(Editor’s note: Due to an editing error, the print version of this story read as though the Rabbi William Sajowitz Endowment Fund Weekend had already happened. In fact, it begins Friday, Dec. 13 The Chronicle regrets the error.)
DNA is turbocharging genealogy in general, and Jewish genealogy in particular, Schelly Talalay Dardashti said.
And the long-time writer, editor and all-around drumbeater for genealogical research is living proof of it.
Dardashti, the scholar in residence for this year’s Rabbi William Sajowitz Endowment Fund Weekend, which runs from Friday through Sunday at Temple Emanuel of South Hills, used DNA testing to further confirm family stories of her own Sephardic roots. The testing connected her with two families in New Mexico who have lived in that part of the world since 1598.
In fact, of the 500 or so participants in the Iberian Ashkenaz DNA Project of Family Tree DNA, a genetic genealogy and ancestry DNA testing, company, she said, “We’ve connected 75, maybe 80 percent to known Converso families, to known Latino and Hispanic families.”
She plans to discuss DNA at the Sajowitz weekend, and for good reason. DNA has the potential to take the identities individual Jews have long had of themselves and turn them inside out.
“This has been an eye-opener for everyone in genealogy,” Dardashti said. DNA “is connecting with relatives you never knew existed, people in countries you never knew existed. Dyed in the wool Litvaks find out they have Sephardic blood.”
A writer, editor and presenter on genealogy for more than 25 years, Dardashti will hold sessions for adults, young people and individuals at this year’s Sajowitz weekend.
Researching family history has particular value for kids, she said.
“We love to work with kids, seeing their eyes open up when they see they are part of this chain of identity to people so many years ago.”
She likes to tell kids how vital each relative in a family tree is to the next generation.
“If one of these relatives … had been on ship that sunk and never made it to America, you wouldn’t be here,” she said. “I talk to the kids about that. They never think about that.”
It’s having an impact. Kids as young as 12 are starting family trees on MyHeritage.com, a global Internet-based family research network for which Dardashti is the U.S. genealogy advisor. Kids younger than 18 must have a parent or guardian open the site for them, she added.
“Studies are showing kids’ writing and research skills improve — their knowledge of history — when they get involved in genealogy,” she said.
No one has to explain the benefits of genealogy to Dardashti. She wrote a genealogy column for the Jerusalem Post from 1999 to 2005.
In 2006, she began a blog for JTA called “Tracing the Tribe,” which lasted for one year at the new service. But she kept writing it independently until last year when she went on “hiatus.”
That’s when she founded Tracing the Tribe- Jewish Genealogy on Facebook
“It has been such a revelation,” Dardashti said of her fascination with genealogy. “Everybody is interested in family history. I think it’s the only activity that cuts across every single line in the world. It cuts across race; it cuts across religion and when you talk about Judaism; it covers the entire Jewish spectrum.”
To demonstrate how widespread the fascination is, she noted that MyHeritage, which was established in Israel in 2005, has 150 employees today in Utah, California and Israel.
“We now have 75 million users world wide. The thing we like to stress about MyHeritage is we are global; we’re; in Poland we’re in South America; we’re in Russia. The site itself is in 40 languages.”
It offers 4 billion historical records and 200 million historical photos, both of which are growing.
Genealogical research is easier today than ever before, No longer must researchers cloister themselves in archives.
“It has become so much more popular just because there are so many more resources accessible,” Dardashti said. “You can sit at home in your jammies and bunny slippers and connect.”
(Lee Chottiner can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)