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, geneartistry.com. 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 identify 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.
Many 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 attention 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?
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 was 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 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: 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 http://the-past-to-the-present.blogspot.com.