The Four Sons

The Jewish holiday of Passover, which starts tonight, centers around a highly ritualized dinner called a Seder (“Order”).  Most of the Seder is spent reading and discussing the story of the exodus from Egypt as recounted in a book called the Haggadah (“Telling”).  As it explains, “All who discuss the exodus from Egypt at length are to be praised.”  To that end, everyone is encouraged to ask questions, suggest interpretations, and offer historical or personal parallels to elaborate upon the Haggadah’s version, and indeed, at a lively seder it could be hours before the meal begins.  Last year, I introduced how the text of the Haggadah works to incorporate the whole family.  This year I want to discuss the section that precedes the recounting of the exodus story:  the story of the Four Sons.

Illustration of the Four Sons by Nota Koslowsky, U.S.A., 1944

Illustration of the Four Sons by Nota Koslowsky, U.S.A., 1944*

“The Bible speaks about four sons: one wise, one wicked, one simple, and one who doesn’t even know how to ask,” begins the story.  Each child asks their version of a question seeking to understand the holiday.  The wise one requests the specific details of how the holiday must be observed.  The wicked one asks, “What does this observance mean to you?”**  The simple one pleads, “What is all of this?”  And I think you can all guess about the one who doesn’t know how to ask.  In each case the Haggadah instructs how to respond to the child.

This year it’s the wicked son’s question-and-answer that rattles around in my mind.  Does the Haggadah represent the intentions behind the wicked son’s question fairly?  It focuses on his words “to you,” hearing in them a desire to “[exclude] himself from his people.”  It instruct his parents, “Say to him:  ’It is because of what the Lord did for me when I came out of Egypt’ — for me and not for him.” (Exodus 13:8) In other words, scare the wicked child from his ways with a vision of what it really means to be excluded.

My mind catches instead on first part, “What does this mean?”  I hear a bewildered child wondering, Here we all are sitting around this table.  We spent the past week preparing a holiday feast which we’re not yet allowed to eat because this discussion must happen first.  Parents, please tell me why it matters to you that we do this, so I can understand why it should matter to me. What does this observance mean to you?  Perhaps the wicked child’s intentions are honest:  to be shown a way to connect to this observance happening before him.

Illustration of the Four Sons from a 1695 Haggadah printed in Amsterdam

Illustration of the Four Sons from a 1695 Haggadah printed in Amsterdam*

In the wicked child’s not-so-wicked question I find myself thinking back to my own experiences when I first got into genealogy — trying, and initially failing, to convince my own family to care about the discoveries I was making about our ancestors.  Their muted reactions to the names, dates, and relationships I was sharing were their own, innocent version of, “What does this mean to you?”  Why does dredging up this forgotten family history matter?  The failing wasn’t theirs; it was mine.  I had to I stop presenting elaborate trees with historical records and start interpreting this raw material in a way that made it relevant to my family.  A census gives a snapshot of how our ancestors’ circumstances compared to our own.  An immigration record hints at what they endured so we would not.  Every detail can change the way a family sees itself if looked at in the larger context of history and society.  I had to do more research to learn what these discoveries were really conveying, not just about my ancestors’s lives, but also about their world.

If the wicked son is redeemed by my re-reading of his question, then praise for the wise son must be partially retracted.  The wise son asks for details without context where the wicked sons asks for context with no details.  Neither can stand without the other, especially not in family history.  I failed when I asked my relatives to draw their own conclusions from lists of names and dates and towns, and I failed, too, when I threw out historical tidbits without any orientation, but when I put the pieces together, it was like my family was reading their favorite historical fiction, except the story was true, and its thrust was how they came to be.

At the conclusion of the section about the Four Sons, when the Haggadah starts answering the questions it has posed through these children and in previous sections, it also balances (Biblical) history with the (theological) interpretations that explain its continued relevance.  Something in this formula must resonate deeply, since this text has been passed down from generation to generation for nearly two thousand years.  Your family history goals may not be quite so ambitious, but, as the Haggadah says, “go and learn” from what has endured.

Happy Passover to those who celebrate it.

* In the illustrations, the sons are in order from right to left (following the direction in which Hebrew is written).

** The literal translation of the Hebrew is, “What [is] this observance to you?” It’s complicated to translate since Hebrew grammar omits the verb in this construction, so the translator’s art must guide choosing words that best capture the intended sentiment. “Mean” is the verb I saw in all the translations I consulted.

Genealogy Industry Report Card on the Heartbleed Security Flaw

heartbleedHave you heard about Heartbleed?  It’s a recently-discovered security flaw in the encryption software two-thirds of all websites use to protect your data.  This problem isn’t one of those fake-outs where your crazy friend posts something alarmist on Facebook that Snopes easily proves is ridiculous.  This time it really is as bad as your crazy friend says it is.  “On the scale of 1 to 10, this is an 11,” wrote cryptography expert Bruce Schneier.

As users there’s not much that we can do except wait for our favorite websites to upgrade their software to the fixed version.  Once they do, the recommendation is to change your password on all the web sites that were affected (here is a list of popular ones here is a better list being updated regularly).  That’s annoying and tedious, of course, but it’s the only way to be sure.

After ensuring that Treelines is not vulnerable to the Heartbleed vulnerability, I’ve gone through the major genealogy sites that use encryption software using a publicly available tool to see how the rest are faring.  The good news is that the sites all pass!  This tool also assesses the overall quality of the security measures each site uses to protect your data.  Here there is a wide range of grades, including two F’s by popular sites!

Site Heartbleed
Security grade (click on grade for full report) No A- No   F     A-   ** No A No A- No B No A- No B No A No F No B No B No B No A- No A No n/a* No n/a* No n/a*

* n/a means that the site does not use encryption software to protect the data you submit to it. It’s true that the sites marked n/a do not take credit card information, but it has been long accepted as the best practice that any time a user signs up or logs into a site, their information should be encrypted. If you use the same password on the sites marked n/a as you do on other websites, then a malicious person could lift your information from the one site and try it out on others where you do make purchases. It’s unlikely, but it is possible. (Sorry if I sound like your crazy friend on Facebook now!)

** Thank you to these companies, who improved their security after this post was published.

Timeline Creation Applications: Free Webinar Today


Dear friends, I sure hope third time’s the charm, because today is supposed to be my Timeline Creation Applications class, presented through the Southern California Genealogical Society’s webinar series.  The explanatory timeline above shows how bugs affected first the webinar service provider, then me, causing the delays.

Assuming humans and computers cooperate, the talk will take place this evening from 6-7:30 PM Pacific Time (9 PM Eastern Time, 8 PM Central Time, 7 PM Mountain Time).  You need to reserve your spot in advance by following the instructions at this link:

After all this time, I’m really looking forward to this one.  Hope to see you there!

In Defense of Genealogy as a Hobby

phunts22.1283336178Recently I read in Carla Peterson’s impressive Black Gotham:  A Family History of African Americans in Nineteenth-Century New York City how pharmacists sought to standardize their profession to eliminate quacks, improve their effectiveness, provide better patient care, and advance their knowledge.  The relevance of this history to her narrative is how the gates pharmacists erected mostly hindered, but sometimes aided her ancestors’ professional advancement, but it also provides a useful parallel to our unique historical moment within genealogy:  now that standards have been drafted, today’s researchers are similarly battling for widespread adherence to them so genealogy will be practiced in a more reliable manner and thus taken more seriously by the establishment and practitioners alike.  In short, our field is belatedly undergoing the standardization that pharmacology and every other respected discipline has had to undergo to enter the ranks of academic fields of study.

This process of standardization took its biggest step forward in the late 1990s with the creation of the Genealogical Proof Standard, but at the same time the Internet came along to threaten decades of progress.  The professionals dedicated to defining the boundaries of what is and is not good genealogy now find themselves guarding gates long trammeled by the huddled masses yearning to type names into search engines and get free answers.  Public perception of our field has been forever changed, academic acceptance still hasn’t happened, and the result is a community inflamed over why amateurs do such poor work and how can we get them to improve (as though that is the problem preventing acceptance).  The latest outburst in the blogosphere, ably summarized by Randy Seaver, grew out of a solidly-argued, non-genealogical article about the present pervasiveness and perniciousness of the attitude that “everyone’s opinion about anything is as good as anyone else’s.”  ”I fear we are witnessing the ‘death of expertise,’” writes Tom Nichols, “a Google-fueled, Wikipedia-based, blog-sodden collapse of any division between professionals and laymen, students and teachers, knowers and wonderers – in other words, between those of any achievement in an area and those with none at all.”  It’s a thesis I couldn’t agree with more.  But as familiar as this description sounds to those of us sick of finding nonsensical trees on Ancestry, its application to our field is wrong. Continue reading

#TBT Throwback Thursday: Social Media’s Celebration of the Past

#TBT Me during my archaeology days.  Genealogy is less dirty!

Me during my archaeology days. Genealogy is a lot less dirty (though I lost my great tan). #TBT

Have you seen the #TBT hashtag around the Internet?  It refers to Throwback Thursday, a weekly social media ritual where people post old photographs of themselves to their Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, or Tumblr accounts.  Like most memes, it started amongst the younger set, but I’ve been amazed to see over the past year not only how it’s grown on Facebook to include even people in their 60s and 70s like my parents, but also how it has served as a jumping off point for great conversations about family history.  My mother and one of my cousins never miss a chance to post pictures of their now-grown kids as children, and I have one cousin in particular who takes #TBT so seriously that she’ll message us days in advance to let us know when she’s dug out a particularly good picture she doesn’t want us to miss.  The fabulous photos she posts always kick off long conversations with relatives sharing their memories of our family’s past.


A favorite #TBT showing my mother (the flasher) with her cousins.  Three of these kids (including the one who appears to have wet himself) were tagged in this picture when it was posted to Facebook, and they started a wonderful conversation with their children reminiscing about times gone by.

Thanks to Throwback Thursday I’m getting to see old photographs I would have never seen and to overhear family history conversations that wouldn’t have otherwise happened, but the best part is — I’m not the one kicking off these conversations!

Fifty years before Facebook, my family had a club!  (Source:  Pittsburgh Jewish Criterion, 1/14/1955)

Fifty years before Facebook, my family had a club! (Source: Pittsburgh Jewish Criterion, 1/14/1955)

When it comes to engaging your relatives in genealogy conversations, the trick is to approach them where they already are in ways that will feel familiar to them.   Tech industry watchers may lament the future for Facebook now that it’s become so multigenerational, but for those of us who are our families’ designated historians, it means that where we’ll find our relatives is Facebook, and what they’re doing there is looking at our pictures, commenting on them, and especially if they’re older, connecting with people from their past they don’t see otherwise.  More importantly, they’re also already posting their own pictures to Facebook.  In short, every aspect of Throwback Thursday is something already happening naturally with recent pictures.  You just need to shift the focus, from time-to-time, to the past!

Sixty years ago when my father’s family lived in the same place, they could organize monthly get-togethers and a newsletter, but today when there are hundreds of us with our pictures and memories scattered all over the world, Facebook is the easiest gathering place we have, and Throwback Thursday is the perfect way to take advantage of the virtual proximity to gently prod your family into a trip down memory lane.  If you’re not yet on the #TBT bandwagon, why don’t you give it a try?  Post an evocative photograph or a fascinating record, tag the family members most likely to be interested, and see what conversation develops.  Maybe you can even get #TBT to catch on so well in your family circle that in the future, it’s you commenting on one of your relative’s posts!

This Sunday in Central New Jersey and My Spring Speaking Schedule

Fun at RootsTech

Excited to give my first talk since RootsTech last month!

This Sunday I’ll be speaking to the Monmouth Country Genealogy Society, one of the larger societies in the northeast, about Improving Your Storytelling:  Trees and Stories on  What is the point of becoming a better researcher if we don’t become better sharers?  Hear ideas for better engaging our families in our genealogical discoveries, and see how the various tools on can bring your whole family together around your shared history.

If you’re in the NY/NJ area, do stop by the Eatontown Community/Senior Center at 72 Broad Street, Eatontown, NJ at 1:30 PM.


If you can’t make this talk, I have a number of other engagements, online and off, coming up in the next few months.  Here’s the list:

Southern California Genealogical Society Webinar Series

The SCGS is one of the preeminent genealogy societies in the U.S., and I will be part of their evening webinar series this year.  You can watch me speak from the comfort of your own home!

  • Wednesday, March 12, 6:00 PM Pacific:  Timeline Creation Applications.  Learn about tools and techniques for visualizing data in a timeline to make sense of what we know, identify what we don’t, put it all in the context of history, and share findings more clearly.

Register to participate by clicking on this link.  (Note:  This talk is rescheduled from February 19.)

New York Genealogical & Biographical Society at the New York Public Library

Treelines and the NY Genealogical & Biological Society share a focus on using storytelling and storytelling tools to advance genealogy, so I’m especially excited to collaborate with them in presenting my computer lab on how to use the Treelines website.  And the location couldn’t be better — the New York Public Library!

  • Tuesday, 5/13, 5:30 PM:  Family Timelines with  With just a few clicks, visualize a set of life events for a group of your ancestors. Learn how to choose the theme for your timeline, select the events, illustrate them, and share the results with family.

National Genealogical Society

I’ll be bringing my technological expertise to one of the biggest genealogy conferences in North America.

  • Saturday, 5/10, 9:30 AM:  Tools to Help You Share Family Stories.  Whether you’re creating a book, photo album, movie, or website, learn about the latest and greatest tools to make the job fun and easy.

SCGS Jamboree

For me it’s a long haul from the east coast, but Southern California always delivers a great conference with a lot of enthusiastic participants.

Jamboree 2014 Speaker

  • Friday, 6/6, 4 PM:  Story by Story, Preserve Your Family’s History.  Stop being daunted by the enormous task of writing your family’s whole story.  Learn how to break down your research into individual storylines, tell each one in a compelling way, and over time link these stories together.
  • Saturday, 6/7, 3:30 PM:  Family Timelines with  With just a few clicks, visualize a set of life events for a group of your ancestors. Learn how to choose the theme for your timeline, select the events, illustrate them, and share the results with family.

Timeline Creation Applications: Free Webinar This Wednesday!

Update: Due to emergency Citrix/GoToWebinar maintenance, this webinar had to be postponed to April 9.  Boo!

The first timeline (1765)

The first timeline (1765)

The Southern California Genealogical Society, sponsors of the popular, annual Genealogy Jamboree Conference, have an amazing webinar series that takes place throughout the year, and I’m excited to take part this week.  From the comfort of your own home, you can hear my talk on Timeline Creation Applications.  Learn about tools and techniques for visualizing data in a timeline to make sense of what we know, identify what we don’t, put it all in the context of history, and share findings more clearly.

The talk will take place this Wednesday evening from 6-7:30 PM Pacific Time (9 PM Eastern Time, 8 PM Central Time, 7 PM Mountain Time).  You need to reserve your spot in advance by following the instructions at this link:

Full information on the talk is available on the SCGS website here:

I hope you can join me!

Top Reactions to My “Top Ten Things” Talk

My niece listens to my talk

My newborn niece demonstrates that you can start kids on genealogy too early.

There were lots of exciting moments at this year’s RootsTech, which I’ll blog about throughout the week, but perhaps the most exciting one was giving my live-streamed talk, “Top Ten Things I Learned About My Family from My Couch:  Beginning Internet Genealogy.”  If you missed it, you can watch it online.

The idea for the talk came to me in the summer of 2011, believe it or not, though I’m glad I waited a few more years to give it, because I’ve made some much better discoveries since then.  For an idea so long in gestation, it meant that much more to me that the talk was so well received.  Throughout the conference people stopped by my booth or tweeted to say how much they enjoyed it, and last night popular genealogy blogger Randy Seaver posted a review of it.

What a treat – it is informative, funny, and instructive…  What an excellent presentation!  I loved it.  I think every genealogist will love it – please don’t miss this one!

Of course, nothing’s an unqualified hit in this world, and alas, the negative reactions I’ve received so far have come from my nearest and dearest.  First, there was my newborn niece (pictured above), who slept through the whole thing!  Devastating!   Then there were her big sisters, who did manage to sit through part of the talk, but their reactions unfortunately did not suggest that they were especially engaged:

  • “Can she see us?”
  • “Is that her house?”
  • “She said ‘what the heck!!’”*
  • “Can we watch Caillou instead?”
Older nieces watch my talk

My older nieces are slightly more engaged… at least while the camera is on them…

(Incidentally, the two five year-olds who watched my talk had a very interesting reaction to the technology.  Raised on video-chatting (FaceTime, Skype, &c.), they expected to be able to interact directly with me.  My oldest niece moved the cursor on top of my face and wondered why I wasn’t bothered, my friend’s son kept trying to click on me to see what would happen, and neither understood why I wouldn’t answer them.)

Thanks to all of you who watched the talk and shared with me your reactions.  It’s been an extremely gratifying experience, but until my nieces’ excitement matches yours, I have more work to do!

* I’m a New Yorker. They’re lucky something much saltier didn’t slip out!

Live from RootsTech, It’s… Me!

Bankoffs, where are you?

I’m excited to share that starting tomorrow RootsTech will be live-streaming 15 of its sessions, and the very first one will be my talk, “Top 10 Things I Learned About My Family from My Couch:  Beginning Internet Genealogy.”  There’ll be something in this talk for everyone — if you’re a newbie, you’ll get a comprehensive introduction to the kinds of online resources available to you — and if you’re an experienced genealogist, you’ll hear how I broke down the toughest brick wall in my family tree, plus nine other great stories of surprising, even shocking discoveries.

Best of all — you don’t need to leave your own couch to watch me!  Just head to at 10:30 AM Mountain Time (12:30 PM Eastern Time, 11:30 AM Central Time, 9:30 AM Pacific TIme) and click on what I’m told will be a very prominent link to the live-streaming section of the site (it’s not there yet, though).

Treelines at RootsTech 2014

With RootsTech starting on Thursday, I’m excited to share that I’ll be speaking and teaching a number of times in the coming days!

  • RootsTech Official SpeakerThursday, 2/6, 10:30 AM:  Top 10 Things I Learned About My Family History from my Couch:  A Beginner’s Introduction to Internet Genealogy (Hall E — just stay in your seat after the morning keynote!)
  • Thursday, 2/6, 2 PM:  Family Tree Management on (Demo Theater)
  • Friday, 2/7, 1 PM and Saturday, 2/8, 10:30 AM:  Family Timelines with (limited-seating computer lab classes; reserve a spot when you register for the conference)
  • Friday, 2/7, 4 PM:  Story by Story, Preserve Your Family’s History (Ballroom I) will be in booth 432, right by the Demo Theater.  Please stop by to say hello and see the latest-n-greatest on the Treelines site!

And for those of you not attending RootsTech in person, I will have some exciting news to share shortly with ways you can participate from home.  Stay tuned!