We’re in the middle of the month of Cheshvan (mid-October through mid-November, this year) so that means it’s International Jewish Genealogy Month. Don’t worry if you haven’t bought anything yet, the traditional IJGM gift of microfilm has been replaced by saliva. That is to say, the long-standing methods of genealogical research have been utterly shaken by low-cost commercial genetic testing and the databases housing all that new information.Jewish genealogy first took off in the United States in the 1970s, part of the larger cultural zeitgeist of roots (and Roots) research. In the mid-’70s, Arthur Kurzweil started publishing a column called “Finding Jewish Roots” in The Jewish Week. In 1977 he co-founded the first Jewish Genealogical Society. In 1980, he published From Generation to Generation: How to Trace Your Jewish Genealogy and Family History.In a 1983 review for the journal Response, Zachary Baker surveyed the field of popular literature on Jewish genealogy, reviewing Kurzweil’s book, along with two others. Baker is a friend of mine and something of a legend in the field of Jewish (especially Yiddish) library science. Until his recent retirement, he was Reinhard Family Curator for Judaica and Hebraica Collections at Stanford University. In “The Genealogy of American Jews,” he reviewed the three books with a scholar’s eye. He finds much to praise in Kurzweil’s book, part engagingly written personal journey and part research how-to. But in regard to all three books, he notes the problematic gap between the methods proposed and the disappointing reality of American Jewish literacy.Baker closes the review on a somber note: “In an age of wholesale indifference to historical awareness and historical truths, genealogy can be of immeasurable help to us in reconstructing and interpreting our collective history, but it cannot substitute for a broader historical consciousness.” If the search for personal roots is not tied to reconnection to “what we have endured as a people,” says Baker, then such a quest will necessarily be incomplete.For a large part of American Jewry, especially the Ashkenazi part, arriving in America in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, what we endured as a people was migration from Eastern and Central Europe. And the quintessential representation of that identity today is the Mousekwitz family of the 1986 animated film, An American Tail. But as I’ve argued before, the journey of Fievel and his family distorts key aspects of that journey.In my opinion, a far more accurate picture is found in Ab. Cahan’s novella Yekl, which was adapted for the big screen in Joan Micklin Silver’s 1975 Hester Street. In the story, Yekl, now known as Jake, has arrived in New York City without his family, and is working in a sweatshop. The now Americanized “Jake” saves up enough to bring over his wife, Gitl, and their son. But upon reuniting, Jake finds himself ashamed of their greenness and finally divorces Gitl so he can pursue his “American” life.The genealogy of Ashkenazi Jews in America begins not so much with a cozy, mouse-y adventure, but with the explosive rupture of the Jewish family as a unit. Already in the Russian Empire, for example, the Jewish family was in “crisis.” Conflict between state and religious authorities meant that rather than seeking Jewish divorce, separation by abandonment was on the rise, leaving agunes (chained widows) and illegitimate children in its wake. Desertion, separation, “even bigamy,” writes ChaeRan Freeze in Jewish Marriage and Divorce in Imperial Russia, created “marriages in limbo” and were “symptomatic of a family crisis that would prompt the Jewish intelligentsia, the Orthodox rabbis, and the state to seek a fundamental reform of this basic institution.”In turn-of-the-century New York, desertion by husbands was endemic. “In 1902, the National Council of Jewish Charities created a Department of Desertion that operated under its umbrella in New York.” In 1914 it became the independent National Desertion Bureau. Of course, desertion wasn’t just a Jewish phenomenon. In 1916, Earle Edward Eubank published a study of family desertion across ethnic groups. One table showed that for a six-year period in Chicago, among all other ethnic groups, Jewish charities handled the highest percentage of desertion cases relative to all of their charity cases (21.3%).Desertion was such a problem that the Forverts newspaper published A galerye fun farshvundene mener (Gallery of Vanished Husbands), with headshots and descriptions of the men who had abandoned their families. The women who were abandoned didn’t just lose their partner, such an ambiguous separation created Halachic problems. The abandoned women couldn’t remarry under Jewish law and their children might be perceived as having questionable yikhes (lineage).Paternity is itself fundamental to the functioning of everyday life in traditional Eastern European Judaism. A man is called to the Torah for an aliye not by his name, say, Shimen, but as a function of his father’s name, Shimen ben Moyshe, Shimen son of Moyshe. (Prayers for healing, on the other hand, are said for the recipient as the child of a mother, that is, So and So, child of the mother Such and Such.)American Jews weren’t the first to become obsessed with their own lineage, of course. Starting in the 14th century, newfound prosperity for Jews in Poland meant that those now in the upper class sought to legitimize their own status “through a link with a noble or famous ancestor.” Representations of family lineage became part of an evolving concern for family purity and a search for nobility. Both wealth and Torah scholarship were the currency of having, and acquiring, yikhes, and thus, the best possible marriage match. Maintaining yikhes meant avoiding alliances with families of dubious composition and provenance. Maintaining yikhes also meant establishing one’s own family tree and, of course, unquestionable legitimacy.If you were among the elite of the new Yiddish literature, establishing paternity was also a matter of legitimacy. The Yiddish writer Sholem Aleichem “… invented a genealogy for Yiddish literature that traced its origins back only to Abramovitsh [Mendele Moykher Sformim] as its ‘grandfather,’ completely marginalizing any possibility of matrilineal descent or acknowledgment of the relationship between several centuries of earlier Yiddish literature and women readers …” So says Justin Cammy in his introduction to a forthcoming bilingual edition of Salomea Perl’s Yiddish stories.I had never heard of Perl before this new collection of her seven known stories, The Canvas and Other Stories. In them we find reflected an unusual point of view for that time and place, a single woman in her 30s, struggling to make herself heard as an artist. In the title story, a woman is married off to a much older man. They are childless, and now in his old age, he is paralyzed and she must feed him by hand. Her unwanted husband has become the baby she never had. In this heartbreaking gem of a story, the narrator is tormented by memories of the unrequited love of her youth, while still yet burning with a creative force demanding to be seen.Salomea Perl was an unusual woman writer, the daughter of a maskil (adherent of the Jewish Enlightenment) whose education included a stint in Geneva and then independent life in the capital of global Yiddish culture, Warsaw. For a time, she was a favorite of the most important tastemaker in Yiddish Warsaw, I.L. Peretz. And then, for reasons unknown, Peretz broke with her, and she died not long after. Needless to say, making a name as a writer was difficult for Perl, especially in a literary world which had just written all women off the family tree. “Women writers were significantly under-represented in all of the major anthologies of Yiddish prose in translation that appeared before the turn of the 21st century,” writes Cammy. “Since anthologies not only create a canon but also a genealogy of influence, their absence led several generations of readers to assume that women had played only a marginal role in 20th century Yiddish writing.” Writing about our relationship to Jewish genealogies, I’m forced to pause and interrogate my own such relationship. I wouldn’t say that I’m not interested in my own family history. There are certain questions about my family that are still unanswered. Some of those may yet require a trip to my (paternal) family’s town in Romania, a possibility which has lingered for years at the back of my mind, both tantalizing and slightly off-putting.But the truth is, the search for an illustrious ancestor, the search for yikhes, a framework Zachary Baker critiques in his overview of American Jewish genealogy, has never been a factor in my own work. I’ve come to terms with the ordinariness of my forbears. If my ancestors were mostly yidn fun a gants yor, ordinary Jews of their time, I’m OK with that. For me, the energy that might otherwise have gone into a search for yikhes has instead been channeled into the search for spiritual bobes and zeydes (grandmothers and grandfathers), or a cultural genealogy. From the beginning, I’ve been drawn to Yiddish culture because I wanted to know the fullness of Jewish life in Eastern Europe. I wanted to meet Salomea Perl and the many Salomeas still waiting to be discovered. I went looking for the people who looked like me, or, perhaps, who looked like the person I wanted to become. And, of course, I wanted to know why the American Jewish relationship to the past had ended up more American Tail than Hester Street.And so I return to the men of the Vanished Husbands gallery and Eddy Portnoy’s brilliant book of sleazy tales from the Yiddish tabloids, Bad Rabbi. There’s something there in the flimflammery and chaos of these stories that captures far more of the journey of American Jews than Fievel (sorry) ever could. In particular, Portnoy tells the story of one Abraham Hochman, the Hebrew seer of Rivington Street. At the turn of the century, he was working as a psychic and fortune teller on the Lower East Side. “Locating missing husbands was a Hochman specialty.” He owed part of his fame to the 1903 case of Minnie Cohen. Her husband had been missing for a month and Hochman successfully predicted his whereabouts.Hochman may not have been a genuine psychic, but as a symbol, he reminds us that there is something of the quasi-mystical to the search for our family members. And today, just because we can spit in a tube and connect to a hundred unknown cousins, that doesn’t mean we’re any better at dealing with the transmutations of our own families. The addition of DNA testing to genealogical research simply means that our ghosts are now speaking in voluminous data points and haplotypes. 23andMe has been a gift to many, but for the countless men who have sought to deny paternity, that gift is dubious.After the errant Mr. Cohen’s arrest in 1903, Abraham Hochman triumphantly announced “to the women gathered on his stoop … ‘Venus is ascendant—husbands beware!’”I do think genetic tools are an amazing revolution in Jewish life, especially given the special difficulties of Jewish genealogical research. I would simply add that we would do well to reflect on what it is we need from family before we go looking for more of it.SING: In October, I wrote about the magic of group singing during a pandemic. Since then, even more opportunities for Yiddish singing have popped up. At the beginning of November, Binyumen Schaechter and his Jewish People's Philharmonic Chorus began holding weekly Yiddish Song Workshops and Singalongs on Zoom. Participants explore the structure and musical motifs of songs, as well as working on Yiddish pronunciation and meaning. Sessions are on Mondays at 7 p.m. Email firstname.lastname@example.org for more information.RESEARCH: In November, Hadassah Magazine is hosting an event called “When DNA Reveals Hidden Truths.” With Hadassah editor Lisa Hostein, Dani Shapiro, Jennifer Mendelsohn, and Libby Copeland. Nov. 18 at 8 p.m. More information here … Arthur Kurzweil’s From Generation to Generation: How to Trace Your Jewish Genealogy and Family History is still one of the most recommended works on Jewish genealogy. It’s an engagingly written personal journey as well as informative guide to doing the work of genealogical research … The Center for Jewish History is home to the Ackman & Ziff Family Genealogy Institute and a wealth of resources for genealogical research.ALSO: We Refugees is a fascinating new website featuring microhistories of refugees and flight, with a special focus on the stories and documents of refugees from Nazi Germany … Golden City favorite Golem plays live from the Museum of Jewish History (for an online audience), Nov. 15. Tickets here. If you’re making holiday plans, on Dec. 22, YIVO will be presenting a talk tracing the history of Ashkenazi Jews and Chinese food … Yiddish House London has started holding a Yiddish Shmues hangout on Zoom, every first and third Tuesday of the month. Students and speakers at any level can drop in to practice their conversational skills. Follow them on Facebook for more details … Somehow, it’s not a real Yiddish event until someone gets up in the Q&A to ask about Ladino. Whether or not you’ve asked that question, if you’re interested in languages of the Jewish diaspora, you should know about the eighth annual Ladino Day at the University of Washington. The theme this year is Revolutionizing Ladino. Dec. 6. More info here … If you’ve made vague declarations about your intent to learn (or work on) Yiddish, YIVO just announced its Winter Intensive classes for January. Twelve sessions, three days per week, online, with some of the best teachers in the world. More info here.