I wrote about how I started doing this research and what resources—human and otherwise—I’ve used to do it. But I’ve given a lot of thought also to WHY. Why am I doing this? Why spend all this time, energy, money, etc. doing this? What is it for?
Part of it is the fun and the excitement of hunting down information and then actually finding it. Part of it is the reward of learning that I am connected to all these other people I never knew—that we shared ancestors and DNA and a history together, even if we’ve never met. And I hope that part of those rewards will be meeting you all in real space, not just cyberspace.
But it is more than that. Someone involved in genealogy research told me that most people do not get involved with this kind of project until they are in their sixties. I turned sixty last summer when I first started doing this. Sadly, by the time we’re sixty, our grandparents are long gone, so our principal sources of information about our ancestors are not around to help. But why do we get interested in our sixties? Obviously, as we start to face our own mortality, we must yearn for a sense of purpose. Will anyone remember us in 100 years? That leads to—where did we come from? Who were the people who preceded us that we no longer remember? We’re all part of a long line of family history, and at some point many of us yearn to figure out what that history was.
I never, ever thought about my great-grandparents until I started this project. I knew I was named for Bessie, my great-grandmother, but I never wondered what she was like, what was her life like, why did my parents choose to name me for someone who died when my mother wasn’t yet four years old. I still don’t know the answers to all those questions, but I know more than I did a year ago. She was a brave woman who married a man with at least two children from a prior marriage, both of whom were young boys in 1881 when she married him. She had at least five children of her own with him, and probably others who died very young. She left everything she knew to come with her young children to America, and then she lost her husband not long after doing so. She picked herself up, remarried and helped raise more children. She lost a leg to diabetes. I know she loved animals because the one clear memory my mother has of her was that she played with kittens in her grandmother’s bathroom as a very young child.
And Joseph? I have learned to admire him as well. He came to the US before Bessie, establishing himself as a coal dealer. He worked very hard at back breaking work to support his family and died just four months after his youngest child Sam was born. From his footstone inscription, we know that his children and wife loved him and appreciated the hard work he did to bring them to the US and support them when they got here.
So what does all that mean to me? It means I came from people who were strong, brave, hard-working and dedicated to their family—all traits I admire and aspire to myself. They obviously raised children who adapted well to America and made successes of themselves. Those children, our grandparents, raised Americans, our parents, who moved to the suburbs, owned businesses, became professionals. And then there is us—the fourth generation. We are spread all over the US, we are involved in all different types of careers, we are the American dream. Wouldn’t our great-grandparents who were raised in a shtetl and escaped poverty and anti-Semitism be amazed at who we are today?
So why? Because we need to know how we got here, why our lives are what they are. We need to be grateful for those who left Europe, avoided the pogroms and Hitler, and gave us all the opportunity to live in freedom and to pursue our own dreams.