Trying to figure out what your grandmother’s last name was before her father changed it at Ellis Island? Need to know about your family’s medical history? Or simply trying to figure out where your curly red hair comes from, when everyone in your immediate family is a brunette?
Janice Sellers can probably help.
A genealogist with more than 35 years of experience, Sellers is the publicity director for the San Francisco Bay Area Jewish Genealogical Society, and edits the organization’s newsletter, ZichronNote, in addition to two other industry periodicals.
She’s also on staff at the FamilySearch Library in Oakland. With high-speed Internet access to many subscription websites, trained volunteers, workshops and a large collection of records, it’s one of the largest centers for genealogical research in California.
“I grew up hearing stories about my family all the time,” says Sellers, the descendant of Eastern European Jewish immigrants. “My mother and my grandmother talked about our family constantly, so I always knew everybody’s birthdays and wedding anniversaries, and I liked learning about our history.”
Sellers, an Oakland resident, says there’s a lot of interest in genealogy among Jews for a number of reasons.
“It’s partly because of [records and stories that were] lost during the Holocaust, partly for medical reasons,” she says. “But also … I grew up being told all this information, and part of what I was told is, ‘That’s how we do things. We tell stories to remember our family.’ ”
Sometimes, when Jewish clients seek her out, it’s because they’ve heard family rumors about a rabbinical lineage.
“It’s sort of the way chasing royalty works in the U.K.,” Sellers explains. “With Jews, it’s, ‘I hear I’m related to this big famous rabbi.’ Celebrity chasing of a different sort.”
Among both Jews and non-Jews, there’s been a huge uptick in interest around genealogy over the past decade, thanks in part to websites like ancestry.com and the documentary-style TV show “Who Do You Think You Are?”
What that program doesn’t get quite right is the hours, days, and weeks of research most genealogists do to put together a family history.
“They certainly don’t tell the story of doing the research, so the show grossly distorted what the average person is going to go through,” Sellers says. For one, “only about 10 percent of the records that genealogists need to do research are online.”
For those interested in getting started on their family tree, Sellers recommends first gathering up all the records — birth, death and wedding certificates, immigration papers, etc. — that are floating around the family. Ancestry’s website is a good first stop after that, she says.
Then look up an expert to help you by region or specialty, and/or visit a family search center, such as the one where Sellers works, which is located on the grounds of the landmark Mormon Temple in the Oakland Hills. “I don’t work for the temple,” Sellers stresses. “I am not LDS [Latter-day Saints]. But it is a great view!”
The nonprofit San Francisco Bay Area Jewish Genealogical Society (www.sfbajgs.org) offers many workshops and can help, as can many other organizations, such as Jewish Gen (www.jewishgen.org) and the Association of Professional Genealogists (www.apgen.org). Sellers, whose own site is www.ancestraldiscoveries.com and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, says different families and different areas of the world require very different levels of expertise.
The work can be hard, but sometimes it can lead to some real surprises. For example, long after her paternal grandparents had passed away, Sellers discovered that they technically had never been married.
“My father didn’t have a problem with it, so that was fine,” Sellers says with a laugh. “It’s a wonderfully interesting hobby because of unexpected surprises like that. But if there’s anything in your family you’re afraid of, it’s probably not a good hobby to go into.”