The month of June evokes family time. With weddings, graduations and parties galore, there is so much to celebrate and share with extended family. It’s also the season preceded by the parsha where Moshe Rabbeinu was commanded to take a census of our people.
That strikes a very special chord with me. In 1989 I started to research and record my family history; in essence, I was keeping a census of the extended family. After compiling and distributing family-tree books to the various branches of my family I realized the importance of continuing the project. Thus, in 2000, I created a “[family name] Mishpocheh Newsletter” for each branch of my family, as well as my husband’s. For the past two years plus I reluctantly had to forgo working on the newsletters as I was side-tracked by our family’s smachot, house repairs and finishing touches on my family history book.
Writing for The Jewish Link, coupled with my son’s wedding weekend and travels with my husband, inspired me to return to my yearly Mishpocheh newsletters. Each of these ventures allowed for the introduction of cousins to other cousins. After writing articles about particular relatives for The Jewish Link I learned that some of those reading the pieces did not know their own family members. Even when some not-so-distant relatives are in the same room, they don’t know one another or how they are related. That thought forced me to prioritize and make time to return to my passion for keeping my extended family updated on all the happenings of our clan—by sharing information, photographs, stories and achievements.
By color-coding the Mishpocheh newsletters, the branches of the family became easily distinguishable. Writing the newsletter gave me the expertise to help others in the form of speaking engagements, teaching, writing for The Jewish Link or even writing a book on our family history, which is currently being reviewed by publishers.
Meeting with relatives all over the country and connecting with others in different parts of the world through social media has made a huge impact on my life and that of my family. When our daughter was in Israel she told me that among all of my cousins who had made aliyah from Ukraine, “Sharon” was a household name. That was mainly due to my yearly newsletters.
Also as a result of the newsletters, many family connections have been made and additional information has been learned about relatives across the globe, with increased knowledge of those of blessed memory who have departed this world. Many far-flung relatives have educated us about such wide-ranging things as beaver dams in Mississippi, the terrain of Albuquerque, New Mexico, and, most recently, Tiffany stained-glass windows at the National Arts Club in Gramercy Park, New York.
We’ve joined cousins at their vacation homes in Hunter, New York, where we hiked at Kaaterskill Falls, and Fripp Island, South Carolina, where we took side trips to explore Charleston, South Carolina, and Savannah, Georgia. From another cousin’s place in Gary, Indiana, we traveled to see all five Great Lakes, which I only dreamed of seeing someday when I studied about them in grade school. Our travels for family reunions and out-of-town weddings have afforded us the opportunity to learn about the lives of our extended relatives and their geographical surroundings.
Recently, at a destination wedding in Savannah, it was obvious that many of the younger cousins had no clue what our relationship was to the groom’s family. His mother’s uncle was there and he and my husband, while a generation apart, are first cousins. My husband’s older cousin happened to know my family before I was born. Sometimes, when we leave a gathering of relatives, my husband and I laugh at the thought that we’re not sure which one of us is biologically related to the group.
The best time to talk about family is on holidays such as the Fourth of July. With no prohibition on writing or recording on the American holiday, it is the perfect opportunity to gather as much information as possible to start or continue charting the names of family members and recording their stories.
Too often at funerals, mourners are heard bemoaning the fact that they didn’t ask the deceased enough questions about their family history. That thought was never more poignant than when a letter recently returned was marked “deceased.” We come from large families and it took years of research and lots of detective work to find the lone living descendant of a grand-aunt’s family of four. Only once did we have the opportunity to meet him. He was close in age to my husband and me and at that chance meeting we were lucky to strike up a bond and record stories of his branch, before receiving the sad news of his passing in the form of an undeliverable letter.
The next time you go on a trip, seek out relatives. There was no better satisfaction than when a second cousin once removed (genealogy talk for the great-grandchild of my grandfather’s brother), with whom I did not grow up but met several times in adulthood on visits to California, wrote: “I look forward to reading your newsletter with the family news in it. It helps me feel connected, and thank you for all the energy you put into it. It matters.”
I’m no Moshe Rabbeinu. When reading the parsha on being commanded to keep a census, however, it was a tremendous feeling to know that I have done my part. Now, it’s your turn.
By Sharon Mark Cohen
Sharon Mark Cohen, MPA, is a seasoned genealogist and journalist and a contributing writer at The Jewish Link.