#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 Treelines.com.  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 Treelines.com 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 Treelines.com.  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 Treelines.com.  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.


This is the first conference I ever attended, but this year is the first time I will be a speaker, and it will be the first time I will give a full-length talk about the famous margarine moonshiners featured in my RootsTech talk!

  • Tuesday, 7/29, 3:15 PM:  The Margarine Moonshiners from Minsk: Conducting Story-Driven Research. In spring 2011 a routine search on my great-grandfather revealed the shocking surprise that he had been incarcerated in Leavenworth. What followed was a rollicking genealogical journey tracing a group of brothers and brothers-in-law recently immigrated from Minsk, who set out to sell margarine as butter in defiance of one the stranger pieces of legislation ever passed.  As I retrace my multi-year journey to get to the bottom of his long-concealed chapter in my family learn how you can better pursue the fascinating leads in your own tree when you think like a storyteller.
  • Wednesday, 7/30, 4:45 PM: Creating a Collaborative Family Website using Treelines.com:  In this class you’ll learn how to upload your existing family tree to Treelines or create a tree from scratch, how to add and edit people in your tree, and most importantly, how to create interactive, timeline-driven digital scrapbooks for all the meaningful people and events from your family’s past. At the end you’ll have a solid understanding of the unique ways Treelines allows you to present and share family history, and you’ll be ready to invite family members to join in the fun with you.


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 http://www.RootsTech.org 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 Treelines.com (Demo Theater)
  • Friday, 2/7, 1 PM and Saturday, 2/8, 10:30 AM:  Family Timelines with Treelines.com (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)

Treelines.com 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!


My Winning Story from DearMYRTLE’s Share a Memory Contest

I’m excited to share that I won popular genealogy blogger DearMYRTLE’s 2nd Annual Share a Memory Contest!  My entry was the informal picture from my grandparents’ wedding (below) that I thought we had lost until my cousin pointed it to me out over Thanksgiving weekend.  It’s ironic that of all of the formal, posed pictures of my grandmother in her veil and my grandfather in his top hat, it’s this candid shot I treasure most.  Click below to read my winning story about why this picture is more sentimental to me than all the others from that important day from my family’s history.

Thank you, DearMYRTLE, for the recognition!

Sweeten Up Your Holidays With Photo Cookies and Cakes

cookiesYou might not realize how easy — and delicious — it can be to customize cakes and cookies with family photographs to add a personal touch to any family celebration — whether the upcoming holidays or another occasion!  The trick is knowing that you can order online your favorite family photographs printed in edible ink on edible paper.  Here are a couple websites that do this:

If you choose to make roll-out cookies as I did, here are a couple tips:

  1. Match your cookie cutter to the shape of your icing cut-outs, but make sure the cookie cutter is a bit larger to leave yourself room when affixing the cut-out.
  2. The fastest way to attach the cut-out to your cookie is by priming the cookie with a thin layer of watered-down royal icing.  No need to pipe your icing using an icing bag.  But if you are comfortable with piping, drawing a border around the image is a nice touch.

Attaching your picture to a cake is even easier.  Just ice the whole cake with buttercream as your normally would, and that’s enough to hold the image.

Family photo cookie

These cookies were for my sister’s bridal shower and featured a lovely picture of the engaged couple.   Here are some ideas for different occasions to get you brainstorming:

  • With the holidays right around the corner, wouldn’t it be fun to share old family photographs of holidays from years past?
  • For a wedding you could also use pictures of the bride and groom as children
  • For an anniversary use pictures of the couple from their wedding day or favorite pictures from through their marriage
  • For a child’s birthday, you’ll have lots of adorable or hilarious pictures to pick from.  Or maybe use a picture drawn by your child!  For the birthday of someone older, choose pictures from their childhood or favorite life milestones.
  • Religious celebrations, graduations, baby showers, and communal celebrations are all occasions where showing off meaningful photographs can add a bit more fun to your desserts.

Hope you have as much fun as I did!

(And if doing all of this by hand isn’t your thing, your local bakery almost certainly can do the job, too — though with a little less love.)


Joy, Luck, and Serendipty

The Joy Luck ClubTowards the beginning of tenth grade English, we read The Joy Luck Club, interlocking stories of how values were transmitted from Chinese immigrant mothers to American-born daughters in four different families.  It was an unusual choice for a curriculum that otherwise focused on the Western canon, but appropriate for a class with many first- and second-generation, Asian American students.  Much of the plot concerned the daughters’ assimilation, which was both encouraged and denigrated by their mothers, and as a fourth-generation American obsessed with how my family’s original culture had faded across the generations, the stories of the mothers’ incomplete transmission of culture to their daughters fascinated me.

In my essay on the book I alluded to these preoccupations, though I had to skip a generation in my family to attempt the comparison:

The generational and cross-cultural tensions were also real to me.  However, they are more like my relationship with my grandmother, who remembers what it was like to live under the shadow of values from another world.  Like the mothers in The Joy Luck Club, my grandmother cannot always understand why certain things matter to me, and how her children have progressed so far from the old ways.

The comparison wasn’t perfect — my grandmother, daughter of immigrant parents (Fanny, who wasn’t abandoned, and Abe, who didn’t lose his pinky), paralleled the daughters in Joy Luck Club, not the mothers, but my teacher caught my meaning well enough.  The essay was not one of my better efforts — honestly, I recall just typing up what was in my head and submitting it with minimal editing, which was really asking for trouble from a teacher who was such a notoriously tough grader — except she proclaimed it “Excellent.”  It was only after speaking with her after class that I realized the way I saw the world — had always seen the world — through the lens of genealogy was not prosaic to her.  Really, people don’t see their own lives in the context of the generations that came before?  It sounds silly to say now — I’ve been doing genealogy for far too long not to realize that much of the world is bewildered by our obsession — but at that time it came as a surprise.

This whole episode came flooding back when I bumped into her while home for Thanksgiving.  I caught her up on my life since graduating high school — how Treelines not only gave me the opportunity to write code and prose professionally, but also to teach about writing family stories — and she immediately exclaimed, “I have to have you come speak to my classes when we read The Joy Luck Club.”  How appropriate!

When you’re a kid it’s hard to see accurately how you are like and unlike other people.  Her unexpected “excellent” allowed me to see that something I had always taken for granted about myself was actually unique and valuable, and I needed someone else to point that out to me.  The story I usually tell about how I got into genealogy is much more straightforward — a family history book arrived when I was 12, inspiring me to start my own research — but two years later this assignment pushed me along in an important way, too.  Even after two decades of family history work, these fundamental questions of cultural transmission still preoccupy me.

When did you realize you had a genealogy-brain?

An Accident of the Lunar Calendar, 1888

Thanksgivukkah 2013Tomorrow, for the last time until the year 79811, Thanksgiving overlaps with Chanukah, the Jewish Festival of Lights celebrating the Maccabees’ victory over the Greeks.  There have been only two previous Thanksgivukkahs since Lincoln proclaimed Thanksgiving in 1863.  Naturally the word — and all the attendant marketing — are solely a product of our times, but here are some highlights of how the first one was reported in 1888, when people still couldn’t agree how to spell Chanukah (Chanucca?!) and the holiday had to be explained to readers variously as the “Jewish Thanksgiving” or the “Jewish Christmas.”


The Jewish Thanksgiving

To-morrow is recorded on the Hebrew calendar as Chanukah, the Jewish Thanksgiving, and it will be observed in much the same manner as the national holiday.  It is the occasion of entertainments and the extending of aid to the poor…

Cleveland Herald, November 28, 1888


How Hebrews Commemorate Achievements of Judas Maccabeus

Beginning this evening, Chanucca, the Feast of Dedication, or as called by Josephus, the “Feast of Lights,” will be observed by the Jews all over the world.  By an accident of the lunar calendar it is celebrated by the Israelites of this country this year in conjunction with Thanksgiving Day.  Several years ago it fell late in December, when it was compared to Christmas

Baltimore Sun, November 28, 1888


Thanksgivukkah GothicTWIN FESTIVALS
A Memorable Day for the Hebrews of New York

In perfect consonance with the sentiments above expressed, the one hundred thousand Hebrews and more of New York city yesterday celebrated a double Thanksgiving.  It just happened that both the Thanksgiving and the Chanuka festivals occurred on the same day.

Loyal to the core as American citizens, not a single Hebrew congregation failed to observe the President’s commands, the words of whose proclamation were recited distinctly from the pulpit of every synagogue in this city.  The feast of the Chanuka does not call for any especial services in the places of public worship, as its observance is one more congenial to the home than to the church.  Yet any one who visited the various synagogues yesterday must have been astonished at the large number of worshippers present.

The two festivals merged well together.  The great American Thanksgiving was an incentive to these people to pour out their hearts before God and to make them feel that for once they were made to understand that all people are one before the Lord.  At the same time the Chanuka, or festival of dedication, celebrated for ages by their ancestors, appeared to them again as a thanksgiving festival for deliverance from the tyranny of that Syrian despot, Antiochus..


Combined Thanksgiving and Chanuka services were held by the Congregation Gates of Prayer, Rev. Dr. de Sola Mendes, in the synagogue in Forty-fourth street…  Dr. Mendes spoke as follows: —

“‘Enter ye his gates with thanksgiving, his courts with praise; give thanks unto him; glorify his name.’  So spoke the Jewish psalmist of old, and in words that have become immortal.  So speaks the great and reverent heart of the mighty nation which distinguishes itself from all others by the institution of an annual day of Thanksgiving. It is a nation that is not too busy to take a day for the expression of gratitude toward the Giver of all good.  Although we, as observant Hebrews, have already celebrated our Feast of Tabernacles, our harvest home, still proud are we of the opportunity of worshipping with our brethren of other faiths, and we are the last to grudge an additional day of duty to God in the busy year.  The American nation, rising above differences of religious belief, says ‘as long as ye are worthy citizens, loving what is right and doing it, it shall be no man’s business to ask you what your religious faith is…'”

New York Herald, November 30, 1888