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News drives genealogy, and vice-versa

When I read the news and see the name of someone who sounds Jewish, my first instinct is to wonder whether I can work out his or her family tree on  Yesterday there were two stories that caught my attention. First, there were reports that National Security aide Ezra Cohen-Watnick was the White House staffer who supposedly showed information to House Intelligence Committee Devin Nunes related to the probe of Russian influence on the Presidential election. Later, there was the report by Ashley Feinberg of Gizmodo that she had managed, in an inspiring bit of internet sleuthing, to find FBI Director James Comey’s Twitter account.  Feinberg, Cohen-Watnick, how could I resist? Before going to bed, I tried to see what I could find.

It didn’t take much time to work out Ashley’s tree, which I did first. Her family has had more than its fair share of tragedy in recent years and so there was plenty of information for me to start her tree, which then matched up with her brother’s tree on MyHeritage. Easy peasy.

It was very late, but I decided to see if Ezra’s tree would be as easy. It wasn’t. He obviously has been trying to have a zero presence on the Web. But you really cannot hide. Still, although Nathan Guttman at the Forward had already reported what he could find, there wasn’t a lot to go on. Fortunately, his synagogue Ohr Kodesh had published an announcement of his engagement celebration with Rebecca Miller late last year. The kiddush was sponsored by Jonathan & Martha Cohen (who turned out to be his paternal grandparents) and  Deborah Levine & Marc Cohen (his father and step-mother).  Some more Googling led to his mother, the nephrologist Terry Watnick. When I discovered Terry Watnick’s Facebook page, I guessed she probably wasn’t a Trump supporter.

At that point, I wrote my good genealogy friend Renee Steinig, who is probably the best genealogist I know for Jews in the United States. For some reason, Renee was awake, so she started building out the tree with me on Geni. I won’t bore you with all the tricks we use, but there’s pretty much nothing Renee and I cannot find. I went to bed very late last night, satisfied that we had connected Ezra and his family to the World Family Tree.

Renee kept working on the tree today, and then sent me something that I think might be newsworthy, or at least creepily coincidental. She had found information on Ezra’s wife, Rebecca Miller.  In 2014, Rebecca’s mother Vicki Fraser did an oral history for the State Historical Society of Missouri International Women’s Forum, where she described what her daughter was doing:

Well, we have 24-year-old twins, Jake Miller . . . [and] Becky Miller, who works for Ketchum, a PR and marketing firm in Washington, D.C. and her big challenges right now are Ketchum is responsible for providing PR and marketing to try to make Russia look better which is particularly difficult when they’re invading other countries and when Putin is somewhat out of control.

So Ezra’s wife Rebecca used to do PR for Putin.  Hmmm.  Googling, you can find stories from 2015, when Ketchum and Putin sort of parted company. Rebecca’s LinkedIn account shows her still at Ketchum.

Maybe it’s just me, but that all seems a bit too coincidental.

A New Genealogy for Rabbi Isaac Mayer Wise

In the past years, a wealth of 18th and 19th century Jewish genealogical resources have become available for Bohemia, the western half of Czechia (the new name for the Czech Republic, formerly Czechoslovakia).  As a result, a large number of genealogists working in this area have been collaborating on, building interconnected trees covering the entire region and setting up town projects for many of the communities.  Recently, I used these resources to revisit the genealogy of the famed Rabbi Isaac Mayer Wise (1819-1900), considered the founding father of the American Reform movement, the largest Jewish denomination in North America.

Rabbi Wise’s biography is well-known, and is described in detail in the book published in 1916 by his grandson Max Benjamin May (1866-1929).  But Wise’s ancestry, as May concedes, was more difficult to discern:

Very little is known of the ancestry of Isaac Mayer Wise. He could not be induced to talk about his early years, and often said they were too terrible to contemplate. No authentic data are to be found in Wise’s writings; and unlike many another great man who rose from humble beginnings to a position of influence and prominence, he never referred to his early years. While nothing is known of his maternal ancestors, there are a few meagre facts concerning his paternal great-grandfather, grandfather and father. His great-grandfather was a physician named Leo, who had studied medicine at Padua, practiced at Marienbad [Mariánské Lázne], and lived in the neighborhood, in the village of Dürrmaul [Drmoul]. The physician was known as Dr. Leo, and spoken of by his co-religionists as Leo ‘Chakam,’ the Hebrew for Wise. The son of this Dr. Leo, or Leo Weiss, was Isaiah, who also studied medicine at Padua and likewise settled at Dürrmaul. This Doctor Isaiah lived to be over ninety years of age. Besides learned in his profession he was well versed in Talmudical and rabbinical literature, and became a teacher to his son, whom he named for his father Leo. The Leo, grandson of Doctor Leo who had studied in Padua, was educated by his father and became a teacher. Leo Weiss was never a vigorous man, and died shortly after the birth of his youngest child, a daughter. Shortly after receiving his education he removed from Dürrmaul to Steingrub [Lomnicka], a small village of a few hundred inhabitants near the town of Eger [Cheb], in Bohemia, overlooking Saxony and Bavaria. In this village of Steingrub, in which there dwelt a large number of Catholics, Leo Weiss was married twice. His second wife was Regina Weiss. She was, however, a handsome woman, bright, cheerful, lovable, and devoted. She emigrated to America in 1867 with her son Samuel and later lived in Peoria, Illinois, with her daughter, Caroline Korsoski, where she died in 1880 at a ripe old age.

May’s biography adds a few more facts: Wise’s parents had 13 children, seven of whom died in infancy. Isaac was the oldest surviving son, born March 29, 1819 (the date engraved on his tombstone).  Wise first studied with his father in Steingrub until age nine, when he moved to Drmoul to live and study with his learned grandfather, Dr. Isaiah. At age twelve, his grandfather died. Wise then went to Prague to study. On the way he visited a cousin in Mies [Stribro] and an uncle in Pilsen [Plzen]. In Prague he was assisted by the widow of Rabbi Bezalel Ronsperg, an uncle of his mother.  Among the teachers and rabbis Wise claimed to have studied with were Moses Koref, Löb Glogau, and Samuel Freund of Prague, and Aaron Kornfeld of Golcuv Jenikov.  Wise worked as a tutor in the homes of Leopold Jerusalem in Prague and Herman Bloch in Grafenried [Lucina, Nemanice], Bohemia. He was recommended by Rabbi Solomon Judah Rappaport of Prague to be a teacher in Ronsperg [Pobezovice], Bohemia and later took exams in Pressburg [Bratislava, Slovakia] where he studied with Rabbi Moses Sofer.  He returned to Prague and lived with Rappaport before studying for a year in Vienna, living with the German Reform preacher Isaac Noa Mannheimer and teaching the von Wertheimstein family.  At age twenty-three (1842) he passed a rabbinical examination before Rabbis Rappaport, Freund and Teweles, and then served as rabbi and teacher  in Radnitz [Radnice], Bohemia from October 1843.

Wise was married twice, first in Grafenried on May 26, 1844 (according to the family bible) to Therese Bloch, and then in 1876 in Manhattan, NY to Selma Bondi of Dresden, Saxony, Germany.  His 1876 New York wedding license states that his parents were Leopold Weiss and Regina Weiss.  Wise’s first child Emily (the mother of Wise’s biographer Benjamin May) was born February 22, 1846 (according to her gravestone) in Radnitz.  A few months later, Wise and his young family travelled to America, sailing from Bremerhaven for sixty-three days and arriving in New York on July 23, 1846.

Based on these facts, genealogists have for years crafted a tree for Rabbi Wise and his descendants (who include the Ochs-Sulzberger family owners of the New York Times) that identifies his father as Leopold Weiss, son of Dr. Isaiah Weiss, son of Dr. Leo Weiss.  I set out to determine if anything further could be learned about the family from the newly available records.

The Bohemian Jewish census of 1793 has been transcribed and published in book form by Ivana Ebelová, and recently made available online (click on News, then Inventories, for a list of pdf files, except for the index!).  A first step to looking up a town in the census, however, if figuring out what Kreis (Region) it was in. This is not always easy, since the governing Kreis in 1793 may not be the same as the political district of today. An additional complication is that Jewish records usually give the German name of the town, whereas the recent Czech resources are often organized by the Czech town names. Finally, there are often several towns with the same name in Bohemia and Moravia.

We do have a few resources to help. JewishGen has a database with most of the major towns, but is often missing the small villages.  So, the first place I look is usually the Wikipedia page List of historical German and Czech names for places in the Czech Republic.  The Wikipedia page is not foolproof.  For example, looking up Steingrub gives a link to the wrong Lomnicka (in Moravia) rather than the correct one we are looking for in northern Bohemia near the German border!  Once I have a likely Czech name for the town, then I can try to find the district or region, using Wikipedia.  If that fails, I turn to a useful tool created by Alex Calzareth, Map of Bohemia and Moravia Jewish Vital Registers.  Again, finding Lomnicka is tricky because there are so many of them, but ultimately I was able to find the right one near Plesná (by typing Lomnicka Plesna until the program finds the right town). This allows you to zoom in and out, seeing all of the towns in the region with surviving Jewish record books. Lomnicka is north of the larger city of Cheb, which Wikipedia tells us is in the Karlovy Vary region. However, looking over at the list of regions for the 1793 census, you won’t find Karlovy Vary. If you go to Julius Müller’s website on Jewish Familiants, you’ll see an old map of the districts in Bohemia. If you zoom out on Alex Calzareth‘s map, you’ll see that Lomnicka is way in the far left, in a district then called Loketsky.

So, you’ll find the 1793 census for Steingrub in the book for the Loketer Kreis. If you search Steingrub in the pdf file, you’ll find every mention of that town. Starting on page 79 is where you can see all of the Jewish families. Looking up the page you will see that Steingrub is part of Walhof Gut (domain), along with the towns Fattatengrün [Bozetin], Zweifelsreuth [Cizebna], Hörschin [Hrzin], Wallhof [Lesna], and Neukirchen [Novy Kostel]. The first three towns have just one Jewish family, Wallhof has three, Neukirchen has four, and Steingrub has eleven.  In 1793, there is no Weiss family in Steingrub, but two of them in Neukirchen.

However, Rabbi Wise’s family history said that his Weiss family lived in Drmoul, so I decided to check there also. Using Alex Calzareth’s map, I find that Drmoul is 51 km south from Lomnicka, and in the Pilsner Kreis.  In 1793, there were 25 families living in the village of Drmoul. The first three listed have the surname Mayer. The next is the widow of Markus Weiss. But the very next entry, I noticed, was named Josaias Doctor.

This was my first clue. Josaias Doctor in Drmoul sounded suspiciously close to Rabbi Weiss’ grandfather Dr. Isaiah.  Doctor is not a common surname in Bohemia and must have denoted Isaiah’s profession. My next step was to take a look at the Familianten book records for Drmoul to see if I could find out more about Josaias/Isaiah Doctor.

In 1726, due the order of the Habsburg ruler Charles VI, the number of Jewish families was limited by quota to 8,541 in Bohemia and 5,106 in Moravia.  To enforce this quota (or numerus clausus), a so-called Familianten order was issued.  According to this order, only the first-born son of each Jewish family was given permission to marry (called a copulatio consensus). The permits could also be sold if there were no son to inherit them. This draconian Familianten order was in force until 1848. As a result, many Jews who could not obtain marriage permits emigrated from Bohemia and Moravia. Those who stayed often married only religiously, and as a result their children were recorded as illegitimate in official records.

Rabbi Wise in fact ran afoul of this law when he was rabbi in Radnitz by marrying Jewish couples without a license. “When called to task for this infraction of the law,” May writes, “he bitterly complained against its iniquity and unjustness, and stated he would continue to disregard so inhuman an edict. When questioned at Prague by a member of the imperial council in charge of Jewish affairs as to the cause of so many illegitimate births among the Jews, he pointed out that it was due solely to the barbarous restrictions of the right to marry.” [May, page 37.]

One other result of the Familianten laws was that the government kept very good records of which families lived in which towns. The list of Familianten were collected in the Book of Jewish Familianten (also called Mannschaftsbuecher in Moravia). Records were collected in 1799 and in 1811 and updated until about 1830.  Each record comprised the name of county, registration number of the family in the whole land (based on copulatio consensus), the registration number of family in the county (set up in 1725), name of the father, his wife, his sons and a few other family details. Today, these records provide a very good resource for researchers investigating their family histories, and they have recently been made available online by the Czech State Archives on

Once again, finding the right book is not always easy. You can try searching the Familianten inventory (Fond 2098) on the website, using the Czech name of the town. Trying Drmoul comes up blank. Going back to the 1793 census record (above) gives us another clue. See where it says “Kuttenplan”?  That is the name of the town that the Jews of Drmoul actually belonged to. Literally they were under the “protection” of Kuttenplan [Chodova Plana], although living 7.5 km away in Drmoul. Searching for Chodova Plana comes up with one book.  These books usually have a handwritten index in the front or back. This one shows a page for Isaias Doktor.

Isaias Docktor is identified as the son of Abraham Günzburger and Fanny/Debora [daughter of] Aron. He was married twice, to Rifka [daughter of] Abraham (c. 1780) and Rebeka [daughter of] Löwy (c. 1792), and died February 11, 1833. The page identifies his sons Aron (b. 1781), Löwy (b. 1784, d. April 20, 1837), Nathan (b. 1800) and Michael (b. 1802). Löwy is identified as unmarried [ledig].

Isaiah Doktor’s grave is located in Drmoul and has been photographed and indexed by Achab Haidler on his website  I was also able to find the graves for Isaiah’s parents Abraham (d. 1766) and Deborah (d. 1769).  Abraham was also a doctor (rofe in Hebrew), and his father was named Isaiah.

Grave of Isaiah Doktor (d. Feb 11 1833) in Drmoul, Czechia.

If Isaias was Rabbi Wise’s grandfather, the dates fit pretty well.  At Isaiah’s death in 1833, Isaac Wise would have been just 13 years old.  But could the Isaiah’s unmarried son Löwy be Rabbi Wise’s father Leopold? If so, it meant that Wise’s parents were not officially married when he was born. That still needed some additional proof.

Many of the Jewish vital record books have been placed online by the Czech State archives. The principle Jewish records are held in Fond 1073, while a set of duplicate parish records (many from just the 1848 time period) are kept in Fond 241. Unfortunately, the record books for these towns did not cover the dates I needed. The book for Steingrub began in 1820, a year after Rabbi Wise’s birth, and none of the subsequent entries mentioned a Leopold or Regina Weiss. The record book for Grafenried did not include any marriage of Rabbi Wise and Therese Bloch. The birth records of Radnitz had no mention of their daughter Emily. (But I later found a record for an illegitimate son of Therese Bloch born March 14, 1845 in Radnitz, who apparently died before being named, which confirmed that Rabbi Wise’s 1844 marriage was without a proper license under the Familiant laws.) I decided to look for further clues, perhaps related to Wise’s siblings. Wise’s sister Caroline was born February 29, 1840 (according to her tombstone in Peoria, Illinois), but the Steingrub birth register ends in 1839, a year too early. I looked through Drmoul records and found no leads. Using Alex Calzareth’s map, I started looking at record books for towns near Steingrub and Drmoul, but at first didn’t find anything that looked useful. I decided that while I was looking through the books, I should try to work on the trees for the other Weiss families in Steingrub and the Doktors in Drmoul, and found that much had already been compiled by fellow Geni curators Oded Hartmann, Yoav Lahad and Benjamin Schoenbrun. In 1840 I found an illegitimate daughter born to Barbara, a daughter of Isaias Doktor.

I also posted about my research to the Jewish Genealogy Portal, a group I founded a few years ago that is now with over 20,000 members the largest Jewish genealogy group on Facebook. This group allows me to post my research and get feedback and help from others while I am working on a puzzle. Craig Partridge, one of the many genealogists collaborating on Bohemia, responded by informing me that one of his Popper relatives, Ignaz Popper of Radnitz married Laura Wise, a niece of Rabbi Wise, born 1849 in Steingrub. Searching the records in nearby Neukirchen [Novy Kostel] in Fond 1073, I discovered Laura’s birth record. Her father was Samuel, the son of Regina Weiss from House 64 in Steingrub. That was my first success at finding a record of a Weiss relative of Rabbi Wise.

So Isaac and Samuel had the same mother, Regina Weiss, but there was no mention in the records of a father to Samuel. This indicated to me that Samuel, and probably Isaac, were born out of wedlock, although I could not find a birth record for either of them to prove it. Samuel’s marriage record was also in the book for Novy Kostel and it provided an age so I could estimate his birth in 1822. Still, the Steingrub birth records for 1822 did not list Samuel. There was however a Lippmann Weiss born out of wedlock in 1833 in House 64 to Rebecca Weiss, daughter of Joachim Weiss.  It seemed very likely that Regina was the same as Rebecca, since it is very common for women’s names to change over time in these old records. The birth record for Samuel’s daughter Bertha [Blümerl]  lists Samuel’s mother’s name as “Rika” which is also close to Rifka, Hebrew for Rebecca.

I kept searching in various record books until I returned again to Novy Kostel, but this time in Fond 241, the Catholic parish copies, which (very unusually) pertained to earlier years than the Fond 1073 book I had used for the birth of Laura Wise. I had initially passed over the description of the book in Czech, but this time my Google Chrome browser offered a translation and I noticed that it said the book contained something related to circumcisions “a description of the book foreskins 1803-1840.” This is something that I had not seen in any other record books from Bohemia and Moravia. Apparently the parish had used the records of the local mohel, Jakob Pollak, to help reconstruct a new book of birth records for the community. Included in this new book was a beautiful ledger of the circumcisions performed by Jakob Pollak over thirty-seven years. Incredibly, in 1819 I found the following record:

The record says that on 11 Nissan 5579 (April 6, 1819) Pollak performed the circumcision of Isaak son of Löbl Doktor of Steingrub. April 6 is exactly eight days after the date of birth of Rabbi Wise on March 29, which is precisely when you would expect his bris to have occurred.  At last we have a birth record for Rabbi Wise, and it proves that his father was not named Leopold Weiss, but rather Löbl (= Leopold) Doktor, who is certainly Löwy Doktor, the son of Isaiah Doktor of Drmoul. Rabbi Wise was clearly born out of wedlock and was given his mother’s surname (Weiss), later changing it to Wise in America.

With every solution comes more questions, and Rabbi Wise’s ancestry certainly poses many of them. If the father of Rabbi Wise’s grandfather Isaiah Doktor is named Abraham Günzburger, how does that fit with the legend that Isaiah’s father was also named Leopold?  What do we make of the Mayer middle name? Boys in Bohemia rarely were given middle names. (There is, however, an Isak Löbl Weiss son of Salomon, born 1823 in Lomnicka.) In the records of Prague, the second name is usually the given name of the father. But Rabbi Wise’s middle name may point to a different source. In the mohel records for August 15, 1822 we find Samuel, son of Löbl Mayer, which could be Isaac’s brother Samuel. Did Samuel and Isaac have different fathers?  Or is Löbl Doktor the same as Löbl Mayer? One problem with the latter theory is that there is a Lev Mayer, probably son of Abraham and Sara Mayer, from Lazne Kynzvart, living in Studnicka who dies in 1831. On the Familiant records, Löbl Doktor dies April 20, 1837, but I have yet to find a death record or grave. Who is the father of Isaac’s baby sister Caroline, born 1840? And how is Rabbi Wise related to Rabi Bezalel Ronsperg (Rosenbaum). There are Rosenbaums in the area. You can see on top of Rabbi Wise’s circumcision the record of Hersch, son of Naphtali Rosenbaum of Katzengrün [Kacerov].  But I have not been able to connect this family with Rabbi Bezalel Ronsperg.

As researchers work through the copious Jewish records from Bohemia and Moravia and add to the trees on, we will continue to make discoveries and connections. Jews often lived in very small communities, limited by the Familianten laws, and therefore moved around quite often. The key to Rabbi Wise’s ancestry was found in a book for Novy Kostel, a town that did not come up in his biography.

For further information on Jewish genealogy research in Bohemia and Moravia see Getting Started With Czech-Jewish Genealogy and Jewish Communities in Bohemia and Moravia.

A Wasteful and Damaging Project by the Mountains Recreation & Conservation Authority and California Coastal Commission

About ten years ago, after the success of the Klimt painting case, we were able to purchase a beach house in Malibu.  We searched up and down the coast before finding a narrow 18 foot-wide unit right next to a 150 foot stretch of open beach.  While we were remodeling, our neighbor, actor Alex Rocco (Moe Greene from the Godfather), offered to sell us his unit.  It was an “offer we couldn’t refuse,” and so we combined the two lots into one and built a beautiful home that we’ve enjoyed for summer beach days and parties during the past ten years.

From time to time I get notices from the City of Malibu about hearings on development projects.  I always look at them to see if it’s something near us, but it never was.  So I was surprised when Pam went by our place two weeks ago and saw a big notice concerning a pending development on the fence next to our place.  I either missed or didn’t receive the notice of the one project that really affects our enjoyment of the beach.

Let me start by saying I am absolutely not against development and am also greatly in favor of public access to the beaches.  We really didn’t mind sharing our beach with the public. In fact, the locals who come down from the hills to enjoy an afternoon on our beach make the beach more fun to watch.  Our only problems are with visitors who insist on doing all of the things that are illegal to do on public beaches: dogs, drinking, smoking, nude bathing and barbecuing.

Access to our beach from Pacific Coast Highway has always been very easy.  There’s a small gate that is never locked on the south-east side of the fence and a stairway down to the beach.  So if you can find parking, you can easily get to the beach.  But the beach itself is small and feels very private when you are on it.  That’s really it’s charm, along with a giant boulder in the water that provides endless fun for climbing or diving, or just watching the waves break on it.  The sand on our beach is also a unique feature.  The high tide comes up all the way to the bluff under PCH and cleans the sand every day.  Sometimes the tide brings in lots of sand, other times the beach is all rocks.  The beach changes literally every day.

The best place to sit on our beach is right in the middle, below a little stand built by the locals. It’s the high and dry point, the last to get washed over by the high tide, and it has the best view to watch the kids swimming in the waves on either side of the big boulder. If you are anywhere else, your view gets obstructed by other giant boulders on the beach. So that’s our lifeguard perch and it’s where we put our umbrella and chairs for the day when we are on the beach.

So you can imagine my surprise when I found out that the Mountains Recreation & Conservation Authority (MRCA), acting on behalf of the California Department of Parks and Recreation with the approval of the California Coastal Commission had applied for and obtained a permit from the City of Malibu to remodel our beach, eliminate the existing stairway on the side of the beach and build a new one going right down the middle, landing just where we like to sit on the beach.

On the map above you can see the existing stairs in the upper right, and the planned staircase down the middle.  The existing stairs are going to be removed.  It looks almost reasonable to someone who doesn’t know this beach, and doesn’t understand that the water comes up to where the new stairs are supposed to be almost every day.

Just to give you an idea of how much this beach changes throughout the year, here’s a photo that the MRCA was using, where the sand is at its maximum height and the beach looks beautiful and inviting during a low tide. Below it is a photo (from the side) of the same beach yesterday also at low tide.

The sand is brought in and out with the tides during the year.  Sometimes the high tide dumps sand on the beach, and other times it rips the sand out.  Here’s a photo of the beach with wet sand at a high tide.

See that little dry spot under the green kayak?  That’s where they want to build the new staircase landing.   And here’s what it looked like two hours earlier before the high tide came in.  That high and dry spot where we are sitting is where they want to put the staircase.

So, I’m not at all happy about this new development and I decided that I would try to investigate why this is happening.  Here is where things got interesting.

This project came about as a result of a settlement of a dispute with a developer named Carbonview Limited, affiliated with Oracle billionaire Larry Ellison, which is planning to combine two lots a few miles up the beach at 22224 and 22230 PCH, and push further out toward the sea by 19 feet an existing lateral public access easement, losing about 1,609 square feet of potential public beach access. Below is a photo of the Carbonview lots, and the lateral access easement being modified. In July 2014, Carbonview’s development permit was approved by the California Coastal Commission with the condition that the developer make a “donation of $400,000 dollars to the Mountains Recreation Conservation Authority (MRCA) for the construction of public vertical accessway improvements within the Coastal Zone of the City of Malibu.” Ordinarily, the Coastal Commission doesn’t like taking away public access easements, but in this case, they said “the donation of $400,000 to the MRCA will provide for the enhancement and opening of a new public vertical accessway.” The resolution approved by the Commission stated: “The purpose of the account shall be to construct new access improvements within undeveloped public beach vertical accessways within the Coastal Zone in the City of Malibu, as authorized by the Executive Director.”

The MRCA, the Coastal Commission and Department of Parks and Recreation spent about 12 months working with Carbonview to identify a location to spend the $400,000 on a new vertical accessway.  In August 2015, the South Central Coast District Staff submitted a report to the Coastal Commission concerning the project.  Initially, staff identified two potential sites.  “One was located on La Costa Beach (owned by the California Coastal Conservancy) and it was anticipated that at this location a stairway leading from Pacific Coast Highway down to the sandy beach could be constructed, and a viewing platform and restroom could also potentially be constructed. The second potential site identified was located on Big Rock Beach and immediately adjacent to a 65-foot wide parcel owned and utilized by the California Department of Transportation (Caltrans) as a Vista Point. It was anticipated that this site would be dedicated to the MRCA, and vertical public access improvements, such as a stairway, could then be constructed.”  Beautiful La Costa Beach and Los Flores Beach above and below Duke’s are desperately in need of public access, and the Coastal Commission has long planned to build access points in those areas.  The Coastal Commission recently fined property owners $5.1 million for blocking public access on Los Flores beach, which we can get to from our place only when the tide is very low. The public viewing area at Big Rock also has been on the list for a stairway to provide access down to the beach. But without any explanation whatsoever, these proposed sites were jettisoned in favor of a new site — our tiny beach. When the settlement was announced, the Malibu Press gushed that the new funds “will provide the only public beach access in the three-mile stretch between the access at Big Rock and the ‘East Carbon Beach’ access point.”

Here’s where things get interesting.  In the August 2015 report to the Coastal Commission, no one ever mentioned that our beach already had easy public access, with an open gate and a perfectly good staircase!  The report gives the impression that the $400,000 are going to be used to provide a new vertical accessway to the public.

“The applicant and MRCA staff determined that this site could be opened to public use in a timely manner with relatively few improvements necessary to allow the public to utilize a view area adjacent to PCH as well as the beach area below. The applicant has developed a plan for the construction of the improvements that would allow public access to the site, both at street level as well as access to the beach area on the property. Specifically, the proposed vertical access improvements include the construction of a stairway leading from PCH down to the beach, a viewing area, sidewalk, and provision of shoulder parking along PCH, including one accessible parking space, as depicted on Exhibit 6. As mentioned above, the applicant has coordinated with State Parks and MRCA, and both agencies support the proposed access improvements.”

You’d have to read pages 11-13 of  the report to understand just how deceptive the staff report was. There is a lengthy section on the need for beach access, noting that there is no other public access in Malibu for two miles upcoast and .8 miles downcoast. The impression given is that this development is needed to provide a new public access on this three mile stretch in Malibu.  The deception must have been intentional.  Take a look below at the photo attached as Exhibit 5 to the report. That thick white border covers up the existing staircase on the right side of the beach.

If I had been on the Coastal Commission and was presented with this report, I might have voted for it also.  Who would be opposed to opening up a beautiful new beach to the public?  Here’s the gorgeous rendition of the new beach, omitting the existing staircase and adding the new one down the middle.

So here is what the staff failed to show the Coastal Commission: there already is a beautiful staircase that runs from the street down to the beach.

Here are some guests at a neighbor’s wedding party going up the stairs yesterday.

The gate at the top is always unlocked.  We have public access all the time. That is why the locals love this small beach.  We’re even featured on the Our Malibu Beaches mobile phone app.

California Coastal Act, Section 30001.5 states:

“The legislature further finds and declares that the basic goals of the state for the coastal zone are to: . . .

(c) Maximize public access to and along the coast and maximize public recreational opportunities in the coastal zone consistent with sound resources conservation principles and constitutionally protected rights of private property owners.”

I am pretty confident that none of the members of the Coastal Commission would have approved the expenditure of $400,000 designated for “new beach access” in Malibu on a project that seeks to remove an existing public stairway and move it 75 feet up the beach to a spot that no one using the beach would ever want.

I’m planning to contact the Coastal Commission and raise this issue with them. It’s disgraceful that $400,000 that was supposed to open up new public access is being used to ruin our already public beach.

UPDATE Feb 10, 2017: This week Jessica Nguyen of MRCA spoke at a meeting of the Coastal Commission to inform them of the permit obtained from City of Malibu, but again failed to mention that public access and stairs already exist on this site.  Watch the video of her speaking at 0:24:20.   I also located videos of the prior hearings.  See August 12, 2015 at 7:27:30 (Carbonview), and July 10, 2014 at around 4:59:00.

UPDATE March 7, 2017: Jessica Nguyen wrote me “Per my voicemail, the MRCA is considering relocating the stairway to the east of the storm drain. Additionally, the City has determined that the project was not properly noticed to the surrounding residents, therefore a new hearing will be held for the project. The date of the hearing has yet to be finalized, but I will let you know when we have a date set up.”

To comment on the project, contact Jessica Nguyen, Mountains Recreation & Conservation Authority, 5810 Ramirez Canyon Drive, Malibu, 90265, Office: (310) 589-3230 ext. 125, Cell: (805) 300-0083,

Trump order flouts American principles

This article was originally published in the Jewish Journal.

Like most Jews whose family history features flights from persecution, I have a soft spot for refugees, the “huddled masses yearning to breathe free” welcomed to our shores by Emma Lazarus’ famous poem engraved on the pedestal of the Statue of Liberty. But there have always been those who felt differently.

President Trump’s recent Executive Order suspending the State Department’s Refugee Assistance Program and restricting visa entry from seven Muslim-majority countries is one in a long line of racist, anti-immigrant measures, from the Naturalization Act of 1790 (limiting naturalization to whites) and Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 (prohibiting Chinese laborers) to the Immigration Act of 1924 (enacting national origin quotas to reduce the number of Jews and Italians, and exclude Arabs and Asians), which have influenced our immigration policies up to the present day. As President Truman said in vetoing the similarly problematic Immigration and Nationality Act of 1952, “In no other realm of our national life are we so hampered and stultified by the dead hand of the past, as we are in this field of immigration.” Congress overrode his veto. President Kennedy was so disturbed by the racist and discriminatory nature of our immigration laws that he even wrote a book about it, A Nation of Immigrants, in which he warned that “emotions of xenophobia – hatred of foreigners – and of nativism – the policy of keeping America ‘pure’ … continue to thrive.”

President Trump campaigned largely on xenophobic rhetoric aimed at Latinos, Asians and Muslims, both here and abroad. For example, on November 6, just days before the election, he called the community of 25,000 Somali refugees in Minnesota a “disaster,” and promised not to admit further refugees without the approval of the community. It is therefore hardly surprising that the new President used his broad executive authority to stop admitting refugees and restrict entry to the United States by individuals from countries like Somalia, which he believes may be sources of radical Islamic terrorism. I expect there will be many more of these types of orders in the days to come, and, in my view, the President will likely succeed in implementing these policies.

To be sure, Trump’s first executive order on immigration has caused a great outcry, even among those who generally support strong anti-terrorism efforts, mainly because it was so poorly conceived and executed. In just the first days, hundreds of travelers were caught in limbo, and attorneys working over the weekend obtained a temporary stay of certain elements of the order, some of which, like the refusal of entry to valid green card holders, may have already been retracted by the administration. There seem to be no exceptions made for properly vetted visitors, including students or scientists attending conferences on tourist visas, or even people who have assisted our armed forces.  No doubt there will be protracted litigation over some of the more objectionable parts of the order, such as the instruction to prioritize refugee claims made by members of “a minority religion” (i.e. Christians). Singling out seven countries might also run afoul of the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965, which barred discrimination against immigrants (but not visitors) on the basis of national origin (unless permitted by Congress). But the upshot is that Trump is pulling up the welcome mat. The huddled masses are no longer going to be welcome. That is the message he is sending to his constituents, and to those living abroad.

Rather than focus on the legality of Trump’s executive order, which has already disrupted the lives of thousands of people, we should be focusing on the underlying policy issue. Is this the country that we want to be? Do we really want to admit no students, no scientists, no tourists, no visiting family members, no artists, no musicians, and no skilled employees from these seven countries? What exactly was wrong with the existing vetting procedures? Why were these seven countries chosen, and not others, like Saudi Arabia, with a history of exporting terrorists to our shores? A strict reading of the executive order would bar any non-US citizen “from” Iran from obtaining a tourist visa, meaning that many of the relatives of our Persian Jewish community living abroad in Israel or Europe can no longer come to visit. Does that make anyone safer?

With regard to refugees, there is an even more fundamental question. Should we close off our country to even the most persecuted refugees? There are thousands of refugees, families with children, who have been waiting for years while their applications were vetted and who now are blocked. Some argue that we need to set up high barriers to entry to prevent terrorists from entering the country. Almost 80 years ago, when the United States faced a far greater threat than we do today, and Jews were the ones clamoring to get in, Americans made the same argument. “How do we know there won’t be Nazi spies among the refugees?” they asked. Assistant Secretary of State Breckinridge Long ordered all consular officials “to put every obstacle in the way” to delay and stop granting visas to Jewish refugees. As a result, ninety percent of the quota spots were left unfilled, and the Jews trapped in Europe, our relatives, were murdered.

I see little or no difference between the America First policy of President Trump, and the similarly-named nativist policy that informed Breckinridge Long. We can do better, I think, than defying our own principles in the name of security.

The Drought Is Over

The drought is over. No, not the water drought, although the recent rainstorms means that only 50% of the State is still suffering.  Not since the Schoenberg Prism during the 2001-2002 season has the Los Angeles Philharmonic performed a work by Arnold Schoenberg on a regular subscription concert.  I blogged about this five years ago, and again in 2014, when a performance of the Schoenberg Violin Concerto was cancelled due to illness of the violinist.

But now it is really over.  Last night, Gustavo Dudamel conducted the LA Philharmonic in the Begleitungsmusik zu einer Lichtspielszene, Op. 34 and Piano Concerto, Op. 42.  Emanuel Ax was the soloist.  Ax loves the concerto and has performed it many times over the years, including back in 2001 during the Schoenberg Prism.  Ax recorded the concerto with former LA Phil conductor Esa-Pekka Salonen, but not with LA Phil, but the Philharmonia Orchestra.  This week’s performance may even available on livestream.  Mark Swed gave it a nice review in the LA Times.

My parents said that the pre-concert talk by Russell Steinberg was fabulous, devoted entirely to the Schoenberg.  Apparently he had the entire audience humming the opening lines of the concerto.

One thing no one has mentioned, I think, is the private “program” of the concerto, which was composed in Los Angeles in 1942.

Life was so easy
Suddenly hatred broke out
A grave situation was created
But life goes on

My grandfather was 68 years old when he wrote the piano concerto.  The entire world was in flames.  He had a young wife and three very young children (ages 10, 5 and 2).  The contrast between the serene, sunny lifestyle in his new home, and the conflagration raging in his old one, must have been stark.  You can hear that contrast in the concerto.  It’s a timely reminder that we gotten through tough times before.

Letter to DOJ Inspector General Michael E. Horowitz

Dear Inspector General Horowitz,

As the individual who filed suit to unseal the FBI search warrant against Hillary Clinton, I was very pleased to hear the news on January 12 that you would be leading an investigation into the FBI’s handling of its investigation of Secretary Clinton.  I had called for such an investigation on November 14, before we had seen the search warrant.  I am sure your investigation will be far-reaching and thorough, but as someone who has given a lot of thought to this, I would like to let you know some questions that I hope you will be able to answer.

It has been very difficult for those of us in the public to determine the timeline of events.  For the most part, we have to rely on unsourced statements in various contemporaneous press reports.  For example, on October 30, the press reported that the FBI had obtained a search warrant against Hillary Clinton to search Huma Abedin’s e-mails on Anthony Wiener’s laptop.  As far as I can tell, there was no official, public statement with this information, but the news was leaked out in some fashion.  The story turned out to be correct, but no one has yet disclosed the source of this leak, which was the first time in the history of the investigation that there was any suggestion that the FBI felt that there was probable cause to believe a crime had been committed by Secretary Clinton.  At the time, the final week of the election, the public had no way of knowing if the report was true, nor was there any official explanation of the basis for the probable cause allegations. In my view, and in the view of many others who have analyzed the data, this fed speculation against Secretary Clinton and resulted in a drop in her support that likely changed the outcome of the election, an entirely predictable result.  So, the questions I have are what exactly did the FBI do, why, and what were they thinking at the time?

A good starting point for an attempted timeline of events are the articles by Seth Abramson on Huffington Post.  See his reports from December 15, December 22, and January 17.  Seth sometimes speculates as to motives, but his timeline of events is based on many unsourced press reports, including stories from the Wall Street Journal and Washington Post.  We all are hoping that you can confirm or correct the basic facts of what happened, as well as who may have leaked the information to the press in each instance.

As to the main issue, we need to understand how it happened that the FBI publicly obtained a search warrant against a candidate for President within two weeks of the election, a warrant which changed the outcome of the election, but found nothing. Let’s go backwards from what we now know and identify key mistakes that need to be explained.

(1) Huma Abedin must have used her husband Anthony Weiner’s laptop for her webmail, gmail or yahoo mail account and it left some sort of cache on the laptop. As Orin Kerr pointed out, the FBI never should have looked at these e-mails at all, because they were not the subject of the initial search warrant that was looking for texts between Weiner and some specific teenage girl. So that was the first mistake.

(2) The FBI looked at the e-mail headers and saw there were e-mails between Hillary Clinton and her assistant Huma Abedin. It would be “probable” at that stage to infer that these were copies of the work-related e-mails that had already been reviewed, including ones Abedin had already voluntarily produced from her own laptop and blackberry. That would have been very easy to check, using the headers of a few e-mails. There is no evidence that the FBI tried to do that. That was their second mistake.

(3) The FBI could easily have asked Weiner, Abedin or Clinton for permission to review these new e-mails. They apparently did not. That was the third mistake.

(4) When FBI Director Comey then sent his October 28 letter, he said “the FBI cannot yet assess whether or not this material may be significant.” That was false, and it created the absolutely false impression that there was a possibility that the e-mails were not simply duplicates of ones already reviewed. All the FBI had to do was check the headers they had already reviewed against the e-mails they already had, which is something they clearly could have done. It ended up taking at most a week to do this.  So Comey’s letter was false, and misleading.  That was a fourth mistake.

(5) Director Comey sent the October 28 letter even though he was advised by DOJ not to do so. A fifth mistake.

(6) Then the FBI obtained a search warrant, suggesting there was “probable cause” to believe a crime had been committed, and omitting key facts from the affidavit. That was false. For example, you should ask the agent who prepared the warrant (whose name has not yet been disclosed), why he did not include any of the information already released to the public about the investigation of Abedin and her e-mails, which she had voluntarily disclosed. See,  Part 3 of 5, page 84 et seq, released September 2, 2016, discussing the interview of Huma Abedin and the production and review of her e-mails.  This was a sixth mistake.

(7) Although Director Comey was aware, and wrote to his agents, that “there is significant risk of being misunderstood,” he did not correct the misunderstandings that ensued for another nine days. That was a seventh mistake.

The honest thing for the FBI to have done would have been to first compare the e-mail headers. Then, if they really wanted to obtain or delete any duplicate classified e-mails from the laptop, they could easily have done so by asking permission from Weiner and Abedin. They could have also informed Congress that they had found duplicates of Abedin’s e-mails on Weiner’s laptop and were taking steps to secure them, reiterating that this would not likely change the conclusions made in July. This is in fact what was reported by Newsweek and WSJ a few days after Comey’s letters, but through confidential sources, and so it could not have dispelled the obvious misimpression caused by Comey’s October 28 letter.

If the Hatch Act means anything with regard to the FBI, it means that the agency should not take steps that are likely to influence an election. It certainly means that the Director should not publicly re-open an investigation and obtain a search warrant, alleging probable cause to believe a crime had been committed, within two weeks of an election, especially when no crime had actually been committed and the warrant results in no actionable evidence.

Serious mistakes were made, and I do not yet get the feeling that Director Comey understands this.  I trust and hope that your investigation will help the public, and the FBI, understand what happened. If there are not already laws to prevent this type of interference on the eve of an election, there should be. at 10 Years — The Challenges Ahead

On January 16, 2017, (in my opinion the world’s leading family tree building program) will celebrate its tenth anniversary.  Previously, I have written extensively on the myriad advantages of Geni’s World Family Tree and answered all of the most common complaints of those who don’t yet understand the benefits of the program.  Today I want to address the areas where I believe Geni still needs improvement.  I do this in my individual capacity, obviously not on behalf of Geni, where I serve as a volunteer curator.

Just one year ago, Geni’s World Family Tree reached the 100 million profile milestone. Today, it is over 112 million.  That’s a tremendous amount of growth for such a large tree. By way of comparison, Geni’s annual growth is about the same as the total size of its non-profit competitor, WikiTree, which has just 13 million total profiles.  WikiTree is obviously too far behind Geni to ever catch up, and I’m not sure why anyone wastes his/her time on that platform.  But is Geni still the largest collaborative tree?

A few years ago, FamilySearch, a website operated by the Mormon Church, started its own collaborative tree, called Family Tree. Last year, FamilySearch claimed that Family Tree had over 300 million connected profiles, with 2.5 million being added each month.  If true, that would make the FamilySearch Family Tree by far the largest collaborative tree in existence, three times the size of Geni’s World Family Tree.  I am prepared to believe it, but I still have some doubts about the veracity of FamilySearch’s statistics.

One way to get a better feel for how the FamilySearch tree is progressing would be to see the statistics on mergers. Merging is one of the key features of any collaborative tree, because the idea is to merge all duplicates into one definitive profile. The tree is like a giant jigsaw puzzle, where everyone is working on the same puzzle. However, if you search in databases of non-collaborative trees, you’ll find lots and lots of separate trees that cover the same territory. For example, on Ancestry, searching exactly for Thomas Alva Edison born 1847, you find 613 public trees and 337 private trees. A similar search on MyHeritage finds 209 trees. FamilySearch Genealogies, a legacy collection of independent trees from before the move to a unified, collaborative tree, has 124 of them. But on Geni or Family Tree, you should find just one, definitive profile for the famous inventor (See Thomas Edison on Geni or FamilySearch.) The large collaborative trees were created by merging smaller trees together. On Geni, each person who adds a profile is retained as a “manager” after a merger. So when you see that over 1,000 people are managers of Charlemagne, that means that about 1,000 different trees got merged together at that point.

Both Geni and FamilySearch started out with a bunch of separate trees of varying sizes that were merged together and then improved with additions and corrections. Both sites allowed GEDCOM uploads for a while, and then cut them off and started to merge and clean up.  The result on Geni is that about 2/3 of all the profiles added to Geni are now part of the big World Family Tree.  The remaining 1/3 are on smaller trees that have not yet been connected or merged into the World Family Tree. On FamilySearch, out of 1.1 billion profiles, less than 1/3 are part of its collaborative Family Tree. Geni’s ratio of merges to additions is about 10%. There were 1,190,057 merges in the past year, compared to 12,031,845 added profiles. FamilySearch doesn’t publish statistics on its merges, but it claims that its users are adding about three times as many profiles as Geni, at a rate of about 30 million per year. Family Tree has 3.45 million contributors, out of 7.4 million total FamilySearch users.  On the other hand, Geni claims to have had over 11 million users since its inception, with about 4 million connected to the World Family Tree. To me, these numbers don’t seem to make sense — two collaborative trees, created in essentially the same fashion by about the same number of people, but with pretty wildly divergent results in terms of size. It could be that there are many more duplicates in Family Tree, or maybe FamilySearch includes some of its legacy collection Genealogies in the stats, which would be the equivalent of Geni adding in the 2.6 billion profiles and 80 million members of MyHeritage to its statistics. There also could be some flaws in the algorithm used to create the statistics. Geni benefits from feedback from its almost 200 volunteer curators, many of whom are very tech-savvy, and have helped identify bugs in the statistic features over the years. I am not sure that FamilySearch is getting the same type of help from its users, because its statistics may be less visible, or its active users may have less access to the staff.

So, although we are trying to compare apples to apples, we may be comparing apples to oranges. And this is true in one other important respect. FamilySearch offers much more than just a collaborative FamilyTree. It also offers free access to records and other data, much as Ancestry or MyHeritage do, although the latter charge a subscription fee for access.  Whether or not FamilySearch’s statistics for Family Tree are accurate, it has a great advantage over Geni in its ability to offer the ability to access and link to its massive records collection without charge. Geni users can get an equivalent feature only by paying for a MyHeritage subscription.

In my view, FamilySearch is Geni’s only serious competitor. The attraction of free records access, if coupled with a comparable tree-building program for a similar user base, could tip the scales in favor of FamilySearch, if it hasn’t already done so. No one should want to work on the second or third largest collaborative tree. Users will gravitate to the one that is the most comprehensive and accurate.

Accuracy is a key feature for collaborative trees. Ultimately, they become much more accurate and complete than individual trees. Never listen to people that don’t work on collaborative trees who tell you that the big trees are inaccurate. Trust me, their small trees are much, much worse, no matter how loudly they protest. It’s easy to imagine why that is. Large numbers of people working together can accomplish much more than someone working alone. That is why Wikipedia has put all the other encyclopedia publishers out of business. Crowdsourcing works, and it works especially well in fields like genealogy, where people compile data and sources for basic genealogical facts. If you want a complete biography, of course you go to a book painstakingly researched and written by an individual, but if you want to know who a person’s parents, siblings, spouses and children were, and the dates of their birth, marriage and death, you can go to a collaborative tree where all the busy bees work together to build the hive. It’s usually not rocket science, and if you have some expert curators to help with the tough spots, things work very well. As I have explained before, the fact that mistakes are easily found and corrected on collaborative trees is what makes them, over time, so much more accurate. You need those millions of eyes wandering through to find the mistakes.

Of course, it’s hard to measure accuracy in a family tree. But one way is to pay attention to what types of mistakes are being found and corrected. Those of us who are actively involved with Geni as curators get a pretty good picture, not only through our own work, but from all of the work we do to help other users resolve issues. When there are accuracy problems, we hear about them. The absence of complaints in a particular area is often a good indication that the product is becoming more accurate. This is also true because the Geni news feed alerts other users when work is being done in an area. That invites more eyes, and more mistakes are found, until everything is more or less correct, and people move on. Bees in a hive, ants in an anthill, that’s exactly how it works. You’d laugh at a bee working alone on a hive, or an ant trying to build his anthill by himself. It’s the same with genealogists. You have to just pity the poor folks who labor by themselves, even those who do so by looking at their neighbors and copying what they are doing (which is how most of Ancestry and MyHeritage users work). So, collaborative trees are the future, and the more users the better. But which one will be the winner? Where should we be putting our energies?

The competition between Geni and FamilySearch may come down to the quality of its curating team. Geni’s almost 200 volunteer curators are experienced genealogists from all over the world. They are usually people who have added 5,000 or more profiles to the World Family Tree, worked on projects, and been helpful to others in discussions. If Geni is to succeed, it needs to expand the number and range of its curators, to cover different parts of the world that are currently underserved. The recent surge by FamilySearch into the collaborative tree field should be a wake-up call for Geni to concentrate on maintaining its curating advantage and building on the strengths of its volunteer base.

Geni has many, many other features that currently give it an advantage over FamilySearch. DNA is a recent addition, and a significant advance that will only get better as more people upload their dna testing data.  Projects are also a huge resource, unique to Geni. Master Profiles are a great way of highlighting important people and well-sourced profiles. About 80 Languages are supported, and profiles can be multilingual.  Geni’s free Relationship Finder is phenomenal. When coupled with an additional paid MyHeritage subscription, Geni users can take advantage of matching to record collections such as newspapers and books that may not be available on FamilySearch. Geni users can also take advantage of matches to FamilySearch trees, thanks to a partnership between MyHeritage and FamilySearch.  In addition, FamilySearch may be more limited in its appeal because it is part of a religious organization. For example, gay marriage is not yet supported as a feature on FamilySearch, but is available on Geni.  And Jews and others have expressed discomfort over the Mormon practice of posthumous proxy baptism.

Nevertheless, there are a number of important areas where Geni needs desperately to improve if it is to maintain its position.  These are:

1. Geni uses Adobe Flash Player, which works fabulously and makes for a great user experience, except that Adobe has been in a battle-to-the-death with Apple since 2010, and may not come out of it alive. Presently, iPads and iPhones (43% of the U.S. smartphone market!) cannot use Flash and so Geni does not work well on those devices, relying on a rudimentary HTML5 version of Geni which pales in comparison to the Flash original. Geni needs to upgrade its HTML5 version ASAP.

2. Search on Geni is, in a word, atrocious. There is no wildcard or partial word (begins with, ends with, contains) search, no soundex or fuzzy search capability, no possibility of searching by town only. These are basic features for any genealogy program and it is an embarrassment that at age 10, Geni does not offer them. Most of us have to use Google to search public Geni profiles when we don’t know the precise spelling.

3. The matching algorithm needs to be upgraded. Geni has not been able to take advantage of MyHeritage’s Global Name Translation technology. As a result, matches are often missed by the algorithm and needless duplication occurs, as people blithely add new profiles, unaware that they are duplicating existing parts of the tree. Often, the algorithm misses exact matches on unique names, only because the surrounding profiles don’t match exactly.

4. When clicking on Research this Person, the MyHeritage results are often unusable. The search doesn’t take into account all the details on the profile (like dates), so the results are often not ranked properly. I often go over to Ancestry to search for records or other trees because their results seem more relevant, and it is much easier to adjust the search to make it tighter or looser.

5. Just as surname projects are created automatically, so should town projects. Every public profile with an event in a town should be automatically attached to the town project.

6. We should be able to sort and search project profiles.  Right now we have to page through them, or download an excel file.

7. Geni should integrate the SmartCopy program developed by curator Jeff Gentes as a Pro feature.

And now some more fantastic proposals:

8.  No one ever listens to me, but genealogy companies are the only companies in the world that hide from their customers. By making all living profiles private, you prevent living people from finding themselves on the tree when they google their own names. This is insane. At some point, some company will figure this out, ignore the paranoid hysteria of privacy nuts, and the rest will all go bye-bye. Until then, we should at least have the option of making unclaimed, living relatives public and searchable, so that we can increase the chances of having them find us. Some of us do genealogy because we actually want to find our family. Don’t we have a right to a program that serves our needs?

9. Geni should take more advantage of Facebook. It’s the biggest genealogical database in the world (1 billion names, many connected to family members) and yet no one has really harnessed it for genealogy. Wouldn’t it be nice if you could have Geni help find your relatives on Facebook?

10. Geni should add automated user stats like Wikitree does for Top Contributors. Let everyone know what the most active users are doing. A little competition isn’t a bad thing, and it also would allow curators to identify other active users. We have a manual version of Top 10 Lists in various categories, but an automated version would be much better.

11. Finally, my dream is that we could start getting the computer to do more of the work for us in finding matches. Right now, Geni just looks at its own data and the various data sets on MyHeritage. But there’s a whole world of big data out there that is not inside the proprietary walls. The next generation of genealogy company will take your tree and then scour the Internet looking for matches for you, wherever they maybe.

So, I am still bullish about Geni.  It is by far the best tree-building program available today. But things don’t stay the same. We’ll just have to wait and see what the future may bring.

Investigate the FBI


Credit T.J. Kirkpatrick for The New York Times

It seems very clear to me that FBI Director Comey’s October 28 letter announcing a reopening of the investigation into e-mails from Hillary Clinton changed the outcome of the election. For nine of the last 11 days before the election, the negative story dominated the news and cast a cloud over her candidacy, and the polls reflected a downturn for Clinton during that same time. In the end, Clinton narrowly lost four states — Florida, Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania — where voters who said they decided in the last week greatly favored Trump.  I think it is safe to say that without Comey’s letter, Clinton would be our President.

As strange, and possibly illegal, as it was for Comey to make his announcement regarding the investigation so close to the election, from the outset, I wondered what the legal grounds were for searching through the new e-mails found on the laptop of her aide Huma Abedin’s estranged husband Anthony Weiner. Two days after the letter, on Sunday October 30, the New York Times reported that the Justice Department had obtained a search warrant.  I have yet to see any further reporting on the warrant. To get a search warrant issued, the FBI needed to go to a federal judge. It is interesting to me that Comey sent his letter before obtaining the warrant. The publicity certainly must have influenced the judge. A judge cannot simply grant any request for a search warrant. Under the Fourth Amendment, a search must be reasonable, meaning that there must be “probable cause” or a “reasonable suspicion” that evidence of a crime will be discovered. Ordinarily, the FBI submits an affidavit describing the evidence that gives rise to the reasonable suspicion. We have yet to see what evidence the FBI relied on in seeking the warrant.

The only thing Comey said in his letter about the grounds for reviewing the e-mails found on Weiner’s laptop was that they “appear to be pertinent” to the FBI’s prior investigation of Clinton’s use of a private e-mail server as Secretary of State. But it is important to remember how unusual and politically motivated the investigation was, and that it had never elicited any evidence of a crime.

Certainly since the Watergate investigations led to the recommendation of impeachment and resignation of Richard Nixon, Republicans have dreamed of doing the same thing to a Democratic president.  During the presidency of Bill Clinton, investigations into allegations concerning the Whitewater real estate development turned into a roving investigation in search of a crime (Travelgate, Filegate), until finally stumbling on Bill Clinton’s false denial of a recent affair with White House aide Monica Lewinsky in a deposition concerning allegations by Paula Jones of harassment prior to his election. The same pattern reappeared in the Republican-led Benghazi investigation, which ultimately found no wrongdoing by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, but uncovered that she had, against State Department policies, used a private e-mail server for State Department business. This resulted in a further investigation, despite the fact that there was no reason to believe any crime had been committed.

Still, because the private server had been used for public business, Clinton could not object to requests to search her work-related e-mails, which were delivered to Congressional investigators in 2014. In July 2016, FBI director Comey concluded that after reviewing tens of thousands of e-mails, there was no evidence that any prosecutable crime had occurred.

There are millions of federal employees with access to classified information, and all of them leave the office and go home, where they talk to other people, make telephone calls, write letters and diaries, and send texts and e-mails. Simply because someone has the ability to commit the crime of intentionally violating laws governing the handling of classified information does not give rise to a reasonable suspicion that any crime has been committed.  If it did, then the FBI could at any time gain a search warrant to inspect the private communications of each and every employee with security clearance.

The FBI had to allege more than that the e-mails might be pertinent to an investigation that had yet to result in evidence of a crime. To obtain a warrant it had to establish probable cause to believe that evidence of a crime would be found. Since we now know that no such evidence was found on the laptop, it is time to investigate why the FBI believed it had probable cause.

I can think of two possible explanations. It could be that Comey, like most Republicans, believed that there was a sufficient cloud of suspicion over Hillary Clinton to justify pretty much any investigation. Think of how the FBI might treat a notorious gangster like Al Capone. “Get me something on him! Anything!” the FBI director might tell his subordinates. That certainly seems to be how many in the FBI thought of Clinton, even after Comey had reported in July that there would be no prosecution. Some agents were already in open revolt over the e-mail probe three weeks prior to Comey’s surprise announcement. So maybe they never even thought much about the probable cause requirement, and perhaps the judge signed the search warrant, mindful of the intense public attention to the issue, without really considering the legal standard of whether the suspicions raised were reasonable.

But it could also be that the FBI made a serious attempt to show probable cause, and submitted affidavits from investigators supporting the issuance of the warrant. Often the FBI relies on confidential informants, and so the affidavit might contain new allegations of criminal activity and evidence different from what had already been reviewed and dismissed as insufficient in July. It is this possibility that has me most interested in the case. What if the new allegations came from people associated with the Trump campaign? What if the allegations were intentionally false? During the nine days when the investigation was underway, Trump surrogate Rudy Giuliani made public statements suggesting he was in communication with the FBI about the ongoing investigation. It does not seem too far-fetched to believe that politically-motivated individuals might have tried to get the FBI to re-open the investigation of Clinton by making false allegations. Finding Huma Abedin’s e-mails on Weiner’s laptop might have been just an opportunity to carry out their wishes.

We need to remember that whatever suspicions were raised by the FBI when it sought the new search warrant, those suspicions turned out to be groundless. Whoever thought that Clinton committed a crime in mishandling her e-mails was wrong. And whoever thought that the e-mails on Weiner’s laptop contained evidence of that crime was also wrong. Remember, this is not a case where the FBI was investigating a particular crime or something reported by a victim. No dead body had been found. There was never any suggestion of a specific security breach, as there was when CIA agent Valerie Plame was exposed in a Washington Post article. This was, and has always been, a Republican-inspired fishing expedition that came up empty. It is now time to turn our focus on those who encouraged and led the investigation, to determine whether in fact a real crime has been committed by the FBI or those who informed its investigation.

My hope is that the press, and perhaps the Justice Department, are already looking at this in a more expedited fashion. Richard Painter, a former White House chief ethics lawyer in the Bush administration, has also called for an investigation. For my part, I have made a FOIA request to the FBI to see the search warrant and supporting affidavits. This is potentially very serious, something that if traced back to Donald Trump might even lead to impeachment. It deserves to be investigated fully and openly, and quickly, because if a crime was committed in the course of the FBI investigation, it is the crime of the century.

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.