, who my audience would ultimately be, what kind of online exhibitions people would like to see on my site, etc.

Eventually – at the Las Vegas IAJGS (International Association of Jewish Genealogical Societies) in the summer of 2005 I made my presence felt – I would constantly pull many of the conference attendees off to the side as they were heading down the hallways, hopping left and right between lectures, and I would show them what I had accomplished to date. I hoped that they would support me in my efforts, would visit my website and send me material that I could use on my site. After the conference, I began, little by little, to make it known that I was looking for folks to send me copies of old family photographs, stories, etc. To date I’ve had many hundreds of folks contribute material, which I’m grateful for. Then I decided that I wanted to make the museum a multimedia one, so I learned how to work with and edit audio and video clips, and thus my Museum became multimedia. And the rest is history, no pun intended.

One of the purposes of my Museum is to encourage folks to become active participants in the preservation of their own family’s history. I feel that the more people who knew about my site and who made a thorough “visit” to my Museum, would hopefully get as excited about the possibility of preserving their own family history as I have, would feel that excitement that I do and chose to get involved. Honoring and preserving the memory of one’s loved ones is a beautiful and blessed undertaking, and I feel that it is well worth one’s time pursuing. Imagine all the people who never had a chance to continue their own blood line, let alone work to preserve their own family history. This is our chance to leave a precious legacy… So there you have it in a nutshell.


You’ve asked how I knew that I could do all this? As I’ve told you, I like being creative – so that wasn’t the question. I didn’t know, however, if I could create such a big and fancy website (which I learned “on the fly”, without any previous training) until I did it, but I felt that I could create a “journal”. You see, I was the editor of my optometry school newspaper for more than a year. Before my editorship the school “newspaper” was just two sides of one mimeographed sheet of paper. When I left the editorship a year later, it won an award, was self-sustaining (with paid advertising that I had begun to secure during my “reign” as editor), and on average it contained about sixteen pages of photos and articles, interviews, a master calendar, etc. So I knew I could do that, so hopefully by extension I could create a family journal, and then eventually a website, an even greater challenge that I could hopefully succeed in. It was and still is my wish that all the work and sacrifice I would put into all of this work would be appreciated by all who took the time to read my journals and/or “visit” my Museum.

Sarah: With so much to offer, you’ve aptly described a visit to the Museum as a “personal journey”. What are you hoping people experience and take away from that journey?

Steve:  History is fascinating, isn’t it? When I was growing up and attending public school, much of the study of history was rote learning – memorize dates and names and events, taking tests, then moving on to the next subject. There was American History; there was World History. We didn’t study history holistically or longitudinally, nor did we necessarily associate what was going on in the world with what our ancestors had gone through during a particular time or era. What made matters worse is that our parents – especially our immigrant grandparents — didn’t talk about their early lives or experiences, perhaps because of the pain of the Holocaust, or simply the pain from being dislocated from the family that they once lived with. History wasn’t personal when I studied it in school. We really didn’t study Jewish history — yes, in Hebrew school a bit, but if I recall correctly it was mostly a study of Biblical stories — certainly not about the Holocaust, or Jewish life in Europe, immigration, Jewish life in America, etc. There was a wide dichotomy between secular learning and Jewish learning.

I’ve digressed from your question. I always suggest to people that the best way to learn about their own family’s journey over time is to learn about world history, and the best way to learn about world history is to learn about your family and their own experiences during that time.  I believe that when one of my Museum “visitors” reads a personal story, or hears an audio clip of a story being told, or reads an article about a time in which their ancestors lived, hopefully they’ll ask themselves, “Could my family members have experienced something like this?”, or “Where was my family during this time?”, or “How could world events have affected my own ancestors, personally and otherwise”? It certainly doesn’t have to be a story about one’s own family; we can empathize. There really are so many questions that one could ask ourselves, aren’t there? I wish folks would want to learn more about their parents, grandparents et al, and to make connections with different times in the past so they could meld that knowledge to form a sort of nexus of knowledge from one generation to the next.

AliveZBI have a similar theory of relativity as Einstein (though I am no Einstein!) To me, all time exists on the same plane, at least figuratively. Have you ever smelled a familiar smell, heard a particular sound, or returned to a certain place that evoked such strong imagery in your mind that you “almost” felt that you were “back there” again? Personally I have found that the more I learn about the past, both in general and about my own family, the more vivid the past seems to be to me, and it seems that the temporal distance between then and now seems shorter. I feel in a sense that I am once again back in the past (figuratively speaking and employing my active imagination, of course). After all, if the present is only a moment, everything else is the past, and the future is what’s to come and hasn’t happened yet.

Another theory I have is one that I did not come up with, i.e. that people die twice: once when they physically pass away from this world, the other when they are no longer talked about. So the Museum of Family History gives folks the opportunity to keep the memory of their family members alive, to talk in some way to other family members about them and in this way at least to honor their memory. Not only that, but with what material I put online within my Museum to help them honor and preserve their family memories, folks can share it with others throughout the world, for free, 24/7.

A couple of advantages of an Internet museum is that it can be open all the time, and physical place is not a problem. One exhibition does not have to be taken down to make room for the next. You also needn’t be in a specific geographical location to pay the museum a visit. Also, such virtual museums are different from a “brick and mortar” museum. Most of us cannot honor our family by hanging a family photo on a museum wall, or by making a sound clip available of a family member, for all who visit a museum to hear. At the Museum of Family History, most everyone can take part and do this.


I hope that my Museum stimulates imaginations and allows my Museum “visitors” to travel back in their own past through their own personal journey, to become unceasingly inquisitive, with a constant thirst to learn more and to keep asking questions….

Sarah: Wandering through the Museum, it is easy to get caught up in the many personal stories of struggle and triumphs brought to life with moving words and evocative sights and sounds. At the risk of asking a question as impossible as picking a favorite child, is there any one story or “exhibit” that particularly moves you or that especially captures the “spirit” of the Museum?

Steve: You’re right, that’s a tough one. I suppose my favorite stories are the ones that deal with the history of my own family, e.g. the story I wrote about my life growing up with my parents and maternal grandparents, in the fifties and sixties. I think it is our own personal stories that often affect us the most. The story I wrote, at its essence, is a loving tribute to my parents and grandparents as I remember them. It is a rare attempt on my part to express on paper — with what eloquence I could muster — my fondest memories of my youth. You can find this part of my “memoir” at, if you’re interested.

How wonderful it is to be able to express in an eloquent way one’s unconditional love! If I can stimulate others to do the same, it would be very rewarding to me and hopefully to them too. So, yes, my grandparents are gone more than forty years now (and my father nearly thirty), but I have not forget them, and they are still talked about, at least by me.

Sarah: In addition to your ambitious work on behalf of Jewish history, do you also research and document your own personal family history? So many of my readers are family historians with a passion for genealogical research I’m sure they would love hearing about your own quest (such as a particularly gratifying breakthrough or discovery or something else learned along the way).

Steve: Alas, I haven’t done much research in the last few years about my own family. I have done a good amount, but there are for me a number of missing links between the branches of my family tree, and since there are seemingly no records to clarify these connections and no one left to help me link one family member to another, solving this dilemma is quite difficult. I’ve dedicated most of my efforts to helping other people honor their own ancestors. Though I don’t do research for others, if I have data that would help them in some way solve their own mysteries, I send that data along to them pretty quickly.

Saying this, I must admit to you that I have mixed feelings about genealogy per se. Too many people (at least many of those I have met and communicated with over the years) strive to collect names and dates of relatives, but given the possibility or opportunity, they don’t even interview their own living ancestors, nor do they feel that it’s important to record their own personal story. Of course, there are many who strive to learn more than names and dates, but my frustrations are not with them.

As to one of my “quests” or “discoveries” that is especially gratifying is the amount I learned about my paternal grandparents, who passed away in Brooklyn before I was born. My paternal grandmother, Chaika (Ida), was really the breadwinner in the family – there were six children, four boys and two girls. Chaika did most of the work between her and her husband Michal (who davened most of the day). They had a small tailoring shop on Prospect Place in Brooklyn for a time, and Michal did a little tailoring, or so I was told. I also discovered that it was his job to cook herring and potatoes for the family for Friday night dinners. Another cousin whom I had never met before told me that she remembers that he used to collect matchbooks. I was told that their marriage was probably an arranged one, he being about fifteen years her senior. They had a baby girl in Poland, he came to the U. S. through Ellis Island – I guess to pave the way for Chaika and daughter to arrive at a later date – and so two years later in 1902 or so, they came to the U.S. the same way.

Ida and Michal

Ida and Michal

Ida, seems often to have been a “contradiction”, so to speak. For a period of time, she used to participate in “estate sales”. At times she’d been standing on a table, my father still in her womb, conducting these sales. Years before this, she used to make money with “I Carry Clothes”, where she used to go around NYC selling clothes that she carried around on her back. As I’ve said, she and my grandfather Michal had six children — my father was the youngest of six children, and he was fifteen years junior to his oldest sister.

The Internet can be a wondrous means for discovering information, and can provide insights otherwise never to be obtained.  For example, a couple of years ago, on a lark, I decided to search some old newspaper databases (the “Fulton History” website) under my grandmother’s name “Ida Lasky”  Lo and behold, I found an article about her in an April 1929 edition of the Utica (N. Y.) Daily Press newspaper. Utica yet! The article stated that she had a spot in a building on Elizabeth Street (“a block from the Bowery in the fringe of Chinatown”) where there was a clothes exchange. The article sets the scene in part, “Within a dingy room, dealers sit along a wide bench. The collectors stream in with armfuls of worn garments for which they have bargained dearly at apartment doors from Coney Island to the Bronx…..” (One of those people these collectors sold to was my grandmother, and she in turn would sell these used clothes, etc. to others.) The upper floors of this building were sublet to dealers who use them as sorting rooms….”

Under a subheading named “Prosperous Queen Ida” the article further states: “One woman, Ida Lasky, known to her intimates as ‘Hiker’ and to her colleagues as ‘the Queen’ is among New York’s 2,000 collectors of old clothes…. and that when she goes out on Sunday in her mink coat, and her fine sedan, her six children — three of them married — are mighty proud of her….”. Finally, the passage ends as such: “I bet you she’s got $500 in that stocking plant(?) now,” exclaimed Max (who owned a concession there), as she paused besides us. ‘Ha,’ she retorted, dodging away with a laugh and lifting her skirt high enough to display a wad of bills nestled against her kneecap. ‘Five hundred and eighty dollars’.”

So this is precious, isn’t it?? She was quite a character. Here’s more… Chaika didn’t go to my father’s wedding because one of my uncles (by marriage), whom she was mad at, was going to attend the wedding, so she refused to go, even though Michal did. Also my aunt (one of my father’s sisters) told the story that Chaika would go into bars, see a “bum”, go to him and ask him, “Why are you a bum?” She’d buy him dinner and a suit and tell him or help him to get a job. “She was very charitable that way”. So as I’ve said, a “contradiction”…..

So there you have it. I never met my paternal grandparents, and look how much I found out by interviewing cousins, researching online newspaper archives, etc. The only thing I remember my father ever saying about my grandmother Chaika was that she slapped him across his head every time they walked together down the stairs from their apartment.  Imagine knowing that little about one’s grandmother for most of your life, then learning all of this later in life! I suppose this goes to prove that you never know where you might find information about a family member. One just has to try as many possible sources of information as possible and hope for the best. Never assume that a relative knows nothing about your family history. A little luck is also a good thing…. I did know my maternal grandparents, and I was blessed enough to have known them for the first thirteen years of my life, before they passed away about a year apart from each other. They were totally different than my paternal grandparents, but they are another story….

Sarah:  In your introduction to the Museum you start with a wonderful quote by Dale Carnegie about the enthusiastic pursuit of an inspiring goal being a source of happiness. That’s such apt wisdom for budding family historians (and us old hands alike!). It’s also true that the long journey in pursuit of an ambitious and worthy goal invariably has its hurdles, set backs, and sustained periods where it’s natural to ask “am I getting anywhere?”. It’s clear from the results, that the Museum of Family History is a  labor of love for you requiring a tremendous amount of time and effort. How do you sustain your passion and focus on such an all-encompassing project?

PushFjpgSteve: I must admit that my website work is at times exhausting and frustrating, but my dogged determination has seen me through some tough moments. I suppose that at times I am more motivated than at others. Sometimes I just have to keep pushing forward. It isn’t easy, with few if any volunteers that step forward to volunteer, and without receiving any funding or contributions – not that I have always been asking for them. I just think it would be so much easier — and I’d be able to grow the Museum by leaps and bounds — if I could successful secure funding to pay others to do what I can’t do, either because of I haven’t the skill or the time. I certainly believe that what I have done is unique, and it wouldn’t be even more unique and more marvelous if I had funding and/or volunteers to go beyond where I’ve gone to this point, though I’m not too hopeful that enough individuals, organizations or institutions know about my work, or if they do will believe enough in me and my work to the point of offering funding, etc.” Hope springs eternal”, or so they say.

Zalmen Zylbercweig, editor of the "Lexicon of the Yiddish Theatre", 1941

Zalmen Zylbercweig, editor of the “Lexicon of the Yiddish Theatre”, 1941

Saying that, I push on because everything I create, each project and exhibition, has a certain meaning for me. For instance, for the past two years much of my time has been spent translating the Zalmen Zylbercweig opus, the “Lexicon of the Yiddish Theatre”, from Yiddish to English (though I can’t speak or really understand it for the most part when spoken to me). The “Lexicon” contains more than 2,800 individual biographies and histories of now-defunct theatre organizations. Such individual biographies include Boris Thomashefsky, Aaron Lebedeff, Paul Muni (who used to act in Yiddish theatre before becoming a screen actor), playwrights such as Jacob Gordin, I. L, Peretz, Sholem Asch and Sholem Aleichem. I have, mostly by myself, translated more than three-quarters of all the histories in this opus. Will it ever fully get translated? I don’t know if I can finish it. Without the funding to pay translators, the job may very well remain unfinished. Zylbercweig’s step-daughter has been very gracious in helping me with this “labor of love”, and she has also given me dozens of reel-to-reel cassettes of her parent’s old 1949-1969 Yiddish-language radio program, which was broadcast out of their home studio, which they built in the back of their Los Angeles home at their own expense. I had them converted to a digital format and periodically I add a new program to my “On the Air!” feature on my website. Just one of my many beloved projects. Of course it would be nice if folks would come forward to help me with my translations (as volunteers), but as you know, often times volunteers are often hard to come by.

I am also enamored with other special aspects of the Museum, e.g. my four “floor plans”, which indicate to the museum “visitor” where most everything would be located in the Museum (if it existed in real space). These rooms would be filled with all sorts of interesting material and exhibitions, and there would be building facades, e.g. of synagogues, schools, shops, etc., which would be embedded with links to texts, audio and video segments. There is even an outdoor music pavilion with a seating plan. Currently “performing” at the Museum of Family History is Al Jolson, who sings a few songs for the audience. I even have created two virtual restaurants with wonderful, mouth-watering, descriptive menus, for lunch, dessert and dinner. One of my restaurants is called “Gut Essen Delicatessen”. I have other menus too, and I’d like other folks to send me in menus for five- or six-course dinners, based on themes or region of origin. I have many more ideas of course.

Sarah: I’m very intrigued by the idea of a virtual museum for organizing, displaying and sharing a family’s history. I expect that some of my readers may be inspired by your creation to take their photos, videos, stories, research and other artifacts and bring them on-line to become curators of their own multimedia Museums of Family History. Do you have any advice for how to start?

Steve: There are online sites where you can use their templates to create your own website. How successful one is will depend on the time and energy one can put into it, how one can lay out material onto pages, on one’s artistic sense, and how comfortable and savvy one is on a computer. Of course, I would like folks to consider putting material about their family on my own Museum website — which would be easier on them and good for the Museum. They can always contact me at if they have any questions about this. Making a website multimedia, i.e. filled with audio and video clips, is another matter, but it is doable. It just depends on whether one can dedicate the time and energy to learning how to do all of this.


Sarah:  You offer the hope that the Museum will appeal to children as well as adults and promote storytelling of family memories from grandparents and parents to their children. This is so important and something that I have a keen interest in promoting. What other advice would you offer to parents who wish to inspire their children to become more interested in family history?

Steve: Often times I hear from parents or grandparents that their children or grandchildren aren’t interested in their own history, so they really don’t bring it up, though others do. I don’ think this is a general rule, though it does happen. I think that children would like to form greater connections with their elders, and I think if their elders tell their stories in loving terms, then there is a better chance of creating more of an interest and curiosity in their progeny.


No matter what the age, people are attracted by beauty and positive energy. Every parent and grandparent who feels they know their children or grandchildren must find their own path to telling stories, though as I say, doing it with love is the key. It might not always work, but to me this a great way to build intergenerational communication. One good exercise is to interview a family member, preferably (with their permission) recording the interview with a digital recorder, and then transcribing it for posterity.

There is an art to conducting such interviews, and there are websites that make some good suggestions on how to do so, i.e. how to interview and conduct “oral history”. The American Indians used to sit around the campfire, and the elders used to pass down the story of the tribe this way. So why can we Jews sit around the table during holidays such as Pesach and do the same?

Sarah:  Happily, the Museum which already consists of thousand of images from the past, is a growing collection. What’s ahead? Can you share any upcoming exhibits or plans you may have for the future of the Museum?

Steve: Oh, I have so many plans (if only I had the time, the volunteers and some money) – both a curse and a blessing of an active imagination. It kills me, though, that I haven’t been able to go forward in the way that I had hoped, having such a vision of a future Museum of Family History that would stand out as a model of what imagination, creativity and love of heritage can do if only I had the means.

Dr. Steven Lasky

Dr. Steven Lasky

I haven’t mentioned to you that I am currently the First Vice-President and Cemetery Liaison for the United Zembrover Society (a landsmanshaft, or mutual aid society, made up today mostly of descendants of those who came from Zambrow, Poland). We are almost finished paying a professional translator to fully translate our Yizkor Book (Book of Remembrance).We pay our translator section by section, and after each section is sent to our Board, and to me, it is proofed, the book photos are inserted into the body of the translation, and then I place the translation on my website. Interesting too is the fact that I am working with people (non-Jews) in Zambrow to have the Yizkor Book translated from English to Polish, and once done it will also hopefully appear on my site in Polish. What a great way to inform non-Jews from the town about the history of the Jews who once lived and thrived there. So much of the history of many towns in Europe was made by Jews, but knowledge of this history was lost due to the Holocaust and destruction of the Jewish population. It is as if a large chunk of their own town’s history is missing. And I think many towns have an interest in learning about this history, especially the young people in these towns, so this is all a good thing in my opinion and is filled with good intentions. Of course, such good intentions must be followed up by action.

I am also hoping to create a three-dimensional map of the town and link translated excerpts from the Yizkor Book with locations on the town map. This idea excites me and offers up the possibility of creating a template for doing this for other locations throughout the world where Jews (and others) once lived.

I also hope to transform my Museum of Family History website to a three-dimension format, but that is for another time. Nothing like this has ever been done before, but this is a case where I haven’t the skills to do this and would need funding to pay someone who knows how to do this. As I’ve said, “Hope springs eternal”.

Thank you, Dr. Lasky, for sharing your inspiration and aspirations for the Museum of Family History. If you would like to read more about Steve’s work, visit the Museum at or his memoir at

Make Your Mark

Make Your Mark

We have all heard the expressions, “make your mark” or “put your X on the line”, but do you know where they come from? Chances are if you’ve researched for a while you’ve encountered a document where someone signed their name with an X. Legal documents such as land or will records frequently contain such signatures. Often the presence of an X is an indication that the signer could not read or write, an important clue when you are trying to determine the social and economic status of an ancestor. There are exceptions, however. It is not uncommon to find a literate but very elderly person signing with an X. This is particularly true with wills where the signer may have been too frail to sign their complete name.

While Xs were common in early American documents, there were also a host of unique marks used by Europeans. For example, a few years ago on a trip to Sweden I encountered an index of marks used by the farmer’s in Bergsjö, one of my ancestral villages. The mark was used in place of a signature on legal documents. While marks are personal and not passed from father to son, often the son’s mark would resemble his father’s. Perhaps a mark that looks like the letter A would lose one leg, or a mark that resembles a T would be shortened or lengthened. Still, to the townsfolk, that mark was as unique as a signature.

Marks or "bumerker" used by Norwegian villagers

Marks or “bumerker” used by Norwegian villagers-

Signatures and marks are not only compelling for their visual interest but also because they can help us to distinguish our ancestor from others with similar names living in the same region at the same time. For instance, if two James Johnsons aged 40 were living in Pittsburg, Pennsylvania in 1783, one a farmer, one a town clerk, how can you tell them apart? If you attributed the service of town clerk to your ancestor but your James Johnson signed his will with an “x”, it is likely he was the farmer and not the clerk. Many public offices and professions required reading and writing skills. Similarly, if you find the same two men served in the local militia or in the Continental Army during the Revolutionary War, it is likely that the James Johnson who could read and write would hold a higher rank than the man who could not.

Though being illiterate likely limited the public offices, military ranks and possibly the overall success (in today’s terms) of many of our ancestors, it was the norm for most of human history and is certainly nothing to be ashamed of. For an informative and fascinating project, try locating the wills, military pensions or land records of each of your direct ancestors and create a family tree that charts their educational progress through the generations. Instead of photographs, clip an image of their signature, or in the case of those that couldn’t read and write, their mark. Not only will this unique tree be beautiful to look at but it will being a tangible reminder of your ancestor’s achievements.




Frank Parmenter

Frank Parmenter

Frank Parmenter’s mangled body was placed in a potter’s field in Courtenay, British Columbia with no family members present to mourn him. At just 38 years old, his body was whirled around a shaft in a shingle mill when his clothing became caught in a wheel. An inquest into his death was held and the incident was ruled an accident. And so ended the life of a mysterious and troubled man, a fugitive, an outcast, a loner and this genealogist’s greatest conundrum, until now.

Frank was born March 24, 1884 in Mount Carmel, Illinois, the first boy and number five of 13 children. His father, Charles Allen Parmenter, was a farmer by trade and a respected man from a family influential in Illinois politics and military history. Charles married Mary Broedel on Christmas Day 1874. He was only 19 and his wife 15 on the day of their marriage. On March 24th, 1884 with four daughters ranging from one to five (including my great, great-grandmother Laura Ethel), Charles must have been excited to hear that he finally had a son (the first of four).

Destruction from the 1877 Mount Carmel Tornado

Destruction from the 1887 Mount Carmel Tornado

Life in Mount Carmel was not easy for the Parmenters. In September of 1887 a tornado tore through the town, killing 16, leaving 100 families homeless and destroying all the government buildings including the courthouse. It is likely that the Parmenters suffered significant property damage. It took years for Mount Carmel to rebuild their community and recover from the hardship inflicted by mother nature. By 1902, Charles Allen and Mary Parmenter sold out and moved their family to Washington State and settled in Centralia where they commenced farming. Life in Centralia was peaceful and productive. Newpaper articles from the era show the family gathering often for birthdays, anniversaries and weddings. However, in 1907 the news had changed and brought incredible shame to the family.


Frank Parmenter was released from prison a few days later and while there was tension in the family, it was thought to be over. It was, until Frank was imprisoned again on April 16, 1909 for stealing another bicycle. This time when he returned home he was told he could never return. His father turned him out of the house and family letters from decades later say that he was never heard from again. Some family members said they heard a rumor that Frank went to Canada and died there but after nearly 15 years of searching for him I had almost given up.

Then, searching through an online newspaper archive I discovered something that sent my pulse racing.


So Frank hadn’t gone far. Just a few weeks after being turned away from home Frank robbed a hotel and landed himself in prison. This time he was sentenced and sent first to a labor farm in Skaget Valley and then, to the state peniteniary in Walla Walla. As luck would have it, the Washington State Digital Archives had Frank Parmenter’s mug shot and a detailed personal description.




Two years later Frank was released and made his way for the Canadian border. He stopped along the way in Bellingham and forged a document at a Western Union office with the name of his father’s neighbor in Centralia. Suspecting something wasn’t right, they called the sheriff and Frank was soon arrested and sent back to prison in Lewis County. Then, another search of the local newspapers and a BIG surprise:

Six Break Jail

Prisoners Cut Way To Liberty

Another article a week later indicated that Frank Parmenter had not been found. He never was. The rumor in the family that he had gone to Canada stuck in my mind and I began searching online to find Candian documents for anyone named Frank Parmenter. Within hours I located a WWI Draft Registration for Frank Parmenter. He was residing in Beesborough Bay, British Columbia and he was a logger at the time. He listed his father as his nearest relative. Excited by the new find I dug deeper into Canadian records hoping to find a census record for him. My next search, however returned a British Columbia Death Index entry for just four years later. Heavy-hearted, I ordered the death certificate for Frank and the newspaper death notice from the library in Courtenay. The obituary of the man I had been searching over a decade for was too short:


Frank Parmenter has taken on legendary status in my mind. Leaving no wife or children behind, Frank would be all but forgotten if it hadn’t been for the family rumors and my inability to accept his disappearance. Now, more than 100 years after he broke out of prison, escaped the law and vanished from my hometown the mystery has been solved.

The Parmenter Family - Taken while Frank was in prison. He is the only child out of 13 that was not photographed. The only known photo of Frank Parmenter is his mug shot.

The Parmenter Family – Taken while Frank was in prison. He is the only child out of 13 that was not photographed. The only known photo of Frank Parmenter is his mug shot.

Living with Family Heirlooms

Living with Family Heirlooms

Fine china, stamps, clothing, bibles, books and baubles; family heirlooms come in all shapes and sizes. As family curators and caretakers it is our duty to collect and preserve these precious mementos for future generations. But that doesn’t mean they need to hide in dark attics and drawers. With a little creativity, family heirlooms can be incorporated into any home decor and can inspire less enthusiastic family members to ponder and appreciate their ancestors.

Here are some of the best ideas for creating beautiful and interesting displays of common family treasures:

Framed Doilies - Country Living Magazine

Framed Doilies – Country Living Magazine


Enlarged Postcards - Southern Living (photo Tria Giovan)

Enlarged Postcards – Southern Living (photo Tria Giovan)

Photos in Bottles

Photographs in Antique Bottles


Vintage Clothing Display - Brabourne Farm

Vintage Clothing Display – Brabourne Farm


Framed Plates - Better Homes & Gardens

Framed Plates – Better Homes & Gardens

Displaying Vintage Jewelry - Mix and Chic

Displaying Vintage Jewelry – Mix and Chic


Stamp Art - Brooklyn Burrow

Stamp Art – Brooklyn Burrow






Interview with Smadar Belkind Gerson, author

Interview with Smadar Belkind Gerson, author

Smadar Belkind Gerson is a genealogist and author in the Boston area. Her blog, Past-Present-Future chronicles her family’s history through photos, letters, postcards and records. Her recent book, Stored Treasures, is a touching memoir about the life of Minnie Crane who lived through two world wars and the Great Depression.

Sarah O’Connor: I’m thrilled to be able to interview you for my blog, My intent is to encourage people to bring artistic ideas and sensibility to their study of family history. Recently, I’ve set out to interview people who I feel are making a positive contribution to this mission. I truly appreciate your willingness to participate. To get started, could you tell me a little about yourself? How long have you been actively researching your family history? What first interested you in genealogy?

Smadar Belkind Gerson: I began my genealogy journey almost five years ago and can pinpoint exactly what sparked my interest. I am not one of those people who collected family stories since childhood. It is not that I did not care. I always enjoyed hearing about the family, but I would categorize my interest as average at best and completely age appropriate. Everything changed when I began working on a Bar Mitzvah project with my oldest son. We were living in Mexico at the time, and since there was no temple in our town, we did a lot of the Bar Mitzvah preparations on our own.


I suggested he do a “roots” investigation and he liked the idea. A Bar Mitzvah is about becoming a Jewish adult. I felt that gaining an understanding into your family history is part of what becoming an adult member of the community and the family is all about. His Bar Mitzvah theme was an ecologic “green” Bar Mitzvah, and so a family tree tied together the theme, the idea behind the ceremony and the roots project (trees are very green!).

For the roots investigation my son interviewed his grandparents and created a family tree. The interviews were both fascinating and fun, but the tree was more of a challenge. We decided to create an online tree, rather than trying to fit all the information on a large sheet of paper. We did some research, found a site we liked and planted an online family tree with my Bar Mitzvah boy as the center. We worked our way up the generations and invited the guests to join the tree.

Having a child reach Bar Mitzvah age, is a very powerful experience, not only for the child but for the parents as well. This right of passage, made me reflect about our family traditions passed on for generations. Interestingly, my son, completed the Bar Mitzvah and rarely looked back on the project. Something different happened to me. As soon as things died down and the guests departed, I found time on my hands to study the family tree. I notice that the tree was almost taking on a life of its own as family members were joining and adding more relatives as well as photographs, documents and stories. Two things drew my attention. The first, was connecting to long lost cousins I did not know existed. The second, there were huge gaps in the tree. I realized that at best, I could name four or five generations. Some branches, not necessarily distant ones, remained completely blank.

The more I knew and understood about the tree, the more questions I had and the more  I wanted to know. And that is how I became hooked on Genealogy!

Sarah: You’ve referred to your exploration of family history as a “life changing journey”. That’s such an eloquent and profound statement. At the risk of asking a question that is too broad, can you share with my readers some of the highlights of this journey and how you feel it’s benefitted you?

Smadar: This is an excellent question! Life itself, is a personal journey. There are certain moments which represent crossroads or change. Most of us can Past2identify the events which mark these crossroads. For me, the Bar Mitzvah was one of those moments directing me to a new path and a deeper personal understanding. In retrospect, I may have been experiencing a type of midlife crisis. I was forty years old and two months after the Bar Mitzvah, I sold my business.

There was a lot of soul-searching going on. Here I was, thinking about who I was and who I wanted to be, and at the same time realizing that I knew very little about my family. For the first forty years of my life, I was focused on myself and my children. Now, my son was growing up! I was trying to explain to him where we as a family came from, only to realize that my knowledge was extremely limited. It is as if, in order for me to move forward in my present life, I need to look back into a deep past.

Interview with Smadar Belkind Gerson, author and genealogist - www.geneartistry.comMany changes have happened since I embarked on this life altering voyage. I walked away from a successful career in real estate, I moved back to the United States and I published my first book. Allowing myself to explore my family history, lead me to write Stored Treasures, my great-grandmother’s memoir. My research lead me to discover her writing and it became apparent to me that her remarkable story needed to be told. Over the years, I have become more and more serious about genealogy. Family History has become much more than a passion. My mission is to help people record their own family stories, just like my great-grandmother did.

Sarah: You mention in your blog that you have involved your eldest son in your family history research. I think teaching children to appreciate family history and engaging them in the noble endeavor of genealogy research is such an important gift. What have you learned about how to capture a child’s interest in learning about and trying to understand his or her ancestors? What advice would you give to other parents hoping to spark their children’s interest in family history?

Smadar: Involving children in family history is quite challenging. My advice, don’t force them. Everyone needs to go through their own process and we each have a different pace of when we become interested. I took forty years to focus my advice2attention on family history. Some people take even longer. I believe that until recently, the typical genealogist was of retirement age. I certainly don’t believe we can expect most children to be as interested. I have three children, and they all feel differently about my work and about genealogy. One, has not wanted to read my book. I’m patiently waiting. I don’t push them and I let them ask the questions.

The roots project was a great way, to get my son engaged with family history. He set the example for his siblings and they participated with him to a certain degree. Anyone who desires  to introduce children to genealogy, can create a version of this family project and involved one or more of the children.

Interviewing the grandparents got my son most engaged. The interview was relevant to him since he knows them personally and loves them. He chose the questions so he was asking things he wanted to know. He especially loved hearing about his grandfather who passed away when he was seven years old. He remembers his grandfather lovingly, but the memories are fading. He knew almost nothing about his grandfather’s childhood, so hearing about the fact that his grandfather was a champion swimmer both surprised and delighted him. Through thinking about his grandparents, learning about their parents, made sense to him. He cares about his grandparents, and therefore he found it interesting to think about them in turn as children themselves, with parents and a childhood. But, that’s about as much as he wanted to know. For now, he left the rest to me.

Kids hear family stories all the time, but structuring an interview, setting aside time, preparing questions and recording the answers, places a bigger emphasis on these stories. There are many ways to record and present these interviews, including transcribing the answers, creating a family book and even videotaping.

Sarah: Jamie Belkind Gerson, your husband, created an amazing work of art titled “Our Ancestors” which consists of 18 large rocks, many of them covered with the faces of your ancestors, going back five generations. Can you share with my readers his inspiration for the piece?

"Our Ancestors" by Jamie Belkind Gerson - interview with Smadar Belkind Gerson on

“Our Ancestors” by artist Jamie Belkind Gerson

Smadar: Looking into our past, is very powerful. My husband, who is an artist, was moved by my discoveries in a different way than I was. His artistic sensibilities were drawn to the visual images. Every time, I found an old photograph of a previously unknown ancestor, I shared it with my family. We would all be drawn to these sepia colored vintage print. I remember discovering a photograph of my husband’s great-grandfather, Jaime David Belkind. This is the man, my husband was named after. He carries his name, but he had never seen a picture of this forefather. For Jaime, the images were more powerful than the stories. One evening, as we discussed my research he said: “It’s as if, these people were the rocks, the foundation of our lives. What we accomplished sits upon what they established and set in motion for us.” Jaime David was the first of the Belkind family to immigrate to Mexico. Immigration quotas, prevented him from entering at Ellis Island and he decided to wait for an entry visa in Mexico. This decision, determined the Belkind family’s destiny and shaped my husband’s identity which is intricately linked to the Mexican Jewish community where he grew up. Seeing Jaime David’s picture for the first time, solidified a deeper understanding of the chain which connects him to his past.

The idea of creating the eighteen rocks, came from the discussion we had that night. For years, Jaime worked with photographic images which he manipulated in multiple ways. In this artwork, he used techniques he developed earlier, to transfer the images of our ancestors into large boulders. These super sized rocks were reminiscent of the Jewish custom of placing a small rock on a tombstone as well as symbolized the strength of the foundations our ancestors set for us. The number eighteen, which is very deliberate, comes from the numerology of the word for life in Hebrew, Chai. The name Jaime is the Spanish version of Chaim, the hebrew name meaning life. Each of the eighteen rocks represented a different ancestor which gave life to us. He used images of both of our ancestors as we together chose to have a family and give life to our children. The bare, faceless rocks, without images commemorate ancestors who died in the holocaust, whose photographs and images were also lost in the war. Finally, the rocks were set in a reflecting pool of water. Our ancestors faces reflected in the water and merged together with the viewer’s own reflection, bringing the past ever so tenuously and briefly into the present.

Sarah: Has Jamie created other genealogy inspired art? Have you, in your travels, come across other examples of artistic renditions of family history that you could share with us?

Smadar: So far, “Our Ancestors”, is the only genealogy inspired artwork Jaime has created. The work is deeply personal and powerful, and has generated much interest. At the moment, he is looking for a permanent home for the rocks. In a way, this piece was a break from his earlier works, but in other ways, it DNAwas very much a progression. Many of his earlier themes have to do with layers. In the past, Jaime represented layers of his life through translucent images which he transposed onto different surfaces including canvas, resin and transparencies.

While “Our Ancestors” is very much about his predecessors, it’s also about how our ancestors are the layers which make up who we are. We carry their DNA, we live with their decisions every day, we chose to continue or not their traditions and hopefully we learn from them. The symbolism in our ancestors, conveys not only Jaime’s Jewish roots, but is an altar to his Mexican roots. Jews traditionally do not build altars which are extremely common in the predominately Catholic Mexican society. The installation very much resembled an altar, which ties together many of the layers of Jaime’s Mexican Jewish identity.  I’m not sure he will create another genealogy related work. He tends to work on inspiration, and does not plan his subject matter ahead, but I have a feeling that he still has some more exploring to do in this subject.

As far as seeing genealogy inspired artwork in my travels. I have to say, that not much, at least, not much that stuck with me. Two powerful works do come to mind. The first, called “Garden of Stones“, is located at the Museum of Jewish New York, by Andy Goldsworth. It is an outdoor rock garden, which reminded Jaime and me of “Our Ancestors.” There the large rocks have trees growing out of them. Though more abstract, I believe this work, touches on many similar themes. This living memorial can be interpreted in many ways. I interpreted the trees to mean life which both grows up and above the rocks as well as sends roots deep below. The rocks and the roots represent the foundation while the branches, symbolize the resilience and beauty of life as well as promise of continuity and hope.

The second installation that comes to mind is one I saw at the Rose Art Museum in Brandeis called “100 Steps to the Mediterranean” by Dor Guez. This multimedia solo exhibitions is about the experience of Christian Arab Israeli citizens within the Jewish state. What I found interesting about this show was that the artist, not a genealogist, chose to tackle this highly political issue from a very personal, perspective. He tells the story of his own family in various ways. There were videos of interviews of different generations of family members in one section. Another section includes old family photographs and yet another, a soundtrack of his mother telling family stories in a mixture of Hebrew and Arabic. The exhibit is very powerful and tackles issues of cultural, religious and national identity from a family historical perspective.

Sarah: Last year you published your first book, Stored Treasures, a memoir about your great-grandmother. I personally, like many of my readers, have an aspiration of telling my family stories as beautifully and publicly as you have. But it can seem so daunting a task. How did you get started? How did you maintain your motivation to see it through?

Smadar: Your question is very insightful Sarah, since you picked up on the most important thing I hoped to accomplish by publishing Stored Treasures, to inspire others to write their own family story. My great-grandmother, Minnie Crane, did not consider herself an author and she never set out to write a book. As a matter of fact, she never did write a book. She wrote a journal, over twenty years, which was somewhere between a memoir and a diary. For thirty years after she passed away the journal lay forgotten. What motivated Minnie to write her story, was the fact that her grandchildren, particularly my uncle Larry, asked Minnie to write and preserved her stories. Larry, encouraged her by letting her know how much he loved her stories. He went one step further, he gave her a blank journal as a birthday gift and in the dedication expressed his hope that she would write her story. She was so touched by his interest in what she felt was an ordinary life, that she capitulated. What seemed like a simple life to her, turns out to be an incredible window into a fascinating period of history. Her personal take on events which happened more than a hundred years ago provide a priceless account of that period and therefore the name Stored Treasures.


Minnie Crane, the subject of Stored Treasures

Minnie motivated me to publish her story, so that others will be inspired to do the same. Her accomplishment demonstrates that anyone can write their story. She was not an author and she learned English as an adult. What made her unique was that she took the time to reflect back on her life and leave a family legacy. The road blocks most of us face which prevent us from writing our own stories are numerous. We often feel we haven’t lived long enough or experienced enough interesting events. I spoke to folks in a retirement community about writing their memoirs. Many relayed to me that  they did not believe anyone is interested in their story, not even their family. Many people don’t believe they have the writing skills and forget that there are many great editors out there! Some boast the excuse of not knowing what to write about. Other postpone the writing until retirement, when most likely they will be too tired to write or have forgotten many valuable stories.

Here is my advice inspired by my Minnie’s writing.

  • Anyone and everyone can write their life story. Believe in yourself! You don’t need to be an amazing writer. Just write and good things will happen!

  • Everyone has a story to tell. Each of our lives is unique and shed light onto our family, our community, our country and the period we live in.

  • The longer we wait, the more we forget, so don’t wait. You don’t need to be at the end of your life. Start now! You can always write more later!

  • Your family is interested in your story, even if they don’t think they are. Your story is their story and their history. Your decision shape the lives of those who follow, and one day, they will appreciate having the insight into where they came from.

  • Don’t know what to write about? There are many prompts for family history available out there. One of my favorites is Lorine who write the Olive Tree Genealogy blog. She hosts a 52 week memoir writing project called Sharing Memories which starts every January 1st. There are lots of wonderful prompts and you can jump along and get started any time. Every Sunday she writes her own memories related to the weekly topic and additional prompts to help aspiring writers.

  • Set a regular time to write. I committed to at least two hours of uninterrupted writing a day, when I worked on my book. I often worked a lot more, but at least I built two hours into my routine and I was able to complete my book in a reasonable amount of time.

  • Need more help? Find a support network. There are many groups which support family history writing. Last February, I joined a twenty-eight day Family History Writing Challenge. More than six hundred family historians joined host Lynn Palermo, of the Armchair Genealogist. The challenge provided all kinds of supports including a daily newsletter with ideas, advice from authors, chats, prompts and much more.

  • Read other people’s Memoirs! They will both inspire you and give you ideas of how to approach your writing.

Sarah: So many of us yearn to tell a story from our research, bringing life to the facts and figures and in that way, honoring our ancestors. What advice would you give to the aspiring memoirists out there?

Smadar: In my opinion, writing an ancestor’s memoir or writing a story about our genealogy research is much harder than writing your own memoir. I was very lucky, because I found a significant amount of writing by my great-grandmother and turned it into a book, by supplementing photos, documents and other writing from my research. Most people don’t have access to such large amounts of archived writing, hence the challenge.

I believe that as genealogists, we are storytellers. Our work brings to life “the characters” from our family’s past. The challenge is how to make the story interesting to others, especially if we want to reach a wider audience than our own family. I recommend reading as many such family memoirs and genealogy research books as possible. Most of the attempts I have read, fail to transcend personal interest, and that is the pitfall we must avoid. One extremely successful book I recommend is: Lost, A Search for Six in Six Million by Daniel Mendelsohn. I think it’s one of the best books I’ve read which truly captures genealogical research and it’s relevance beyond our own family.

Sarah: What’s next for you? Do you have any writing projects on your horizon?


Smadar Belkind Gerson

Smadar: My motto is “Discovering Genealogy One Ancestor at a Time.” The sheer size of a family tree can be daunting and trying to write about so many relatives can be overwhelming. I focus on one ancestor at a time. My most likely candidate for my next book, is William Bloomfield, who was my great-grandfather and Minnie’s first husband. Writing about William is a challenge, since I knew almost nothing about him before I began my genealogy research. I utilized the 28 day Family History Writing Challenge this year to advance my writing about William, and I hope to complete this project in the next couple of years. My grandmother, Ethel Bloomfield, is my next candidate. I recently began a blog, called Ethel’s Scrapbook, where I discuss articles she published in 1939 as the  Rice Institute correspondent for the Houston Chronicle. This project promises to be fascinating and may turn into a book as well.

Thank you, Smadar, for providing these helpful suggestions to our readers. If you would like to see more of Smadar’s work, visit her website at