Jewish genealogy: Seeking spirituality through the past

Mokotoff is an unusual name. That's why it stood out in a Mensa membership register in 1979.

An Israeli member of the high-IQ group who had some free time on his hands noticed the surname, copied a list of 11 more Mokotoffs from an Israeli phone book, and dashed off the list to his American Mensa colleague, Gary Mokotoff.

Little did the Israeli know what the effect of his letter would be.

Setting aside his engineering career, Mokotoff set out to prove that all Jews bearing his surname were related. On the way to confirming his thesis, he became one of the leading international experts on genealogy. Mokotoff now lectures regularly and publishes Avotaynu, the International Review of Jewish Genealogy.

In the past few years, he has seen a remarkable increase in interest in genealogy, among Jews and non-Jews alike. Subscriptions to his journal have been climbing by 15 percent a year. Seminars are full to capacity.

"I honestly don't know why it's accelerating so much," admits Mokotoff.

The one thing he is sure of is that children of Holocaust survivors are delving into genealogy in higher numbers than ever. As the last generation of survivors passes away, their children are searching for aunts, uncles, and other family ghosts they could never discuss while their parents were alive.

Reasons for constructing family trees vary widely, he says. The only common link seems to be the passion and near-zealotry with which people approach the journey backward.

Before her first child was born five years ago, Robinn Magid dove into library records, old newspaper clips and online genealogy services with an almost obsessive devotion. By the time she had her second child, the Kensington mother was spending as many as 20 hours a week poring through archives for clues about her family.

"It had to do with the process of deciding who to name the baby for. Who doesn't have a baby named for them yet? Who are we named for? Everybody had forgotten," says Magid, 35.

Now, having recently given birth to her third child, Magid can trace her grandmother's family back 11 generations. She has more than 2,000 names keyed into a computer file of ancestors. But more than just names, she has Yiddish signatures, photographs and anecdotes that flesh out a past everyone told her had been obliterated by the Holocaust.

According to Dana Kurtz, president of the San Francisco Bay Area Jewish Genealogical Society, the process often gives Jews more than a family tree. It provides them with a place in history and a sense of community.

"It's not just physical, it's spiritual as well. There's a sense of finding out why we're here, of bringing the Jewish community closer together."

Looking into the past — a past full of ancestors who generally led far more religiously committed lives — often provides a spiritual payoff for many amateur genealogists.

"Genealogy makes the liturgy more relevant," says Magid, who is sisterhood president at Berkeley's Congregation Beth El. "Every time I walk into synagogue, go through a service, it really is repeating their words, continuing a tradition they gave me."

While Magid was motivated by the birth of her children, retired manufacturer Bert Oppenheim said growing older was the impetus for finding out about his family background.

"When you're older, you have time to think about your past, your bloodline, the people who are part of you," says Oppenheim, 67, of Cupertino. "As a child, I wasn't interested at all when my parents told me about their past. I ignored it like most youngsters."

His search, which he began at age 63, took him to several small towns in Indiana and Michigan, where relatives settled after living in Utica, N.Y.

"It gets to the point where you become driven, you want to learn more and more," he says.

That drive led him to Lithuania, Russia, Poland and even Oppenheim, Germany, where he was honored in a civil ceremony as the first American Oppenheim to make an official visit to the town. He saw homes where his family members had lived, and the gravestones that mark their lives.

"In the cemetery I got this feeling that below my feet are all these family members. If I could only get an hour with one of them. I got tears in my eyes, the emotion was so great."

For Kurtz, who only recently took the helm at the Jewish Genealogy Society, her research didn't begin as an emotional quest.

After the TV mini-series "Roots" came out in the 1970s, her mother got a computer program designed to help create a family tree.

"I thought it was fun. I had a natural curiosity. It was like a story someone tells you," Kurtz remembers.

Now the stories she's found add a wash of color to her personal history.

A ship manifest, for example, showed Kurtz that the sister of her great-grandfather came from Poland with 15 cents in her pocket.

She knows that her great-grandfather would let her mother walk barefoot near a stream. She knows her great-grandmother "was a tough lady who ruled the roost." She also discovered that one side of her family has always been musical.

While her desire to do family research has grown in the past few years, so have the opportunities for such study.

With the lifting of the Iron Curtain, remarkable records about the past have been coming out of the woodwork — literally, Kurtz says. Archival documents have been discovered in building walls and attics throughout Eastern Europe.

At the same time, government agencies are offering access to once-secret archives full of family histories.

And archivists are setting up shop to help American researchers, she adds. Some countries, such as Lithuania, have set up price lists for access to records, and have hired English-speaking workers to correspond with American researchers, many of whom are Jews.

What's more, she says, the Internet has bolstered the "informal global network of people interested in this."

Many say their Internet connections are helping them form friendships that make them feel part of a community, and hasten their search for family facts.

Home with her new baby, Magid, who is accustomed to a fast-track management consulting career, says genealogy keeps her plugged into the world outside.

"I'm excited every day when the mail comes," says Magid. "I have e-mail pals. I'm not isolated at home. This keeps me in touch with adults and adult conversation. It gives me puzzles to solve."