JewishGen-Ancestry deal called an alignment of interests

The big news at this year's IAJGS meeting was the Tuesday night announcement of an alliance between and While an announcement was expected, the details of the relationship go deeper than I had imagined.

Under the deal, Ancestry will make much of the content of JewishGen databases freely available on the Ancestry site, develop new search capabilities that will make that data more accessible, and take over the hosting of JewishGen's site. Except for technical services, JewishGen will continue to operate independently.

The deal gives Ancestry instant credibility as a repository of international and U.S. Jewish historical and genealogical records. For JewishGen, it provides a robust technology platform for future growth, along with a modest flow of income coming a one-time payment and ongoing affiliate revenue share.

Jewish genealogists and researchers are expected to benefit from the integration of JewishGen content and Ancestry technologies. Perhaps that accounted for the palpable buzz in the main conference ballroom Tuesday night before the announcement. Many Jewish genealogists have something of a love-hate relationship with Ancestry, the world's leading commercial genealogy site. Clearly something big was in the works that went beyond the advertised subject of the session, "The Jewish Collection at"

The first one up to announce the news was David Rinn, chief financial officer for The Generations Network, parent company of Ancestry. com. At first, I wondered why the CFO instead of the CEO, until Rinn began to display his own Jewish family tree. He emphasized that he was speaking both as an executive employee of TGN but also as a user of Ancestry and JewishGen.

He frankly acknowledged the current limitations of Ancestry's Jewish resources, which contain more than 9 million records but are mainly limited to collections from the United States. Rinn ticked off the many international projects that the company has underway, but then said that as a Jewish researcher "I would consider suspending my Ancestry account until it provided eastern European content."

Rinn's family history and candid comment began to warm up skeptics in the audience, many presumably wondering how Ancestry's aggressively commercial business model might mesh with JewishGen's community ethic. He emphasized that JewishGen content will be accessible for free in front of the Ancestry "paid wall," but that advanced search capabilities and other special features would be added value for Ancestry subscribers.

Then he turned over the podium to David Marwell, the director of JewishGen's parent organization, The Museum of Jewish Heritage. Here is the gist of Marwell's remarks:

Earlier in the conference, JewishGen founder Susan King had been honored. Now begins a new chapter in the life of JewishGen. It was a long negotiation conducted with good will on both sides. The principles of the deal: (1) records remain free and freely accessible, (2) provide a stable technical foundation, (3) provide more data more quickly.

While Ancestry and JewishGen have differing business models, the deal is possible because of a happy coincidence of interests. Ancestry opens a major new market for selling its services. JewishGen gets a technology platform that ensures its future. In addition, JewishGen gets unspecified compensation in the deal, plus will get a percentage of revenue from future Ancestry signups referred from JewishGen.

The technical deal is for so-called pipe and power. They provide the servers and the bandwidth. JewishGen will administer its own site but may get help from Ancestry in improving the JewishGen user experience.

Marwell ended by thanking various members of JewishGen leadership with their help in reaching this important agreement. Then Rinn recapped the news and handed the session over to Ancestry indexing director Crista Cowan for a deeper dive into Ancestry's plans for its new Jewish collection.

I won't describe her full talk, other than to say the future she described of Ancestry features overlaid on JewishGen content is pretty compelling. Ancestry provides myriad capabilities that would greatly enhance the user experience and success rate.

Of course, that will all happen on the other side of Ancestry's wall. Clearly the company's goal is to get as many Jewish genealogists as they can to cough up $30 a month or $150 a year to gain those benefits. How many do so will depend on how much added value Ancestry can provide with its fuzzy searches, community features and sharing tools.

My take is that this is a fair proposition, as long as the playing field stays open. If Ancestry can wow me with its added value, I can choose to pay their fee, but I haven't lost any access if I choose not to.

However, I have to say I'm leery that Ancestry may use its market position to lock in customers. I can use lots of different services, but I want to have one location for my master family file. If Ancestry's service is good enough to convince me to maintain my tree there (or integrated with TGN's Family Tree Maker), will I ever be able to migrate off of it? Am I buying into a life-long financial commitment?

I'm sure these questions and others will be asked at a JewishGen general session Wednesday evening. I am leaving today at 5 pm, so I'll miss that, but I'll keep an eye on the email lists in upcoming days to gauge the user reaction to this important announcement.

A translator's cautionary tale

On August 4, I received a reply to my inquiry from Miriam Samsonowitz, the translator of Toledot Yitzhak. She wrote:

I do have the book Toldos Yitzchak which I have not read through fully. It's not an easy book to read because it is written in old rabbinical idiom, is extremely verbose, and the author moralizes for most of the book and just includes biographical details in between the moralizing.

She says she will translate or make copies of pages for me for a fee, but she doesn't sound terribly enthusiastic. She does provide me with some interesting leads that could be helpful, one to a rabbinical genealogist is Israel and the other to the editor of Yated Ne'eman in Monsey NJ. That is R. Pinchos Lipschitz, a great grandson of none other than Ya'acov Halevi Lifschitz, the author of Toledot Yitzhak.

All that was very interesting, as was an article she attached, "The Reliability of Genealogical Research in Modern Rabbinic Literature," by Rabbi Meir Wunder. It is very long and in some places arcane, but contains some important ideas. I will excerpt one section about genealogical errors and the concept of yichus, or lineage, and then urge you to go to the full article on the Rav-SIG online journal.

Moving on into the second half of the 19th century, we do have famous experts in rabbinic genealogy, but even so, their writings include guesses, assumptions, and mistakes. They were very knowledgeable, and in their period the genealogical data of families were preserved, but they had no sure means to check the veracity of their findings. Contact was through letters, which were slow; very few managed to make use of the libraries of Western Europe with their important manuscripts. Poverty was rampant, and one way to put bread on the table was to research and edit yuchsin scrolls for the wealthy who had money, but still lacked the prestige of great lineage. Thus, if the facts were shaky or uncertain, one might build castles in the air without a solid foundation. An example of this is relating the Maharsa, Rabbi Shmuel Eidls, back to Rabbi Yehuda Hechasid, which is totally false, because the Yiddish names Berish and Mendel, in the chain, were not known in the middle ages in Germany.

Inexact terminology also makes it difficult even to this day to clarify yuchsin. Terms such as neched (grandchild), or she'er besari (my relative), or mechutanim (in-laws) were used to describe much more distant relationships. Another example of lack of clarity occurs when someone writes: “Yitzchak the son of Avraham, the rabbi of such-and-such a community.” Who was the rabbi, the father or the son? Other proofs are needed to make that clear. The lack of punctuation, especially commas, causes confusion. If it says, “Yitzchak son of Avraham, son-in-law of Reuven,” then Yitzchak is the son-in-law. But, if the comma is omitted, then Avraham is the son-in-law. In cases where someone married twice, it may be unclear who was the mother of each child. This fact would affect the whole chain of yichus.

Wild goose chase

Walt, Sorry you had to take time for a mission that came up empty. I guess that comes with the genealogy territory. You have to be careful not to jump to conclusions. In this case we had a Joseph and Lena Rabinowitch buried together in a Queens cemetery, with no additional data other than their burial dates. Now of course there were many, many Joseph Rabinowitzes in New York in the relevant years, and there were quite a few Lena Rabinowitzes as well. Where I went wrong was in assuming that a married Joseph and Lena would automatically be our family. The odds say there wouldn't be a lot of Joseph and Lena Rabinowitz couples, but now we know there were at least two.

So I don't think the trip could have been avoided. There was nothing online to suggest that they weren't our Joseph and Lena. Sometimes leads don't pan out. I guess the lesson is not to count your chickens.

I came back after talking to you and did some searches for Joseph and Lena death records using the ItalianGen resource that Morris mentioned recently. They have a searchable database of NYC death records by borough (also marriages). Each record contains date of death and age at death so you can calculate birth year. Therefore it was possible to sort through the scores of Joseph Rabinowitzes to find three or four plausible matches.

Thus we have in Manhattan a JR who died in 1920 at age 65, in Brooklyn a JR who died in 1940 at age 84, and in Queens a JR who died in 1941 at age 85. Any of those would be just about right, and there is one more in Manhattan (died 1917 at 60) that is fairly close. Actual death certificates can be ordered for $10 a pop, but there may be ways to narrow the list before doing that. Also, it is possible that our Joseph's record was not captured in the ItalianGen archiving project, so it could be that our JR is none of those four.

Trying the same technique for Lena turned up three possible matches. Using 1858 as Lena's birthdate, we have a LR dying in The Bronx in 1921 at 64 (1857), in Brooklyn in 1916 at 57 (1859), and in Manhattan in 1948 at 88 (1860).

The other Rabinowitz burial records that I discovered along with these erroneous ones are more definitely valid. Julius Rabinowitz, his wife Annie and son Abner are all at Montefiore Cemetery in Queens. Having just undertaken this expedition, I won't ask you to go on another cemetery visit until it fits easily in your schedule. We know this one will be right because the burial record has Julius' father as Joseph and mother as Lena Lincoff.

Oh well, thanks again. I hope it didn't blow your whole day.


Sunday afternoon at the SF Bay Area JGS meeting

Today I attended my first Tracing the Tribe blog.

The meeting was held at the Jewish Community High School of the Bay in the lower Fillmore area of San Francisco. The society alternates its meetings among sites in San Francisco, Berkeley in the East Bay and Los Altos on the peninsula.

There were about 25 people attending, and I got a chance to chat with several of them over instant coffee and cookies before the meeting got underway. Jeremy Frankel, the president of the group whom I had met a month ago at the Oakland Mormon research center, greeted me warmly and began to introduce me around.

I was especially pleased to see Dave Howard, with whom I have corresponded a good deal about his Rezekne research. We found that we had as much or more to share in person than by email.

I was wearing a nametag, and as I waited for a chance to introduce myself to Schelly, she read my tag and said, "So here's the famous Dan Ruby." I guess that is a case of one's reputation leading the way, which surprises me since I feel like such a neophyte in this world.

Also in attendance were luminaries in the Jewish Gen world such as Steve Morse, Judy Baston and others. After the meeting, I chatted some with Judy at the Jewish Community Library, just down the hall. She is an leader of both the Litvak and Poland JRI interest groups, and I hope to get to know her more in the future.

Some new people I met who are active locally were Dale Friedman from Berkeley and Kathryn Doyle, who works at the California Genealogical Society and Library in Oakland and lives in my town of Piedmont. In fact, she thought I might have been the husband of the more famous Ruby resident of Piedmont, Eileen Ruby. (Eileen is the mother of Mike Ruby, who works for me part time at Festival Preview, but is otherwise unrelated.) I explained to Kathryn that the other Ruby family are Rubinsteins and we were Rabinowitzes.

Anyway, I'll look forward to seeing several of these people in Chicago next month, and at future meetings of the Bay Area group.

I enjoyed Schelly's presentation, even though a lot of it was pretty elementary. I was surprised that when she asked who in the room was writing a blog, mine was one of just a couple that went up. This in a room of people who have made considerable contributions to online Jewish genealogy, and also are tech-savvy Bay Area residents.

For example, Steve Morse's One Step page is commonly acknowledged as among the most useful online research tools anywhere. But blogging is evidently viewed as more of a young person's medium, and most of these folks make web sites or publish to email lists or moderate bulletin boards — online formats that may be friendlier to the generally older crowd that is interested in genealogy.

Nevertheless, I got some good ideas and leads from Schelly's talk. Her suggestions about the leading genealogical blogs will point me in some useful directions. I was interested to hear the story of how her blog got started as a project of the Jewish Telegraph Agency, and thus its relationship to the wider world of Jewish media.

Schelly came to blogging from a career in publishing, so I wasn't surprised to hear of her sometimes bumpy adjustment to the style and voice of blogging versus newspaper journalism. I have made that same transition. She sees her role as mainly a "just the facts, Ma'am" informational blogger, rather than what she calls a "muser," someone who riffs in a more personal style.

She described her caution about covering possibly controversial subjects and her discomfort in voicing her personal views. While I'm sure such discretion is a useful survival skill in the world of Jewish journalism, I quietly urged Schelly after the meeting to embrace the blogging ethic and let loose with her opinions.

Of course, I have the luxury of writing a blog hardly anybody reads, whereas Tracing the Tribe is the most widely read blog about Jewish genealogy, so that's easy for me to say. In my other life, though, I run a group blog and news aggregation service about music festivals, so I have some expertise about online media. When I next see Schelly, perhaps in Chicago, I'll look forward to exchanging ideas some more.


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