The headquarters of Avotaynu Inc. sits on a sleepy corner in Westville, the neighborhood where the Jews of New Haven, Connecticut, historically have been concentrated. The creamy beige façade of the building’s second story draws the eye away from the shuttered blinds of the first floor, painted dark brown. It’s easy to miss, but a small white sign with black stenciled letters in the last window of that first floor announces the building’s occupant. Inside are two rooms: a dim antechamber, which holds three bookcases stocked with copies of the books that the company sells, and a brightly lit back room from which Gary Mokotoff runs “the leading publisher of products of interest to persons who are researching Jewish genealogy.”

In 1976, Alex Haley published Roots: The Saga of an American Family, a novel that purported to trace the author’s family history to before his African ancestors were enslaved and brought to the American continent (the veracity of some of the author’s claims were later challenged). The bestselling book, and the Emmy Award-winning miniseries it inspired, sparked a fad in the American public that has since grown: The global genealogy market will approach $3 billion in 2018, according to the International Federation of Library Associations. The current giant in the field, Ancestry.com, began as a publisher before finding transformative success as an online business: Its model is now predicated on the promise of its search bar, on finding your ancestors for you. Avotaynu’s website, by contrast, promises only the resources to help you find your ancestors yourself. The company is the leading publisher of Jewish genealogical products because it is the only one. And to fully understand Avotaynu, we must understand why genealogy captivates people, and Jews, in the first place.

In 1984, Gary Mokotoff and Sallyann Amdur Sack-Pikus co-founded Avotaynu as a semiannual magazine. Pre-internet, Sack-Pikus conceived of the publication as a way to maintain communication with the attendees of an international conference in Jerusalem on the budding field of Jewish genealogy. Mokotoff was willing to be publisher, but he needed someone to provide the copy; Sack-Pikus, whom he met at the Jerusalem conference, volunteered, not intending to remain in charge for long. They published the first issue in 1985, with the chief rabbi of Australia writing its lead story about Jewish convicts on the First Fleet to Australia—a telling hint of content to come. Instead of slowing down, they sped up: Avotaynu became a quarterly journal in 1987, and they published Where Once We Walked, the company’s first book, in 1991. Avotaynu has added only one employee since its inception: Mokotoff’s wife, Ruth, who edits the books that Gary compiles and prints. Sack-Pikus remains responsible for the flagship journal.

Mokotoff has a fringe of gray-white hair, and he wore khaki corduroys and a pen in his front pocket when I met him. He calls Avotaynu a “mom and pop operation,” but grandmom and -pop is more accurate: He and his wife are approaching 80 years old. He was the first recipient of the International Association of Jewish Genealogical Societies’ Lifetime Achievement Award—besides Avotaynu, his legacy includes the Daitch-Mokotoff Soundex, used by the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, among others, to standardize Eastern European surnames across languages. Avotaynu is technically for-profit, but mention that to Sack-Pikus and she will joke that, were they counting, their business would pay $5 an hour. That Avotaynu remains afloat is partly a testament to Sack-Pikus and Mokotoff’s first careers—she is still practicing as a clinical psychologist, and he once worked for IBM and later owned a software company. But, mostly, Avotaynu is still around for the same reason it began: Its founders’ desire to grow Jewish genealogy.

Genealogy came directly to Mokotoff. In 1977, around the time of the Roots miniseries (which introduced him to family history), a stranger in Tel Aviv found him in the Mensa registry (both Gary and Ruth registered, they say, mainly as a way to annoy Ruth’s brother) and wrote to inform him of the 11 people in the Tel Aviv phonebook with similar surnames. Mokotoff said that he got hooked on genealogy “not because I wanted to know who my ancestors were, but because I wanted to prove that every Mokotoff in the world is related to me.” Mokotoff did just that: He found their common ancestor, his great-great-great-grandfather, who lived in a town in Poland called Warka. For the genealogist, each relative’s story is a piece to be fitted into a puzzle that is never finished—especially for Jews.

The task of the Jewish genealogist is, invariably, to cross oceans, surpass language barriers, and broach the information gaps opened by genocide. That is no easy task, and even the search bars of Ancestry.com’s Jewish equivalent, JewishGen.org, rarely suffice. That’s why Avotaynu exists. Despite the modesty of its office, Avotaynu’s work reaches far beyond Connecticut; Jewish genealogists around the world consult the 75 books it has published, which span human-interest stories, beginner’s guides, Jewish-surname compilations, and more. Where Once We Walked is a red slab of a gazetteer that contains the names of over 23,000 Jewish communities that once existed in Eastern Europe, plus—in the spirit of the Soundex—an additional 17,000 variant spellings of those places.

I flipped through hundreds of pages of towns before I found my great-grandfather’s shtetl, Mława; I learned it once had a population of 5,923, and I saw it spelled in Polish. With the native spelling, someone who consulted Mokotoff’s Getting Started in Jewish Genealogy might next examine the birth, death, and marriage records of an ancestor’s town, hoping to discover other family members. But those researching Ashkenazi relatives would inevitably hit a wall around 1800—only the Catholic Church kept records until Napoleon installed thorough systems of documentation when he invaded Eastern Europe. That is why the well-trained genealogist knows that research cannot be limited to the past: They could also crosscheck names against their country’s immigration lists, and perhaps discover an unknown branch of the family tree living in a different city.

This research is arduous and time-intensive. That’s what makes the payoff worth it for Mokotoff: He tells me, beaming, that “some major breakthroughs I’ve made literally took 15 years.” Along those lines, Mokotoff believes that “the two requirements for being a proper genealogical researcher are persistence and patience.” Persistence and patience are apt guidelines for a hobby that demands countless solitary hours, and are what separate those who are merely interested in their roots from those who are obsessed with them. Sack-Pikus’ family calls genealogy her “fourth child,” but she said “it’s like a virus. It grabs you, it absorbs you.” Practicing genealogy can define a person as much as their ancestors can. Lisa Lainer-Fagan, a longtime member of the Los Angeles genealogical community, admits that “we genealogists are a little nutty in our own way.” A meme on a Facebook page for genealogists asserts that they would rather “browse in a cemetery than in a shopping mall.” Their fervency may seem a quirk to an observer, but that is what draws them together and perpetuates the practice.

It is true that Judaism itself promulgates the importance of lineage (Genesis enumerates the descendants of Adam and Eve and the ancestors of Abraham, among others). And Jewish culture historically reflects that: The Yiddish word yichus translates somewhere between lineage and pedigree, and, as Yiddish words tend to do, connotes something broader than its literal meaning: Yichus carries the weight of lineage in Jewish culture—a lineage that, according to David Sorkin, who teaches Judaic studies at Yale, was once based on learning, wealth, or political access. Today, kohens are still recognized in religious praxis for the yichus of their priestly ancestors. To engage in genealogical research is to implicitly acknowledge that lineage is important; but why that is depends on who you ask. Fred Hyman of Westville’s Modern Orthodox synagogue posits that genealogists assemble narratives that culminate in themselves, providing a way of “cognizing their world.” Sorkin goes further: He reads genealogy as “surrogate theology”—a devout genealogist turns to her ancestors for the same assurances religion provides. Put another way, genealogy seems to offer powerful ontological validation.

Sack-Pikus, the psychologist, rejected the thought of genealogy as any sort of replacement or crutch. When I presented Sorkin and Hyman’s interpretations to Sack-Pikus, she immediately discerned that neither man practiced genealogy—and asked me how I could take their word over that of a genealogist. Another New Haven rabbi, Jon-Jay Tilsen of Beth El–Keser Israel, a conservative shul, is also an amateur genealogist. He interprets the fundamental human question of “Why am I here?” more literally than Rabbi Hyman does: “It can be existential, but it’s also a geographic question: ‘Why am I here in Connecticut? Why was I born in Minnesota?’ There’s actually a story there that says I’m not just a random person. For the Jewish people in particular, it’s a very long story.”

Jewish genealogy not only excavates the recent parts of that long story—still murky after the mass exodus from the Pale—but also makes it more tangible, more immediate. “My kids can read about Jewish history in a textbook, about the immigration quotas in the 1920s,” Lainer-Fagan said. “OK, that’s all nice, but when I say to my kids that your great-grandmother couldn’t get into the United States and went to Mexico because of the quotas, that is history having an impact on real people that you can connect to because they’re your family.” When I plugged the coordinates Where Once We Walked listed for Mława into Google Earth, I saw that there is an LG Electronics factory standing today where my great-grandfather once lived; then I understood what she meant.

The time Sack-Pikus has spent with the past informs her outlook on the future: For her, genealogy is a “kind of a way of achieving immortality. What it does is put you in a chain of history.” This makes sense for what Mokotoff claims is “a hobby of the older people.” Sack-Pikus continued: “You learn about the lives of all the people who came before you. You put flesh on their bones, they exist in your mind. And someday I will only exist in the minds of my descendants. There’s this Jewish saying that nobody is truly dead as long as somebody alive remembers them—it’s that kind of thing.”

***

Like this article? Sign up for our Daily Digest to get Tablet Magazine’s new content in your inbox each morning.





PRINT COMMENT