Wandering Jews

by Brian on April 19, 2007

in Jewish Holidays and Culture

Lately I’ve been using a new Web 2.0 Internet service called Geni. It’s deceptively simple and intensely addictive.

The Geni website basically makes building a family tree fast and easy (“Geni” is short for “genealogy”). When you first come to the site, Geni asks you to enter your name, your parents and any siblings. You can optionally enter additional data such as where you live, what you do, your hobbies and favorite activities. You can upload a picture too.

As your family tree grows you can zoom in and out, switch views to see a particular family member’s tree, and read text summaries like “Chaim is your first cousin’s sister-in-law’s half brother.” So far, lots of fun, though nothing that hasn’t existed before in the world of the web.

Where Geni gets interesting is how it promotes itself virally. Every time you add a name, you can include an email address. Geni then sends a message inviting that person to join your tree and start entering data of his or her own. In that way, your family tree grows as other people do the heavy lifting. Geni sends out an email summary of every week of who’s joined and allows you to enter missing addresses directly into the email.

To give you an example, I started by entering 21 names into Geni. I knew the email addresses of 15 of those people and they were automatically invited, a number of whom immediately began filling in their part of the tree. After about 3 weeks of using Geni, there are now 472 people in my tree dating as far back as the 1850s – to my great-great grandfather who lived in Berlad Romania – and as far a field as my aunt’s ex-husband’s sister’s family. That comes out to 115 blood relatives and 356 in-laws.

Ultimately, Geni intends to allow seemingly unconnected families to find each other. Geni’s motto is “everyone’s related” and, says CEO David Sachs, a former top PayPal exec, “When separate trees start to overlap, Geni will provide the option of merging them. Eventually, the goal is to get to one family tree of the whole world.” The largest Geni tree to date has 4,216 family members on it.

Now, you might be asking just about now what does Geni have to do with “normal life” in Israel and why am I writing about it on the This Normal Life blog? Well, I’ve long been fascinated by family trees and the surprising interconnections between people. We discovered a few years ago that we were distantly related by marriage to our next-door neighbors.

I was also thinking a lot about family during a recent visit to Israel by my in-laws. We don’t have much family living in Israel – beyond our neighbors, just a couple of cousins but no brothers, sisters, aunts, uncles or grandparents. It would be great to discover via Geni a whole new set of relatives here in the Holy Land. The hardest part for us about making aliyah, without question, was leaving family behind. I not infrequently wonder what it would have been like to have lived closer to family, to be able to make casual visits rather than monumental trips where we try to jam in a year’s worth of memories into ten days.

And so, over the course of my in-laws recent trip, we ate out in no less than five restaurants, feasting on pineapple/coconut milk chicken, spinach ravioli and spicy polenta; trekked to the Dead Sea where we floated in the salt water pool at the Ein Gedi Spa and smeared therapeutic mud all over ourselves; and visited the brand new Herzl Museum in Jerusalem (well worth a visit!) The kids had loads of quality time with their Safta and Papa Mike, playing endless games of “Oh Heck” (it has a different “official” name but this is a family-oriented column) and shopping at the mall on no less than three occasions. It was by all accounts a very successful visit.

But is it “normal” to live like this – cramming as if for a school exam because family visits are so few and far between? Do people who don’t move 10,000 miles away from their birthplace necessarily see their family more often, or is that just one of the fantasies those of us in Israel hold about life in North America? Was it different in the old days before the advent of cheap transcontinental airplane tickets and Internet telecommuting? Did our great grandparents all live together in the shtetl like in Fiddler on the Roof, or were they just as geographically dispersed as today, if not by choice then by war, pogroms, and forced resettlement?

One of the goals of our moving to Israel, paradoxically, was to put an end to this wandering Jew phenomena, for our family at least. To bring our immediate family to a place where the urge to disperse is tempered by the power of peoplehood.

And yet, as Israel Independence Day approaches, emphasizing the importance of a single place of refuge for the Jewish people, I can’t help but ask: is it enough?

When we were at the Dead Sea on vacation, we bumped into a family who told us that they this was the first time they had all been together in many years. The parents made aliyah 30 years ago (our story in another 17 years, perhaps!) Today, however, one child lives in Miami, another in India and a third just returned to Israel from a long sojourn in France.

When we commented that it must be hard on the parents who left their own families back in the States so long ago to move here, only to see their children subsequently scatter, one of the kids commented, perhaps a bit too derisively: “well, they started it.”

That’s true. We can only set in motion what we hope is the best path for our kids with the most likely outcome. The rest is up to them.

What Jody and I have hopefully done by moving to Israel is to start a new Israel “line” of our family tree that now exists where once it was bare. And that’s where programs like Geni tie in to the whole emigration/immigration experience. Geni very effectively shows the power of how two people, a mother and a father, husband and wife, can generate tens and hundreds of descendants in just a few generations. We can see it already with our grandparents; in another 20 years, we’ll see it with our grandchildren.

Geni can’t guarantee that families will stay together in the same location. But as our kids have kids and decide where they want to live, hopefully Geni, or its “Web 3.0” successor, will be there to document it.

Leave a Comment

Previous post:

Next post: