Rosh Hashanah — Zichronot

Rabbi Fruithandler asked me to speak for a few minutes on the issue of Zichron — Memory, which has long been an interest of mine.  Rosh Hashanah is also known as Yom HaZikaron — the Day of Remembrance, and the Zichronot is an essential part of the day’s observance.

There’s a certain movie that I’ve watched about 30 times in the past year or so, and it too has remembrance as one of its main themes.  At the very beginning of “Woman in Gold,” Helen Mirren as Maria Altmann says that her object in seeking to recover the portrait of her aunt Adele is “to keep the memories alive.”  “Because people forget,” she warns, “especially the young.”  And at the end of the film, the theme returns with an emotional scene of young Maria leaving her parents in Vienna, as her father pleads, “I ask you one thing: Remember us.”  So remembrance is really at the core of the film, and it is one of the reasons that it resonated with so many people.  It’s a tear-jerker, but I hadn’t given Maria’s farewell scene much serious thought because actually Maria’s father died in the summer of 1938, shortly after the Nazis invaded, while Maria’s husband was imprisoned in Dachau (something not shown in the film) and so she never had a farewell scene like that.  But then after a talk someone came up to me and said how much she had loved that particular scene, because her mother had also had to leave her parents behind.  It was only then that I realized that of course my mother’s father had done the very same thing.  He had fled on the day after Kristallnacht and never saw his parents again.  That scene had played out for thousands of families, including my own.  Even in a fictional scene, the film had managed to memorialize the pain of an entire generation.

There is another scene in the film about remembrance that is based on something that did happen to me.  As a turning point in the film, they have my character go with Maria to see the Holocaust memorial in Vienna, and I have a sort of breakdown.  While working on Maria’s case, I was at the unveiling of the memorial by British artist Rachel Whiteread, which is a large white mausoleum-like sculpture with walls made to look like a library of inverted books, with the spines facing inward so you cannot read the titles.  I really did not like it very much, and still don’t.  For me, the 65,000 Austrian victims of the Holocaust are not a closed book, never to be opened.  They have names and stories, each and every one of them, and it upset me a bit that they were being remembered anonymously, as if no one could remember who they were. 01_Judenplatz_1

But at the unveiling there was a wonderful speech by President Thomas Klestil.  He was describing the history of the location, which is known as the Judenplatz (the Jewish Square) because it is on the location of an old synagogue that was the site of a famous three-day siege during a pogrom in 1421, after which the Jews inside committed suicide by burning down the synagogue with themselves inside.  Two hundred surviving Jews were later burned alive at the command of Duke Albrecht.  And it was on this very site, atop the ruins of the old synagogue that were found underneath the square that the new Holocaust memorial was being placed.  Then the Austrian President said “Und wie lange dauert die Geschichte.”  It was more a statement than a question.  And how long does history last.  Indeed.  Here we were almost 600 years later, and we were still telling the story of those Jewish martyrs.  And what of the story of the Holocaust, which was so many times worse, I thought to myself.  What of my great-grandfather Siegmund Zeisl, who lived for 70 years in that city, only to be murdered in Treblinka.  How long will that story also be told?  It will be told forever!  And I cried at the thought of it.

Strange how we can become emotional remembering things that we did not experience.  I never met my great-grandfather, nor even his son, my own grandfather, who died of a heart attack at age 53.  I only knew his story.  But the story is somehow a part of me.  And so it is for all of us.  We remember our loved ones, and their loved ones, and the ones who came before, in a long chain back to the beginning of time.  That remembrance defines us as human beings, as a culture and as a people.  That is why Rosh Hashanah is a day of remembrance.

But the flip side of remembrance is forgetting.  It isn’t only the young who forget, as Helen Mirren says, but all of us.  I could say, now that I am over 50, especially the old.  But forgetting is also important.  We say that God knows and remembers everything.  But we know that remembering everything is also a curse.  Who would want to remember everything?  When we pray for remembrance, we pray for selective remembrance, to remember the things that should be remembered and to forget what should be forgotten.  Being able to remember, and remember selectively, is a gift.  It is what makes us human.  But interestingly it is not something we can control.  Do we really have a choice what to remember and what to forget?  I don’t think so.  There is something divine in remembrance.

And so, as we go through the Zichranot prayer and meditation, we will concentrate on our memories, of our loved ones, of ourselves, of people who are meaningful to us.  Some memories may make us cry, some may make us laugh.  But our memories are who we are, and for that we can all say Amen.

Is Your Genealogist Certified or Certifiable?

Last weekend I had the opportunity to work at the table at the Southern California Genealogy Society Jamboree in Burbank, California.  I’ve attended about ten of these types of conferences, and it’s fun to work at an exhibit table and meet many of the attendees. Of course, the main problem with working the exhibit tables is that you don’t get to see the lectures, but some of them are usually available online after the conference. Still, you get to see lots of people in the exhibit area, and most of the speakers also spend time in the exhibit room. What I’ve noticed is that, by and large, you see the same speakers and exhibitors at genealogy conferences. It’s almost like a club. And so by now I recognize lots of people when I attend a conference.

Pretty much everybody who attends a genealogy conference is a bit crazy. After all, what normal person would forgo spending time outside or with family, and instead hang out in a hotel convention hall with a bunch of other crazy genealogists? But the attendees tend to divide pretty evenly into two groups: those who know they are crazy, and those who don’t. (Which group I am in I’ll leave up to you to decide.)

My friend Ron Arons, a professional genealogist who helps find records of criminals, clearly knows that he is nuts.

My friend Ron Arons, a professional genealogist who helps find records of criminals, clearly knows that he’s a bit crazy.

The speakers at genealogy conferences tend to be professional genealogists, while many of the organizers and attendees are non-professional members of genealogical societies. I am not a professional genealogist, and have never been certified by the Board for Certification of Genealogists, which just this year received official registration of “Certified Genealogist®” with the United States Patent and Trademark Office.  I am also not very active in my local genealogical society (although I did just give a speech on Privacy Issues with Online Family Trees to the Jewish Genealogy Society of Los Angeles, similar to the one I gave at the IAJGS conference in Jerusalem last summer). But anyone who knows my work will recognize that I do as much genealogy, or more, than just about anyone. I’m lucky to have the time to do that. So, I am a hobbyist or “amateur” in the sense that I never ask for money when I help people, but I’m also by now something of an expert in my particularly field (namely Jewish genealogy, especially in Austria-Hungary). And this gives me a peculiar perspective when I attend genealogy conferences.

One of the funny things about professional genealogists is that they love to append lots of silly acronyms to their names.  So, in the conference program you’ll see people like Thomas Wright Jones, PHD, CG, CGL, FASG, FNGS, FUGA.  (I guess he hasn’t read this blog “No One is Impressed.”) For some reason, genealogists love these acronyms, which generally refer to some certification course they took, or some professional society they joined or were honored by.

But the truth is that genealogical expertise is local, meaning that it isn’t something you can take a general course on and apply to a particular genealogical problem. I could hire every professional genealogist in America, from every acronymed professional association, and still not find an answer to a genealogical question I have, unless one of them happens to be an expert in the particular area where I am researching.

I have hired a number of professional genealogists over the years. The first was Eugen Stein (and his wife Iva) who were the best (maybe only) Jewish genealogists in Prague during the Communist era, a time when having any interest in Jewish things was dangerous. The Steins knew where to access the records I needed, and they gave me a wealth of information I could not at that time find on my own. I also once hired the Austrian genealogist Felix Gundacker, who runs the website, in order to find out something about my one non-Jewish gg-grandmother Karoline Inquart who had abandoned her Jewish husband Theodor Hoffmann and kids and ran off with an Italian count named Lovatelli. Felix found an early civil, non-religious marriage record from 1875. Karoline, who was just 15 years old when she married, and turned out to be the step-daughter of her 25-year-old husband Theodor’s first cousin, was listed as “without religion.” There is no way I would have found that record without the professional help of Felix, who knew that civil marriages began in Austria in 1870, and knew how to find them. Since then I have employed other professionals, including Julius Müller in Prague, now by far the best professional in that region dealing with Jewish records, and author of the Toledot webpage. Julius went to regional Moravian archives to find information about some of my families, locating records that will probably never be available online. In Vienna, my friend Wolf-Erich Eckstein is the go-to person for finding graves in the overgrown Jewish cemeteries, as this video from our 2014 visit to the Währinger Friedhof demonstrates. For Hungarian research, I once got help from Maureen Jellins, who was familiar with the MACSE website and the Hungarian language. Recently, I’ve had luck with Nadia Lipes of, who took my wife’s Ukrainian Jewish genealogy back a few more generations, using local resources. And lately Andres Rodenstein of Vital Records helped me track down family members who fled from Austria to Argentina and Uruguay during World War II.

So, I’m a big fan of hiring local professional genealogists who can help find things that I otherwise would never find. But these folks are nothing like the multi-acronymed professionals who travel around giving lectures at genealogy conferences. Maybe that’s a bit harsh. The conference professionals are all probably decent genealogists, but like everyone, they’re limited to what they know. Genealogy is local.

As an example, you could look at a very public genealogist, Megan Smolenyak, who writes a lot on Huffington Post. Last year she wrote about how she found an error in all of the online trees for Hillary Clinton.  Smolenyak was right.  Everyone else had gotten the parents of Hillary’s paternal grandmother Hannah Jones from Scranton, Pennsylvania all wrong. Smolenyak may be a terrific genealogist, but the reason she found the mistake was that she had roots herself in the neighboring city of Wilkes-Barre. She found a notice in a local Scranton paper that pointed to a marriage across the border in Binghamton, NY, which Smolenyak recognized as a place where eloping couples often went to get married. This provided the key for figuring out which Hannah Jones in Scranton was Hillary’s grandmother. As I said, genealogy is local, and Smolenyak was an expert in that area because that’s where her family was from.

It’s often not easy to judge whether someone is an expert in the area that you are researching. Strangely, most professional genealogists do not have their own trees publicly available. I am continually surprised to find that many professional genealogists aren’t contributing to the World Family Tree on (See for example, this project I set up for the speakers at the National Genealogical Society 2016 Family History Conference.) Most of them have standalone profiles (meaning no parents, etc.). Probably they signed on one time, took a quick look around, didn’t find what they were looking for and moved on. To me, this indicates a lack of interest in their own roots. After all, I know many people (like me) who keep trees on all of the various platforms, just to increase the likelihood someone will find them. That is what good genealogists do.

Some people speculate that professional genealogists don’t add their trees to the World Family Tree because they don’t want to give anything away for free. I think it has more to do with the training they receive at the various certification societies, with a faux-lawyerly emphasis on “client confidentiality” (as if anyone really needs to keep a family tree secret). Whatever the reason, you’ll be hard-pressed to find well-developed public trees of the majority of professional genealogists. That’s a real shame, I think — a loss to them, as they won’t find information that might be out there (do they think they know it all?); and a loss to us, because if we could harness their energy, the World Family Tree would be growing even faster than the current 9 million profiles per year. It also reflects a lack of scientific seriousness about genealogy. If you don’t publish your work and allow it to be reviewed (as all scientists and academics do, for example) you really cannot advance the field or find out if you made a mistake. A field in which no one publishes their work so that it can be verified is not rigorous enough to be taken seriously.


A brief excerpt from Georg Gaugusch’s work on the Figdor/Joachim family, from the 1650-page Wer einmal war (A-K).

Professional genealogists maybe don’t realize it, but they could learn a lot from the non-professionals in their midst. Many of the almost 200 volunteer curators on Geni are extremely knowledgeable in their fields, and as good or better than any professional (and they’ll help you for free). In fact, the best genealogist I know is not a professional (and also doesn’t work on Geni). Georg Gaugusch is a 42-year-old Austrian who owns the men’s haberdashery Jungmann & Neffe around the corner from the Hotel Sacher in Vienna. Inspired by the old customer lists he found in the shop, he has become the leading expert on the Jewish haute bourgeoisie of Vienna. The first volume of his tome Wer einmal war (A-K), published in in 2011, is 1650 pages of the most meticulous, expert genealogy I have ever seen, culled from numerous difficult to find, and read, primary sources. The second volume (L-R) is due out this Fall. We have a Geni project where you can see for yourself the families Georg has investigated, although his book contains many more details than what has been entered so far on Geni. If there are any professional genealogists who can match what Georg has done, I’d be happy to learn their names and see their work.

But as nutty as some of the professional genealogists are, they aren’t the craziest ones at the conference. That title goes to the ones who come up to the Geni booth and demand to see if someone has “stolen” their family tree and put it on Geni. No amount of explanation can temper their ire. The mere suggestion that they might not have the right to tell other people what they can and cannot put on a family tree sends them into a fit of fury. No, their family trees are highly valuable trade secrets that must be kept out of the public domain. It’s all on their hard drive, safe from any intruders. And of course, their work is always 100% correct, although no one is ever allowed to check it to make sure. They cannot be associated with the work of others who certainly don’t meet their high standards. Indeed, their work must be protected from the masses who are all just chomping at the bit to alter their trees and intentionally insert mistakes into their otherwise error-free data. They’ve been taught that public, collaborative family trees are dangerous, and no matter what privacy protections a company might offer, they aren’t enough to protect their family members from the marauding hordes that are just waiting to peek at their family trees to torment them and steal their identities.

Despite all this silliness, I have a great time when I attend genealogy conferences. I’m always looking to learn new things and meet new people. At this weekend’s conference, I helped dozens of people develop their trees on Geni. There’s nothing better than having a person start from scratch and within a few minutes showing how you are related or connected to him or her on the World Family Tree. That’s something that is only possible on Geni, which is why it’s the best platform for tree-building these days. If your professional genealogist is really a pro, she’ll tell you that also and show you her tree.

On Wealth Inequality

Since receiving an enormous windfall at the conclusion of the Altmann v. Austria case, I have had lots of time to consider what it means to have wealth in America. Of course, like most people I had considered wealth much earlier, and was already well aware of my good fortune growing up in Brentwood and attending an elite private school and later an elite college.  I remember in high school teasing my best friend that we were not middle class, as everyone seemed to claim, but “lower-upper class,” a term basically no one ever uses, although I recently found this definition of the upper class which does use the term:

Comprising only 1 to 3 percent of the United States population, the upper class holds more than 25 percent of the nation’s wealth. This class divides into two groups: lower-upper and upper-upper. The lower-upper class includes those with “new money,” or money made from investments, business ventures, and so forth. The upper-upper class includes those aristocratic and “high society” families with “old money” who have been rich for generations. These extremely wealthy people live off the income from their inherited riches. The upper upper class is more prestigious than the lower upper class.

Wherever their money comes from, both segments of the upper class are exceptionally rich. Both groups have more money than they could possibly spend, which leaves them with much leisure time for cultivating a variety of interests. They live in exclusive neighborhoods, gather at expensive social clubs, and send their children to the finest schools. As might be expected, they also exercise a great deal of influence and power both nationally and globally.

The definition tells us a lot, I think, about how Americans like to think about class.  Class is a state of mind, not merely a measure of wealth.

This psychological element explains the complete abandonment of all objective measures when talking about wealth. Take for example, Robert Reich, the former Labor Secretary, who very much likes to remind people that the top 400 families today own a greater share of the country’s wealth than everyone in the bottom half of the country combined. It sounds awful. And scary. But what Reich must know, but doesn’t dare say, is that this has always been the case. Why? Because the bottom half of the country has always had basically no wealth at all. That’s right. The entire bottom half of the country is and always has been flat broke.

So, it’s true that the top 400 have more wealth than the entire bottom half of the country combined.  But it’s also true that just about any section of the top 50% have more wealth than the bottom half combined.  Now that’s scary.

You don’t believe me, I’m sure.  But take a look at this recent paper by Emmanuel Saez and Gabriel Zucman of UC Berkeley. “The second key result of our analysis involves the dynamics of the bottom 90% wealth share. Since the bottom half of the distribution always owns close to zero wealth on net, the bottom 90% wealth share is the same as the share of wealth owned by top 50-90% families—what can be described as the middle class.”

It’s sort of comical, I think, to define the “middle class” as the class of people who are in the top 50-90%. That’s usually not how we define “middle.” But it demonstrates the psychological aspect of the term “middle class.” My guess is that most people in the top 99% and even quite a large proportion of the families in the top 1% consider themselves “middle class.”  (A 2012 Pew Research study revealed that just 7% of respondents characterized themselves as lower class and 2% as upper class.  In other words 91% of respondents believed they were “middle class.”)

Saez and Zucman don’t spell it out in their paper, but they are hiding a huge amount of inequality by lumping together the 50-90%.  No doubt, just as most of the wealth in the top 1% is concentrated in the top .1%, most of the wealth in the 50-90% group is also concentrated at the top.  Saez and Zucman estimate that the 50-90% group own 22.8% of the country’s wealth.  The 80-90% probably own at least half of that, and the 50-60% group a negligible 2.5% or so.

What this means is that the country is not really divided into three comparable classes (lower, middle and upper), but rather two: the haves and the have-nots. And, as I will explain further, wealth inequality is really only an issue for the very upper stratum of the haves. The vast majority of the country basically never has had much wealth and probably never will, regardless of what tax policies are adopted.  The “class” terms are being misused to create a sense of mistaken solidarity among everyone who does not feel super-wealthy. The percentages are just arbitrary numbers really. The fundamental issue is the psychology. For example, Bill Gates has 1,000 times the money that I have. So if I want, I can consider myself poor with only .01% of what Gates has, or I can look back the other way and feel rich, realizing that I am wealthier than 99.95% of the country with a net worth that is 1,000 times the average of the Bottom 90%. If the first number changes dramatically, and I am now only 1/100th of Gates, it doesn’t really change the psychological aspect much. The same is true for most of the people in the top quintile of the wealth ladder. They are far, far ahead of just about everyone, and yet still feel like they are falling behind.  The idea of class is more a psychological problem inherent in every non-Communist system than it is a function of the actual distribution, I think.

Measuring wealth inequality in America is not easy, because we really do not try to collect data that would allow us to easily measure the distribution of wealth. Saez and Zucman therefore arrive at their estimates based on studies of income and estate tax returns. As I have discussed before in connection with Warren Buffett, who invests almost exclusively in assets that produce no income, income is not always correlated to wealth, so looking at tax returns of the super-rich can often be misleading. But lets assume for the moment that Saez and Zucman have correctly figured out a way to calculate wealth in America.

The results of Saez and Zucman’s research indicate that “the top 10% wealth share peaked at 84% in the late 1920s, then dropped down to 63% in the mid-1980s, and has been gradually rising ever since then, to 77.2% in 2012.”  But the somewhat arbitrary focus on 10% masks what is really going on.  If you look at the right side of the graph below, you will see that in 1983, the Top 10% to 1% held 40% of the wealth and that this figure decline to 35% in 2013.  The gains were all at the top, with the Top 1%’s share growing from 27% to 42% in the same 30 year period.

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Similarly, even within the Top 1%, the lion’s share of the increase is in the Top .1%, as this graph demonstrates, showing that the share of the Top .1% has grown from 9% to 22% from 1983 to 2013.  As Saez and Zucman conclude, in 2012, the top .1% included about 160,000 families with net wealth above $20.6 million.  No doubt this could be carried out further, with the Top .01% accounting for nearly all of the increase of the Top .1%. Etc.

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So, what is really going on?  What we are witnessing is not a general trend toward wealth inequality affecting large numbers of Americans, but rather a huge increase in the wealth of the very, very top, without much change in the lower 99.9%. The more refined the top sample is, the more evident the trend. We can see it reflected in the Forbes 400 List, first published in 1982. In the first list, the top spot was held by Daniel Keith Ludwig, with a $2 billion fortune, or about $4.8b in 2012 dollars. Today, Bill Gates is at $75b at the top of the list (even after giving half of his fortune to his eponymous foundation). The distortion caused by the disproportionate increase in wealth at the very, very top accounts for most of the changes in the distribution of wealth throughout the rest of the population.  Saez and Zucman note that the total wealth share of the Forbes 400 (normalized for population growth) has tripled from 1% to 3% over the past thirty years, as has the entire Top .01%, from 3.5% to 11%.

Saez and Zucman focus primarily on the Top 10% of the population and do not provide data for any of the lower strata, which makes it much more difficult to see how little the change in wealth distribution is affecting the Bottom 90%, who have collectively an average wealth of $84,000 per family (a figure that masks the fact that the average wealth continues to drop precipitously, so that nearly all of the wealth of the Bottom 90% is held by the 80-90% stratum). But the chart does illustrate how much the upper .01% (16,070 families) are influencing the results. To put things a different way, 1/1,000th of the Top 10% has over 1/10th of the wealth in that category, or more than 100 times what you would expect if the distribution were even.

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Is this a bad thing? Is it unexpected? Or, asked differently, is there a different, fairer way that enormous increases in wealth could be achieved? And who would benefit? Certainly, we could bring back much higher income, capital gains and estate taxes, as in the past, or even wealth taxes, as has been attempted in various countries. This would provide a barrier for those trying to amass great wealth, and might also decrease the net worth of those at the top. But how much would this really do to alter the distribution of wealth? The results of Saez and Zucman’s research demonstrates that the Bottom 50% would still have essentially zero wealth. Indeed, the Bottom 90% would hardly expect to notice any difference. The debate over wealth inequality is really a champagne problem, affecting only the psychology of the upper class, which is how I would characterize the Top 10% of families, those with at least $660,000 in wealth.

I am sure that hardly anyone in the Top 10% thinks that he is upper class. This is because, no matter where we are on the wealth ladder, we tend to look up and see only the people above us. A family with a net worth of $1m may feel middle class, because they see what looks like a large number of families with far greater wealth. But it really is a conceit to ignore the fact that 90% or more of the country is far less fortunate than you, and pretend that you have more in common with them than with the relatively small number of families in the Top 10%. It is only because the relatively few families at the very top of the ladder loom so large that everyone else has the feeling that he is in a different class. Further proof that people tend to ignore the poor is that we talk of wealth inequality mainly on a national level, completely disregarding the fact that the United States itself sits atop the international wealth ladder with 25% of the world’s wealth and less than 5% of the world’s population. Nearly the entire world of 7 billion people has less wealth and a far lower standard of living than most of those in America who consider themselves “middle class.”

I have been aware of Bernie Sanders since at least 1986, when I listened to KPFK on my way to and from work in the offices of Los Angeles County Supervisor Ed Edelman, and learned all about the socialist mayor of Burlington, Vermont. In 1988 I took a course at Princeton called “Technology and Social Change” from engineering professor Steve Slaby, a dyed in the wool socialist who loved nothing more than to burst the bourgeois bubbles of his sheltered students. I remember him asking during one of our classes whether any of us had ever even heard of Sanders, assuming that none of us had. When I raised my hand, he was visibly upset, obviously because I had messed up his attempt to show us up as a bunch of uninformed rich kids. But I was already learning to look beyond the utopian rhetoric to see unanticipated problems. (One I didn’t see coming was a very effective guest lecture we heard on the promise of the independence for Eritrea, which sounded like a great idea in 1988, but resulted in the creation of a totalitarian state with an abysmal human rights record. So much for utopia.)

One of the problems I have with Sanders and his rhetoric is that he makes people think that wealth inequality is a problem for the 99% of the country that isn’t in the 1%. If we’ve learned anything from the rise and fall of Communism, it is that attempts to equalize wealth can quickly get out of hand. What happens when we bring wealth inequality back to 1983 levels and no one notices any difference? The rich are still rich. The vast poor are still poor. The top of the wealth ladder is still unattainable, whether it is $1 billion, $10 billion or $100 billion. Absent a decision to end personal wealth and adopt Communism, with all of the coercion and tyranny that is required to maintain equality, we are always going to have wealth inequality. The bottom 50% will have nothing and everyone else will be looking up at the people above them on the ladder, wondering how he can climb higher.

Of course, we tolerate inequality in all sorts of ways and don’t always call it “unfair” or “rigged.” Is it fair that a 7 footer has a better chance of playing in the NBA (and earning millions of dollars) than folks of ordinary height? Is it fair that people who are older have more wealth than people who are younger? Is it fair that people with high intelligence find it easier to get high-paying jobs? It might not be, but then again there’s not much we can or should do about it if we want to allow people to be different. Inequality is a fact of life. And much of the increase in wealth at the top of the wealth distribution is certainly the result of increased market efficiency, which allows individuals with popular inventions to amass enormous wealth very quickly. Think Mark Zuckerberg, who at age 31 is worth over $35 billion. His wealth is the result not of a rigged economy, but an incredibly efficient one, that allows exploitation of the herd mentality of the entire population desiring the same products and services.

Saez and Zucman do not address the effect population growth might have on wealth distribution. It would seem obvious that the distribution of wealth is not even over the increase in population. In other words, immigrants are more likely to be very poor and the poor also tend to have higher birth rates. Therefore, you would expect population growth to distort the wealth distribution by shifting wealth toward the top. The impact of population growth on measures of wealth inequality deserves to be looked at more closely.

The most we can ask, I think, is that people who are fortunate enough to have advantages be aware of their good fortune, and not pretend that they don’t have advantages. One downside to the ridiculously skewed way we define “upper class” is that we don’t get the type of honesty we deserve. People like Robert Reich or Bernie Sanders might not feel like they are upper class, but by any estimation they are. Robert Reich’s net worth is estimated to be $4 million, which puts him in the Top 1%. Bernie Sanders’ net worth is estimated at $528,014, not very far below the $660,000 wealth threshold for the Top 10%. When he rails against the Top 1%, he is doing so as a member of the lower-upper-class, with a wealth greater than 85% of the families in this country, most of whom have nothing.

There are many wealthy people, and I am one of them (and so is my doppelgänger Eric Schoenberg), who agree with Sanders and Reich that we at the top can afford to share more and to pay more taxes. I also think it is in our best interest to do so. Indeed, as I pointed out in my blog on Warren Buffett, enacting barriers to extreme wealth creation is the best way to ensure that a rich person maintains his place on top of the wealth ladder. But because of this we need to be sure not to raise expectations that cannot be fulfilled. Ending wealth inequality is not going to happen. Redistributing wealth from the top is probably not going to make people happier, at least not directly, or bring them closer to the top of the wealth ladder. What is important is what we do with the wealth that we tax, what services we provide to improve the lives of the vast, vast number of families who will never have any wealth at all.

Geni Envy

Screen Shot 2016-01-11 at 11.26.43 PMSince I posted my recent blog on Geni’s World Family Tree, the haters have come out of the woodwork. I’ve interacted with many of these people for years, and it’s always the same thing. They get so caught up in their own personal problems and experiences, they cannot see the overall benefit to the genealogical community of what is happening on It’s ok. Not everyone has to love Geni. But then again it’s also not necessary for folks to comment incessantly on my posts about their negative views. If they want to write about Geni, let them do it on their own posts, instead of making inaccurate, misleading and uninformed comments on mine. I do my best to answer them and explain the facts, but that only gets them more riled up. They never seem to let up, and always need to have the last word, which is “I hate Geni.” Apparently that makes them feel better.

I posted a link to my blog on the German Genealogy Facebook group (with over 15,000 members) and twice the Admins have taken down the post (initially without even reading it), because some of the Geni detractors complained so vociferously. I tried to post there because I have some genealogical background in Germany.  My 6g-grandmother Bella Sinzheim (Hahn) was from Frankfurt, and my 7g-grandfather Isaac Sinzheim was from Mannheim. I’ve worked the past few years on a huge project on Geni to enter in all of the data concerning the old Jewish community in Frankfurt, which was one of the few that never got expelled and was continuously present in the city from at least the Middle Ages, if not Roman times. It’s an enormous task, involving the creation and linking together of tens of thousands of profiles. (To give you an idea, the progenitor of the Rothschild banking family, Mayer Amschel Rothschild (1744-1812), has almost 110,000 profiles within just ten steps of him.) The first major compendium of the Jews of Frankfurt was Alexander Dietz‘s Stammbuch der Frankfurter Juden (1907). But the more thorough and accurate work is Ele Toldot (These are the Generations), a collection of transcriptions of genealogical records of the Jewish community of Frankfurt am Main, made by the lawyer and genealogist Shlomo Ettlinger from originals in the Institut für Stadtgeschichte, Frankfurt am Main. Using Ele Toldot, available online at DigiBaeck (the Leo Baeck Institute‘s online database), we’ve managed to reconstruct most of the major families online on Geni. They are all tied together and connected in multiple ways, going back to the 14th century. There have been some previous attempts to do this, but none of them are nearly as comprehensive as what is on Geni. There is still a lot of work to be done. As always, it’s a work in progress. I am hoping that Frankfurt will act as a model for others wanting to build out their town’s Jewish population.  We’re in the process of setting up Geni projects for all of the Jewish Communities in Germany.

The work we are doing on Geni is difficult, important and groundbreaking, and I’d like other people to know about it and maybe even participate. But it’s sometimes hard to get heard over the noise made by the few people who seem so hell-bent on tearing our work on Geni down. I’ve tried to answer all of their complaints, especially in my earlier blog post Answers to Geni Skeptics. But the complainers just aren’t interested in the answers. They only want to hear themselves complain, and jump on any opportunity they get. My Facebook posts attract a lot of attention.  (There are already over 1.5k likes and over 300 shares on this one.)  And the Geni-haters are attracted to them like moths to a flame.

It was very discouraging to have to deal with the administrators of the German Genealogy group, since none of them really know who I am. At first they wrongly thought I was advertising, or that I worked for Geni. I was accused of that in one comment. So many genealogy bloggers are on the payroll of the big companies, they assumed I must be also (as if an intelligent person couldn’t have an opinion in favor of the World Family Tree). I tried to help them understand the situation, but it didn’t seem to work.

On one of the other FB groups, Genealogy, I was heckled and even received anti-Semitic insults.  I was accused of “barking like a rabbi,” and when I called the poster (Justin L Smith) on it, he responded with something about killing Palestinian babies. He later sent me a private message about gun control for dual (Israeli) citizens.  Screen Shot 2016-01-11 at 11.24.44 PMIt was all a bit incoherent, as you might expect, but clearly anti-Semitic.

And now the German Genealogy group admin, Ali Constable, who seems nice enough, but isn’t paying that close attention, I think, has decided to delete my post for the second time because some unnamed people supposedly complained.Screen Shot 2016-01-11 at 11.32.08 PM

In legal terms what is happening here is called the “heckler’s veto.”  A few people don’t like what I am saying so they argue and complain loudly until my post gets deleted. In the Internet world it’s called “trolling.” It’s a shame, because what I am trying to say would be useful to people doing genealogy. On Facebook, I suppose it’s not easy to tell who is a serious person and who is a heckler. I guess if the Admins googled me, like Deborah Stoloff did today, they’d figure it out.  Screen Shot 2016-01-12 at 12.09.05 AM

Over time, I suppose it won’t matter. Geni has already won the war; it’s just that most people don’t realize it yet.

Geni’s World Family Tree Hits 100 Million Profiles. Why Aren’t You A Part of It?

I’m always surprised when I find good genealogists who are not working on‘s World Family Tree, the largest collaborative tree in existence, which will hit 100 million connected profiles in the next few weeks.  I’ve written previously with Answers to Geni Skeptics, but I’d like to approach the problem from a different perspective.  Below are the reasons why you really should be building your tree on Geni, and advising others to do the same.

Because a lot of the problem is a matter of reputation, first let me explain (in excruciating detail) why you should trust me on this issue. I recount this history, not to brag or bore everyone, but to demonstrate that I really do know what I am saying when I talk about Geni’s World Family Tree.  When you weigh my comments below against others you might read or hear, keep in mind the source. Or if you trust me already, just skip to the numbered list below.

I have been an avid genealogist and computer enthusiast since I was in elementary school in the 1970s, which makes me perhaps uniquely qualified to advise people on how to use computers for genealogy. Here’s a picture of me in front of my 12-foot family tree in 1977, about the time I turned 11.10357461_10152165406091270_4332223011985406148_n

Around the same time, my uncle Larry introduced me to computers.  If you don’t understand what it means to program Mugwumps in BASIC on a Commodore Pet, you probably haven’t used computers as long as I have.

I continued to be the family genealogist and computer maven through high school and college. At Princeton I majored in Mathematics and received a certificate in European Cultural Studies.  Of course, I also took courses in Computer Science at Princeton, and also during my semester abroad at the Free University of Berlin in 1987.  One of my deans at Princeton, Patsy Cole, turned out to be my third cousin once removed (a fact I discovered because I knew the names of all sixteen of my great-great grandparents).

I returned home to Los Angeles for law school at USC, and during the next decade took advantage of the library at UCLA and our nearby Family History Center, where I spent days underground combing through microfilms of records from Austria and Hungary.  Over the years, I have also done archival research on-site in Vienna and Prague.  I am pretty comfortable with library and archival research, having done a ton of it as a high school debater, including summer camps at Redlands and Georgetown.  I also interned in my grandfather Arnold Schoenberg’s archives when they were at USC in 1985, and helped my aunt Nuria when she was working on her document biography, Arnold Schonberg, 1874-1951: Lebensgeschichte in Begegnungen.

Because I have always been an Apple/Mac person, I used an early version of Reunion for Mac to computerize my family tree.  By 1996, I had managed to put my tree on the Internet using a program called Sparrowhawk by Bradley Mohr that converted GEDCOM files to html. This may not sound like a big deal today, but remember that in 1996 newspapers like Los Angeles Times and New York Times were only beginning to launch their online versions.

I attended my first IAJGS conference in 1998, and helped form the Austria-Czech Special Interest Group on JewishGen, which now has 1,800 members.  On our website you can find my two articles: Beginner’s Guide to Austrian-Jewish Genealogy and Getting Started With Czech-Jewish Genealogy. Over the years, I have become increasingly more involved in Jewish Genealogy, and have attended the past six IAJGS conferences, giving lectures on a variety of topics, including Geni.  I serve on the advisory board of JewishGenthe main Internet hub for Jewish genealogy.  I also founded the Jewish Genealogy Portal, by far the largest Jewish genealogy group on Facebook with about 15,000 members.

After giving the keynote speech about the Recovery of the Klimt Paintings at the 2008 IAJGS conference in Chicago, I met Noah Tutak in the vendor room where he was advertising, then a relatively new online family tree program. Geni was started up in 2007 by David O. Sacks, the former CFO of PayPal, and in May and July 2008 Geni had announced both GEDCOM importing and Tree Merging, two features that allowed for explosive growth and the creation of a World Family Tree. I was intrigued with the idea of an online tree-building program but did not act right away. That fall, I weighed options for moving my tree to a different platform. Because I had incorporated enormous GEDCOM files given to me by David Solomon for the Gomperz, Wertheimer, Oppenheimer, Fraenkel, and Chalfon families, my tree (at that time kept on Reunion) included about 54,000 profiles. I’d guess only about 5% was my own work. By placing it on the Internet, I had attracted lots of attention, some from people angrily accusing me of “stealing” their work (apparently unclear on the concept that genealogical facts are public domain), but more often from people who were happy to find so much of their family tree online. Keeping the tree updated with new information and corrections was beginning to be a chore.  A more collaborative site seemed to be the perfect solution.

In February 2009 I began uploading my tree to  I had to break it into parts, because the GEDCOM upload feature had a limit of 50,000. Because I didn’t know that (at the time) the search index feature had a lag of several days, I thought it did not work and tried to upload it a second time. This caused a big headache, and there are still remnants of this mistake on Geni, although most of the second upload has been deleted or merged to eliminate the duplicates. I didn’t realize at the time that my GEDCOM upload was one of the largest that Geni had ever had. At the time, the World Family Tree on Geni had just 8 million profiles, but was growing at the rate of 2 million per month. The tree I contributed — again mainly compiled by David Solomon (to whom I always try to give credit) from published sources, such as Louis and Henry Fraenkel’s Genealogical Tables of Jewish Families, 14th – 20th Centuries and Neil Rosenstein’s The Unbroken Chain — became the backbone of the Jewish tree on Geni. David wasn’t happy to see all his work on Geni, but the decision to move it there was the right one, as history has proven. The tree has grown and improved many times over since then.

At first, working on Geni was difficult for me even though I was technically and genealogically very proficient.  There were forums where you could complain or ask for help, but the learning curve was steep and some of the ways Geni worked just didn’t seem to make sense.  But eventually things improved and I got used to the way Geni operated.  After two years, in 2011 I was made a volunteer curator on Geni, and this gave me much greater insight into how the program works, and what its strengths and weaknesses were.  I even visited Geni’s old offices in Beverly Hills a few times where I showed them how I used the program (and they taught me some of its unadvertised tricks).  Geni was purchased in late 2012 by MyHeritage and since then there have been a number of new features, most notably the ability to add references and sources on Geni profiles with links to records and trees on MyHeritage.

In the 7 years I have been on Geni, I have tried to build upon the work that I imported via GEDCOM.  I have added another 85,000 profiles to the tree, much of it from original research using online records from the Czech State Archives in Prague, and now manage about 140,000 profiles on Geni. I like inviting people to Geni when I work on their tree, and have invited over 1,300 people so far. There are a number of ways to add sources on Geni, and I like to add screenshots of documents as profile photos.  So far, I have added over 21,000 of them. I work pretty much every day on Geni, and have set up a number of large projects there, including the Jewish Genealogy PortalJewish Celebrity Birthday CalendarGeni Top 10 ListsHolocaust: The Final SolutionJewish Communities in Bohemia and MoraviaProminent Jewish Families of ViennaTolerated Jews of ViennaJewish Families from Prague, and Jewish Families from Frankfurt.  There are many features that still need improvement on Geni, as with any program or platform, but that’s a topic for another day.  If you want to read about some of the history of Geni, some of the curators have put together a history of the World Family Tree.  Ok, so now for the reasons you absolutely need to be building your tree on

1.  Working collaboratively is better than working alone.  Think of it this way. Who can accomplish more: (a) you alone or (b) you working with me? Sure, it’s a fun challenge to do an entire jigsaw puzzle by yourself. But it’s even more fun to do a larger puzzle with a group of friends. And let’s face it, your family tree is an enormous puzzle. How big is it? Well, let me give you some idea. I developed a program called the Geni Forest Density Calculator, to measure how many people are within n steps of a profile (where each parent, sibling, spouse or child is one step away). If your tree were filled out completely (everyone has all of his/her parents, siblings, spouses and children), how many people would be within just 6 steps of you?  For some of the historical figures we’ve tested, like Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, the number is about 13,000. Of course the largest figures are for the folks with many wives, like Brigham Young, who has 70,943 people within just six steps. At 10 steps, he has 1,153,592. So, good luck with that if you are working alone. There really is no other way to have a remotely complete or comprehensive tree than to collaborate and work with others, and Geni has the best platform for that type of collaboration.

2. “I don’t care” is not a valid genealogical principle.  I used to think I had enough problems with my blood relatives, and didn’t need to worry about filling out the trees of all the in-laws. Big mistake. Sometimes the best way to make progress is by “going sideways” into the trees of people who married into the family. After all, who attended your great-uncle’s wedding?  Not just his side of the family; but also his wife’s.  All those people you think of as non-relatives could be holding clues to your own family — photos, documents, stories and more. Taking a broad view becomes more important the further back you go. When you get back to your ancestral village with a few hundred people in it, you can pretty much be assured that everyone in town is related to everyone else — by blood, marriage and everything else. These folks often lived in the same place for hundreds of years, meaning that over time all of the families braided together into one single family.  If you aren’t working together with everyone researching that town, you’re making a big mistake. Where else but Geni can you collaborate with others and build trees for an entire town?

3. Preserve your work for the future. Most people start genealogy with a pretty narcissistic it’s-all-about-me approach. Just look up top at that picture of me from 1977, pointing to myself in the center of that large tree. But as you mature, you should start to think about how you can contribute your work to something larger than yourself. You want to pass it on to your family, to posterity. The best way to do that is not to work alone. That tree on your hard drive has no chance of ever being found or used by anyone. It’s gone as soon as you are. Same with all those files in the garage. Even if you self-publish a book, it’s unlikely to ever see the light of day again. No, the best chance you have of making your work last into the future is by contributing it to the World Family Tree.  At 100 million connected profiles, Geni’s World Family Tree is by far the largest and fastest-growing tree in existence. To give you an idea, it is 10 times larger than its nearest competitor WikiTree. Geni’s annual growth in the World Family Tree is about 7 million per year. You want to be part of that growth. Because in the end, the World Family Tree on Geni is a unique and relatively valuable asset. Whatever happens to Geni or its parent company MyHeritage, that asset isn’t going to go away. No one is going to want start over and repeat all the work that went into creating it. So, as long as people are interested in genealogy, people are going to want to have access to this tree. It’s going to be around in some form or other for the rest of recorded history. That’s right, forever. Of course, the same might be said for copies of your tree that you put on Ancestry or any other platform. But Geni’s World Family Tree is something different. It is a living tree, improving daily with millions of people working collaboratively on it. As people quit and die off, all those small trees on Ancestry will just stagnate, frozen in time. They’re like tiny, incomplete snapshots of small twigs on the big tree. They are nice to keep around in the drawer, but when people want to look for something, they’re going to look first to the big, living tree.

4. Let’s face it, you’re lazy.  I know why you haven’t put your tree on Geni. You think it’s a lot of work, and you don’t want to have to redo everything you’ve done for the past umpteen years. Sure, back when I joined in 2009 all you had to do was upload your GEDCOM and you were there. But that feature was discontinued because it caused too much duplication. On Geni, each person gets just one profile on the World Family Tree, so any duplicates have to be merged. If GEDCOM imports were allowed, it would be a nightmare, because everyone would be importing huge trees duplicating what is already there. Anyway, the good news is that pretty much everything you have on your GEDCOM is already on Geni. What I mean by that is that with few exceptions you cannot find a large family tree with more than a few hundred profiles that is not already mostly on the World Family Tree. Nearly two-thirds of all of the profiles on Geni are already connected to the World Family Tree and the largest unconnected trees are all mostly fewer than 1,000 profiles. All of the easy, available large trees have already been added to the World Family Tree. So you’re well-advised to just start your tree by hand and build up until you get a match to the World Family Tree and can merge in. If you are a paying Pro user, you can also use the amazing tool SmartCopy, a Google Chrome app developed by Geni curator Jeff Gentes, that allows you to quickly import one family at a time from a whole host of platforms, including Ancestry, MyHeritage, FamilyTreeMaker, RootsWeb, WikiTree, WeRelate, etc.  For most people, it takes less than a day to connect to the World Family Tree. Really. Just ask a volunteer curator for help.  Listen, unless you’re the stubborn type who still listens to music on an 8-Track player and watches videos on your BetaMax, you’re going to have to upgrade to Geni at some point. You might as well do it now.

5. Getting help is easier on Geni than anywhere else.  I’ve already mentioned that Geni has a cadre of nearly 200 volunteer curators from all over the world who can help you with your tree, solve problems, untangle messes, answer questions and teach you how to use Geni. My friend Adam Brown refers to us as “park rangers.” The curators are elevated from the ranks of regular Geni users. Most have years of experience in genealogy and have contributed over 5,000 profiles to the World Family Tree. Some have accomplished seemingly superhuman feats (e.g., 500,000 merges or 200,000 profiles added in just 4 years). Curators can see private profiles to help users (because they sign a non-disclosure agreement), and can mark well-sourced profiles as master profiles, and lock fields to prevent changes. You can also find (or offer) help in a public discussion.  Geni has a comprehensive set of Wiki pages that provide a wealth of information.  And there is also a Help button at the bottom of your Geni home page that leads to a Knowledge Base where you can search through previously asked questions and take advantage of other self-help tools, such as Help Topics, Video Tutorials, and Community Help forums.  Paying (Pro) users can also submit help tickets and get answers from Geni’s Customer Service department.

6. Your relatives will be more likely to collaborate on Geni. Here’s one of the big difference between Geni and the rest of the platforms. Sure, Ancestry will allow you to invite your relatives to join your tree and collaborate. But mostly your relatives won’t participate, and here’s why. It’s your tree. You only share a portion of your genealogy with your cousin, and she’s not likely to add her other branches to your tree. So for her, your tree isn’t complete and isn’t much fun. On Geni, there is no my tree and your tree. It is only our tree. Geni is like a giant jigsaw puzzle where everyone works together on the same puzzle. There is no ownership. You invite your cousins, and they invite their cousins, etc. etc. The tree grows and grows in all directions. Everything belongs to everyone and you work and add profiles wherever you can. Sure, they have privacy restrictions, mostly on the living portions of the tree. (I’ve written and spoken on these privacy issues extensively, so follow those blue links if you are interested.) But for the most part we all can and do work together on Geni. There are almost 4 million users connected to the World Family Tree. When you add and invite people to the tree, they’re going to be able to do as much as they will ever do. And they can do it for free, because Geni doesn’t require you to pay to work on the World Family Tree.

7. Geni is made for tree-building.  I use the other major online genealogy platforms (Ancestry, MyHeritage, FamilySearch) almost every day, and am pretty familiar with how they operate. For the most part, they compete with each other as data aggregators, meaning that they are all scrambling to add and offer more and more data sets, like the U.S. census every ten years. For the for-profit companies, that is where the money is. Aggregate data and offer it to customers (for a price). Geni never played that game, which is part of the reason it was gobbled up by MyHeritage. The other platforms offer tree-building as a gateway to getting customers to pay for access to the data. MyHeritage now uses Geni that way, which is also a boon for Geni users who want to pay for that service.  But Geni has always been about tree-building, and it has the best tree-building platform because that is all it ever wanted to be. I spoke last summer with Shipley Munson, the Chief Marketing Officer for FamilySearch, and he told me that they commissioned a study of all of the tree-building platforms and determined that Geni’s was the best and most user-friendly. It is. None of us who use all the platforms would be on Geni if it weren’t the best. Of course, all of the online programs are superior to the stand-alone programs in most respects. Even Ancestry has admitted that by announcing the discontinuation of its popular Family Tree Maker program.  Sure, some other program might have this or that feature that you like, chart-printing or whatever. But none has nearly the number of great features Geni has. I’ll discuss some of these below.

8. Projects are the way to make progress. Geni set up a feature that allows users to create their own projects, which are essentially ways of collecting and organizing data and collaborating with other genealogists. There are many thousands of projects on Geni and more are being created every day. Basically you create the project page, which you can edit using rudimentary tools.  Then you invite collaborators to join, so they can also edit the project page, start discussions, add photos or documents, and attach profiles to the project. There is such a wide variety of projects, it is hard to give an overview of them. Some are umbrella projects that provide structure and organization to a group of sub-projects. Some provide a common theme that ties together all the attached profiles. Here are a few, just to give you an idea:  Passengers of the Mayflower, Finnish Priests, New Zealand Pioneer Families, Holocaust, and RMS Titanic.

9. Nothing beats Geni’s Relationship Finder.  If you think that finding the shortest path between two nodes in a network is easy, you’ve probably never heard of Dijkstra’s algorithm.  (You probably also never heard of the even more complicated Traveling Salesman Problem. That problem was the subject of my computer science final back in 1985. My algorithm came in third in a class of 100+.) Geni’s World Family Tree is a network of 100 million profiles, so finding a relationship path between any two profiles takes a lot of computer work. Geni’s algorithm is the best I have seen, and can often find paths between very distantly connected individuals, which makes the game “how am I related (connected) to X” a lot of fun. As an experiment, last year I decided to try to find a path between my son and the other 52 kids in his fifth grade class. It worked. I also set up the Jewish Celebrity Birthday Calendar, in part so I could test whether Geni could find a path between me and any of the 2,500 famous people I added to the project. It works pretty much every time. Recently I checked to see if I could find a path between my cousins, who have some deep American roots, and any of the U.S Presidents. It’s too much fun. Just connect to the World Family Tree and give it a try. The more connected your tree is (on all sides), the better it works.

10. Find and correct mistakes.  One of the paradoxical things about Geni is that some people think the big tree has lots of errors when in fact it has fewer. Why is this? Because on Geni it is easier to find the mistakes. Every tree has errors and Geni has a ton of them for sure. Even if the error rate is just 1%, that would be 1 million mistakes in a tree of 100 million. But on Geni, you have millions of eyes scouring the tree all the time. The profiles are mostly public and easy to find using a Google search, thanks to Geni’s excellent SEO. So mistakes tend to get caught. The good thing is that you can fix mistakes, both yours and other people’s, which means that over time, the tree becomes increasingly error-free. The people who care the most about their branches make sure to keep them tidy. If someone makes a mistake nearby, they catch it and fix it. Curators can even lock down problem areas so they don’t get messed up by recurring errors. This doesn’t happen on other platforms, where you’ll find the same mistakes repeated over and over again, never getting corrected. That is why today there is no question that Geni’s World Family Tree is the most accurate and most comprehensive tree in existence.

11. Use it for free.  It’s worth repeating. Everyone can use Geni for free to add unlimited profiles, merge duplicates, view relationship paths and upload up to 1GB of photos, videos and documents. Geni Pro members get some added features including access to tree matches, search, GEDCOM export, unlimited media uploads, and premium support. If you pay for MyHeritage, you get access to Record Matches with data (including U.S. census and FamilySearch data) and SmartMatches with MyHeritage trees. But unlimited tree-building is free on Geni. One essential tip: non-pro members can use Google search to find public profiles.  Just add to your Google search.

12. Geni is mostly public.  You want your tree to be found. You really do. The best thing that can ever happen to a genealogist is having an unknown cousin make contact and add a branch to the tree. That won’t happen unless you put your tree out there for people to find. Don’t worry if it isn’t perfect. It will never be perfect. I’ve seen too many people hold onto their trees until they die, never allowing anyone to see anything. Don’t be that person. And don’t wait. The sooner you get things out in the open, the sooner people will find you. Thanks to Geni’s SEO, there is no better way to make your tree public than putting it on Geni. Ancestry and the other major platforms don’t allow Google to index all of their public profiles. So if you build your tree there, chances are only other users of those platforms will find it. Only Geni (and its much smaller imitators) make it possible for the rest of the world to find you using Google (the most popular search engine in the world with over 1 billion users). I’ve experimented by putting a large GEDCOM export of 100,000 profiles on Ancestry. I got almost no messages. On Geni, people contact me every day. You won’t believe it until you do it, but making your tree public on Geni is absolutely the best way for people to find you.

13. Be a part of a community of genealogists. Before I started on Geni, I basically worked by myself on my genealogy and participated in discussions on the Austria-Czech SIG mailing list. I had really no idea how much (or how little) other genealogists actually did. Geni opened my eyes. Now I could see the work of other genealogists from all over the world. And they could see mine. I could learn from how they did things. I could see who was speaking from experience, and who was just talking. Everything became transparent. Geni’s newsfeed is one of its great features. The work of everyone you follow or collaborate with comes in your feed, so you can see where they are working and help out if you see something. While I sleep, my friends in Israel and Europe are busy working on the tree. I wake up and see what they have done, and continue the work building the tree. Until you do this yourself, you have simply no idea what it is like, and how energizing and inspiring it is. You can even get a lot of the newsfeed in an e-mail. Sure, some people say all the notifications can get annoying, but you can adjust your settings if you don’t like them. I think the newsfeed and notifications are some of the best features on Geni.

14. Use discussions to solve problems. Geni has all sorts of ways to start discussions. You can start a discussion on a specific profile, or project, or just start up a discussion on a new topic. You can comment on a photo or document. You can send private messages or write on someone’s guestbook. There are so many ways to contact other people or ask for help. Working on Geni isn’t a solitary pursuit. Because everyone is working toward the same goal, a complete and accurate World Family Tree, you get answers. Problems get solved. There’s simply nothing like this on any of the other major tree-building platforms.

15. Geni is a global phenomenon. I try to concentrate on Jewish genealogy, but that’s just a teensy-weensy part of the larger puzzle. Geni has spread virally through lots of different communities throughout the world. As you might expect, the American tree is very well populated, but that’s not the only place where Geni is attracting attention. For some reason, Geni is one of the most popular websites in Estonia. Geni has users on all seven continents, in 235 countries and territories throughout the world. That’s good, because even around my family group (4th cousins + spouses), I have people who are from Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, Israel, England, Ireland, Norway, Sweden, Holland, France, BelgiumItaly, Austria, Hungary, Czech Republic, Ukraine, LatviaSlovakiaSerbia, BosniaGermanyCanadaMexico, Brazil, Argentina, UruguayKorea, China, Japan, Viet Nam, IndiaNew Guinea, Bali and Kenya. Geni’s platform allows for crowdsourced translations, so it works in 83 languages so far, and users are adding more translations all the time.  In 2014 Geni added a unique feature allowing for multilingual profiles, which no other platform has.  As the World Family Tree grows, Geni’s user base is expanding as well.

16. Enjoy genealogy for the fun of it. Most people just work on their own small trees, but on Geni, you can work anywhere. Suddenly genealogy is not just a search for your own past, but a way to record history for the rest of the world. Some people wake up in the morning and do a crossword puzzle. I do genealogy. It feels good, and productive. For example, my friends and collaborators on Geni are working through records in different areas of Bohemia and Moravia in the Czech Republic, building trees for entire communities. In the end, we’ll have a pretty comprehensive collection of interlocking trees covering an entire region. Because some 65% of Czech Jews were murdered in the Holocaust, we’re essentially rebuilding a destroyed world. Genealogy isn’t just an occasional hobby anymore; it’s my favorite pastime.

17. Learn about areas beyond your field. Being part of the World Family Tree means you are connected to everyone else, so you may end up exploring in places you would never otherwise see. And this is a great way to learn more about genealogy, and how to do genealogy. If you’re stuck in your area, see how they do it somewhere else. I focus mainly on 18th and 19th century records, but sometimes I look at what people are doing in earlier time periods, just to see what it’s like.  It’s fun to plug in a historical figure like Charlemagne or the famous 11th century rabbi Rashi and follow the relationship path, learning about other historical figures along the way.

18.  Geni’s open architecture means innovation. Geni allows programmers to develop apps that use the Geni database. Curator Jeff Gentes has created a number of good ones that you can find on HistoryLink, including hyperlinked descendant reports and this neat chart that allows you to visualize how complete your tree is.Screen Shot 2016-01-08 at 9.55.31 AM

19. Make your tree accessible to the people who want to see it. There’s probably only a small number of people who are really interested in your family tree. But why not at least make your work available to them. By inviting your family members to the tree on Geni, you instantly give them free remote access to all of your work. You can upload everything you have found — photos, documents, records and videos — and write family stories on the profile pages so that everyone who wants to can see them. That’s what it’s all about, isn’t it? Your kids and grandkids, nieces, nephews and cousins might not want to ask you directly, but they live online and if you make it available to them on the Internet, they’ll check it out. When someone tells you they scoured the tree looking for a family name to give their new baby, you’ll know you’ve done the right thing.  (You can find the most common first names in your tree from the statistics page.)

20. Stop wasting your time, and mine. Your goal is to create a family tree with your relatives. The goal of Geni is to create a family tree with everyone in the world. These goals overlap. There’s no reason for you to be repeating work that has been done on Geni, and similarly there is no reason that people on Geni should have to repeat your work. All that time you spend sprucing your small, private tree is a waste, because it all has to be repeated on Geni. All the work you do correcting mistakes and documenting your sources will have to be repeated. The more efficient thing would be to do all that work on Geni.

21. Geni is the scientific method. The best way to make progress in an empirical field like genealogy is to use the scientific method.  When you record an observed genealogical fact you are making a hypothesis (e.g., X is the husband of Y, or A is the son of X and Y). The next step is to test that hypothesis by placing it in the tree and seeing if all of the resulting relationship still make sense. Geni is the perfect place to test your hypotheses, because other people can view your work. Think of it like submitting an academic paper for peer review. There’s no better way to see if everything fits, or if you have overlooked something or made a mistake, than to submit your genealogical work to review by other genealogists. That is what is happening thousands of times a day on Geni, as people add information to the tree and their collaborators review them. Working by yourself, you will never be able to get the type of feedback and review necessary to make your work accurate. If you aren’t submitting your work for review on Geni, you aren’t really participating in the advancement of genealogical knowledge the way that Geni users are. This again is why the tree on Geni is in almost every instance more accurate, more documented, more verified than what you do on your own.

22. Help yourself by helping others. Every day I get about a dozen messages from users asking for help on Geni. As a volunteer curator, it’s my job to assist them, and I love doing it. I get to help and teach people how to use Geni, and in return I get to learn more about genealogy. There’s no replacement for experience, and Geni has given me much more experience as a genealogist than I ever could have had on my own, or even working as a professional on paid projects. I have no doubt that Geni’s curators are among the most experienced genealogists in the world, and I am proud to be one of them.

23. Take another look. Very often I look up people on Geni and find that they signed in once, maybe five or more years ago, didn’t find what they were looking for, didn’t add their tree, and never came back. A lot has changed on Geni since that time, and there have been many improvements. (Have you seen how Geni handles adoptions, for example?) But the biggest and most important development has been in the size of the tree and the level of accuracy. You need to come back and take a closer look. If you haven’t built out some of your tree on Geni and connected to the World Family Tree, you really don’t know what Geni has to offer. Over and over again I have had the experience of helping build out someone’s tree on Geni and making a discovery for them. This has been true even for the most experienced genealogists with very large trees on other platforms. You really won’t know until you try.  So what are you waiting for?

Find me on Geni at

Disclaimer:  The views expressed above are my own and are not necessarily the views of Geni or its parent company MyHeritage. 

P.S. If you want to see my tree on Geni, follow a link to one of my ancestors in the hyperlinked Ahnentafel report below (created using AncestorGraph on HistoryLink).  Let me know if you find any mistakes.  It’s always a work-in-progress.

Randy Schoenberg(1966 – )

Peter Beinart’s Holocaust Problem

Last night I watched a long video of Peter Beinart’s November 4, 2015 appearance at Beth Chayim Chadashim with Rabbi Sharon Brous of IKAR.  Beinart is correct that he did not attempt to justify terrorism against Israel when he said that he believed that some of Israel’s policies have contributed to the terrorism problem (“Israel is reaping what it has sowed.“)  But he did say something at the very end of his talk that I found disturbing.

At the end of the program (at 1:21:30), in answering the final question, Beinart went on a riff about what he perceives as the misplaced priorities of the American Jewish community:

The American Jewish community has spent . . . and this may be a controversial thing to say, but I think we have spent too much money on Holocaust memorials and not enough on Jewish education.  I think it says something very troubling about a community where you can go into city after city and they have built these Holocaust memorials which are gleaming and very impressive. And then you go to the Jewish day school and it is crumbling. I mean there’s no gym, there’s no science lab.  What does it say about a community that’s more interested in memorializing its dead than providing for its future?

So, two things.  First, Beinart is factually wrong.  If you look at Los Angeles, for example, it is true that in the past 25 years we have built both the Museum of Tolerance and the new building for Los Angeles Museum of the Holocaust.  At the same time, our community has also built a number of new Jewish day schools, including Milken Community SchoolsdeToledo High School, Brawerman Elementary School, and greatly expanded others, such as Sinai Akiba Academy, Shalhevet, and Yavneh Hebrew Academy.  You’ll find state of the art science labs and excellent gyms at all of these schools, and many others in and around Los Angeles.  These Jewish schools have also been building up their endowments, thanks to a program sponsored by the Bureau of Jewish Education, Partnership for Excellence in Jewish Education (PEJE) and the Avi Chai Foundation.  So Jewish education is not “crumbling” in Los Angeles.  And I doubt it is crumbling in any other Jewish community that has invested in a Holocaust museum.

But second, Beinart is setting up a false dichotomy.  Indeed, when you look at the major donor lists, you find that the same families are supporting both Jewish schools and Holocaust museums.  Why?  Because our Jewish schools and our Holocaust museums serve different functions that are not mutually exclusive.  In fact, they complement each other.  Jewish schools naturally serve just the Jewish community, and in particular a subset that wants its children to learn Hebrew and religious observance. Our museums serve a much larger community, and one that is largely non-Jewish. Certainly, one great aspect of our Holocaust museums is that they are places where Jews can memorialize the victims, and teach our young the terrible history of our recent past.  But these museums also, indeed primarily, serve to teach non-Jews about our history.  Those of us who contribute to both Jewish education and Holocaust museums know that while it is important to continue Jewish traditions, it is equally important to educate non-Jews about our history and the terrible consequences of anti-Semitism.

What would it say of our community if we only built Jewish schools, teaching, as Bienart suggests, the holidays of Purim and Simchat Torah, but neglected our role as interpreters of the Holocaust?  One of the things that makes us human is our sense of history. Our schools are designed to transmit the history of our species, and so we learn about the great civilizations, the Egyptians, the Greeks, the Romans, etc.  We learn about great conflicts, the Peloponnesian Wars, the Battle of Hastings, the Thirty Years War, the Napoleonic Wars and the American Revolution and Civil War.  And, from now on and for the next thousands of years, we will teach our children about World War II, the distinguishing feature of which will be the Holocaust, the greatest mass-murder in the history of mankind.

We have the privilege of living with the last generation of survivors, who are first-hand witnesses to the history that will be taught for millennia.  Our Holocaust museums are designed to collect and marshall the evidence while we still can, to package and deliver it to people in an effective manner.  Our Holocaust museum serve also as places for the inter-generational transmission of history.  There are few other places where you will regularly find a 90-year-old teaching a class of 8th graders, as happens every day in our Holocaust museums.Screen Shot 2015-11-11 at 4.27.56 PM

So why does someone like Peter Beinart make such a grave error when speaking about Holocaust museums?  My theory is that it comes down to his genealogy. Beinart’s parents were from South Africa, so his heritage is a mixture of early Russian and Lithuanian immigrants from the pogroms as well as one grandmother from Egypt. He probably doesn’t feel that his family was very affected by the Holocaust.  I’ve seen this very often also in the United States.  There are many American Jews for whom it comes as a shock to learn that the defining moments of Jewish history over the past 100 or even 1,000 years were the Holocaust and the creation of the State of Israel — and they missed them both!  (They thought that it was growing up in Brooklyn, listening to Bob Dylan and Barbra Streisand, and rooting for the Dodgers.) These folks like to build different types of museums, like the National Museum of American Jewish History in Philadelphia, which was completely empty when I visited last March. (Really, I did not see one other person inside, although the nearby Barnes Foundation museum had been full of people when I visited there an hour earlier.)  But their story just doesn’t resonate — not with Jews and not with non-Jews.  Meanwhile our Holocaust museums are booming.  (For example, LAMOTH‘s attendance increased 25% each of the past two years and is set to increase another 7% this year.)

The good news is that views like Beinart’s will die out as the generations move forward.  Before too long, every Jewish family will be descended or connected to a Holocaust survivor family.  That’s just how genealogy works.  But in the meantime, those of who really understand the importance of the Holocaust to Jewish continuity will continue to pour our support into our museums as well as our Jewish schools.

The Problem with the Monty Hall Problem

I was so taken with Leonard Mlodinow‘s new book The Upright Thinkers, that I went on Amazon and ordered some of his previous books, including The Drunkard’s Walk: How Randomness Rules Our Lives. In an early chapter discussing the mathematical development of probability, Mlodinow discusses the Monty Hall problem, made famous in 1990 by Marilyn vos Savant in Parade magazine.  In her Ask Marilyn column, reproduced (with slight modifications) by Mlodinow, Savant was asked:

Suppose the contestants on a game show are given the choice of three doors: Behind one door is a car; behind the others, goats. After a contestant picks a door, the host, who knows what’s behind all the doors, opens one of the unchosen doors, which reveals a goat. He then says to the contestant, “Do you want to switch to the other unopened door?” Is it to the contestant’s advantage to make the switch?

Marilyn answered “yes,” but thousands of her readers, including some with advanced degrees, wrote her to tell her she made a mistake.  Marilyn solved the problem using elementary probability.  If you are given a choice of three doors, you will pick the correct one just 1/3 of the time.  For the 2/3 of the time that you initially chose incorrectly, you could win by switching your choice to the door that remains after the host reveals the first goat.  This seems a bit counterintuitive, which is why so many of her readers were upset, because you are still left choosing between two doors, not knowing what is behind either one.  It seems like a 50-50 choice.

Many people, including Mlodinow, use this example to show how our intuition can be faulty and not correct according to the laws of probability.  Daniel Kahneman won a Nobel Prize in Economics for this type of work.  But the problem with this example (and even some of Kahneman’s that I have read) is that they don’t really prove that our intuition is wrong.

Take the Monty Hall problem.  Look at it more closely and consider this: how does the contestant know what game he is playing?  All he knows is that he was asked to choose one of three doors, then one of the unchosen doors was exposed and he was asked whether he wanted to switch.  That’s it.  The contestant has no way of knowing what game the host is actually playing.  And that makes all the difference for what our intuition tells us to do.

It isn’t hard to imagine that this is not the game that Marilyn thought it was.  What if the game was this: if you choose incorrectly, the host opens the door to reveal your goat; but if you choose correctly, the host tries to induce you to change until you pick a door that has a goat or accept a smaller gift.  Sometimes he opens one of the unopened doors to reveal a goat and asks if you want to switch to the other unopened door (as in Marilyn’s example). Sometimes he asks you if you want cash instead of what is behind the door you chose.  Etc. Etc.  You never know if or how the game will end.  Now this game looks to you the contestant exactly like the game that Marilyn described.  If the host induces you to switch your choice, it means you’ve lost.  Do you want to follow Marilyn’s advice?  You’d lose every single time.

So, back to our supposedly faulty intuition.  Is it really so bad?  What makes more sense: that the host would give us an easy chance to double our odds of winning, or that he would try to trick us into giving up our correct choice?  Our intuition tells us to be skeptical.  It tells us that we don’t have enough information to know what game we are playing, and so the choice is really 50-50.  We just don’t know if the information we received when the host revealed the goat really means anything.  So we are left again with choosing randomly between two doors.

While it is certainly true that our intuition often is at odds with the laws of probability, (and indeed that is why many people are initially confused by this problem), it turns out that the confusion is sometimes more warranted than strict probabilists are willing to admit.  There are plenty of real-world examples that show how bad people are at probability.  Take, for example, the fact that so many people buy lottery tickets, which are a terrible bet that no one in his right mind would take.  (In other words, the expected payoff is far less than the cost of a ticket.)  It makes you wonder though, why so many smart people like to use completely unreal problems, like the Trolley problem, or flawed ones like the Monty Hall problem, to make the same point.  You really cannot test the correctness of our real-world intuition with unreal make-believe problems where people can’t even know what game they are playing.

[For a more thorough enumeration of how Marilyn might have been wrong when answering this problem, see Herb Weiner’s Marilyn is tricked by a game show host.]

Danish Delegate Cohn and Article 49, par 6 of the Geneva Convention

One of the more frequent complaints against the State of Israel is that its settlements violate international law.

Perhaps the central current criticism against the government of Israel in relation to its administration of the territories occupied after the 1967 War concerns its alleged infractions of the final paragraph (6) of Article 49, of the Fourth Geneva Convention, Relative to the Protection of Civilian Persons in Time of War, of August 12, 1949. The preceding paragraphs deal with deportation or transfer of a population out of the occupied territory. The final paragraph (6) reads as follows: “The Occupying Power shall not deport or transfer parts of its own civilian population into the territory it occupies.” Julius Stone, Jewish Settlements in Judea and Samaria (the West Bank) and Geneva Convention, IV, Article 49(6) Relative to the Protection of Civilian Persons in Time of War

Given the massive population transfers that took place in the decade prior to the 1949 Geneva Convention, both during the Nazi period, as well as after World War II — for example, the millions of ethnic Germans expelled by Poland and Czechoslovakia, and further millions transferred during the partition of India and Pakistan — I was curious to learn what exactly was meant by the drafters of Article 49, paragraph 6.  Then I read that “The addition of the final paragraph of the present Article 49 (then Article 45) was proposed by Danish delegate Cohn at the Legal Commission of the 17th International Red Cross Conference (Summary of Debates of the Sub-Commissions, pp. 61-62) and adopted (ibid. pp. 77-78).”  (Notes to Discourse.)

Who was the “Danish delegate Cohn” who first came up with the language of Article 49, paragraph 6 on the transfer of populations?  It turns out he was the Jewish diplomat Georg Cohn, born in Frankfurt, Germany in 1887.  Cohn headed the Danish delegation to the Geneva Convention in 1949.  His father was a Russian Jew, while his mother’s family seems to have lived in Germany for many generations.  Cohn’s wife, Elfriede Bamberger, was the great-granddaughter of the Würzburger Rav Seligman Baer (Yitzhak Dov) Bamberger, one of the leading torah scholars of the 19th century.

Georg Cohn

According to a book by his daughter, Cohn was a strong supporter of Zionism and even considered leaving the Danish Foreign Office and joining the Israeli one.  It would be interesting to learn if Cohn left behind any writings about Israel.  Given his background, it is ironic that the sentence he managed to add to the Geneva Convention is now being used to assert that Israel is in violation of international law. 

Privacy Issues with Online Trees

Avotaynu Online has published my recent lecture on Privacy Issues with Online Trees that I gave on July 7, 2015 at the 35th Annual Conference of the International Association of Jewish Genealogical Societies in Jerusalem.  The summary of my article’s findings are:

  • Deceased individuals do not have a right to privacy, so publication of genealogical data about deceased individuals is unrestricted.
  • There is generally no legal limitation on the publication of genealogical data about living individuals, since that data is neither private nor objectionable to a reasonable person.
  • Living individuals may have a right against public disclosure of private facts that would be offensive or objectionable to a reasonable person of ordinary sensibilities.
  • Online genealogy sites may restrict publication of genealogical data about living individuals, but solely as a result of marketing decisions and not because of any legal requirements or risks of liability or litigation.
  • Subject to the rule against public disclosure of objectionable private facts, genealogists are generally free to publish online family trees, and do not need to accede to privacy requests from individuals named on those trees.



Stolen Mahler photo offered on ebay for $150,000

A few weeks ago I contacted Cliff Fraser and offered to resolve the issue of the stolen Mahler photo by purchasing it for $20,000.  He countered by demanding $120,000 and I decided not to pursue it further.  There is still no reason to think the photo wasn’t stolen from our home in Brentwood or loaned somewhere by my grandmother and never returned after she died of cancer in 1967.  (Just this year the Edinburgh Festival returned a bunch of photos and a diagram for Gurrelieder that were loaned in 1961.)

Now Cliff has decided to try to the sell the photo on ebay.  It looks like he is being assisted by someone with the listing, because in previous correspondence he has been less than articulate.  The listing was picked up by Norman Lebrecht on Slipped Disc, who then also reported that the photo appears to have been stolen.  If no one purchases it, maybe Cliff will come to his senses and at least accept my generous offer of a reasonable price for the return of the photo.  Unfortunately, to date he has been acting more like the original thief than simply the grandson who found the stolen photo buried in his grandmother’s boiler room.