Temple talk: Planting the seeds of the family tree

Family trees can be difficult to grow, but Rabbi Rachel Bearman will offer a program to help anyone interested in researching their family history. Climbing Your Family Tree will take place Sunday, Feb. 7, 4 p.m., at Temple B’nai Chaim in Georgetown. Noting that is Super Bowl Sunday, Bearman promised “we’ll be done by 5:30!”

Bearman has been researching her own family history for six years and will draw on her experience to offer tips for using well known and more obscure family history resources.

“I have this deep and abiding love — or obsession — researching my own family history,” she said with a laugh during an interview last week. When talking with the temple’s program director, she volunteered to lead a class.

Always interested in history in general, Bearman became interested in compiling her family’s story while in rabbinical school, but she was not the first of her family to work on their ancestry

“I inherited a lot of work from my great aunt and mother,” she said. “My aunt was writing to …cousins for years asking for stories and about people.”

Through her own work and that of her great aunt and mother, she has traced back seven generations on her mother’s side to those who lived in Finland and Sweden as far back as the 1700s.

“For me, it gives me a greater sense of context, a personal connection to historic events … and I stand on a greater foundation of who I am.”

During the program on Feb. 7, she will present her own work of collecting vital records, photos and stories. She will discuss available resources such as newspapers, historic archives, and municipal records.

She will also offer tips on how to manage all the details that can arise and how to identify and get past potential roadblocks. Attendees will leave with a booklet of resources and practical tips.

Bearman emphasized the program is open to the entire community. “So many of us have roots from so many countries,” she said.

Finding basic information can offer context to family stories that often get changed or embellished with repeated tellings.

A family history can go beyond genealogy, which is driven by names, dates and places. These facts can help someone see how an ancestor’s life was driven by where they lived and what they did. Perhaps they advanced from being a peddler to a merchant, living in one neighborhood then another.

Bearman learned the brother of an ancestor went to Mexico City to work on the railroad. She eventually found the hotel he lived in and how much he paid. Now she has a picture of the hotel and another connection to her family.

“If you’re really lucky, you can find pictures of your family online,” she said, either from news items such as wedding announcements, or other sources such as historical archives. Sometimes families post photos online as well. If not a photo of a person, a photo of where they lived might be available.

A ship manifest shows that Bearman’s ancestor David Frank sailed from Germany to New York in 1849. The manifest lists passengers by age, religion and trade, so she learned he was 24 and a weaver.

One thing Bearman did not expect was noticing similarities in the way different members of her family — from generation to generation — posed in pictures. She was so struck by it she collected the photos and had a book printed, which she gave to family members as a gift.

Leafing through the page she showed fathers and daughters from different generations posed by the family car, her father and her mother’s father in the kitchen with aprons, herself and her great aunt in the garden showing off the flowers.

“We have a similar body language,” she said. “It’s a special connection. I had no idea.”

Bearman has moved on from documenting her ancestors to trying to understand them. Her latest project is to write them a letter. The thought process “helps me understand more about them.”

To her great-great-grandmother Anna she wrote: Sometimes, I’ve gotten so bogged down in the details of my research that I haven’t been able to zoom out and see the woman or man that I’m studying as a real person who had a real life. That’s the reason that I’ve started this new letter-writing project. I hope that by addressing my relatives (which includes you!) directly, I’ll be able to form a clearer picture of who they were and what their lives were truly like.”

Bearman has posted this letter and pictures on her website rabbirachelbearman.com. Click on Resources.

Bearman said Climbing Your Family Tree will be appropriate for beginners to experienced historians.

“Knowledge is powerful, no matter what,” she said.

If there is enough interest, Bearman would be happy to do another program or move on to a hands-on workshop.

A video invitation is available here:http://tinyurl.com/tbc-family-history .

Temple B’nai Chaim is at 82 Portland Avenue. Information: templebnaichaim.org/.